For all its professed liberal sensibilities, theatre can still be a deeply conservative world. Set ways of doing things, strict hierarchies and resistance to institutional change continue to be the norm in most (if not quite all) parts of this traditional, boutique industry.
The clash between this inherent conservatism and a wider movement of social change has been at the root of many of the issue-based campaigns theatre has faced in recent years. This extends from repeated calls for broader representation on and off stage, to campaigns against workplace harassment, to this week’s story about the seemingly simple matter of letting auditioning actors know whether or not they have got the job.
At the root of all these is the idea of respect, combined with a developing concept of acceptable behaviour, a suspicion of traditional hierarchies, a growing confidence to speak out among those who would once have been quiet, and an ability to do so thanks to social media.
These challenges to the status quo can seem especially stark in theatre because, until now, it has proven adept at resisting change. Perhaps its boutique nature has, in part, preserved its customs and habits – like telling people whether they’ve got a job or not.
Theatre is often slow to adopt new people or ways of doing things from outside its world. Most of those operating at the very top of the industry – especially the commercial sector – are the same as 20 or 30 years ago. In the few cases where they are not, they are mostly the same type of people.
That idea of stasis is at odds with the occasionally alarming speed of change we now see in most other walks of life on a daily basis. But this acceptance of change is starting to bleed slowly into theatre. Or at least the subsidised sector.
Discussions around harassment in the workplace barely seemed to register on most commercial producers’ radars. Practically all the voices speaking out about this issue came from within the subsidised world. From what I can tell – and am told – business carries on as usual in the West End.
Now we have a similar situation with #YesOrNo, where we see subsidised theatres at the vanguard of change.
It would be wonderful to see more of the commercial sector – which, we should not forget, represents the bulk of theatre production in this country – follow suit and commit to abolishing outdated practices.