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Natasha Tripney: We need to think differently about power and leadership

Vicky Featherstone. Photo: Dave Benett

2017 was a pretty dispiriting year all round, but it was a particularly dismaying one for women. As if it wasn’t enough having a self-confessed harasser and pussy-grabber in the Oval Office, it was the year in which it turned out many of your favourite movies were made by a combination of creepy sleazes and sleazy creeps.

Maybe this shouldn’t have been surprising – the film industry has, after all, treated the young and ambitious as meat since its inception – but the realisation that such behaviour was still so endemic was extremely disquieting.

It’s not just about the horrific abuse of power, it’s about the careers derailed and the art unmade along the way. The theatre industry obviously had its part to play in this too. What’s particularly galling is that both film and theatre are industries fuelled by the power of imagination, people who tell (and sell) stories for a living, and yet the dominant narrative was one of stasis: it was always thus; this is just the way the game is played.

And, as Jo Brand so patiently explained to her fellow, male panellists on Have I Got News for You in November [1], it’s the constancy of this behaviour that ends up wearing you down; the small stuff can have as much of an impact as the big stuff. It’s tiring. It erodes your resolve.

Given all this, it would be easier, and maybe even a little tempting, to let things slide back to the way they were. It would mean less conflict and less stress. Change takes courage; shouting makes your throat sore. But the past few months, grim as they were, must be made to count for something.

The Royal Court’s Vicky Featherstone, more than anyone else, seems intent on using this as an opportunity to create lasting change. In taking the time to listen to the stories of women in the industry – via the Town Hall Meeting event at the London theatre back in October – and then using the results of this as a spur to action, she has led the way.

Whereas other key industry figures have remained noticeably silent, and the Old Vic mishandled its response to the Kevin Spacey crisis, Featherstone – who has topped The Stage 100 [2], this publication’s list of the most influential figures in the industry – has been responsive and outspoken. Her insistence on action has led to decisions that some have found problematic – though I do wonder if she’d let the staging of Rita, Sue and Bob Too go ahead unquestioned whether she wouldn’t have also faced a backlash (because whenever a woman speaks out and speaks loudly there will inevitably be a backlash) – but once again she listened and reversed the decision.

It was done with grace and an admirable lack of ego. I don’t buy the idea that there’s an inherently female leadership style or an inherently male one, but we’ve been fed the idea that to be a great leader is to have unshakeable self-belief and never admit fallibility. She shows that needn’t be the case.

In addition to this, during a period when our country seems hell-bent on isolating itself, she has been programming more international work. Oh, and a small play called The Ferryman [3]. And the superb Anatomy of a Suicide [4]. And she filled the Downstairs stage with goats [5].

This year, we need to reassess how we think about power, examine how we categorise success and question the qualities we look for in a leader. Perhaps in doing so we can make the industry more transparent, accountable and inclusive – and work towards a culture where people in a position of power can no longer abuse those positions unchecked.