consent is as consent does


I had just delivered a conference presentation to the London theatre industry elite, at an event themed around “Resilience”. I was humbled to know that UK Theatre saw my work as relevant to the stability and survival of the live performance sector. During casual drinks, however, I was often asked (and even told) to re-frame my work as ‘wellbeing’ or ‘collaboration’, anything but that harsh and scary word ‘consent’. People admitted that when they saw my topic in the program, they became anxious, “but now I’ve seen you talk about it I get why it’s important and it’s not actually what I was so apprehensive about, so maybe you should make it more palatable”. And I very calmly, kindly, firmly replied “no”.

Within four months of that conference, the UK live performance sector would essentially collapse, confronted by the contagion of coronavirus. There was no chance at resilience, venues went dark, companies folded, governments placed some of the harshest of restrictions on reopening entertainment spaces, almost every single friend I had lost their job – as did I and I was forced to return to Australia until the virus passed and I’d pick up where I left off. I have yet to return to England in three years.

I do still work there, however, albeit remotely, because I’m fortunate to have found creators and producers who have seen the value of my work, and were willing to invest in it even during the most vulnerable stages of restarting post-COVID. They were not scared off by the word “consent”, they leaned on it to help them navigate a time when managing physical boundaries and mental pressure was critical to the success of a production.

The reason I refuse to rephrase my work to something more appetizing is because consent is at the core of the work I do, and without even the slightest willingness to face one’s own discomfort around what the word conjures up emotionally, then there is little hope that progress can be achieved. The people who work with me are bold, they demonstrate the importance of centering consent in the way they make work as well as in the work they make. And the first leap of the journey I make with my collaborators is often a simple philosophy:

Consent is not just a complex, intense, overwhelming idea, it is a practical series of tools you can use. Consent is something you can create.

The arts sector is on a very exciting journey. In 2017, the #MeToo movement generated tsunamis across the entertainment industry, some of which led to new growth, others only destruction. Some of that new growth involves the rise of the Intimacy Coordinator, a specialist tactician able to choreograph and hold space for the safe creation of nudity, simulated sex, simulated sexual violence on stage or in film. While this new role finds its feet, there are some people working to draw attention to the bigger picture. Bear in mind that before Tarana Burke coined the famous hashtag in 2006, another woman of colour, Amaani Lyle was the figurehead of the first attempt to recognise sexual harassment in the producing of creative content when she took Warner Bros. to court in 1999 over her treatment on the show ‘Friends’. Lyle’s case is disgracefully still looked upon by workplaces as a triumph for “creative license”, “a sense of play”, and “free speech”. Consent-focused work is not just tactical, scene-by-scene, it has to be strategic, it has to face the culture.

It is the legacies of these women that gives me cause to place the word “consent” up front. Consent exists in the audition process, the design process, the contracting process, the rehearsal process, the promotion process, it is everywhere because consent is a tool for negotiating respect and safety. When we make content warnings, safety policies, script rewrites, codes of conduct, disability access specs we are operating in the praxis of consent. If we don’t have a genuine, practical understanding of how consent is brokered between parties, then we compromise the effectiveness of these tools, and the relationships between the people who use them, sign them, work for them. I’d even go as far as to say that, at the core of almost every crisis in the creative workplace is a breach of consent.

The word “consent” conjures up so much association with its direct opposite: we think consent, we think sexual violence. Working with consent is not a process to be feared, it is a process to be appreciated because it puts safeguards in place against the actual thing you fear.

All of the above is to say that, consent is an inherent, instinctive, integral part of creativity, and so there’s merit in the encouragement to make it a component you work with knowingly and on purpose.

If any of the above interests you at all, here are some next steps you can take: