Donate Now

Owning Discomfort

Equity in the Arts
An actor sits in front of a rehearsal script
Photo by Karin Shook

“At first it was a joke until I entered the room… and everyone was very welcoming but I immediately felt like a different quality of air.

I’ve never felt out of place or like I was taking up too much space.

But when I was in the room I didn’t know what was going on -- the rehearsal was so small talk, superficial, like they just wanted to impress each other

I felt out of place, I didn’t realize I was not breathing until I left the room. I felt like my presence was either attacking them or being the target.

When I did speak up at one point it shocked everyone else that I had said anything and I immediately regretted commenting.

I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a rehearsal space in a way I couldn’t name until I realized I was the only POC in the room...and it made me nervous for the rehearsal rooms I could be in in the future.

Because my presence as a person of color made me feel so uncomfortable in that space it made me nervous for the kinds of rehearsals I could end up in in the future.

I didn’t understand what was going on I just felt a fight or flight circumstance for some reason. It was disheartening to embrace a space that felt like the ‘space’ was privileged to have them there -- “You’re lucky I’m here,” kind of energy. The difference between this space and other rehearsals; being humbled to be there vs humbled to have them there.

Just because nothing overtly happened doesn’t mean my experience is invalid. I found myself making excuses for how I felt instead of owning my discomfort.”

Recently, a colleague of mine (we’ll call her Ella for the sake of this article and anyone who may try and figure out which production this was for - I know us theater people love a good tea) found herself in an all white rehearsal room as the only person of color. As you read above, it wasn’t the most comfortable of circumstances.

Ahh, yes. This is going to be a fun blog post regarding privilege.

Privilege is a topic that comes up really often in our current social spheres. So, before I get into the nitty gritty of privilege and how it manifests in a rehearsal room, let’s take a moment to define privilege and acknowledge that this article doesn’t present a solution to these situations but just a reflection on an experience.

It should be noted that I myself am a mixed race, white passing hispanic (white passing is a whole other monster that can’t fit in an article word limit, so we’ll leave that for another time) who is 22 and just beginning my career in theater. Hence, my opinion may not be yours, but it is that of many other people in my situation including the person quoted above.

So, privilege. In the dictionary it’s defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” The privilege that comes with an all white rehearsal room lies in the fact that race doesn’t come to the forefront of discussion.

Ella and I, through the process of writing this article, discussed her experience and tried to pinpoint why she was uncomfortable. The thing that we came to realize is that it wasn’t just a singular action that caused her discomfort, she was uncomfortable being the only person of color in the space (she adds “the only one noticeably different and younger… all I could notice was major differences, which is not a bad thing, but I did feel ‘less than’ which has never happened before” ). And if you pay attention to any and all news lately, you can understand why.

Since it’s not always easy to place exactly where the discomfort felt in those situations comes from (aside from the feeling of not fitting in or intruding on) it can become easy for us to fall into the trap of upholding the “Right to Comfort: the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort”, as defined in White Supremacy Culture (From Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, 2001). Which tends to happen to many of us in these kinds of circumstances. One might find themselves thinking “Oh, well they just didn’t think about it” or “I know they didn’t mean it” and even just “that’s just how the world works.”

It can be easy to take for granted the amount of change that has occurred regarding representation in the theater, but that doesn’t mean the work is done. Making sure work has POC involved shouldn’t be a quota marker. We can’t tell stories fully and honestly if we are not being truthful to the context of the world we are in. So, if a production is not representing the people who make up the world it’s reflecting, then there is a loss of understanding. Being a person of color in those situations (being white passing definitely included in this) can make it feel like your experience is being invalidated.

Do I or Ella think that the people in the room are to blame? Not necessarily, it’s just that their race hasn’t been one of the things that has made their life harder and hence it can be easily overlooked in a rehearsal space (or any primarily/fully white space for that matter).

I’m here to remind us all to do better, be more inclusive, and be more aware. We have to actively work against the system designed to keep marginalized people down. I assure you there are many actors/designers/writers of color out there - only having one POC in a room is not enough. We have to be the better allies in the room and in the world.