Theatre cleans up its act after bullying allegations

The sector is coming together to establish a code of behaviour in the wake of the Gate controversy

 

Is there something that makes theatre or other creative arts more vulnerable to harassment and abuse? The phenomenon is universal. All schools and workplaces have bullies; it’s how they deal with them that counts. But arts and creative endeavours may be more open to bullying, because of a confluence of circumstance.

Because of that, and on foot of not just the Gate Theatre but a host of concerns that have surfaced internationally – including in Australia, the UK and Belgium – following the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns and the Weinstein scandal, the Irish theatre sector is coming together this week to start a process.

Speak Up and Call it Out: Establishing a Code of Behaviour for Irish Theatre is a day-long event at Liberty Hall tomorrow, hosted by the Irish Theatre Institute, with support from the Department of Culture. People from across the sector will gather to identify ways to initiate cultural change in behaviour.

The day’s aim, says the institute’s Jane Daly, is to “harness a sense of collective responsibility, based on the notion that theatre is a collaborative art form and we have huge capacity to make extraordinary work collectively, and therefore we should be able to work together to resolve structural issues within the theatre sector. This involves changing the mindset and the cultures of behaviour so harassment and bullying is no longer accepted as an occupational hazard within the theatre sector, but actually is something that people should be protected against and should have recourse to services and supports that will address issues should they arise.”

Daly’s codirector, Siobhán Bourke, stresses that the focus will not be on past events but the future, working towards tangible outcomes and transparency, protection and accountability in Irish theatre.

“There is a need to improve workplace conditions in the theatre sector, and to support the freelance worker, on the artistic, technical, production, producing and administrative sides, because essentially it’s they who prop up the entire industry,” says Daly. “We also have to get it into people’s minds, that if you call this kind of behaviour out at the very beginning, you can stop it escalating. There is a culture of silence some people talk about: ‘If I speak up, my phone is going to stop ringing or I’m going to be known as a troublemaker’. We have to build confidence within the sector.”

New guide book

They have drawn up a draft code, Dignity in the Workplace, to present tomorrow, which distils elements of many existing codes and employee handbooks. Bourke shows me a copy of the draft. There are scribbled notes and marks, but it’s a well-fleshed-out document, covering responsibilities, definitions and complaints procedures, informal and formal.

It is designed to “speak to the larger organisations and to smaller individual organisations, all framed in the context of employment law”, says Bourke. “The three areas we’ll discuss in the code are behaviours around bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.”

It will apply to large organisations with a lot of staff, smaller theatre groups with fewer people, freelancers who work in different contexts, artists doing work on a project-by-project basis, and the template can be tweaked or adapted as needed.

It will operate alongside the Harassment Toolkit booklet, which Amplify Women put together recently for individuals who feel they are being or have been harassed at work. Sarah Durcan, who worked on the booklet, will address Speak Up. As well as defining bullying, harassment and assault in the workplace, the booklet “helps identify what people can do to raise these issues with their employer”, according to Durcan. But “it’s only part of the picture – organisations should have corresponding policies and procedures in place. Everyone has a role to play in creating a positive workplace culture, with the ultimate responsibility resting with management and the board. I hope drafting a code of conduct will be a major first step in creating a more positive, inclusive and equitable culture.”

The Arts Council this year said it had “tightened up” the conditions it attaches to funding arts organisations. Funding recipients are required to have “appropriate policies dealing with workplace bullying and harassment” and “must avoid any form of discriminatory practice”. While it says it has always promoted best practice for arts boards, the council now plans to offer training in governance and best practice.

Certain factors leave theatre open to bullying. Freelance work is the norm for many performers and production crew. An artist might have a contract for 12 weeks, but later in the year might get an Arts Council grant to produce their own work as director or writer, so they go “from being employee to an employer in the blink of an eye”, says Bourke. Then there’s “the constant hunt for work, the vulnerabilities of always looking for a job. Unless you are a very strong personality, it could erode you. And the wages: compared other jobs, for the calibre of person, education, track record and expertise, the wages and fees are very modest.”

She says “there is something special about our area, the bleed into the social hours. Where does work stop? It’s very intimate, and the work people are engaged with is personal.”

Intense environment

Research by Siptu and the Gate Theatre review show that much harassment in theatre is outside rehearsal rooms: in offices, bars, across the theatre space. And while the day of action is not going too deeply into the rehearsal dynamic, Bourke talks about how “the world of the rehearsal room is slightly different. If you’re in rehearsing a scene and somebody gets very into the method and they happen to be playing the Bull McCabe and you’re playing ‘The Bird’ O’Donnell, and you take it outside the room ... You do need a period of adjustment. Everybody understands you need to come down from the rehearsal.”

Daly adds: “You’re working in that really intense environment all day and you are leaving your heart and soul on the floor, then you have a bit of downtime with your colleagues, because that ensemble feel you get on a stage – often that’s about building relationships and developing a team spirit outside when you get out of your character and engage on a personal level. But you’re still talking about the work and then you’re building up to opening nights, and there are late nights because it takes a while to come down after performance.

“And do you have the same level of protection and support in our industry as you do if you are inappropriately approached or touched at the Christmas party in some big global financial company? That’s all we’re saying: that people in our sector should have the same rights, supports and protection as any other worker.”

She adds that it is not that the theatre sector is dysfunctional. “This is not about washing dirty laundry. We’re actually hoping this will impact in other sectors and that our colleagues across dance and music and other artistic activity will say this template code of behaviour needs to be introduced across the board.”

CALLING IT OUT

At this week’s Speak Up and Call It Out day of action, artist-activist Grace Dyas and actor Andrea Irvine will speak up, while Sarah Durcan and Siptu’s Karen O’Loughlin (Equity) will call it out. Minister Josepha Madigan is to speak, and intimacy director Ita O’Brien discusses how to handle intimate and sexual scenes responsibly.

Eleanor Methven, speaking at the Abbey Theatre during the Waking The Feminists event in 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Eleanor Methven, speaking at the Abbey Theatre during the Waking The Feminists event in 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

A panel on accountability chaired by Catriona Crowe will include Gate Theatre chairman Peter Crowley, theatre maker Phillip McMahon, Arts Council chairwoman Sheila Pratschke, and actor Eleanor Methven.

When she accepted her lifetime achievement award at this year’s Irish Times Theatre Awards, Methven spoke from the stage. “The opportunity to define the character of an enterprise, and to maximise not just your own but others’ potential in doing so, is there for anyone given the responsibility of management. There is no mystery to it: manners maketh both man and woman; having a bit of class is about respect for and decency towards others.”

“We want to institute change certainly. To begin, let’s implement the laws which already exist, to which some have at best given lip service and others have felt entitled to quite deliberately and gleefully ignore. We must make recourse to safeguards accessible to workers in the future. That work is ongoing, and not-before-timely.”

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