Seven women allege abuse and harassment by Michael Colgan
'She’ll never work in Dublin again’ was a phrase that he used a lot around the office,' one woman recalled
Former Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan: seven women ex-employees claimed frequent inappropriate touching, highly sexualised comments and workplace bullying. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
On a dry, warm Wednesday evening in August 2012, a group of Gate Theatre employees gathered for a dinner party in the well-appointed Dublin home of Michael Colgan, the theatre’s long-standing director.
The event was to celebrate Colgan’s purchase of a large, three-storey house on Waterloo Road, in Dublin 4, one of the most expensive addresses in Ireland. He had invited five of his employees from “Number Eight”, the name used by staff for the Gate’s administrative offices which sit across the road from the theatre on Parnell Square.
The staff were dreading the evening. They knew what to expect and they were right. As Colgan filled up on drink his comments became cruel and laden with innuendo, one woman said.
“He literally went around the table and tore strips off us one by one. It was the worst night. He plotted and probed and critiqued,” Mary [not her real name], a former employee, recalls. “It was all so he could use it against you later. He would ask things that were deeply personal, and then make comments about them.”
Mary says that the comments, like so many of Colgan’s interactions with staff, were designed to wound and humiliate her. Her account has been corroborated by a second witness. (Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.)
She is one of seven former Gate employees, all young females, who this week told The Irish Times of sexual harassment and bullying at the hands of Colgan, who until his resignation this year, was one of the most powerful figures in Irish theatre, and who ran the Gate Theatre as a personal fiefdom for 34 years. He was a man who could end careers with a single phone call; and frequently threatened to do so if crossed, according to his employees.
“‘She’ll never work in Dublin again’ was a phrase that he used a lot around the office,” Mary recalls.
When Colgan took the reins in 1982 the Gate was an institution in decline. His rescue of it was startling. He put on classy, elegant productions, took a showman’s approach to promotion, and sold out the theatre for his first 157 nights (he had promised 100).
For the next 34 years he would rule the Gate, working with some of theatre’s finest talent along the way, including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Brian Friel. John Hurt, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Frances McDormand and Lia Williams have all acted there. Colgan’s personal connections kept the stars coming back.
He was also handsomely rewarded. In 2014, he was the highest-paid arts executive in the country, with a package of €251,416.
Ask someone to imagine a theatre impresario and they might well come up with Michael Colgan. He is witty, charming and verbose, and as he told this newspaper in 2013, he is gifted with “divine self-confidence”.
However, in recent years programming at the Gate has been patchy and attendance has dwindled. This decline came at the same time that Colgan’s interactions with his employees, always a subject of controversy, became increasingly erratic, four ex-employees said.
Colgan announced his retirement in June last year. There the matter lay until last week when theatre director and actor Grace Dyas published a blog post alleging Colgan had made comments of a sexual nature about her in the Oak Bar on Dame Street after the launch of the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2016.
Dyas has since posted stories of other theatre workers who allege they have been affected by Colgan in some way. Some of the most serious came from actress and playwright Ciara Smyth. She has confirmed details to The Irish Times and elements of it are described in this article alongside experiences described by the six other women who spoke to the newspaper and who worked there between 2009 and 2016.
The allegations levelled at Colgan by ex-employees include frequent inappropriate touching, highly sexualised comments and workplace bullying as well as threats to fire staff members who objected to his actions. Smyth detailed an incident where Colgan hit her so hard on the buttocks in front of others that it left a red mark. When she complained, she said he went on to mock her in front of other staff members.
Sexual harassment was constant within the offices of Number Eight, they allege. Ex-employees say Colgan’s behaviour ranged from commenting on their clothes to boasting about his sex life in front of them.
“He made frequent comments about the size of my breasts and whether or not I’d contemplate a breast reduction, considering my small frame,” wrote Smyth, who worked in there as a casting and production assistant.
“He commented on other women and asked me if I thought they’d give blowjobs or what I thought that they f***ed like. He showed me pictures of his girlfriend in her underwear and asked me what I thought of her ass.”
Sarah worked in Number Eight. She says that anyone who spoke up was goaded for being “overly PC”.
“Anyone who acted shocked or reacted badly to his comments was oversensitive, overly PC, couldn’t take a joke, etc. The Waking the Feminists movement was a source of absolute derision to him, and he dictated his correspondence to them with the relish of a man getting away with a great joke – that they were going to fall for his mawkish sincerity,” she said.
He would boast about his sexual prowess and make comments about other women. Colgan took a particular liking to one actor and constantly wondered if she was a virgin as well as wondering out loud what it would be like to engage in oral sex with her, Sarah recalls.
“He would comment on our clothes, our hair, our make-up. One of his favourite questions was: ‘Are you wearing perfume today?’ ,” said Mary.
As part of their work, the women had to join Colgan for lunch and attend opening-night events.
“There was a lot of sexual undertones. There was no such thing as lunch without sex being mentioned; who was back in his house; who he’d had contact with,” Joanna said.
Many of the comments were made in front of others, including Colgan’s circle of celebrity friends. Joanna remembers the late actor John Hurt was present the first time she introduced her boyfriend to Colgan.
“The first time he met my boyfriend it was in front of John Hurt in the green room on opening night after John’s show. He came over and grabbed me by the hips and leaned in towards me and, in front of my boyfriend, said: ‘Later you’re coming back to my house and we’re having a threesome.’ My boyfriend was horrified and shocked, and we left.
Almost every woman who spoke to The Irish Times said Colgan would regularly touch them on the small of the back, their leg and sometimes their buttocks. Katie Holmes, who had to work in particularly close proximity to him, said it occurred on a daily basis.
“I was sitting beside him and his hand would touch the small of back, down on the top of my ass, basically.
Holmes said she would “freeze” when this happened. “It’s literally terrifying when someone does it who is your boss and someone who is paying your rent.”
Sarah said the touching was a part of working in Number Eight. “If anyone complained they were ‘PC gone mad’ and so he would make a point of doing it. He would make you sit beside him while he dictated emails, slumped over you to ‘better see the screen’ on which you were typing. If you made a mistake you’d be patted forcefully on the extreme lower back – something easily facilitated by the fact that you’d be sitting totally erect due to the extreme discomfort of the situation.
“Usually the wallop would be accompanied by an insult – you were a ‘bitch’ or a ‘c***’ for missing the comma or not spelling something correctly. You’d be patted on the thigh and called ‘baby’ or ‘darling’ if you were doing well. He’d lean on you with all of his weight to hoist himself up out of his chair – it was all contrived to unsettle you. If you moved away from him he’d pull your chair in closer.”
Ciara Smyth said this week she was at auditions with Colgan and several other men “in their 40s and 50s” when Colgan went to slap her buttocks.
“I put my hand out to stop him and said quietly: ‘Michael, don’t.’ At this stage I imagined everyone was looking at us, but I didn’t take my eyes off him to check. Michael then said: ‘Would you ever f*** off; I wasn’t going to hit you.’”
She said that after she turned away from him he then hit her anyway with such force that she stumbled forward. “I turned to look at him and the only word I could manage to say was his name.”
When angry, Colgan showed a different side, one which the women said could be petty, vindictive and sometimes threatening. Joanna recalls that he would often carry around a book in which he said he was writing down the mistakes “his girls” were making.
“If you did something, he would write in the back of this book he had all the time,” she said.
Colgan would call the women into the office, usually with another member of senior management present. The door would be left open so the whole office could hear what happened next.
“He always liked to have an audience, even when he was bullying someone,” Mary said.
“All hell would break loose. He would eviscerate us. It could last an hour,” she said, adding that the outburst could be over “the slightest thing”.
She describes Colgan as “incredibly manipulative” and said he would use information he had gathered to criticise the women, even if it was of a personal nature.
Some of the bullying related to the women’s appearance but Colgan could home in on other characteristics too.
“For different people he used different things . . . with some people it would be physical comments and that would really affect them. With me it was comments about my intelligence,” Holmes said.
Sarah said much of his bullying was related to age and class. “He was obsessed with everyone’s age and how that dictated their worth. The younger you were, the less valuable your opinion was. It was the same with class. There were many conversations about who was working class, who was middle class, and it would influence his opinion of you.
“There was one conversation where he asked our opinions and it was structured so that he would rate the answers based on how significant we were as humans. I was the youngest so I went last. I joked that I was a girl so lower still. And his response was: ‘Oh well, of course I can talk down to anything that has a womb.’
“He played everyone in the same way; it was daily degradation to keep you in line.”
Elaine said that she was called into Colgan’s office once about a problem with the Gate website.
“He refused to listen to my explanation and shouted at me, called me unintelligent and threatened that if I knew what was good for me I would leave his office. I tried to stand up for myself calmly by trying to explain how the site works, but he shouted at me until I had no choice but to leave.”
She followed this up by sending an email to a senior manager asking him to alert the board of Colgan’s behaviour. Colgan became aware of the email. He again called Smyth into his office and told her she was liar, she said.
‘All about shame’
“It was all about shame. It was all about keeping us line. And belittling us,” Sarah said.
She said at first she found it hard to detail what she went through. “Mainly because I still quite like Michael – or at least thought I still did. After all is said and done, I don’t think I do anymore or really ever did.”
Mary said Colgan “could be your best friend and your arch-nemesis the next moment”.
Holmes agreed. “He was highly manipulative, emotionally abusive. You never knew what you were walking into. Some days he would be in amazing form. Other days he would be horrific.”
After incidents with employees, Colgan would often offer a consolation, they said – a foreign trip with him on Gate business or simply asking their opinion about an auditioning actor. Joanna remembers Colgan asking her to accompany him to Scotland after he had grabbed her by the arm and physically hurt her.
For several of them , one particular incident stands out. Colgan had organised a major event, the World Actors Forum. It was a huge undertaking. The women in Number Eight were told they had to work evenings and weekends, with no extra pay. At one stage they were working seven-day weeks.
The staff wrote an email asking if they could get some time off in lieu after the event.
“Michael hit the roof. He called us in one by one. He roared and shouted at us for well over an hour,” Mary said.
“He said to me, how dare I write that. He said I was off the project. I was in there for an hour and a half. All we did was ask a question.
“I said we just wanted some transparency. He said: ‘If you ever use the word transparency again around me, you can start looking for a new job.’ ”
Colgan called two of the women in and demanded they announce to their colleagues that were “retracting” the email. They agreed to do so.
Colgan’s actions had the unintended effect of building up a bond between the woman. Because they worked in such close proximity in Number Eight and because they all had to deal with Colgan on a daily basis, they grew to rely on each other. Several recall that most days one of them would be crying in the kitchen over something Colgan had said or done while the others would offer support.
“We would go upstairs and have coffee and kind of huddle together. There was great camaraderie between us because we had to deal with it. And people across the road in the theatre didn’t get as much.”
At least two of the women who spoke to The Irish Times made internal complaints to management which Colgan found out about. He would confront the women and accuse them of disloyalty while insisting he could run his theatre as he wished. Others sought assistance from outside.
On February 18th, 2016, Elaine sent an email, which has been seen by The Irish Times, to a law firm asking what her options were.
“I am seeking advice regarding a work relation bullying and harassment issue that I have been subjected to in the workplace,” she wrote
“I have been subject to bullying and sexual inappropriateness by my employer who is my direct manager, which had left me feeling uncomfortable, anxious and stressed. I have now taken doctor-approved stress leave from work.
“[During] my employment there have been numerous occasions where said manager persistently and relentlessly asks me about my sex life, told me in detail about his, told me that he fancies me and tells me that he could date me. Initially I tried to ignore this, it made me feel humiliated and uncomfortable. I tried to laugh it off to defuse the situation or change the subject.”
She continued: “I am in a state of extreme anxiety as a result of the continuous inappropriate behaviours and unprofessional atmosphere.”
When asked this week, the board of the Gate Theatre said it had not received any complaints about Colgan’s behaviour. In an unusual set-up, Colgan was on the board of the theatre.
In response to requests from this newspaper, Selina Cartmell, the current director of the Gate Theatre and Colgan’s successor, said: “I am deeply concerned and upset by the experiences people have been commenting on over the last week. On Thursday the Gate released a statement setting out a confidential process for current and ex-employees or contractors of the Gate to address any issues they may have and I would encourage people to use this if they have any concerns.
“As the new director of the Gate Theatre, key areas of my focus have been creative endeavour and collaboration, openness and accessibility, diversity and equality. These values are important not just for the Gate Theatre but any artistic organisation. I am only a few months into this new journey and my sense is that it will take time to build trust and understanding from our colleagues and the community. The Gate is committed to delivering on this process whilst dealing professionally and compassionately with any issues arising from the past.”
On Thursday, the Gate set up a confidential email address for anyone who wished to communicate concerns about experiences they had. It said it would also appoint an independent professional to look into the issues raised. None of the women who have spoken to The Irish Times have so far made use of this.
On Thursday night, at an event in the US, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it was “right and appropriate” that people who had been sexually harassed should come forward.
“That requires a degree of bravery, of course, but also it empowers other people to do the same, maybe people who were afraid to do so in the past, when they see others coming forward well then they’ll be encouraged to do so as well.”
He added: “We also need to counterbalance that with the understanding that an allegation is an allegation and people have the right to due process and the right to have their good name protected.”
Colgan did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him this week, or to a detailed list of questions. He had been scheduled to speak at the the opening of the Allingham literary festival. However, organisers say he has now withdrawn as “he believes his continued involvement could distract from the festival”.