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New harassment guidelines: Consent must be at the heart of university drama teaching

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In light of recent revelations of sexual harassment in the industry, a working party for the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments has issued guidelines on preventative measures for drama and theatre departments. Geraldine Harris and Dan Rebellato outline the practical points

Over the last nine months, on behalf of the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments, we have been putting together a set of guidelines aimed at preventing sexual harassment in drama and theatre departments. The revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Max Stafford-Clark are a chance for all of us to ask tough questions about our own institutions and behaviour. After all, these three men are, in some ways, progressive and liberal figures. When Stafford-Clark ran the Royal Court, he was one of the most important champions of women’s playwriting – at a time when such support was even rarer than it is now.

In the universities, we often think of ourselves as fairly enlightened; universities are relatively open places, progressive in outlook, placing a high value on evidence and critical understanding, and in university drama departments in particular, we have long discussed and explored issues of gender, sexuality and power. But these revelations have evoked memories of a time when staff in universities were often overwhelmingly male and incidents of sexual harassment between staff and students, or between staff, were frequently shared by women in private, as war stories or as warnings to others.

In public, all too often, there was a culture of silence and silencing, of trivialisation and dismissal. It’s tempting to consign these problems to the bad old days. Yet a 2018 survey of 1,840 pupils by the National Union of Students has found that 41% reported varying degrees of sexual misconduct by staff. The 2016 Universities UK report on sexual violence and hate crimes among students offers similarly alarming figures. These reports don’t specify drama and theatre students, but it would surely be a mistake to think that our discipline is immune from everyday sexism or free from sexual harassment. Although most reported incidents are perpetrated by male lecturers on female students, we recognise that there are other permutations of harassing behaviour and they are reflected in our guidelines.

Thankfully, our working party’s numerous discussions have not discovered a Weinstein figure working in a university drama department today, but they did bring to light some examples of behaviour that might at best be thought of as complacent or thoughtless and at worst complicit or predatory.

Most, probably all, universities already have formal policies regarding sexual harassment in place, so why does drama need its own guidelines? The fact is, our discipline has some distinctive and valuable teaching practices that, if misused, provide particular opportunities for objectification and harassment. Drama courses will typically involve physical work where there might be close interactions between staff and students, and between students; some basic workshop techniques – trust exercises, contact improvisation and so on – demand a high level of physical contact between participants. Discussions of theatre and of contemporary performance will almost inevitably touch on complex aspects of sex and sexuality and require from the students not just intellectual reflection but perhaps personal, emotional engagement too.

Built into some theatre practices is the idea that ‘freeing yourself’, ‘losing your inhibitions’, ‘letting yourself go’ is of particular value and that being unable, or unwilling, to achieve this represents ‘failure’. This is despite the fact that, as we surely know, many of our students may already have experience of how easily notions of liberation can be exploited to entrap and constrain. Applied unthinkingly and without due caution, these techniques, can naively or wilfully obscure the real structures of power inside and outside the rehearsal room. These teaching practices are important and valuable for our discipline; all the more important, then, to have some clear guidance to help stop them being abused. Many of us who engage with theatre and performance value its supple ambiguities, its in-betweenness, its liminality: real and not-real, true and false, material and imaginary. Sexual predators, as we know, are very skilled at exploiting the ambiguities of the dramatic encounter, the role-playing audition, the open improvisation, the closed rehearsal, the pub afterwards.

Drama students are most vulnerable to harassment – Equity president Malcolm Sinclair

Our work then has been to produce a set of principles and guidance that is both expansive and general enough to cover a broad range of practices and scenarios and specific enough to respond to the particular contingencies of our discipline.

Key to the document is pushing consent to the foreground. Rather than the vague idea that by stepping through our doors students have magically consented to everything that might take place, we suggest that consent must be informed, voluntary, explicit, specific and time-bound. A student must know what they are consenting to, must give it freely and clearly, must consent to particular things and, if the context changes, that consent must be sought again.

Another key principle is shared responsibility. There is a persistent inequality of emotional labour around sexual harassment. In our experience, men who harass their students don’t boast about it to their male colleagues; women, on the other hand, still share their experiences – who not to be caught in a room alone with, who is a bit handsy, who should be avoided at a conference after a couple of drinks. As a result, men are likely to know much, much less than women the extent and patterns of sexual harassment in the university. All too often this means that if a woman feels she has been subjected to inappropriate behaviour, it becomes up to her to raise the alarm, ask for advice, make a complaint. Institutions that try to handle things informally or discreetly (“We’ll have a quiet word with him”) leave the woman to handle the emotional labour of dealing with that predatory behaviour.

It is no one’s desire to set limits on creative or academic freedom. Rather the aim is to protect everyone by inviting people in authority (which might be a student director as much as a lecturer or visiting theatremaker) to make explicit the assumptions they want to work with and to allow them to be considered, debated, and challenged if necessary. It’s an extension of what we do all the time: expose ideas and practices to debate. Our guidelines are part of the discipline, not a constraint on it.

The SCUDD guidelines are available at scudd.org.uk. The working party comprised Leonie Elliot-Graves (Goldsmiths), Stephen Greer (Glasgow), Geraldine Harris (Lancaster), Katharine Low (Central), Adelina Ong (Central), Dan Rebellato (Royal Holloway), Karen Savage (Lincoln), Pedro de Senna (Middlesex)

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