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Lyn Gardner: We all must ensure we stop abuse

The Old Vic theatre in London
Lyn Gardner
Lyn Gardner is a theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage
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Last Thursday, The Stage and its editor, Alistair Smith, asked six key questions of the Old Vic board over the Kevin Spacey allegations. Some of those questions, in particular about the systems and safeguards that are in place to protect the workforce - whether in permanent employment or as freelancers - are ones that the whole industry must now be asking itself.

Old Vic chief executive Sally Greene: ‘I was unaware of any Kevin Spacey allegations’

The code of conduct that came out of the Royal Court’s #nogreyareas town hall meeting on October 28 signals a significant shift in culture and one that owes a great debt to the leadership shown by the court’s Vicky Featherstone.

The working group set up by Equity to gather suggestions on how to combat harassment is a good move too.

But the industry can’t sit around expecting others to take the lead, or hope that eventually harassment claims will blow over and things will return to being as they were. They won’t, and neither should they.

Every building, and company, and their boards need to be interrogating their own culture and the way they have operated in the past and intend to operate in the future. For some it may well be a painful process.

They must do it not because boards will clearly want to protect themselves from potential lawsuits, but simply because if you employ people, in whatever capacity, you have a duty of care towards them. A happy organisation and one where people enjoy working is also likely to be a more creative organisation. You don’t treat people well because the law tells you to, you treat them well because that’s what decent human beings do.

It is the board, along with the leadership, that sets an organisation’s culture; whether it is one of fear and bullying, or one where people feel valued, listened to and supported.

Whether the organisation operates with a culture of cover-ups - which may include the use of non-disclosure payments and agreements - or one where transparency is valued, even if that sometimes means airing your dirty laundry in public and the subsequent embarrassment.

Although sexual harassment is making (and is likely to continue making) the headlines, there are many different kinds of harassment.

In an industry where few theatres have HR departments and many work on a freelance or temporary basis - particularly women - there are often no robust channels in place for those wanting to report incidents to do so. At least not without worrying that they will get a reputation as trouble-makers so affecting their future employment prospects. It creates a culture of secrecy in which bad - and sometimes criminal behaviour - can flourish.

Vicky Featherstone is one who has stood up, raised her hand and said: “We. All. Knew.” Equity has reported that bullying in the arts is rife, and back in 2011 Arts consultant Anne-Marie Quigg found that bullying in the creative industries was actually worse than in the armed forces. There is a connection between the rumours and allegation of sexual harassment that are currently coming to light and other abuses of power within the industry. They often spring from the same place.

Too often, behaviour, that would not be tolerated elsewhere, is accepted on the grounds that the person behaving badly is a creative genius who runs a widely admired building or directs brilliant productions.

But that never excuses regularly shouting at the people working in the marketing department or being rude and intimidating to people working in costumes, or the ushers or the box office staff.

Of course we all occasionally lose it and throw a strop. But that’s different to operating in a way in which you bully and harass. In everyday life, I often think you can tell a great deal about a person from the way they behave towards waiters in restaurants; in the theatre you can tell a great deal about how those running the building treat the PR department over a long period of time.

We must applaud the fact that head of costume Catherine Kodicek was so incensed by stories of the unfair treatment of colleagues that she has set up a trade association for costumes workers, but it’s an indictment of the way theatre operates that the problem is so widespread that there was a need to do it.

Catherine Kodicek: Stop treating costume professionals as second-class workers

It is so often staff working in crucial roles, though roles that are not seen as being at the coalface of creativity, who bear the brunt of such behaviour. It speaks volumes about who is and who isn’t valued in theatre.

It also reflects how bullies and abusers like to operate, presenting a charming face to those they view as their peers or who they deem important, but acting in a high-handed and abusive manner to those they do not value as highly and making their lives a misery. It’s got to stop, and theatre boards have a role to play in making sure it does. Because: We. All. Know.

Click for all The Stage’s coverage of harassment in the theatre industry and advice on who to contact if you or someone you know has been a victim.

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