For the WITNESS preview this month, ALISON CROGGON looks at sexual harassment in Australian theatre.
Australia, we have a problem.
I don’t want to talk about Harvey Weinstein, but it’s also impossible not to talk about him. In less than a month, Weinstein, whose influence has for two decades spanned the top echelons of US cultural and political power, has seen one of the most spectacular downfalls in living memory.
Weinstein’s very name – his “brand”, the primary IP of modern capital – is now synonymous with the sexual abuse of women. Since October 5, when the New York Times published its first sensational investigation into his serial predations on young actors, closely followed by Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker article five days later, which outlined further crimes that included rape, Weinstein’s star has fallen low indeed. And the revelations keep coming. Only yesterday, in another sensational development, Farrow revealed the formidable and terrifying resources Weinstein employed to keep the scandal out of the press.
What’s been astonishing about this story, aside from the bleak picture it has drawn of the exploitative nature of Hollywood, is its fallout. Something is different this time. After hugely public cases of alleged predation by celebrities such as Woody Allen or Bill Cosby or Bill O’Reilly, it’s difficult to say why the Weinstein allegations have had such a markedly bigger impact. Maybe it’s the sheer scale. Maybe it’s simply cumulative. Maybe the people who have suffered this predation – it also, as the Kevin Spacey allegations remind us, happens to men – have had enough.
The immediate, and emotional, response to the Weinstein stories was a hashtag on social media, #metoo. For a few days the internet became a trauma machine: almost my entire feed, on Facebook and Twitter, was #metoo. I certainly wasn’t alone in seeing my own experiences writ large in the stories of the actors Weinstein assaulted and humiliated. And I also know I wasn’t alone in feeling disturbed by the retraumatisation that occurred with this enormous outpouring of anger and grief. But maybe, for once, the actual extent of this endemic problem became clear.
I do not know one woman who has not been sexually harassed at some point in her life.
When I was a young journalist in the 1980s, the language that identifies sexual harassment or abuse was only beginning to be formed. It wasn’t in common public use. If you mentioned this behaviour at all – mostly in my case I told no one, shrugging such incidents off as just the way things were – you couched it as a joke. Being cornered alone in a tiny mail room by a heavy-breathing senior journalist, stinking of body odour and beer, who wanted to feel my tits, was just a funny story. That tongue kiss from a senior executive at a boozy office Christmas party was embarrassing and gross, so nobody mentioned it.
Being a young poet was even worse. I can’t even remember how many sleazy men I encountered, although the prominent poet and editor who wanted to meet me in his hotel room and made a pass at me after he published a poem of mine when I was sixteen (sixteen!) stands out. I heard, many years later, that this was a regular occurrence with this man.
I ignored the fear that underlaid my panicked responses, the acute awareness of my physical vulnerability. Mostly I ignored the lesson that is embedded in every such encounter: who you are has no value beyond your body, and what you want does not count. But that lesson was learned, all the same. It’s taken me a long time to begin to unlearn it. After three decades, I’m not sure I have done all my unlearning. But I’m getting there.
Now we do have a language. We can name this behaviour. And people have been working, since long before Weinstein hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, on actions to combat this problem. Maybe at last we’re beginning to have the tools to both recognise what this is, and maybe we can all begin to do something to stop it.
Australian performing arts
When the Weinstein allegations broke, I was overseas. I followed the fallout in the theatre world closely. Perhaps the most admirable example of leadership came from the Artistic Director of London’s Royal Court Theatre, Vicky Featherstone, who almost immediately began the No Grey Area initiative, a callout for those who had suffered harassment in the theatre to share their stories anonymously. This led to a powerful joint statement with dozens of signatories, which included all major British theatres, two weeks after the Weinstein allegations. Shortly afterwards, on October 27, Irish theatres also released a joint statement.
I returned to Australia at the beginning of November, and saw with incredulity that the response from the Australian theatre industry had been resounding silence. There had been no swift revelations, such as those about former Royal Court director Max Stafford-Clarke or Michael Colgan, formerly artistic director of Dublin’s Gate theatre, and once the most highly paid theatre director in Ireland. Nor had there been anything like the leadership shown so swiftly by Featherstone.
I began to wonder if this silence was because Australia didn’t have the same kind of problem as the UK and the US. Perhaps there was a robustness in our system which confined such experiences to isolated problems? So I asked some questions on Twitter and Facebook. It’s fair to say that I was disabused very quickly of any such naivety. As with everywhere else, sexual harassment and abuse is an endemic problem here, rooted into the working of the systems itself.
The Confederation of Australian State Theatres (CAST), which represents nine major companies, released a joint statement condemning sexual harassment last Friday, the first public statement by any of our leading performing arts companies.
From various sources I know that there has been policy work on protocols to combat bullying and harassment for the past year, both in MEAA Actors Equity and in major companies. But if ever there was a time for some strong leadership, a proactive indication from leading companies in the performing arts that this is a question that is taken seriously, that time is now.
I put out a call on social media for anyone who wished to share their stories in confidence with me. The result has been some deeply distressing allegations, which run the gamut from harassment and bullying to serial predation and rape. They have come from women and men working not only in companies, as performers, back stage staff and so on, but in performing arts bureaucracies of every kind, in educational institutions, even in youth theatre. They include well known names and unknown names, and every level of theatre, from major state theatre to independent companies and venues.
Almost no one wants to go on the record, for reasons that should be obvious. It’s hard enough to articulate these experiences, to revisit what is usually an unresolved state of trauma: as I know from personal experience, it’s uniquely painful. Going public in an industry where precarious employment is the rule can mean putting your entire future on the line, especially if your allegations involve powerful industry figures.
In a culture like performance, where so much of the work includes physical and emotional intimacy, there is a necessary assumption of trust between those who work together. What seems clear to me is that this trust is a perfect cover for manipulative predators, especially serial predators.
Even in less physical industries, sexual harassment is an act that is shrouded by ambiguity. The victim is made to feel complicit in the act, and then is shamed and silenced by their apparent complicity, and often, by their unwillingness to be a victim. A couple of the people who wrote to me blamed themselves, saying they had made bad professional and personal decisions. Maybe if they had they known in advance that they would have been working with an abusive person, that would be the case. But the only people responsible for abuse are the abusers themselves.
The real question, it seems to me, is why is there so much silence in Australia, compared to other theatre cultures. The only reasonable answer I can come up with is that people who suffer sexual harassment here are much more afraid to speak publicly about it. They have no confidence that they will be protected if they speak out, and they have reasons for that lack of confidence. Too many cases I have heard, directly and indirectly, talk of the inadequacy of the responses from companies when such incidents happened. Even when the company acknowledges it’s a problem – even a serious problem – and formal complaints are laid, there seems to be no clear mechanism on how to deal with it in any satisfactory way.
In the case of serial sexual predators – and there is at least one notorious case that is an open secret in Australian theatre – protocols in place to date have been clearly useless in stopping this behaviour. The major concern in major companies where incidents have occurred is to keep any scandal out of the press.
Eamon Flack, Artistic Director of Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney, says he’s still thinking through why existing systems haven’t worked. “I think it’s a cocktail of reasons,” says Flack. “Power, trust and fear are the main three. It’s hard to speak out against a powerful person; it can be hard even to speak out to a powerful person. And people only speak out if they trust that they will be taken seriously. And then there is the fear that you will be marked as weak or difficult.”
Part of the issue, too, is the collaborative nature of performance itself. “Too many people love and admire the organisations and the individuals they are working with. In a collaborative artform like theatre there is a deep reluctance to be a lone wolf, and there is a very strong fear that a ‘difficult’ reputation will cost you work. None of these are baseless concerns. Companies have to take them seriously and work out processes to fit.”
Nevertheless, the silence is breaking. There are several ongoing initiatives that aim to combat sexual harassment, some of which predate the Weinstein watershed. They include an MEAA Actors Equity survey (closes on November 17) which is an attempt to determine the extent of sexual harassment among performers. Preliminary results show that 40 to 60 per cent of the actors who responded have experienced sexual harassment first hand.
First accounts, such as this ABC report published today, are beginning to emerge in the media, and we’re likely to see many more over the next few weeks. What is very clear to me now is that those stories that eventually do come into the light are the very tiny tip of an enormous iceberg.
Most stories, still, go unrecorded.
Why it matters
The issue of sexual harassment, abuse and predation goes far beyond the question of the traumatisation of its victims. It’s an industrial issue about work safety. The reverberations of sexual harassment and abuse, especially when it’s part of the texture of the working environment, extend far beyond the actual incident. Several of those who contacted me spoke, almost incidentally, about dealing with serious mental health issues after their experiences of sexual abuse. Maybe the most heartbreaking line I’ve read, as part of an account of harassment in an independent company that led to rape, was: “Luckily, I had a breakdown soon after and broke contact with the [perpetrator]”. Luckily.
The larger question is exclusion.
When we look at the figures of women’s participation in theatre, especially in leading creative roles, it seems that gender parity is actually going backwards. Last year the Australian Writers Guild released figures that showed that gender parity on Australian stages remains elusive. More disturbingly, an Australian Bureau of Statistics analysis in 2014 revealed that of a total of 16,029 people employed in the performing arts, only 5,804 – just over a third – were women. These statistics, the most recent I could find, date from 2011, and it’s impossible to know if that situation has improved in the past six years. However, given the stresses that the arts have faced since 2013, the clever money would be on the pessimistic picture.
Where are all the missing women?
It’s crucial also to note that this issue of exclusion reaches beyond gender. Performer Candy Bowers has been outspoken on the issue of racism in Australian theatre. Women of colour who are sexually harassed face an extra dimension of racialised abuse, which stems from a long colonial history of hypersexualisation of Black and Asian women (Australia’s colonial history is a shameful record of rape and abuse of First Nations people), Orientalism and other cultural abuses. What happens to white women goes double for women of colour.
“For me colonisation and white supremacy link hand in hand with patriarchal supremacy and the subsequent oppression and abuse of women of colour in the Australian theatre industry,” says Bowers. “Man-splaining and white-splaining one’s life away as we try to pitch our stories and scripts and projects to the current leaders of the industry wears even the most resilient.”
Bowers was prepared to go on the record with her experiences of sexualisation, which began at NIDA with a syllabus of exclusively white texts directed under the male gaze. “The culture is toxic,” she says. “I recall an abortion list that went around the male toilets, of [men] who got women to have abortions at NIDA. Another time a group of men from my year loudly commented on the breasts of Third Year acting students as they took the stage for the rehearsals of their graduation showcase. A couple of women didn’t have bras on so they got 10/10! I was sitting behind and I told them off – “Hey this is a public showing, there are members of the public in here!” As if it was OK in house – freakin’ problematic! Women of colour who make it through drama school have to learn how to keep the semblance of comfortablity in a hostile environment.”
Bowers links this culture with the wider issues of representation. “I have been told on countless occasions, most recently by Sydney Theatre Company, that there isn’t anything for me to audition for, yet there are roles for women to cast. ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ Few women of colour have had the opportunity to perform central roles. You can count them on one hand. I have other WoC friends who have never worked on the main stages and we see that it’s because the folks making the decisions see colour before humanity. Once we get in the door the problem of being the minority in the room creates a certain turmoil, whether fully conscious or otherwise. I’ve had countless conversations (including with some of Australia’s top black actresses) in which we were asked to do a line ‘more black’. I recall my Head of Acting at NIDA asking this of me. I replied ‘That’s not a Strasberg verb’, and excused myself.’
Since the Weinstein revelations, I have heard at least half a dozen women in the arts – in poetry as well as the theatre – say, almost incidentally, how sexual harassment or abuse alienated them from their vocation, leading them to withdraw – sometimes temporarily, sometimes altogether – from their practice. Some said it was disillusionment or weariness, some simply didn’t have any hope that anything would change.
Whatever the reasons, the employment figures demonstrate that an enormous resource – our female artists – is being squandered. This makes sexual harassment not only a question of personal trauma or industrial health and safety, but an aesthetic question. Sexual harassment is part of the machine that ensures a certain standard human experience is reproduced and centred throughout the arts, and that others are marginalised or even erased. It’s a constant impoverishment of possibility within our arts cultures.
In industries like theatre, literature and film, this means that the same stories, the same viewpoints, the same assumptions, the same tropes, continue to dominate our representations of humanity, sexuality, relationships and power. And these representations reinforce the behaviours that in turn force women out of these industries. It’s the definition of a vicious circle.
Sexual harassment is a process of attrition, a spectrum of behaviours that go all the way from unwanted and uninvited sexual communication (speech, emails, texts, environment) to touching, to assault, to violent rape. And it’s complex: emotional manipulation is a huge part of it, shame and complicity are part of it. Human beings are complex. And addressing it is also complex. No amount of public relations from major companies will substitute for honest accounting and responsibility, for policies that not only address this problem but which are actively used to stop it. If it isn’t addressed properly, no motherhood statements about inclusion are worth the pixels they’re written in.
These issues of inclusion, let me be clear, are underwritten by a spectrum of behaviours that are in turn conditioned by grim histories, past and present, of sexual violence.
Sexual harassment is an issue that any woman working in any industry has to face, sometimes on a constant basis. Although it also affects men, it occurs in a culture in which the experiences and work of women are routinely demeaned or dismissed, even in 2017. The lessons I mentioned earlier are learned, consciously and subconsciously, from the moment women begin to practice as artists: who you are beyond the sexual value of your body doesn’t matter, and what you want does not count.
I don’t think those missing women are hard to explain.
With thanks to the women and men who shared their stories with me.
Note: comments on this post will be closely monitored. Abusive comments will be deleted.
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