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Rufus Norris: Now is the time to change theatre’s culture of secrecy

National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile
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Reports about abuses of power in theatre have turned a harsh spotlight on the industry. Rufus Norris says it is time to overhaul the culture that has accepted the unacceptable for too long and let harassment go unreported

The shaming revelations about sexual harassment in our industry have been sobering in the extreme. Most of us in the arts pride ourselves, often publicly, on our commitment to equality, and these revelations have rightly put that sense of pride under a harsh spotlight. But it now gives us a unique opportunity to draw a line and change forever the culture of secrecy, tolerance and acceptance of what is completely unacceptable.

The Royal Court has been at the forefront of the drive for change, and I support wholeheartedly and with admiration the work initiated by Vicky Featherstone and her team. Together with the shocking stories that were given voice at Sloane Square last year, this new survey from The Stage gives us a more detailed sense of how much of this behaviour has gone unreported and unchallenged.

Royal Court publishes 30-point plan to tackle harassment in theatre

One immediate effect of this global movement for change has been to empower people to speak out, and at the NT we have seen an increase in the confidence of staff – often junior – to speak up.

This is a moment for our industry to step up in support of this courage, and at the NT, the Royal Court’s Code of Conduct has been a powerful prompt to review our own sexual harassment policy and codes of practice. It is also a moment for each of us to look at our individual behaviour.

We are experts at filling our onstage creations with complex humanity but are more simplistic when we stand in judgement. The need to condemn in the light of what has emerged has been accompanied by a rush to the moral high ground, and it makes all of us – including those of us who hold power – quick to join the condemnation but slow to reflect.

Any harassment – whether it is sexual, racial, or otherwise – is the sharp end of power abuse

Any harassment, sexual, racial or otherwise, is the sharp end of power abuse. It is wilful, and anyone who claims they are not aware of their transgression, particularly in this age, is dishonest.

The Stage survey goes further: it looks beyond harassment to the broader issue of bullying. The picture is immediately more complex in a profession where the pursuit of excellence inevitably makes for a demanding environment.

Most of us in this business relish the high-octane rhythm of production, with its peaks of pressure. When does driving others hard become punitive, unreasonable, or potentially damaging to health, confidence or self-worth? When does criticism of an individual’s work simply become criticism of them?

As a (white, middle-class male) person who happens to hold some power, I’ve grown up hearing the standard adages of my profession: to be an effective director, particularly internationally, you need to be a dictator; a top film director has to be worse. You can’t be king or queen unless you’re prepared to kill, and many historical stage or screen icons were famously badly behaved. Their ‘compulsive habits’ were and are seen as an extension of their creativity. If we challenge the culture of those rehearsal rooms or film sets, will we see a radical drop in the production of the extraordinary, or the extraordinarily successful?

I believe the opposite – that the sea change will allow for a more productive, focused and positive workplace, will free up career paths and opportunities toward the inevitable enrichment of our industry. Surely our future success depends on drawing talent from every part of society.

Right now, however, that isn’t the point. The point is to stop abuse. In the Royal Court’s Code of Conduct the very first line addresses this, stating: “You must take responsibility for the power you have.”

It’s simple, and clear. It applies to any of us who hold power over other people at work. We often hold the keys to their careers. They are impacted by our actions, humour, politics; our insecurities, our tempers, and our fears.

Also, we have more opportunity to address it when we see it. It’s not easy: having the courage to look at yourself honestly, or to call out your essential and trusted colleague is often much more difficult than it appears to those without the responsibility of power. But we set the tone, and we are the model: with what we do, not what we say.

I was shown a photo of a recent prime minister walking around an epic building site with a group of contractors, all of whom wore hard hats. The image-conscious PM did not. The photo said that safety rules apply to everyone, unless you’re the boss.

But those of us in positions of authority must wear our metaphorical hard hats too – to protect others, the organisations we work for and ultimately ourselves from the wide spectrum of behaviour that is abuse of power. If we bring our demons to work, it damages other people. What feels flippant to us might not be to someone else. What makes us successful may cost others more than it is, from now on, acceptable to endure.

We must take responsibility for the power that we chose, at some point, to hold.

Click here 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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