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Rafaella Marcus: Following harassment claims, theatre’s power brokers must start soul-searching

Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Mark Hamilton Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone is at the forefront of driving change in the industry in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. Photo: Photo: Mark Hamilton
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Shock and outrage has dominated my Twitter feed of late, following exposure of sexual harassment in the theatre industry. Scratch the surface, though, and there’s a thundering lack of surprise.

Not towards the news about Max Stafford-Clark in particular (though also that) but because the industry is almost defined by stark power imbalances.

I’ve never met a practitioner or arts worker who didn’t have a story, and every single one boils down to some kind of abuse of power.

As Anne-Marie Quigg’s 2011 report found, bullying in the arts is worse than in the army. This isn’t a separate issue to why Stafford-Clark and others felt able to harass young women: it’s the same culture.

Crucially, this behaviour is not limited to male/female interactions, nor is it always sexualised: across the industry, there is an astonishing lack of accountability.

Maybe it’s because we’re largely an industry of freelances: it can be like the Wild West out here, huge and hard to govern.

It means that small abuses of power are routine:  interviewers asking potential employees to disclose details of their background or protected characteristics like age, orientation and ethnicity (a practice which is illegal in the UK), female practitioners asked to justify why equality in theatre is important, as though it were an Oxbridge debating chamber; assistant directors sent to run personal errands for theatre staff; actors asked to cross physical boundaries that they’re uncomfortable with, both on stage and in auditions. Cumulatively, these incidents add up to an undermining, humiliating work environment.

I’ve accepted an assistant director position without knowing my salary, and didn’t find out until my contract had been sent to me one week into rehearsals.

I was tempted to ask in my interview but my impression is that it would have been poorly received, a betrayal of pure artistic principles.

When we collectively buy into the idea that we are all doing this solely “for the art” – overriding all other concerns for money, health, stability – it becomes acceptable for those in charge to take advantage of artists.

It’s part and parcel of the blurring of lines between personal and professional relationships: the import that the industry places on personal rapport is easily exploited.

I guarantee that there are perpetrators who have not been publicly brought into the light, and some of those who know about them will be on the boards that hired them, long-term collaborators, close friends.

The fact is that people do speak up – that’s how rumours start, how reputations are acquired. It is whether they are heard that is the problem. Sometimes it’s convenient not to hear, to insist an incident is isolated until the evidence to the contrary becomes overwhelming.

The most important part of the joint statement released by major theatres is this: “We will support you to speak out, and we will hear you when you do.”

It remains to be seen how far this extends to imbalances of power in the industry more widely: to revolutionise the culture, some uncomfortable soul-searching needs to be done. If you’re a person with any kind of power, you should be asking yourself hard questions about what you might have done in the past and what you could do differently in the future.

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