Accountability fears stymie efforts to change culture of Irish theatre

Speak Up & Call it Out initiative could be turning point in controversy over Gate allegations

Catríona Crowe, Eleanor Methven, Peter Crowley, Phillip McMahon and Sheila Pratschke in discussion at Speak Up & Call It Out, at Liberty Hall, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Catríona Crowe, Eleanor Methven, Peter Crowley, Phillip McMahon and Sheila Pratschke in discussion at Speak Up & Call It Out, at Liberty Hall, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

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“As theatre artists we understand the complexity of human interactions. Our role is to explore relationships, to reflect society back to itself – and to ask questions in order to elevate consciousness. We know well how complicated human beings are.”

This is Grace Dyas, who started all this in October 2017 with a blog about an unacceptable experience; she said putting it out there publicly “felt like throwing a grenade” and it started a process where 311 people contacted her to share their experiences of harassment and bullying, in media, politics, arts and theatre specifically.

Dyas is speaking this month to a full auditorium of about 300 theatre makers – actors, writers, directors, designers, technicians, production and stage managers, producers, administrators, venue managers, festival staff – at the home of trade unionism, Liberty Hall.

The occasion is Speak Up & Call it Out, a starting point to establish a code of behaviour for Irish theatre. The initiative, led by Jane Daly and Siobhán Bourke of Irish Theatre Institute and their team, and supported by the Department of Culture, is part of the theatre sector’s collective response to allegations of abuse of power which have shaken the industry over the past five months. This coincides with calls to action in theatre internationally – from Australia to Belgium to the UK – and in allied creative areas.

The event was thought through, superbly organised and covered a multiplicity of angles (maybe those involved must have had a bit of experience putting together coherent events). While its genesis was a response to revelations about abuse of power – specifically the allegations about Michael Colgan’s behaviour as artistic director of Dublin’s Gate Theatre for 33 years, and the fallout from that, including an independent review commissioned by the theatre’s board – it was a forward-focused event. It introduced a draft Code of Behaviour and has invited feedback from the sector. Bourke and Daly hope it will be robust and workable and that it will have widespread buy-in.

It feels like a turning point for the way theatre operates in Ireland, an attempt to break with the past and find new ways to work in an art form that has a significance and reputation in world theatre that belies the size of this State.

But the day also glanced back, and the question of accountability for past behaviour hung in the background. It played out in a way that was unexpected and nuanced, culminating in a discussion at the end that was dignified and forthright, but unsettling too, and it posed a challenge; but we’ll get to that.

We need to stop talking about sexual harassment like it’s the most normal thing in the world

The event had a choreographed Speaking Up section to call out wrongs, some practical, informative information and discussion about how to Call It Out, finishing with that panel on accountability.

Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan opened the event, saying the process would “not ignore the hurt and damage that has been done to so many people across the sector, women and men, across too many years and in many locations”.

She was forthright: “We must honestly acknowledge that failures occurred. It is simply just not acceptable. This culture cannot be allowed to continue under any circumstances anymore.”

“Let us work together and take collective responsibility to change behaviour and create a safe, respectful and dignified workplace. Let us ensure that those who fail to observe these values and practices will be held to account.”

Inspiring

In her Speak Up contribution, Dyas was inspiring. “In our work, we stray away from black and white. We know how to hold opposing truths. The truth is we are not here gathered in this room because of behaviour that is subtle or unclear. We are here because of behaviour that has been widely known and acknowledged as damaging to the dignity of others, but yet has been tolerated and enabled for decades.”

In a speech about holding those opposing truths, she asked “how can we create structures that can hold these behaviours to rigorous account, while having compassion for both accusers and the accused?” She aspired to “an open receptive structure where the accused and the accuser can trust that they will be both be believed? Where we all feel safe enough to name these behaviours? Can we condemn the behaviour without condemning the person?”

Actor Andrea Irvine was impassioned in the Speak Out section, talking about an industry where ranking women by looks excludes and alienates them, and about job insecurity, low wages and freelance work. “The importance of working relationships in our sector prevents us from speaking out about abuses. Being seen as a troublemaker may limit our future work opportunities. And, as simple as that, we lose our means, and our dreams.”

Irvine said we “need to insist on transformation. We need to stop talking about sexual harassment like it’s the most normal thing in the world. It is now the job of the companies, organisations, institutions and government to take responsibility for this. At best they have been asleep at the wheel on this issue, at worst they have colluded in the silence and shame that surrounds it. We want no more open secrets. We want openness. We want the protections in place that will secure our workplaces. We urge you to heed our call.”

To demonstrate the “wide-ranging spectrum running from crude remarks to persistent innuendo to unwanted touching, to assault and sexual violence”, she and colleagues Eleanor Methven and Ali White read a sample of experiences of everyday sexism and bullying which women in theatre have described. Some were risible, and the actors laughed at the idiocy, but it demonstrated the cumulative pattern, what Irvine called the effect of “multiple comments and incidents, all the small moments of feeling diminished”.

– In conversation with a male co-worker about why there weren’t more plays by women being produced: “I think the reason is because the need to create is satisfied in women by giving birth.”

– “A film director now in his 80s, said to me when I was acting only a few years: ‘you are too intelligent to ever be a really good actress’.”

– A director looking at a possible costume: “Hmmm. That costume’s not doing anything for me. I can’t see your legs or tits.”

- “An older male actor to me while we were running lines in his dressing room. ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe – you’re much too old for me.’ I was 33.”

Abbey Theatre board member Sarah Durcan outlined individuals’ rights, and how those who feel they are being bullied can access their rights, or make a complaint. The facts are set out in Amplify Women’s Harassment Toolkit (available online), targeted at cultural and media industries. One of Durcan’s suggestions for someone bullied or harassed is to send yourself an email detailing what happened, when, where and who else was present, which is then a written record.

Karan O’Loughlin of actors’ union Irish Equity, discussed the results of its 2016 survey into bullying and harassment in the arts sector. Of respondents, 65 per cent were female, half were actors, and 62 per cent were freelance: 57 per cent said they were bullied or harassed at work, but only 26 per cent reported it, mostly for fear it would interfere with future employment. This research – of high levels of bullying and low levels of reporting – is in line with research internationally.

A session with intimacy director Ita O’Brien, on working responsibly on sexual scenes emphasised how they should be based on clear principles of agreement and consent, and talked about Sex Scenes on Set, her code of practice for theatre, film and TV.

Problematic territory

The last event of the day, with a slight tension around it, was the panel on accountability. There was a power and intent to the forward-looking bulk of the day, with solidarity and solid suggestions; but the past is problematic territory.

Catríona Crowe ably managed the disparate panel which picked up on the earlier threads of opposing truths.

Catríona Crowe, flanked by actor Eleanor Methven and Gate Theatre chairman Peter Crowley, chairs the discussion of accountability at Liberty Hall. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Catríona Crowe, flanked by actor Eleanor Methven and Gate Theatre chairman Peter Crowley, chairs the discussion of accountability at Liberty Hall. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Methven talked about the second riddle of the sphinx: no day without night, no night without day. “There can be no justice without accountability, no accountability without responsibility,” she said. But “surely we have a situation signed off on, presided over – and in our sector in receipt of public funding – which could almost have been carefully designed to promote and protect abuse of power.” The question is not how does this happen – “it has been screamingly obvious for years how it happened” – but “why was it permitted to happen and to continue? Who indeed is accountable?”

Arts Council chairwoman Sheila Pratschke said: “With privilege comes responsibility. One of [the council’s] privileges is that we can demand accountability. We control the allocation of quite substantial funds. And we’re very conscious of the responsibility.”

Phillip McMahon of Thisispopbaby spoke eloquently about the challenges of ensuring equality and fairness in a small organisation, without HR expertise or resources.

The strength of trade unions in advocating for victims of workplace harassment was discussed, as was the need for a hub with confidential advice, HR expertise for complaints and counselling. Both the Minister and the Arts Council chair were in favour of such a central resource.

Also on the panel was the man at the centre of Irish theatre’s storm, chairman of the Gate Theatre Peter Crowley, who was open and honest about where the issue stands now.

He said the relatively new Gate board was implementing the recommendations of a review into abuse of power and bullying at the theatre. “One of those is that Michael Colgan has a case to answer, and that while recognising that he is no longer an employee, we need to examine whether there are ways that we can access another element of accountability.”

The report acknowledges this is “difficult”, because “the contract falls away when someone is no longer an employee, and so the obvious steps you would take are denied”.

Crowley said: “We will continue to examine that, but there is no easy answer.”

In the report, Colgan “rejected outright allegations of sexual harassment” made against him, and also denied claims of bullying, shouting at staff or using profane language.

Crowley said the board would continue to implement recommendations, “but we can’t create a framework where the most obvious way of dealing with something is denied to us. We can only do our best. Reverse engineering of accountability is difficult.”

So is that it?

The theatre’s current chairman then put it up to its former artistic director Michael Colgan. “To my mind, speaking personally, not as chairman of the Gate, I think Michael has a case to answer to this community. I think that has been established. I think it is in some ways up to him as to how he deals with that.” There was a small ripple of wry laughter from the auditorium; but it was a significant statement. “I’m not advising him and I wouldn’t pretend to,” he added.

“I do believe the people who participated in the report - and I want to thank each and every one of you - will have been heard, and will have created a shift in the gaze and understanding in the Gate. Because to say that the environment and the way of doing business there is completely different is an understatement, and it can only be proven and regain the trust by walking the walk and making this happen.”

In reference to that, Crowe said she was speaking for everyone in the room, in wishing the Gate’s new artistic director Selina Cartmell the best. “But,” she said, “we won’t hold our breath that Michael Colgan will answer the case to this community. It would be wonderful but I don’t see it happening.”

So is that it?

In the civilised discussion that followed there was no anger, no shouting; there were practical suggestions; but there was a frustration and maybe a sadness below the surface.

Amid the tension, Ciara Smyth (one of those who first publicly called out behaviour at the theatre)spoke from the floor, looking for the panel’s opinion. “If you find yourself as an employee, as I did, where you experience sexual misconduct, and sexual assault, and make a decision to go through the appropriate channels, and look at the codes of conduct. And you report to your line manager, and to more than one line manager, and they choose to not act, or to perhaps act inappropriately. The prospect of taking that complaint outside the organisation, to somewhere like the WRC, is so daunting. In my position I felt that it would exacerbate the situation. So there is nowhere to go. You either stay and say nothing, or leave. What do you think people should do?”

It was a sobering moment, with a subtext of pain.

It was also a hard question, and not easily answered.

Codes and discussion and trying to do the right thing and working to make things better in the future – and there were lots of suggestions and discussions all day about that, from smart, committed people. But regarding allegations about the past: there’s a case to answer but accountability, ultimately, is elusive.

There was a sense that, like on the macro level of the State, no one was going to be called to account. Nothing has been done to redress the huge sins of the banks, poor regulation, incompetent political management. The State is saddled with a massive debt that is not ours, which impacts on our present services and will be inherited by our grandchildren. But no one is brought to book; no one even acknowledges they were wrong, and people are expected to move on.

Microcosm

Let’s not overstate things; past wrongs in Irish theatre are a microcosm, a whole other universe. But the upshot in that world too seems to exclude real accountability.

While people wonder if the Gate chairman’s challenge to Colgan will get a response, perhaps the answer lies in a reflection or response out of a theatre playbook. In her nuanced address, Dyas pointed out that “as theatre artists, with our study of humanity, we are well equipped to innovate and find a way to create enough safety that allows artistic risk to flourish.”

She set out two scenarios for the future of Irish theatre.

The first is black and white, all about outrage, punishment and sanctions for the horrendous people; a model that emulates the business world.

The second scenario involves everyone being “the protagonist and the agonist in the multitude of stories”, allowing the “courage to look at our past mistakes and the wrongs that we feel were done to us” and that “we as human beings attempting to make art together have that capacity and the responsibility”.

“In second story, our narrative can hold multiple perspectives. The outcome we want is restorative, not punitive. Our approach reflects and honours our artistic selves, we innovate, we create a new structure that can hold opposing truths. We expose the truth. We see that this is about power. We redress our past failures. We heal, collectively, from this hurt.”

And indeed, that may be it.

1. ITI is inviting feedback on the draft code of conduct by April 7th, as the start of a continuing process. The full Speak Up & Call It Out event is online at: Irishtheatreinstitute.ie #SpeakUpCallItOut https://wft.ie/harassment-toolkit/

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