Elena Flory-Barnes is an instructor at Freehold and a member of our Artistic Circle -Freehold’s leadership team that includes Robin Lynn Smith, Gin Hammond, and Annette Toutonghi. Recently, the Artistic Circle began to develop a process to vet new material for hurtful and harmful content. Elena spoke with us about the Artistic Circle’s progress, the tricky balance of creating speech guidelines without stifling self-expression, and what excites her most about teaching this summer.
So can you talk a little bit about the vetting process of new material that you’re currently developing with the Artistic Circle?
In light of wanting creators and students in our community to feel safe, seen and heard, and in terms of process and creation, it’s important that people have the freedom to tell stories, and to produce stories with a wide breadth of experience that represents all types of folks. And sometimes there’s content that comes up that can be hurtful or harmful. In this process, one of the things that we wanted to make sure of is that there is no censoring as much as there was a conscientious mindfulness about what happens when there’s language that is hurtful or harmful. So I got together with some of the other members of the Artistic Circle, Annette [Toutonghi], Gin [Hammond] and Carter [Rodriguez], to come together to figure out a process that would be helpful in vetting what type of text or material could be potentially hurtful or harmful.
Is the vetting process based on anything you’ve encountered before or did it come across organically?
What we were able to do is have conversations and through our extensive combined experiences–whether it was different trainings, different acting classes, different companies that we’ve worked with–we kind of just extracted different things. But it is very much something that we developed on our own. Just putting our heads together in a structured way, with some prompts and specificity from Robin. And we were able to dial it in from there.
And how long ago did this process start?
Well, the conversations about it started about a year ago. And it was a slow process, but we finally came together as a small committee to work to figure out this process. So it’s taken months, as many of us are professionals, and are also teaching and have our other Artistic Circle responsibilities. But we would meet bi-weekly, and came up with two major things.
[The first is] guidelines to help community members and creators and students be more mindful about what they’re doing. Just guidelines, posing questions. Not a list of you should and shouldn’t, but rather using these simple guidelines to pose questions. These questions would be accessible to the Freehold community at large, and also something to give to folks before the the Studio Series, for example, or any type of new work,
So questions like: Does the work expand our humanity? Or: Is there potentially hurtful language presented within a context that shines a light on it, or are you amplifying a hurtful idea, and, how does your audience know that? The list of questions isn’t extensively long because we want people to actually read them. Engaging with these thoughtful prompts before, during, and even after a process can be helpful to reduce the likelihood of language being hurtful or harmful. One of the things that I always reiterate in this process is that there are atrocities and hurtful things that happen, and that we can’t negate or deny the bad, hurtful things that happen historically or currently. Oftentimes, we need to tell those stories, but are we doing it in a way that is effective to move the story forward, as opposed to being gratuitous for no reason?
And then sometimes as hard as we try, things still slip through the cracks–regardless of how many eyes are on it. And sometimes people need help, especially with new works and processes. So if something were to happen, where someone was hurt or harmed by what was happening, or in a production, or in the content of what is being produced in a show (and this is particularly with new works), how do we come together to resolve and address the issue? Because sometimes difficult conversations need to happen, whether it has to do with sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. We’re seeking to create a small group who I like to call the Avengers; people who, voluntarily and of their own volition, come together to work with the creator or director or producer to help figure out how someone could say something or do something in a production or a showcase in a matter where they could get across what they mean without such hurtful language or content. So, we have the guidelines, and then we have an assembly of the Avengers.
We’ve reached out with a survey to current and former Freehold faculty and staff, and asked them how they identify – it’s really open, really open-ended – so they can speak to how they identify in regard to race and ethnicity, sexuality, ability, neuro-diversit, all the things, but leaving that open as well. Then, asking if they would be willing to be a part of a small committee should the occasion arise that we need to have some challenging conversations. While this system is in place, it’s something that we don’t actually want to have to use. So, we make a small committee [of mentors] to help get some questions answered or help the creators, directors, or producers, get the help they need with the difficult things–especially when hurt or harm can be done.
What’s the timeline for completion of this project?
I would say definitely by fall. The guideline questions are done, and the survey has been sent out. So, once we assemble the Avengers, then that’s it. We will share [the guidelines] extensively so that folks know that the system is in place. The questions and this process is definitely something that’s living, that can change and adjust as needed.
How will you monitor how well the new guidelines work?
I think sharing it with faculty and staff and the Artistic Circle, leaving it as open as possible, and continuing to have a dialogue around the process at faculty meetings, and in classes (especially classes that are production based), so that folks know that they that they can give us as much feedback as they want, whenever they want. Then we can go back to the drawing board.
What are you most looking forward to about teaching this summer?
Well, first of all, anybody who wants to take a class of any kind in the summer, I appreciate them so much, because they’re showing up for a reason. So teaching in the summer is great for that reason, because people who sign up for summer classes definitely want to be there. I will be teaching Step I, Intro to Acting and I love the wide breadth of people that we get from all different backgrounds and experiences. And you know, teaching Step II and Step III–if I teach too many of those in a row, sometimes you can take for granted that when people are coming into Step I, they are oftentimes new. Some of them haven’t acted before ever and that curiosity, that newness, is just amazing. I love to share [that experience] with people. Those are two of the things that I love to do most in the world: to act and to teach.
We will be checking back in with Elena as this process evolves. Stay tuned as opportunities to create new works with Freehold become available throughout the year, including Sketch Comedy Writing this summer.