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Diversity Agents 28.6.2022

Lisa Kalkowski: Redesigning theatre practices towards inclusivity - Food for Thought

A painting of five people: one with dark brown skin and afro, one pale white person with a rainbow heart on their shirt, one using a wheelchair with blue hair, one with brown skin and red hair, one with yellow skin and white hair.
Theatre groups of the future imagined by Anna Kalkowski.

In this blog post I will be talking about my observations in theatre teaching in schools and education centers in regards to Safer Space and inclusive teaching approaches.

I have been in the context of theatre, theatre teaching and improvisation for over 15 years now and it took me at least the first five to understand what a privilege it was to be a part of the groups I was a member of. “It was such a privilege” is a phrase that is used quite often in the English language to express gratitude, to express the honour one feels about doing something. But if I dive a little deeper into what privilege actually means, I understand that it was literally a privilege I had to be part of these theatre groups. 

Privilege unnoticed

I joined the theatre club in our high school when I was fourteen. My highschool consisted of 99% white students and even though the building was technically built to be accessible, I assume that we also had merely a quota of 1% students with disabilities. Our club teacher was young and ambitious and we did a lot of exercises that included movement and touch. In my opinion she was really good at creating a safe atmosphere in the group or at least I never felt unsafe there and have noticed any incidents. Mainly that is, because I don’t mind touch and I was able to move my body in the ways required.

When I started teaching theatre myself, I noticed how important and how much work is needed to put into making the group feel safe and accessible. Knowing that the group is inherently diverse, we need to design the experience that is conducive for many different learning styles and ways of being. I also noticed that there is a specific kind of people that decide to join these groups and they come with a certain understanding of theatre, a certain expectation and a certain set of abilities.

Diversity, to me, means to acknowledge that our society consists of people of all skin colours, genders, sexualities, abilities and backgrounds. And inclusion means to make everyone feel equally welcome, to establish a safer space, in which the participants actually feel safe and to design exercises and groups from the beginning in a way to accommodate everyone.

I started taking theatre education classes a few years ago. That’s when I heard other students’ stories and connected with educators internationally. I started to realise more and more how unsafe these spaces can be and how inaccessible their design can be. It was strange that nearly nobody seemed to notice or care. I found that very worrying. What goes unnoticed because it seems to work just fine for the people occupying the space?

There is no normal group

Most of the exercises I was taught during my theatre education studies were based on movement and touch. Without us having ever discussed to a deeper extent if we students are okay with touch. And whenever somebody had a temporary physical issue, they were asked to participate to the degree they could and then sit on the side. This was also what I was told during those studies once: If a student doesn’t want to do an exercise, they can go to the side and join in when they are ready.

While I am totally in agreement that students should be given their space if needed, I still think, at the same time, that we cannot design exercises in a way that students will want to skip them. How can we make the teaching more flexible and accommodating to the student's needs? What is the core idea of this exercise and how can we make it adaptable? Instead of excluding a student due to a different set of needs and abilities, can we incorporate this in the exercise instead of excluding them? There are many components and factors an educator needs to think about when designing meaningful educational programmes for a group of diverse participants. And we all should strive to design educational programmes to be accessible for diverse participants.

As a white, able-bodied person who doesn’t mind physical touch I have had an easy life in all the theater groups I have been part of. That is not the same for everyone and the first step is to actually and fully make ourselves aware of this and hold our actions accountable. Many groups are designed for exactly this set of privileges and any deviation from this so-called norm is put into a separate group.

The truth is: There is no normal group. We all come with our set of abilities. In my opinion the norm should be to design the exercises according to the needs of the group and not the other way around. That is one side of the problem. The other side is, that the necessity for rethinking and redesigning exercises doesn’t become obvious or can easily be ignored, if we are dealing with a very heterogene group when it comes to abilities and privileges. 

Theatre groups and Safer Space

I have participated in many impro-theatre-teaching. Impro, short for improvisation, lets the participants come up with scenarios by themselves without a script. Often keywords or scenario baselines are given and the group takes it from there. That can lead to creative, inspiring and very entertaining practice sessions or shows. But unfortunately it also easily leads to racist or sexist puns, in my opinion. In order to prevent that, it is yet again about implementing a safe baseline.

I have introduced safer space guidelines to the group I was teaching. I did this in order to make them aware of what a safe space means, that it is not the same for everyone and that everyone benefits from these guidelines put into use. The concept of safer space also belongs to a feedback culture. There has to be a way for the group to give feedback in person as well as in writing. To the teacher as well as ideally to a neutral person or via an anonymous form.

Reaching out as an inclusive practice

Another big problem for me in regards to theatre teaching, be it in schools or adult education centres, is the question of the “target groups”. Target groups are a particular group of people that an advertisement, event, course, etc. is intended to reach. Who has access to these groups? Who is invited? Who feels invited? Who belongs?

For people of all ages theatre has this amazing potential of freedom of expression and is a great outlet for emotions. In my opinion, theatre groups in schools and education centers do not include everyone equally. I think we would need to do more outreach to actually include the students that might also fear theatre groups for the exposure they come with: The exposure of your limits and boundaries as well as the exposure of oneself as a person. Exposure needs a safe place and that needs to be created actively, willingly and over time.

Safer Space guidelines are a step in the right direction but they are just the tip of the iceberg, when striving for inclusive theatre teaching. Inclusive teaching would mean feminist, antiracist and non-discriminatory teaching. In my opinion, it is important to understand that those values should not be the goal but they should be the starting point.

Author’s note:

In the research for this blog post I tried to find a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) - theatre teacher working in Finland, without success. I am sure they exist and I am sure that they could contribute very amazing perspectives on this topic, that I would love to hear.

Lisa smiling.

Photo credit: Anno Proosvelt

Lisa Kalkowski

Lisa Kalkowski is a Helsinki-based producer and theatre teacher. She studied theatre studies at Freie Universität Berlin and Teatteri ja Kasvatus at Theatre Academy, Helsinki. After being part of multiple non-professional groups, she worked for two years as a teacher and a director with a non-professional international adult theatre group in Helsinki.

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