Harassment, bullying and theatre culture.
THIS COLUMN WILL BE A DIFFICULT ONE TO WRITE. Wading into the muddy waters churned up by disclosures of sexual harassment and rape in the entertainment industry feels challenging. The online debates have been at times strident and divisive. People have been judged and sentenced without ever appearing in court. But in the wake of the appalling lack of justice in the sexual assault trials of Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, it is understandable that some women are taking a more direct course.
Publicizing experiences of sexual harassment and assault, and seeking damages in civil court, is getting results. The number of men who have been outed and have disappeared in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations has been staggering. A tsunami has hit and these noxious men have been swept away. This should feel good, and at times it does, but at other times I wonder about what is happening. I worry about younger women slapping the label of “Victim” on themselves and wearing it proudly, like a banner. Is this what women’s liberation looks like? That women who have suffered under victimhood can transmute that into a new banner of pride, “Survivor”?
These matters feel too weighty for a theatre column. So I want to tighten my focus to consider bullying and harassment in my industry.
In a report released in January by The Stage (England’s newspaper on the performing arts industry), over 1000 theatre artists were surveyed about their experiences of harassment and bullying. Over 40 percent of respondents reported that they had experienced harassment in the workplace, and over 30 percent reported cases of sexual harassment. Sexual assault was reported by 8 percent of respondents. Shockingly, it is backstage workers who report the highest levels of abuse: stage managers, assistant stage managers and technicians. In these cases, it is often actors, as well as directors and designers, who are doing the bullying. The Canadian Actors’ Equity Association also surveyed over 1000 members recently, with similar results. Nearly half of those surveyed said they had either witnessed or been the object of personal or sexual harassment.
What makes theatre such a bullying industry? There will be those who wish to downplay the problem by talking about artistic temperament: where there is creativity and genius, there is also anger and vexation. This is nonsense, of course. The problem is one of power.
Reports from professional theatre associations and unions have consistently called the theatre world out for what it has been, and remains to be, in large part: a boys’ club. Despite over 50 years of feminism, and its calls for gender equity, women in theatre still live in a man’s world. Two-thirds of leadership roles in Canadian theatre are held by men. Men most often run theatres as artistic directors, write the plays and direct them. For a young female artist entering such a male-dominated industry, often having been trained to tolerate harassment and abuse as part of the job, what is to be done?
The revelations in December at Soulpepper Theatre, one of this country’s largest not-for-profit theatre companies, hit close to home for those of us working in Canadian theatre. Four actresses announced they are suing the company and artistic director Albert Schultz. I have visited Soulpepper a number of times when in my previous hometown of Toronto. I have admired how Schultz so capably built up an excellent theatre company, including its new theatre spaces, in a city that already had a vibrant theatre culture. The company’s accomplishments are many, including taking a number of shows for runs in New York. Their reputation has now been tarnished by allegations of long-term sexual harassment by its founder and leader.
I am in solidarity with these women, and others who have spoken out about how they have been treated at Soulpepper and elsewhere. And as a theatre educator, I am especially gratified to see attention turn to the problems of harassment and bullying in theatre training programs. In Toronto, there have been allegations of harassment by instructors at George Brown College and by the founder of the Randolph College of the Performing Arts. On my Facebook feed, I have been alarmed to read posts by former students of a number of post-secondary theatre programs who tell of persistent trauma caused by teachers who humiliated, berated and bullied them.
These so-called teachers should be ousted from their positions. But I know that in reality, most of them will continue to practice this kind of behavior. Why? Because it is understood that the world of theatre is a harsh one. Preparing for a career in performance involves preparing for a lot of negative judgment. There are still instructors (male and female) who feel it serves their students when they publically judge them as a way to toughen them up for the “real world.” Calling students out for their weight, personality, physicality (including racial identity) or sexuality are all common ways to attack and undermine young acting students’ confidence. And they are all things that these young people can do very little about. Well, you can lose weight, I suppose, but you can also develop an eating disorder as a result. This issue is endemic in the dance world, too, where girls are constantly told they can never be too thin.
But the tidal wave of #metoo is having its effect on this toxic culture. Canadian Equity has announced an anti-harassment program called Not in Our Space. Members of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres are adopting the campaign and encouraging anyone working in theatre to step forward and report issues when they arise. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when it’s your job on the line. Yet it is an opening, the beginning moments of fostering a different kind of theatre culture.
I look forward to a time when gender equity becomes a reality in the cultural industries, and in all industries, as well as in government and other sectors. I am in my mid-50s and am a product of this unequal culture. In the final year of my BFA acting program, I had been cast in leading roles in two of my senior productions. Then outside directors were hired to direct these shows. Both of them recast me into character roles, no doubt due to my appearance alone. I am a character actor, this is true; but in my theatre education it would have been so powerful for me to have been stretched by the challenge of playing a different kind of role.
Later, when I was auditioning as a young actor in Toronto, a male director casually dismissed me by telling me to come back in 20 years, when I was the “right age” to play character roles. I stopped acting for over a decade, and became a drama educator. Although I have no regrets about entering into a very rewarding career, these wounds still sting, decades later.
Yet I count myself lucky not to have been subjected to the kinds of sexual harassment and assault that many of my peers, and subsequent generations of young women theatre artists, have suffered. I have witnessed harassment and abuse, though, and carry the weight of not speaking out soon enough, or forcefully enough, to protect others. No more. Not in our space.
Monica will be speaking about her research and publication project, Web of Performance: An Ensemble Workbook, as part of the University of Victoria Deans’ Lecture Series at the main branch of the Victoria Public Library on March 9. This new curriculum guide, co-edited with Will Weigler, invites young people to express their issues around identity and power in performance-based ways.