Related Story: Sexual harassment happens on the Australian stage too
Over the past 18 months, the #MeToo movement has uncovered allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the entertainment industry and elsewhere.
In Australia, a spotlight has been thrown on rehearsal room culture, as actor Geoffrey Rush sued Nationwide News over a Daily Telegraph article that alleged he behaved inappropriately towards a co-star (later revealed to be Eryn Jean Norvill) during Sydney Theatre Company’s 2015-2016 production of King Lear. (The parties are awaiting judgment).
In one of the more interesting statements of the trial, Justice Michael Wigney said: “I wouldn’t say ‘yummy’ or ‘scrumptious’ to anybody in my workplace but I’m a boring lawyer, and Mr Rush is an actor in a theatrical workplace where people use florid language.”
As the trial proceeded, with a roll-call of actors and directors giving evidence, it inevitably raised questions about the extent to which, in ensuring appropriate workplace behaviour, the theatre should be treated differently to any other workplace.
It has been a turning point for the industry.
“There’s been a break in the silence about these things, and now we are questioning what is acceptable,” says actor, comedian and theatre-maker Zoe Coombs Marr.
But the seeds of that change were sown far earlier than many realise.
A devastating dossier
For actors Eryn Jean Norvill and Sophie Ross, mainstage regulars in Sydney and Melbourne, the conversation about “sexual harassment and bullying” in the theatre started almost 18 months before the #MeToo movement and hashtag went viral in October 2017.
External Link: Tracey Spicer tweet
“We were talking about the fact that we thought there was probably a pattern of behaviour — particularly at the major [theatre] companies.”
The two decided to seek out and speak to people who claimed to have experienced bullying or sexual harassment in their industry.
Their plan was to conduct interviews and compile a “dossier of anonymous testimonies”.
“We got a really overwhelming response … we spoke with over 100 theatre practitioners and artists,” says Ross.
The dossier ended up including 58 testimonies, drawn from long interviews undertaken by Ross, Norvill and a few other artists.
“Only 58 people felt that their position in the industry and their psychological health was stable and safe enough to commit their story to paper — even as anonymous testimonies, which I think said something about how people felt they were being looked after by the industry,” Ross says.
“The dossier was pretty devastating to read. It was just 58 stories, one after the other, of really terrible behaviour — where people didn’t get the support that they needed across mostly mainstream theatre companies in Australia.”
A startling survey
As they compiled their dossier, Ross and Norvill reached out to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), and Zoe Angus, national director of Actors Equity, about their project.
MEAA reacted by commissioning a survey about sexual harassment, assault and bullying in Australia’s theatre industry, to which 1,124 workers responded.
The results of that survey were “pretty startling”, says Angus.
“The data shows us that somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent of performers have experienced sexual harassment and commonly on multiple counts,” Angus says.
The figure is “in some ways shockingly high,” says Clare Watson, the artistic director of Western Australia’s Black Swan State Theatre Company (BSSTC).
“But in some ways, it’s something that we understood about our industry as well.”
A similar proportion of respondents said they’d witnessed sexual harassment, and 14 per cent of survey respondents said they’d been sexually assaulted.
Alarmingly, 53 per cent of victims did not report their issue, and 58 per cent of survey respondents said they were unaware of policies around dealing with these issues.
Many respondents said that in reporting their experiences, their situation only worsened.
For Angus, this is evidence that “at the time, theatres in Australia did not have the mechanisms in place to properly deal with issues as they arose”.
Safe Theatres Forum
In late 2017, Ross and Norvill’s dossier and the MEAA survey were delivered to the nine CAST (Confederation of Australian State Theatres) companies as well as La Boite, Griffin and Ensemble theatre companies.
Ross and Norvill recognised that the problems extended beyond this group, but they believed that these companies had the resources and cultural imperative to lead change in the industry.
The research was delivered alongside an invitation to attend a Safe Theatres Forum in March 2018, convened by Ross and Norvill under their freshly-minted organisation Safe Theatres Australia.
“Everybody accepted the invitation immediately,” Ross says.
Besides Norvill, Ross and MEAA, all the key theatre companies were represented (including but not limited to the CAST companies), as were the Australia Council for the Arts and Theatre Network Australia.
Ahead of the forum, Ross and Norvill wrote and disseminated “a discussion and provocation paper” that outlined possible ways forward for the industry.
Ross says one key discussion point was “representation across all levels of companies”.
“If I’m a young Indigenous artist working for a mainstream company and something happens to me which I feel has something to do with my cultural background and there’s not a single Indigenous person on the full-time staff for me to talk to, do I feel safe to have that conversation? No,” says Ross.
“Those sorts of questions haven’t been asked until recently.”
There was also a suggestion that companies needed to develop better support systems for mental health and wellbeing.
“Very traumatic psychological terrain is being worked through all the time in the arts — this has to be acknowledged and there have to be support structures in place for that. So that when things come up, people don’t immediately go to patterns of behaviour which are about bullying or taking power back,” Ross says.
Ross also questions the kind of content major companies are staging.
“If we constantly put on classics that are part of the canon, where essentially women go mad or they kill themselves or they’re swanning around the stage in slips beautifully lit from the side … that content is disempowering.”
Commitment to cultural change
At the end of the Safe Theatre Forum, the attendees issued a joint statement outlining a “shared commitment to cultural change in the theatre sector”.
Ross says: “I have no doubt that it was a genuine collective commitment to systemic and cultural change to ensure that harassment, bullying and discrimination were eliminated from our sector.”
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we have to all learn from each other and communicate much better — and that’s the process that we have started.”
She believes there’s a lot the major companies can learn from smaller companies “who already have existing practices around consent and boundaries in their workplaces”, including Back to Back and Rawcus.
Safe Theatres Australia plans to work with these companies to develop intimacy guidelines that they will then deliver to companies around the country.
Though there have been questions about Sydney Theatre Company’s handling of Norvill’s complaint about Rush, which was meant to be confidential, Ross describes Safe Theatre Australia’s relationship with the company as “really great”.
“Patrick [McIntyre, STC executive director] and Kip [Williams, artistic director] are both incredibly front-footed and care deeply about the health of the industry actually,” she says.
“We will continue to work with them to make changes. They are constantly asking how they can help us and I think our relationship with them has been really great, and it’s come from a place of hardship.”
A ripple effect in the rehearsal room
Change seems to be underway in how the theatre workplace is managed.
Helen Thomson, who co-starred with Norvill and Rush in STC’s King Lear, says, “I’ve done a couple of plays in the time since [that production] and we’re told up front ‘If there’s any problems, please come to us'”.
She says actors are now being given details on how to pursue complaints and who to talk to, and that there has been a marked improvement in overall health and wellbeing support.
Anita Hegh, an STC regular (and recently in their production of A Cheery Soul) says she has noticed a shift in the way directors approach intimate scenes — applying sensitivity and checking in with their actors.
“I think directors are also more mindful of the kinds of people they are casting,” says Hegh.
Where the “dodgy reputations” of certain actors might previously have been overlooked, she says, those days are now over.
External Link: HBO intimacy coordinator tweet
This cultural shift has dovetailed with another key development: the international movement towards intimacy directors, who work with directors and cast to choreograph scenes that are intimate or sexual, and make sure they are safe and consensual.
In November and December the Equity Foundation, a union-affiliated professional development body for actors, held events around Australia with UK-based intimacy director Ita O’Brien.
It remains to be seen how widely this practice will infiltrate Australia’s theatre scene.
Speaking on a panel of theatre-makers for a recent episode of Q&A, theatre director Neil Armfield (co-artistic director of the Adelaide Festival and director of STC’s King Lear) acknowledged the “[need] to be, absolutely, looking after everyone within the company”.
But Armfield also expressed concern about the chilling effect the Rush case might have on the rehearsal room:
“The rehearsal room is a place of… of play and experiment. I think that there is, uh, you know, unique in the ent… in the act of playing, whether… and acting, there is… there is, uh, sexual energy, um, which, in a sense, is part of an actor’s way of connecting to the audience, as much as connecting, um, within the cast.”
Hegh speaks about encountering similar hesitation: “There are people who are freaked out and say ‘Oh my god, this means we can’t play in the rehearsal room anymore, we’re not free to experiment!'”
“But I don’t think that’s the case; I think when boundaries are really clear people feel even more free and more playful and more creative.”
Watson concurs: “What we’re talking about is not flirtation, it’s not about individuals having sexual energy and a spark. It’s about professionals who are presenting a story and presenting characters to a paying audience.”
New codes of practice
Going forward, two new policies will shape how performing arts companies guard against and deal with sexual harassment, assault and bullying in the workplace.
The first is CAST’s National Code of Behaviour, which the nine major companies adopted in December 2017.
The other, more recent, development is Live Performance Australia’s (LPA) compulsory Code of Practice to Prevent Workplace Discrimination, Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Bullying. The LPA is a peak body whose members include the state theatres as well as other performing arts companies.
The two codes work in tandem to summarise the legislation and establish clear procedures for handling complaints and investigations.
“The issue for us now is to ensure that the whole industry knows about the new expectations, [so] that we don’t slip into a formal exercise rather than a genuine one,” says Zoe Angus.
This is particularly challenging for an industry filled with workers who work short-term on various productions.
Clare Watson says BSSTC addresses this by reading out the CAST code at the beginning of every rehearsal process.
“It’s about reminding ourselves that theatre is a workplace,” says Watson.
Actor Elaine Crombie, who’s been part of the industry for nearly 20 years (and worked with STC, Queensland Theatre and Malthouse, among others) says she hasn’t experienced sexual harassment in the industry but she has noticed some changes since the two new codes were introduced.
“In my last rehearsal room there was a whole extra sheet about sexual harassment. At the [Melbourne] Arts Centre now, there’s signage up backstage about ‘looking versus leering’ and ‘texting versus sexting’,” she says.
Crombie thinks signs like these will have a real impact on the industry.
“The signs are there, there’s a number to call there. As long as there is a wealth of information out there, then people have to have the courage to say what’s happening and to now know it’s going to be backed up.”
Shifting the hierarchy
Codes and policies aren’t enough, says Zoe Coombs Marr, who has directly witnessed and experienced sexual harassment and assault in some of the places she has worked.
“I think those things [codes] are all great and I think that they will make a difference in the way that they need to, but I also think that in moving forward it’s important to actually challenge power structures.”
Coombs Marr, who is part of theatre collective POST (Ich Nibber Dibber; Oedipus Schmoedipus), has worked at Belvoir, Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse.
“Traditionally, you have the director at the top, and everyone sort of trickles down from there … Someone can only abuse their power if they have power over another person,” she says.
She says these hierarchies often come from a patriarchal base.
Coombs Marr advocates for more “collaborative processes” that disperse power and she says that there are many directors, including herself, who operate in this mode.
Watson — currently the only female artistic director of a state theatre company — is one of them: she used a collaborative approach in the development of recent BSSTC production Xenides.
Clare Watson is optimistic about theatre culture changing.
“The groundswell of the #istandwithEJ movement has deeply moved our community,” she says.
“That speaks of a great hope for how we’re going to operate differently in the future and how we’re going to prioritise safety and respectful practice — and that makes better art,” she says.
Coombs Marr is more circumspect, and worries about complacency amongst some leaders within the theatre industry.
“We need to be serious about making change and we can’t just go ‘Oh that’s the way it is’,” she says.
“These are serious allegations that are really about the very fabric of how work is made and who benefits from it and who is pushed down.”
Ross, whose work with Norvill at Safe Theatres Australia continues, says the process of storytelling within their dossier has already had a healing effect — but also a galvanising one for the industry.
“The people that I spoke to have all said what an extraordinary thing it has been for their story to be heard and to have had a meaningful outcome — in that it actually has sparked a much deeper conversation in the industry.
“So it has given people a voice and a power that was not available for them before.”