“Luckily, I had a breakdown”: sexual harassment in Australian performing arts

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.

WITNESS will be following this issue after we launch in March 2018. Sign up to our mailing list here to keep in touch.

20 thoughts on ““Luckily, I had a breakdown”: sexual harassment in Australian performing arts

  1. Thank you Alison. A great piece that gets to the guts of the issue. As well as the discrimination and harrassment of anyone female, having a disability makes it even less likely that I will ever have any kind of ‘career’ in the arts. Sad, but true, and I have learned to accept this. So much grief for so much talent wasted and squandered by this awful sexist system.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this, Alison. What you say about the cost to our culture of losing women who have withdrawn or stepped back from their creative work because of the impact of sexual harassment is so important. All the programs for women writers and director in the world will not shift the overall sector culture unless these factors are also identified and addressed. It is haunting that the the most recent Women in Theatre study produced by the Australia Council in 2012 was the THIRD such report examining the under-representation of women in key creative roles since the Council was formed (one in 1984, then 1994, then the most recent). Why do we keep having to address this question again and again? I think you may have put your finger on the reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Alison, a great read and an important topic. “Who you are beyond the sexual value of your body doesn’t matter, and what you want does not count.” It also applies to female theatre practitioners who don’t conform to the accepted standards of ‘beauty’ ie what’s hot, what’s sexy. You can be overlooked, ignored, excluded by men in power for not meeting their aesthetic requirements! It’s pretty fucked.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much, Alison, for doing this important, necessary and utterly repulsive work for us. If only more of us were willing to go on the record – and yet, as you say, the reasons why are not hard to understand. With all the info and personal accounts you’ve received, would you consider releasing unidentifying aggregates that we could use publicly e.g. So far Alison Croggon has heard from X women detailing X cases of harassment, X of rape, X of sustained long-term predatory behaviour, by X clearly identifiable people and X non-identifiable and… No doubt the various categories will come to mind for you as you go through everything you’ve been sent… I’m just trying to think of ways to make this as impactful as hearing a victim name an abuser, in the absence of those appalling personal stories.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Esther – work is already being done along these lines, and I’ve been pointing those who have contacted me their way. Also there’s a number of people (people with legal teams!) working on exposing some of these predators. I think a lot of stuff is going to start going public. I hope so. It’s time it did.

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  5. Thank you Alison. A nuanced and really worrying story. I would add women in any kind of performance – 30 years ago I was regularly assaulted by a classical singing teacher at the NSW Conservatorium who would demonstrate where my pelvic floor and how it should work was by linking his hands between my legs and lifting up. Copping a good feel on the way no doubt. I was a smart young feminist, but because it was couched in terms of ‘in singing lessons we need to be hands on’ and although I was repulsed and would freeze, I didn’t have the maturity to know for sure this was well beyond limits. Ditto hands right under my breasts to ensure I was breathing properly. Without doubt, music can be included in the list above. I’d say many an opera trainee would have stories to tell.

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  6. Hi Alison, thank you for writing this. And for deploying the term “workplace health and safety” I echo @_Esther’s remark about this kind of reporting needing to have direct impact. I am now based overseas, I worked as an Actress in the Australian business in my 20s, and have my own stories to tell about being sexually demeaned by my ranking male colleagues under institutional roofs. I told these stories to the ABC reporters whose article you mention. The vagueness of their reporting is stark compared to their global counterparts. The ABC article privileges shocking stories over agitating change. Again. Not a single institution is implicated in this article though I’m sure every story they solicited, including mine, happened under institutional roofs. I hope that in subsequent coverage the media in Australia follows Candy Bower’s brilliant example and starts to say not only THAT this happened, but WHERE and under WHOSE auspice. Because the Australian News media has so much less to lose than Ms Bower does, and theatrical workplaces in Australia will not do their own due diligence unless they are publicly prompted to do so. I hope that, as you say, legal energy is building around this issue instead of denser fog enclosing revolting “open secrets”. If they’re so open: Talk about them, that’s how things change. I hope that more practitioners, men and women, follow Bower’s dignified and brilliant example.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Melissa – thank you. One huge difference here is our defamation laws. They’re in fact one of the biggest inhibitions we have against freedom of speech. Not that you’ll hear that from the “free speech” warriors…..AC

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  7. Hi Alison – It was great to read your piece. Thank you for writing it, and for talking to so many women about it.
    I’ve been doing some research on historical approaches to the gender gap in cultural policy, across the arts and cultural industries. What stands out to me is how so many of the ‘state of women in such and such field’ reports produced over the years simply stopped asking women about sexual assault and harassment (indeed the word sexism often gets dropped entirely circa the mid 1990s). Did people at the various arts organisations commissioning these reports think the problem had simply disappeared? Or were they tired of talking about it? I’m not sure how exactly, but I think it contributes to the persistent culture of silence (and gas lighting) around sexual harassment and assault that you describe.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Lots of reasons I suspect … postfeminist culture of the time, generational shifts, the assumption that you don’t need cultural policy to tackle crime (there are laws against sexual assault, let the cops deal with it), the assumption that institutions would simply enforce existing anti-sexual harrassment policies and workplace codes (there are policies against it, let HR deal with it), the assumption that the culture would just change naturally if we just got more women in leadership roles so lets focus on that (problem is, we didn’t do a great job of that). That’s my top count. There are probably lots of other factors.

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  8. Well conceived. I’m a me too, too. In my mind, what is of primary importance in -as you so succinctly said- is recognition of just how widespread and ingrained the world’s “toxic culture” is. Patriarchal supremacy, white supremacy, rape culture, gun culture, the ruling class, declining education and the general state of employment and wage disparity are testosterone driven and controlled: boys are threatened and want to remain king of the hill. In my circle we think of this as the Neanderthal Principle: an attitude embedded in early society. It’s the “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality which not only makes it possible and EASY for employers to treat all women -no matter the industry- as less than equal, but worse, teaches many women to allow and encourage demeaning treatment and their subservient role by allowing their “providers” to take advantage of them (and by turning a blind eye) because of fear and the old saw, “Father Knows Best.”
    In my mind the problems are circular, begin at home and are proliferated in education and then trickle down into employment. By example, families thoughtlessly teach their children to accept as the norm whatever their own parental role models accepted themselves. Mommy listens to what daddy says (and maybe gets a black eye if she doesn’t) and the pattern is established early: her sons know how it’s ‘sposed to be and expect it of their own wives and employees. Home is where basic equality, shared power, respect and equal footing of the sexes falls apart and the easiest place to change the “me too” climate. Good parenting doesn’t come naturally, it’s learned.
    It easy enough to see the end result of dreadful errors in parenting by observing the multitude of “me too” reactions and the general state of oppressive affairs. Offenders who harass learned the behavior early and should be appropriately prosecuted, but I don’t believe that this will have a lasting effect in improving the atmosphere for women. While it must be done, it’s swinging the stick by the wrong end. It may just teach offenders to better cover their tracks.
    Recognizing the real sources of the problem is our duty to ourselves as women. Teaching ourselves to rethink our role as parents and educators so that our children believe the sexes really are equal is the difficult work.

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  9. I’m glad this is being openly discussed now. From the moment I started at NIDA at the age of 18 and throughout my 30 years working in the arts, I was often sexually harassed, demeaned, dismissed and discriminated against because of my gender my youth and my vulnerability. Sometimes the behaviour was unthinking and careless, almost routine, sometimes it was simple misogyny from older gay men to a young straight woman, on one occasion I was pinned up against the wall of a pub by a well-known actor who made a fist and threatened to punch me before other (men) intervened. My memories of my life in the theatre are generally happy but I recall spending a lot of time in tears as the result of sexually based/gender based abuse and discrimination. Luckily over the years I persisted. I toughed it out and developed strategies to cope and fight back. I did this because there was no other choice. Complaints fell on deaf ears or were turned against me and I was blamed and seen as the trouble-maker – not the abuser. I realise now that I came to accept that this was part and parcel of my job in the theatre. As with Weinstein, there was a head of course at NIDA who openly harassed women and it seemed it was permitted and accepted that was the way it had to be. It shocks me that this kind of institutionalised sexual harassment still goes on today in Australian theatre schools.

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  10. I know that NIDA (in the current state) is now very active in supporting a safe community, free from sexual assault. When I approached them with an ordeal they were very quick, and without my request, to go straight to the police- this instance was pre-Weinstein. I can only assume, when weighing up with chatting to friends at Sydney University (who provided no support at all to them), that the new head of the institution has provided very grounding support for students and a safe place to speak up. I believe this support is continuing from Kate Cherry and present heads of departments, as male students continue to sexually assault in environments that they feel are safe to do so. Allegedly, there have been heavy consequences for present students.

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