A year or so ago, I was cast in my first professional stage role. Being new to the business, I was happy when one of the leads took began coaching me while I was in the show. We continued to meet up after the run, and he was always complimentary and generous. I was flattered that somebody with a lot of experience, including TV credits, would take the time to mentor me.
Things turned sour when I got into a West End show and a new agent. I thought my mentor would be happy, but his response was to criticise my career decisions, second-guess my agent and complain I was ignoring him now I had “tasted success”.
I wasn’t avoiding anyone: I was doing eight shows a week and had no free time. He attended a performance without telling me and texted me some critical feedback, which I hadn’t asked for. He has since apologised and said the text was meant as a joke and I will have to toughen up if comments by people who “want the best for me” make me upset. He is still messaging and calling. I don’t want to continue the friendship, but I am wary of upsetting somebody who seems better connected in the business than me.
Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight has been a frequent revival in recent years. This is not surprising given that accusations of ‘gaslighting’ feature so regularly in current political debate.
Attempts to manipulate others to the point where they are not sure of facts or whether they can trust their own feelings aren’t just something that happens at a global level. In an industry like our own, where career uncertainty often coincides with a wide imbalance of power and privilege, this is sadly not the first time I have heard of individuals who struggle with their own sense of importance aiming to compensate by targeting others, and those who are students or new to the business can be the softest targets.
Even if this ‘mentoring’ relationship originally began from a genuine desire to help, and even if you initially benefited from the advice, now that things have reached the point where opinions are being forced on you, that’s no longer help, it is harassment. As for the suggestion that cutting and belittling remarks are either jokes or designed to ‘make you better’, you and I both know that these are stock excuses regularly trotted out by toxic teachers, dictatorial directors and everyone else who believes having ‘artistic talent’ is somehow permission to be an asshole.
Silence in these situations helps nobody but the manipulator. You don’t say whether your fears about career consequences are on the back of actual threats or just something that has been implied, but the days when any one person could ensure you never work again are long gone.
It sounds to me that this particular individual’s influence and expertise falls more into the sphere of power they wish they had, rather than that which exists in reality, but that’s how gaslighting works – it makes you doubt what is true and what is not. For this reason, I would encourage you to share what is going on with at least one objective and trustworthy friend.
Sometimes, just one person can be all the support you need when you text, call or email to give your former guru notice that it is time to back off. I hope that will be the end of it. If not, your friend can support you in informing the police, your union and other anti-bullying organisations, not only for your own benefit, but that of any other performers who might find themselves receiving similar
Contact careers adviser John Byrne at firstname.lastname@example.org or @dearjohnbyrne
John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne