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The Green Room: What do we do about sexual harassment and abuse in the arts?

Photo: Guryanov Andrey/Shutterstock

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays

Adam Lovett, 45, has appeared in Oscar-winning film, BAFTA-winning TV and in theatre at the RSC, National and in the West End

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays and toured both national and internationally

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked predominantly in regional theatres and is also a writer and street performer

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Annie The best temporary solution is to speak up immediately about the issues that arise. Take the culprit out of the rehearsal room, speak to your agent and should there remain a problem, Equity should be involved.

Beryl In the past, I have been known to speak to the union about someone’s behaviour toward a young actress I was in a company with. She didn’t want to “make a fuss”.

Adam Everyone has been saying ‘if you see something happening to someone you should report it’, but the person dealing with the consequences of that should have a say. If the victim of the behaviour doesn’t want to say anything, it is really inappropriate to override those wishes – which can be a real problem as it means the behaviour goes unchecked.

Beryl I was adamant and spoke as a dep on her behalf. I kept her anonymous, she never knew I did it and I was advised by Equity to confront the culprit – a costume designer on this occasion. He had no idea he’d upset her.

Jon What was the upshot?

Beryl He apologised and said he would never put an actor in that position again. He honestly thought it was okay to suggest, without consulting the director, that she wore no knickers and flashed at various times.

Vivian This happens so much that the person in question had no idea they were doing anything wrong. And that is uncomfortable, so they get defensive and try to dismiss complaints. I think there is an opportunity here for people in power and privilege to start properly examining and questioning it.

Jon I’ve seen a lot of male fragility around this issue. People saying: “It upsets me that you think I could be like these monsters.”

Vivian Yep. Hell yes.

Adam When I was asked to be part of this discussion I did think twice before saying yes, because I think the most important thing at this moment is: listen to women, believe women.

Beryl But men are part of this culture and we need you onside. It’s an issue for our whole culture, not just this industry.

Vivian The noise around this issue, while essential to get it raised, is in danger of drowning out the discussion to discover the reasons these harassments and assaults took place.

Beryl Power can be more easily abused in a world where people are desperate to work.

Vivian Exactly. It’s about dismantling power structures. People in power are going to get very defensive of their position. And strike out. My worry is, this becomes a hashtag and is forgotten in three months.

Jenny But what is our responsibility? To act upon rumour and hearsay? To be one of the mob we encounter on Twitter, all anxious to be seen on the same bandwagon? To be taken to court for defamation?

Annie This is a culture issue that needs to be explored and discussed openly. It’s very much the British way to keep mum about things that make us feel uncomfortable.

Beryl Sex and politics?

Jon Would it be easier if there weren’t such a culture of silence, if this stuff were reported as a matter of course?

Adam To whom?

Beryl Equity.

Adam We need HR departments. That would be much easier than going to the union, which seems like a big step.

Jon The alternative would be the company manager, but that puts them in a compromised position if it’s their boss who’s the problem.

Annie At the start of rehearsals, it could be stated that if at any point anyone is made to feel uncomfortable or harassed, there is an appointed harassment liaison.

Vivian I think we should expect ‘presence in the room’ to be as much of a hire-ability factor as talent. Some theatres do a health check – asking previous colleagues how you were to work with. That should be extended to directors, designers, everyone, not just actors.

Annie Presence in the room is an interesting idea… but where does it stop? We’re forced to explore tough stories and have to open up and debate topics that an ‘ordinary’ job may not.

Adam At the moment, the power at the top of our industry goes unchecked. Too many people aren’t accountable to anyone.

Vivian Or only to the board.

Beryl Women on the boards are needed. Harvey Weinstein had an all-male board.

Adam There are so many horror stories around film sets. I think a lot of male directors and producers are suddenly sleeping very uneasily.

Annie There’s more money and power in the film industry, hence men such as Weinstein can throw their weight about and flash their money. It’s all ego and not for the good of the arts.

Vivian In film and theatre, actresses are mainly hired in roles in relation to the lead male. The distinction between most female roles is whether he wants to shag them or not – I’m generalising, but not completely. This makes our currency in the room a sexual one and allows situations to occur that can’t be objected to as ‘it’s in the play’. Until we change the stories we tell, women are open to this misuse of power.

Jon Back to representation and accountability.

Jenny I think we’re close to some more culprits from the theatre world being outed: men in positions of power showing their lack of respect for women personally, as well as a bias in the work they’ve produced.

Vivian But having conversations like this is part of the solution. Make it harder for the creeps. Turn over those stones.

Jenny Something has to happen to enable everyone with an issue to come forward. There’s a lot that’s wrong with our business, but when we communicate and work together we really can bring about change.