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Lyn Gardner: Artistic talent can’t excuse abuse

Generic-drama-traing-acting-class-questioning-director-rehearsal-c-Christian-BertrandShutterstock_143408059-(1) Photo: Christian-Bertrand/Shutterstock
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Last week, The Stage published an interview with UK Theatre president Fiona Allan to mark the organisation’s publication of 10 principles designed to help tackle bullying and harassment in the theatre industry.

Anyone who doubts the extent of the problem should look at UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre’s report Encouraging Safer and More Supportive Working Practices in Theatre, which included that list of principles.

UK Theatre’s Fiona Allan: ‘We’ve avoided the abuse problem for too long’

Allan shared her own experience of sexual assault 20 years ago while working as an intern at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was a brave stand to make because it is often those who are most powerless and invisible in theatre who face the most harassment, and frequently those who reach positions of power and visibility who keep most silent about it.

One of the telling moments was when Allan observed that after the assault she did not report it because she did not know whom to report it to, and because she came from a generation “brought up not to make a fuss. If men were predatory, it was my job as a woman to deal with it and not make a fuss”.

She wants to ensure that young women – or indeed anyone facing harassment in the industry – are enabled “to make a fuss”, know what mechanisms are in place for them to report inappropriate behaviours and have confidence that they will be supported.

It’s crucial because there are still too many in the industry who believe MeToo is just a bit of a fuss. In his Prompt Corner column in Theatre Record, consulting editor Ian Herbert recently asked: “Do you find the present uproar about harassment in theatre a little excessive?”, going on to decry “the prurient witch-hunting that lies behind so much of today’s outrage”.

It’s not just men, often of a certain generation, who seem unsettled by this newfound determination to speak out – demonstrating cultural leadership while doing so. I’ve heard some women in theatre talking about MeToo as a “bandwagon”. These are often women who have scaled the ladder of success and found their own ways to deal with predatory male sexual behaviour.

The argument is that to make a fuss about an unwanted hand on a knee or a breast casts women in the role of victims, when of course it is a women’s job not to make a fuss and to deal with these advances from men. Because boys will be boys. But that does nothing to change the culture in which such behaviours thrive.

As Caitlin Moran observed: “All these successful, ‘sassy’ broads did, indeed, gain great careers for themselves – but not by improving anything. That’s not a glorious thing, all told: to admit you did not change things, but simply found a way through for yourself, then left the workplace as you found it: abusive to young, powerless women at the start of their careers.”

Everyone working in theatre, whatever their role, has a right to workplace dignity.

There was something else that I noted when interviewing Allan, and that was around the way she highlighted how the performing arts always protect the talent. It may be common knowledge within organisations that ‘X’ is a sexual harasser in the dressing room or ‘Y’ a bully in the rehearsal room. But often this behaviour is tolerated because X or Y is considered a genius, and of course genius is beyond reproach.

Herbert uses the genius argument, pointing to the creativity of Max Stafford-Clark’s tenure at the Royal Court and preferring to “remember Kevin Spacey as a great actor-director on stage and screen, who came to the rescue of the Old Vic in its darkest hour”. But however great the artist, great art doesn’t excuse impropriety, whether it’s sexual or regularly shouting at the press team.

The principles put forward by UK Theatre must be implemented and remain current in every theatre and rehearsal room across the country. But we should also check ourselves every time we use the term ‘genius’. Its overuse sees some in theatre (almost always men) feted, enabled and indulged to a point that it is unsurprising that they think a hand on the intern’s breast is simply one of the perks of the job. A perk that the organisation employing that person is complicit in enabling.

Editor’s View: There are lessons for employers in mishandling of harassment complaints

A few years ago, I came into prolonged contact with the director of a festival and the team surrounding him. Such was the deference with which he was treated – with every whim attended to – it felt like being in the presence of a minor deity. When I made a joke about it, I was told that he was a genius.

The idea of genius in the arts creates the conditions that allow abuse to thrive

I have absolutely no reason to believe that this person ever acted improperly in any way, but it is this all-too-prevalent idea of genius in the arts that creates the conditions and hierarchies that allow abuse to thrive. At the very least, let’s remember that genius is seldom born, it is enabled through privilege and opportunity. And it should always be held accountable.

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