When playwright Danielle Mohlman wrote Rocky Road, she wanted to create a play that embraced the wide spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities and the joy that teens feel when they’re unapologetically accepted by their peers. Invigorated by the message of this play, we invited Danielle to share some of her favorite ways to create a safe and inclusive rehearsal room.
Be Mindful of Language
Everyone uses different words to describe themselves, and because language is ever-evolving, your students’ identifiers may change from year to year – or even over the course of your rehearsal process. Make room for students to share their identifiers and pronouns often. Model introductions with your own identifiers, especially if you identify as straight and cisgender. Never put the burden of modeling pronouns or other identifiers on your trans or queer students.
A great rule of thumb is to do introductions at the first few rehearsals and every time someone is in your rehearsal room for the first time. (For example: at design presentations, when your assistant director joins the rehearsal process for the first time, or when you have a guest artist visiting your classroom.) Practice using those pronouns and identifiers in your rehearsal room, especially if those terms make you personally uncomfortable. I promise you won’t be uncomfortable for long.
Let Your Students Take the Lead
Your identity may not overlap with any of the identities of the characters in Rocky Road – or of the students you’re working with. That’s okay! I encourage you to let your students take the lead in conversations about their identities. Make space for the conversation to go places you didn’t expect, and don’t be afraid of pockets of silence. Often that silence is because your students are processing what’s just been said, or working up the courage to add their own voice to the conversation.
At the end of each discussion, make it clear that this doesn’t have to be the last word on that topic – that conversations can continue in the coming days and weeks.
Make Room for Mistakes
Mistakes are bound to happen. You’ll use the wrong pronouns, or you’ll use the wrong identifying language to describe a character or cast member. Apologize, self-correct, and move forward. If one of your students makes a mistake, gently correct them and make space for them to apologize, self-correct, and move forward.
Open each rehearsal with an icebreaker question and end each rehearsal with a compliment circle. Icebreaker questions are a great way for students to share more of their personality in a quick, light, and structured way. A fun icebreaker for Rocky Road might be “If you could only have one ice cream flavor for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?” Or, “If you were creating a scavenger hunt for your best friend, where would the last clue lead you?” You truly never know what your students might say!
Compliment circles are a wonderful way for students to acknowledge the work of their collaborators. Ask everyone in your rehearsal room to hold their hand in a “thumbs up” position and have a volunteer start by giving a compliment to someone else in the room. Once someone has received a compliment, they put their thumb down and give a compliment to another person – and on and on until all thumbs are down.
And don’t forget: you should be participating in the icebreaker and compliment circle too. Not only is it a fun experience, it helps build rapport with your cast and crew.
Introduce a Safe Word
Take a page from the world of intimacy choreographers by introducing a safe word in your rehearsal room. I love the word “button” because the word itself implies a pause. Encourage your students to use this safe word to opt out of a process that they don’t feel equipped to participate in, to pause rehearsal to ask a question, or to request an adjustment to the rehearsal plan. It’s a great way to give your students agency in the rehearsal room.
Leave the Door Open
More than anything, make sure that your actors know that these practices aren’t restricted to this rehearsal process – that you’re dedicated to creating a safe and inclusive environment for every classroom experience, every conversation, and every rehearsal process.