Gate Theatre report: ‘I want Michael Colgan to say sorry’
Some participants in review of former head’s behaviour want more accountability
Michael Colgan: achieved success at the Gate by force of personality and ego. Picture: Matt Kavanagh
Amy Conroy walked onstage at last month’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards with a large elephant under her arm. When her co-presenter Claire Barrett asked about it, she answered: “Oh . . . let’s just ignore it. That seems to have worked for years.”
It went down a storm. But far from being taboo, accusations of bullying against the former artistic director of the Gate Theatre, Michael Colgan, had at this stage been pored over, argued and anguished about for months now.
Colgan ran the Gate for 33 years, bringing it from a point of near-collapse to becoming an internationally acclaimed and commercially successful operation that produced classics and contemporary drama to a high standard.
The report paints a picture of a man with two sides, who could be ‘vicious and vindictive’ as well as ‘kind and charming’
He reeled in big names (John Hurt, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Michael Gambon), staged safe crowdpleasers that kept bums on seats, and forged strong alliances with playwrights (Beckett, Friel, Pinter) that made for more adventurous work.
Colgan wielded huge power in Irish theatre. He achieved success by force of personality and ego. He can be charismatic, witty and passionate; he has vision, is hard-working and a formidable negotiator.
All of this is said in testimony in the review of allegations of abuse of power which was released by the Gate this week. The report also paints a picture of a man with two sides, who could be “vicious and vindictive” as well as “kind and charming”.
One of the ironies of this sorry tale is that some of the very personality traits which allowed Colgan turn the Gate around also led to his fall from grace.
Take a sometimes charming, over-the-top dictatorial showman with total control of his kingdom, as managing director, artistic director and board member. Add enough box office revenue and Arts Council funding for high-quality theatre but also a staggeringly large salary by the standards of Irish arts jobs (reported as a €231,000 package in 2015).
Add the close relationships with funders that are inevitable in small countries and a board that failed to “familiarise themselves with the culture of the organisation”, and which “saw an ebullient side but not an abusive side” to Colgan.
Then the match that ignited it all: if the Harvey Weinstein accusations hadn’t started the #MeToo campaign, the occasional whisperings and griping about bullying by Colgan might never have gone any further.
In late 2017, months after his departure as artistic director following a changing of the guard on the board, allegations of abusive behaviour by Colgan went public, initially in a blog by director/activist Grace Dyas. In November, in The Irish Times, seven former Gate employees alleged inappropriate touching, sexualised comments and workplace bullying.
In the shortlived media frenzy that followed, Colgan was doorstepped; he would say hounded. After a Sunday Independent article in which he apologised for upsetting people, saying he had “failed to see the difference between friends and employees”, and that “my behaviour should not be equated with sexual crimes”, he went to ground.
He took strong issue with some coverage on social media and elsewhere that – unfairly and inaccurately – mentioned him in the same breath as Weinstein: there is no comparison between the inappropriate workplace behaviour Colgan is accused of and the sexual crimes attributed to Weinstein.
Meanwhile, the relatively new Gate board struggled to deal with the controversy. After a false start, it commissioned an independent review from workplace-relations expert Gaye Cunningham in November.
Some were reluctant to participate but in the end 56 women and men contributed to that review, including some of the original complainants, along with current and former employees, freelancers, board members and Colgan himself. Anonymity and confidentiality were guaranteed.
On February 9th, the Gate board issued a statement on the review, including its 14 recommendations for extensive reform. Cunningham wrote that Colgan had “a case to answer in respect to dignity at work issues, abuse of power and inappropriate behaviours” and that “a culture existed in the Gate whereby too much power was vested in one individual and people felt unable to speak out”.
The testimonies – summarised as behaviours, not specific incidents – present a bleak picture of the Gate as ‘not a normal place of work’
The board apologised unreservedly to “those who experienced the behaviours reported” and acknowledged theatre professionals “felt unable to invoke existing grievance procedures and where a culture existed in the Gate which was not conducive to people speaking out freely”.
There was widespread anger among theatre professionals at the board’s decision not to release the full report based on legal advice about breaching confidentiality. Following three weeks of criticism, those legal barriers were apparently surmounted and an amended version of the review was published on Thursday.
Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan says the decision was one solely for the board, but adds that she recently met Gate chairman Peter Crowley and some of the 72 theatre women who wrote to The Irish Times supporting those who had first spoken up about abuse of power. The Arts Council also confirmed this week that “members of the Arts Council met with members of the Gate board in recent weeks”.
Cunningham is satisfied that “none of the amendments change the import of the review” and “it remains an accurate representation”.
The testimonies – summarised as behaviours, not specific incidents – present a bleak picture of the Gate as “not a normal place of work”.
There is a litany of accusations of bullying and harassment, including profane language, at times calling women c****s. There was belittling and chipping away at confidence, especially directed at women; there was physical contact which made recipients feel uncomfortable, and inappropriate comments of a sexual nature on actresses.
Freelancers, actors, choreographers, directors and designers were ridiculed and when they challenged this, they were “struck off the list”. Some were never engaged by the Gate again.
In the summary of his right of reply, Colgan says an artistic director needs a “big personality”, that he is “a tactile person”, and that throwing his arms around people was “not confined to women”. He says he was a demanding boss, but thought everyone liked him. He says the Gate staff were like a family and that he blurred the lines. He realises he should have had a code of ethics, proper hierarchies and rules of conduct.
He denies being a bully, shouting at staff, using profane language, having mood swings, or taking vindictive action against individuals. He “rejected outright” allegations of sexual harassment, particularly when made under cover of anonymity.
Cunningham found Colgan had “an autocratic and dictatorial style of management” and had “a negative effect on the careers and lives of many individuals including freelancers”. She found “a case to answer in accordance with the definition of sexual harassment”, described as unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
Many who complained of bullying criticised the Gate’s board and senior management for not intervening. But in her assessment, Cunningham describes former and current board members as committed individuals with skills and experience, who “professed their profound shock at the allegations made in the public domain” and made a commitment to “get to the bottom of the serious complaints”.
Participants also spoke of anger and frustration at the perceived futility of making complaints to management. Some mentioned “good managers in the past who protected staff and directly dealt with their issues” but said there was “no one to go to with complaints in later years”.
One participant says the review ‘simply fails to answer the key question about why Michael Colgan was allowed to behave in the way he was’
But managers said they were themselves subject to “sustained and systematic bullying and harassment”. They said they were powerless to challenge Colgan for fear of verbal abuse or losing their jobs.
What do those complainants who engaged with the review make of it now?
Annette Clancy, who objected to job interview questions from Colgan, isn’t disappointed because it is “exactly as I imagined it would be” with its tight terms of reference.
But she says the review “simply fails to answer the key question about why Michael Colgan was allowed to behave in the way he was. Not only has the Gate as an institution contributed to this situation, there are other players”.
And she believes bigger questions remain: “Why did the Arts Council continue to fund an organisation when it knew the director was a member of the board?” And why did it not “attach corporate governance conditions to funding?”
Former theatre professional Sarah Durcan said it took courage to share difficult experiences but “it also took courage for the board to reconsider publishing”. This behaviour shouldn’t have occurred but “by being transparent about the failings of the past, all our theatre community can learn from it”.
Katie Holmes, one of the original seven who spoke up, says the list of behaviours “may read as pretty inconsequential” but for an individual it was “highly destructive, completely demeaning and frankly devastating”.
The Gate is now looking forward: reform has started, there is a new artistic director and new management are joining the existing team. The board – itself mostly relatively new – has committed to implementing the 14 recommendations.
One of those says that, having found Colgan has a case to answer, “the board should consider what action, if any should be taken, acknowledging that he is no longer an employee”.
The sector as a whole is also looking forward, with a Speak Up and Call It Out day scheduled for later this month to establish a code of behaviour for theatre.
But a thirst for accountability remains. Holmes says she has no interest in going to court. “I do not want money. I do not want anyone to lose their jobs. I want Michael Colgan and his senior management team to admit these truths, admit our stories are true, and say: ‘I am sorry’.”
She asks for “accountability, responsibility, dignity, integrity, truth”.