Theatre was thrown into the national spotlight with the emergence of the #MeToo movement. Led by the Royal Court, the industry pledged to change, but a year on have things improved? Amber Massie-Blomfield talks to the leaders still fighting to dismantle old power structures and stamp out abuse
A year ago, the #MeToo movement exploded into being. Harrowing accounts of endemic sexual harassment and gender imbalance poured out from every profession and across society.
In theatre, Vicky Featherstone and Lucy Davies, the artistic director and executive producer of London’s Royal Court, acted quickly and decisively. They set up the groundbreaking event No Grey Area for people to tell their stories and drew up a code of behaviour for theatres across the country. The sector, it seemed, was ready to embrace change. But, 12 months on, has it?
“Breaking the issue open was really important,” Featherstone says, a few weeks before #MeToo’s first anniversary this week. But, as she and Davies have continued to work on the issue behind the scenes, they have become increasingly aware of the huge amount of work yet to be done. “What we’ve uncovered is absolutely monumental and I feel we’re further away than we’ve ever been from getting to a place of truth or change. It’s really distressing.”
When the Royal Court’s leaders first went public, Featherstone was invited on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and was asked about allegations levelled at the Old Vic’s former artistic director Kevin Spacey. “I said: ‘We all knew and we all colluded, well what’s happened post that, a need has been created – which is way beyond the fact that we all knew – which is people coming to us and telling us the absolute, unbelievable, dark, systemic failure and detail of abuse, in so many different areas, that they’ve gone through.
“That’s so much deeper than us thinking: ‘Everybody knew about Kevin Spacey so why didn’t anyone speak up about it? Why didn’t anyone speak up about the way some dirty old director was working in a rehearsal room at the Royal Court?’ So it feels as though people came and needed to have really different conversations with us, on a really regular basis, and it’s really hard to know how to make change.”
The Royal Court has been listening to testimony from individuals since No Grey Area. “People have had to endure, both historically and currently, really difficult situations. Some have been able to email us or speak to other people and have conversations and bring them out – so that is a positive thing. But they are so major, we don’t know how to find our way through them.” They are conscious of how much work still lies ahead. “As a culture, we still don’t know what to do,” Featherstone says.
So how much has really changed in the way theatres deal with issues of harassment? How much still needs to be done? And is the industry any safer to work in than it was in October 2017?
Cassie Chadderton, head of UK Theatre – the member organisation for many of the UK’s leading venues and producers – strikes a cautiously optimistic note: “The sector is a more supportive environment than it was 12 months ago. There is much more likelihood that you will hear the words: ‘Is that okay, or not okay?’. As the start of a conversation, that’s a good thing. Of course, a lot has to sit behind it.”
UK Theatre’s handbook, Encouraging Safer and More Supportive Practices in Theatre, provides a benchmark for the industry in dealing with harassment issues; Featherstone calls it “fantastic”. Launched in partnership with sister organisation Society of London Theatre, following extensive consultation through a series of open forum events, it contains 10 principles designed to promote a safer working environment in theatres. “They are a way of having a conversation when you’re starting a new production,” Chadderton says. “Which then, we hope, goes on to create a much more open conversational culture. Which means it’s okay to talk about it if you think you’ve got a problem.”
‘What we’ve uncovered is absolutely monumental and we’re further away than we’ve ever been’
Vicky Featherstone, Royal Court artistic director
The handbook has been downloaded by UK Theatre members, made up mostly of medium to large scale venues, more than 1,600 times, says the organisation’s head. UK Theatre and SOLT also opened the Theatre Helpline in June, a 24-hour service for theatre professionals needing support with any issue affecting their health and well-being. It receives about 40 calls a month. “People are calling to check in and understand what the helpline is. Then if they feel confident they come back,” Chadderton says.
Meanwhile, Equity’s Agenda for Change report, created following contributions from more than 340 union members, offers practical guidance to encourage a “cultural shift in the sector”. Out of this, the union created a dedicated harassment helpline, and the provision of resources such as posters and an affirmation statement to be read at the beginning of rehearsals.
In September, Equity became a member of the Trade Union Congress’ executive committee after its president, Maureen Beattie, presented a motion to the TUC seeking support for changes to legislation around non-disclosure agreements in production processes and increases in time limits for tribunal claims to at least six months.
The Stage has carried out its own research into how the industry has responded to #MeToo over the past year. More than 80 commercial and not-for-profit theatre organisations, of all sizes and from across the UK, were asked about the action they had taken over the past 12 months. Of these, 84% said they had updated policies and procedures related to harassment and bullying.
Despite this, more than three-quarters said the number of grievances around harassment had stayed the same during this period, which poses a question about the practical value of policy change, while the majority of smaller organisations said they do not have a dedicated member of staff for human resources, indicating a further challenge.
That robust paperwork doesn’t necessarily translate into a willingness to speak against inappropriate behaviour became clear to the Old Vic during its investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Spacey and the culture surrounding him.
‘All of us can collaborate and learn and come together to effect lasting change’
Kate Varah, Old Vic executive director
“What we discovered was that there is a gap between water-cooler conversation with a colleague and the formal, very excellent and robust methods of escalating through HR, unions, industry bodies or line management,” says the venue’s executive director Kate Varah. “You’ve got to feel confident and brave to go through those processes and some people don’t. So we thought about how we can bridge the gap and come up with a pastoral initiative that gives people the agency and confidence to speak up about something they are concerned about.”
Varah and the Old Vic’s solution has been to launch the Guardians’ Network – an initiative in which members of staff are trained to offer confidential support to peers who are facing harassment issues, but are unsure of how to escalate them. The scheme has been adopted by more than 50 organisations across a number of sectors. Operating in the context of a wider network is, Varah believes, crucial. “I can talk to other theatres that are involved and say: ‘By the way, this trend is happening, have you experienced that, what training have you put in place?’. We can horizon-scan: everybody has experienced something that they wish hadn’t happened in their organisation, so all of us can collaborate and learn and come together to effect lasting change – because it is absolutely about what happens next.”
Freelancers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation as they operate outside the organisational structures that provide PAYE employees job security and channels for reporting. “For freelancers there’s this sense that if they call out bad behaviour they might not get the next job,” Chadderton says.
“A freelancer should be able to walk into a building and to understand immediately what the culture is and where to go if there’s an issue,” Varah says. “With the Guardians scheme we’ve hopefully created a common language where people can go from institution to institution, walk in and it says ‘Here is your guardian’ and they feel instantly safe and supported and ready to activate any conversation they want. So that would be a fantastic thing to achieve – if the Guardians scheme was to become so ubiquitous that people could walk into a building and know it was a resource available to them.”
With so many new schemes and policies in place across the sector, is the atmosphere different in the rehearsal room?
“Yes, most definitely, there has been a big change,” says Joan Iyiola, star of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Duchess of Malfi this summer and co-director of Monobox – a career-support service for actors in the early stages of their careers. “At the RSC, Erica Whyman, the deputy artistic director, came in on the first day to talk to us about its new policy on harassment, why it was there, what it meant, flagging that if anyone needed to talk to her about anything over the process she would be there to listen, to help, to move it forward. I thought that was exceptional, because before that I hadn’t really seen someone come in and say: ‘If there’s a problem, here’s how we deal with it’.”
“We actors are a community and if you hear very unfortunate stories from a colleague or a contemporary, about what it is like to work with somebody, that really goes a long way – in the same way they are having those conversations when they are casting. We often forget the power that the community of actors can have in those discussions, because I don’t think twice about whether or not the people I trust are telling me the truth.”
‘I’m not going to be in rehearsal rooms or work at certain theatres if I don’t feel safe’
Joan Iyiola, actor
But Iyiola acknowledges that she and her peers still feel vulnerable to inappropriate behaviour. “So often, so many actors will tell you that they don’t feel safe. I’ve given myself a rule that I’m going to try to minimise that as much as possible,” she says. “If that means I’m not going to be in certain rehearsal rooms or work at certain theatres, because I just don’t feel that I’m going to be safe within them, then I have decided I’m no longer going to do that. And that’s #MeToo but it’s also a bigger thing, it’s about power and how it is distributed.”
That does not just apply to actors. It is a crucial issue backstage too. Multi award-winning lighting designer Paule Constable says: “As a young woman walking into this industry you are still incredibly vulnerable.” For her, the focus on high-profile sexual harassment cases has skewed a necessary conversation about bullying in a much broader sense. “There are many brilliant things about #MeToo, but it’s about one very specific articulation of an abuse of power and bullying. And in terms of gender politics and trying to realign and look at opportunities for young women it has become fuelled by a salacious love of gossip and I fear that we are still humiliating and bullying women, overtly.” She points to the treatment received by Indhu Rubasingham over the change of the Kiln’s name from the Tricycle: “I don’t believe she would be treated that way if she were a man, I really don’t.”
‘It’s fuelled by a salacious love of gossip and I fear that we are still humiliating and bullying women’
Paule Constable, lighting designer
Constable’s words capture the complexity of measuring the impact of #MeToo on the sector. While many of the women who have been at the forefront of the theatre industry’s response acknowledge the importance of the formal measures that have been adopted, there is a wide recognition that the change required is far more root and branch: that it is about power structures and how they operate. As the Royal Court’s Davies says: “Generally in the sector, fundamentally there’s still a sense of being at a loss about how to put a process in place that will do what it needs to do. The paperwork is good, the helplines are good, but the actual challenge of dismantling some of the power structures is much greater.”
The experiences of the past year have clearly made her reflect deeply on the power she and Featherstone hold. “You’re mindful of how you use your power and how you can shift things to be a bit fairer, a bit more open and a bit more ethical,” she says. One of the striking aspects of the industry’s response to the rise of the #MeToo movement has been the very different approaches the leadership of different organisations have taken. Could that be related to the gender of those in charge?
Davies says: “It’s struck us that there have been a couple of male artistic directors who haven’t felt confident enough to put their truthful voice into this place, in a way that instinctively you do as a woman, you don’t question it… It could be that this is a moment where our social conditioning has been useful. Our compassion is fostered and men’s is silenced.” She continues: “There’s that brilliant Simone de Beauvoir quote: ‘The point is not for women simply to take power out of men’s hands… It’s a question of destroying that notion of power.’”
For Constable this is precisely why #MeToo is indivisible from bigger questions about diversity and representation in the industry. “The healthier the gender balance, the less you find ghettos of poor behaviour. We need to make safe spaces and part of that has to be making environments to work in where the power base does not belong to one age group, one sex, and one cultural type. That will help.” Iyiola’s experience bears this out: “In a lot of the jobs I’ve done this year the leadership – or creative teams – have been female driven. That immediately changes something. So that is going to be a big step forward, if we keep pushing – who our leaders are. That just filters through.”
‘We need to make sure survivors are supported properly and then we’ll talk about rehabilitation’
Rachel Vogler, Houselights founder
Meanwhile, Rachel Vogler, founder of Houselights, an initiative working with drama schools and youth theatres, feels the genuine, far-reaching change required will only truly be achieved through the passage of time. “We’re aiming to build a new generation of people who know that this is not okay. We’re not in a place where, if you don’t experience harassment, you don’t have to worry about it. We’re all part of it. Students proactively and pre-emptively have to know, because it is now an unignorable, integral part of training for professional development.”
Vogler, a former women’s officer at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, started Houselights with fellow Central graduate Kim Turford on the back of Central Says Enough, a campaign that challenged that institution’s “incredibly clinical” response to #MeToo by improving the support offered to students who had filed harassment claims.
“Our greatest achievement was that we saw a huge spike in reporting. Ideally years down the line we won’t measure the success of sexual harassment campaigns by the number of reports, but for the place that we are at.” Their new enterprise expands this work to drama schools and youth theatres more widely, offering consultations, workshops and access to the Houselights Network.
One key issue remains largely unaddressed. The question of rehabilitation for those who have had accusations of misconduct upheld against them. Is it too soon for this conversation? Vogler thinks so: “Right now we’re in no position to be entertaining the idea that these people still have a place, not least because certain parts of this sector spend so much time telling people there isn’t a space for them. We need to make sure survivors are being supported properly and then we’ll talk about rehabilitation.”
But Davies believes “proper, genuine atonement can become a really important advocacy moment”. For Featherstone, the question of whether rehabilitation is ever possible is “case by case… you have to believe people can change, otherwise we’re saying that society is only ever one thing, which is whatever your main means of behaviour is and I don’t think that’s the case”.
She continues: “One of the things I find quite interesting is people who don’t believe they’ve done wrong, the denial of it – there’s a whole thing about perception and people needing to understand that perception is valid in these situations, but it doesn’t mean that somebody should be dragged through (a process) if there isn’t anything that can be held up in terms of proof. So it is a really grey area.”
The Royal Court’s leaders recognise a conflict between the necessarily private nature of organisational disciplinary procedures and the public appetite for justice and accountability.
‘The paperwork is good, the helplines are good, but the challenge of dismantling the power structures is much greater’
Lucy Davies,Royal Court executive producer
“Often things can be dealt with effectively internally, but they’re confidential and other people hear about those things and aren’t satisfied with the process, even though the complainant may be,” Featherstone says. “That will be a challenge going forward – that organisations will feel as though they have gone through the process and that a person will have had some form of rehabilitation. Those organisations will be doing things by the book and people will complain – that’s a complex new area we’re in.”
While the way forward for the #MeToo movement may be “daunting”, Davies and Featherstone are absolutely committed to keeping up the fight. They see the Royal Court continuing to push this issue, in particular fighting a “resistance” they perceive from certain groups. Featherstone believes there has been “a sort of tribal coming together of people who think it might have gone a bit too far and has threatened certain ways of behaving that they thought were actually okay and we’ve been a bit over the top – they can only say that in certain groups, but they probably all agree with each other. They couldn’t say that publicly, but we know that happens. In surprising areas”.
Davies adds: “Our role going forwards might be in relation to that resistance. If that’s going to become more vocal or more strident, it might be that all of us as a sector have to push back.”
Wherever #MeToo goes next the Royal Court’s leadership team is in this for the long haul. “Change is possible. Look at the women’s movement: that involved a huge paradigm shift in men’s thinking as well as women’s and there are things that were real in the 1970s that are unimaginable to us now,” Davies says. “So I believe it can happen.”