South Philly: Broken Mirror Studio Uses Trauma-Informed Methods to Train Actors in a New Way

Ben Bass started Broken Mirror studio to offer aspiring actors a "brave space" in which to hone their craft.

Aspiring actors gather at Broken Mirror (Courtesy Ben Bass)

Story by Mary Olivia Kram

Ben Bass has been a professional actor for the past decade and, over that time, has become accustomed to hearing the same backhanded compliment.

“We see that you’re very talented, but we just don’t know what to do with you,” Bass said, echoing a line uttered by many casting directors after an audition. “I have somehow both too vague and too specific of a look for anyone to be willing to take a chance on me.”

These kinds of experiences can wear on a person, but in an effort to create a more affirming experience for actors, Bass, who uses they and them pronouns, launched Broken Mirror Studio in October. Broken Mirror Studio is a trauma-informed and community-based acting lab that attempts to counter much of the toxicity actors face in their careers, Bass said.

“The reason that I wanted to do it is because the whole root system of Broken Mirror is somewhat in retaliation to the acting industry,” they said.

Broken Mirror Studio operates out of the artist collective The Whole Shebang in South Philadelphia, but the launch has been almost two years in the making, Bass said.

“I wanted a space where artists could just be artists and not worry about the industry at all,” Bass said. “A space where people are just honing, developing their skills, finding love for themselves and building a community that doesn’t have anything to do with, ‘This is how you book the audition.”

Broken Mirror calls itself a trauma-informed studio. Bass is aware that much of the trauma artists carry with them has to do with the previous training they’ve been exposed to.

“We work under the assumption that everyone has some familiarity with trauma,” Bass said. “It’s very important to our studio that all of our participants have strong understandings of their own personal boundaries and that we equip them with the tools to be able to feel safe enough to speak up for those boundaries and are willing to potentially step into discomfort”.

Bass defines Broken Mirror Studio as a “brave space”—as opposed to a “safe space.” To Bass, offering safety and security is important, but calling Broken Mirror a “brave space” allows artists to acknowledge their past trauma while still feeling safe.

“No one can actually guarantee complete safety at all for a million reasons,” they said. “A brave space is a willingness to consider discomfort and check in on your boundaries.”

Bass hopes Broken Mirror will break free of traditional acting methods that are often harmful to artists themselves.

“I was thinking about this the other day, about the merit of the ‘breaking you down system’,” Bass said. “A lot of the ‘break you down to build you up’ model is to bring you to some sort of idea of neutral. So then from previous ideas of what a successful actor should resemble, they can mold you into something that potentially you are not even right.”

Philadelphia actor and director, CJ Higgins, echoed Bass’ complaints with traditional training methods.

“Many of the more prolific acting schools and methods rely on ‘affective memory,’ where it’s encouraged to place yourself mentally in a similar situation to your character and then put those feelings into your performance of the character,” Higgins said. “For those of us who have experienced trauma, this can often be a horrendous idea. Your mental and physical well-being are negatively impacted by constantly tricking yourself into thinking you are in the same unsafe situation you were in before.”

Tay Sconiers, who is an actor, costume designer and teaching artist, took Bass’ course hoping to immerse herself in a new type of training.

“I was searching for a judgment free theatre space to feel connected at the end of the day— connected with myself, my body, my craft, my mind and to feel a strong connection with other artists as well without fear,” Sconiers said.

So far, Sconiers has appreciated what she’s learned at Broken Mirror.

“I just love how thoughtful all of this is,” she said. “I think it will add specificity and also encourage artists to voice their boundaries and discomfort which definitely needs to be encouraged in a rehearsal space.”

Ben Bass started Broken Mirror as a “brave space” for actors. (Photo courtesy Ben Bass).

Bass was born into theater; their mother and father met while studying theater arts at New York University. Bass knew from a young age they loved performing, but wasn’t until they got into a highly competitive acting program at SUNY–Purchase that they realized acting was what they wanted to do with their life.

“It was at SUNY where I was introduced to the idea that you don’t need to learn a specific method,” Bass said. “But rather, the more you grow and the more you experience, the better chance you’ll have of developing a technique that works for you.”

Bass says that an industry built around rejection and the marketability of an actor is going to inherently cause artists to feel bad about themselves. With Broken Mirror Studio, they hope to reconnect actors with their love of the craft.

“I think a lot of people when they say ‘I’m quitting acting,’ it’s really that they’re quitting pursuing a professional career in it as opposed to the craft itself,” Bass said. “I want to be able to offer people an artistic practice because having a practice as an artist is what allows us to continue to grow, remain poised, and ready for when opportunities come that can help advance our career.”

Bass’s training utilizes “critical response process” techniques, as popularized by choreographer Liz Lerman. Response to an actor’s begins with positive feedback from the responder about what makes the work interesting, using neutral, opinion-free questions focused on what an artist envisions for the future of a project. The intent is to deepen the artist’s connection to the original work and their reflection on their own process.

Bass has used these principles to structure workshops, starting with a mediation session, followed by a warm-up led by one of the students.

Once warmups are complete, Bass then transitions to scene work, asking students to perform individual scenes and monologues. After the technical training is done, Bass asks the class to join together in Lerman’s critical response process to provide constructive feedback to each other. Bass hopes that the positive energy surrounding this process of criticism will help build a sense of community in the studio.

Students sit on the floor after warmups (Photo courtesy Benn Bass).

Bass sees hope in alternative training methods that support actors as individuals and train their awareness, observation, and sense of control over their bodies and voices.

“I think there is merit in building awareness,” Bass said. “I think there is merit in saying, ‘I had no idea that I hold my shoulders up to the height of my ears anytime I’m nervous,’ but all of these things have to do with awareness. No one needs to be punished, destroyed or broken down in order for that awareness to be explored and brought to the attention of the artist.”

Bass says the traditional “breaking you down” system of actor training seeks to pull out emotions that may be triggering and can often result in sustaining additional trauma. Though these methods try to elicit authentic performances from actors, they can easily result in burnout. As someone who has experienced these training methods firsthand, it’s important for Bass to consider Broken Mirror as a trauma-informed studio.

“It’s very important to our studio that all of our participants have strong understandings of their own personal boundaries and that we equip them with the tools to be able to feel safe enough to speak up for those boundaries,” Bass said.

For Higgins, a casting decision is never based on what training a performer has or has not had, but there is real value as studios move towards empowerment in training methods.

“I believe that trauma-informed spaces for training are definitely needed,” Higgins said. “I firmly believe that those who do pursue training should aim to do so in spaces where they won’t be encouraged to be unsafe.”

Bass hopes that growing a strong community will strengthen the range of the studio in the future and demonstrate a viable alternative to actor training and development.

“My future hopes are my current hopes—that I’ll be able to curate and maintain the space of community development and redistribute autonomy to actors and artists,” they said. “Eventually, I can maybe even leave it in the hands of just the community and establish this in other places.”

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