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Mark Shenton: After harassment, is bullying theatre’s next big challenge?

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Theatre has begun to confront its long-time problems around sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. This has led to the creation of guidelines around what is and isn’t acceptable, over and above any criminal and legal repercussions. The Royal Court has led on this, by publishing its Code of Behaviour, as have industry bodies UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre, which together outlined 10 principles to encourage safer working practices in theatre. These developments were an important start in changing a culture in which this type of behaviour was seemingly endemic.

But there’s another pattern of systematic abuse that has so far been less openly challenged, and that’s bullying. It’s one that, like the patterns of behaviour around Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, has been an open secret around some leading creative personalities and other day-to-day personnel – from resident directors and stage managers to musical directors – yet victims are more often than not cowed into silence. The special pain inflicted by the habitual bully is to make the bullied feel as though they’ve brought it upon themselves – and nobody likes a troublemaker. Everyone else keeps their head down, relieved that it is not happening to them.

When The Stage conducted its extensive survey into harassment in theatre earlier this year, it discovered that more than 40% of theatre professionals and students had been bullied.

A (now deceased) actress I once knew worked with a particular director regularly, despite his widespread reputation for this kind of behaviour. Then, finally, she departed a show before a planned London transfer. At the time, I asked her what had happened. She said it was finally her turn to be his whipping post, so she pulled out. And worse, it ended her career: she was so battered by the experience, she decided after a long and distinguished career to retire.

The West End and Broadway are rife with stories of this sort of thing, but many are, of course, just rumours and hearsay. Are we now, however, reaching a point where, thanks to the example of the #MeToo campaign, people feel empowered to speak out and challenge this kind of behaviour? That’s no doubt partly because social media provides a public platform for sharing such grievances and gaining support, especially now we are more aware of how damaging bullying can be to mental health.

Last week, a story emerged on Broadway in which the long-time standby for the principal role of Mary Sunshine in the current revival of Chicago, who had a run-of-show contract for the post and had been in it since the production opened 22 years ago, is reported to have killed himself following a rehearsal at which he was allegedly bullied.

In notes he wrote about a rehearsal last month, he claimed he had been asked to run through his song six times in front of the rest of the cast, and was criticised for singing wrong notes and lyrics. “You always do it wrong,” the musical director is reported to have told him. With the director allegedly adding: “I cannot tell you what to do. But 22 years… I don’t agree with Equity and the ROP (run-of-the-play) contracts, but you make more money than I do with this production. It’s been 22 years… just saying.”

Allegations are now emerging that this was not an isolated incident. On a blog set up to record some of them and memorialise the actor concerned called Justice for Jeff, one entry says: “Jeff Loeffelholz’s death by suicide has rattled the theater community. Actors, dancers, musicians, stagehands and anyone who is involved in a Broadway show have been talking. And writing. And posting on social media. It’s painfully obvious that what happened to Loeffelholz has happened to many others over the years, both on Broadway and on tour. Backstage bullying is Broadway’s dirty little secret. Or rather, it was a secret; more and more performers are speaking out and telling their stories.”

Could this tragedy be the event that triggers a public accounting of such matters?

One of Broadway’s most famous musicals about itself, A Chorus Line, features a director who puts his auditioning actors through an emotional wringer; to modern audiences, this could well be seen as emotional bullying. Given that the show was based on verbatim stories told by Broadway dancers, it has the ring of truth – and it’s hardly surprising that such methods exist.

It is now time for everyone to stand up not just for themselves but for each other and call time on this toxic behaviour.

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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