If #MeToo was a moment that made British theatre take a long hard look at itself, then the controversy over the authorship of the Manchester International Festival/Young Vic project Tree is likely to prove another.
It is one that I hope will have a real and lasting effect, and make those holding the power in theatre think a little harder about how they use their muscle and behave and communicate with writers and other creatives – indeed, with all those who are keen to work with them and in the buildings and institutions they lead.
This could be the moment when those with power realise that people will no longer keep silent about what they perceive as injustice. Or maybe it won’t. After all, as #MeToo has proved, people still find it very hard to speak out even when others have already paved the way.
So, all power to writers Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin for having the courage to tell their story. Last week, they made public their claim that they spent several years developing a project only to find their work has gone uncredited and Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba named as the sole co-creators of Tree.
Their version of events is disputed by Kwei-Armah, Elba and the producers. In a terse statement, the producers including the Young Vic and MIF have claimed there has been “no breach of legal obligations”.
Maybe there hasn’t, but you couldn’t blame anyone reading Henley and Allen-Martin’s painful and heartfelt public statement for thinking that sufficient care may not have been taken over ethical obligations. Henley and Allen-Martin’s statement is written in sorrow not anger. The statement from the producers seems to be about covering their backs and being defensive. It is not a pretty or dignified way of operating.
Anyone managing an arts institution has to acknowledge that British theatre is largely run on a form of patronage. If people seldom speak out about misuses and abuses of power, or even about thoughtless and self-entitled bad behaviours that go on all the time, it doesn’t mean that they are not happening but rather that people are too damn scared to say anything for fear that they will never work again.
From the stories I’ve heard, those working in press offices seem particularly prone to being bullied. But who is going to go public if they ever want another job in arts PR?
Even those who you think might have more clout worry about where the next job or commission will come from. When I was writing the Guardian theatre blog, two very senior playwrights privately told me that they had come under pressure from theatres not to comment on or engage in conversation with blogs highlighting certain practices because theatres perceived it as disloyalty.
That’s a small example of a much more widespread problem in theatre, which creates a culture of silence around shoddy treatment. Often these incidents arise from power imbalances that put the interests of an institution and those running it over the welfare of independent artists or companies. People will speak about their experiences in confidence, but they don’t want to go public because they fear they will never be commissioned or booked by that venue again.
We need to change this culture of fear. It took real bravery for Gina Abolins to speak out over the inappropriate behaviour of Max Stafford-Clark at Out of Joint, and it has required tremendous courage too for writers Henley and Allen-Martin to speak out about how they felt they were mistreated and sidelined from Tree.
The question is: why has it come to this? Were the Young Vic and MIF confident that Henley and Allen-Martin would never speak out? The writers claim that they were offered payment in return for their silence.
It’s not unusual in theatre – although far less common than in movies or TV – for writers to be moved off projects. These are not always easy conversations, but there does have to be a discussion in which everyone involved gets to speak, everyone involved listens and everyone feels that they have been heard and their contribution recognised.
That doesn’t seem to have happened here, and the responsibility to make sure it does happen must sit with those holding the most power in the relationship – in this case, the Young Vic and its producing partners.
Henley and Allen-Martin are drawing attention to their experience with the aim of setting up a company, Burn Bright, to advise and support female writers, because, sadly, their experience is not unique.
Perhaps it will help bring about the change that is so desperately needed, and perhaps their openness will encourage other artists to speak about what has happened to them. We need to break the silence.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner