‘We should be thinking, not about how these processes inhibit our expression, but how they might liberate it’: actor Dan Spielman explores the implications of #MeToo in the performing arts
The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility – of being unable to undo what one has done – is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. Both faculties depend upon plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no man can forgive himself and no one can be bound by a promise made only to himself.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
When people ask me what I do, I’m often ashamed to say I’m an actor. I fear the incredulous smile, the unspoken comments. Who in their right mind would be an actor? You must have needs that are only fulfilled by exposing yourself. Needs that the rest of us just deal with in adult ways. And also: Why don’t I recognise you?
Many of my colleagues and friends would be quick to disavow this shame. Hold your head high, Dan, they’d say. This is a worthwhile profession. Most people don’t look down on you, you’re just talking to the wrong people!
But lately I’ve been thinking about some comments from Justice Wigney, the Federal Court judge in the Rush vs. Daily Telegraph trial. Wigney said that “Mr Rush is an actor in a theatrical workplace, where people use florid language”. He said he would not use words like “scrumptious” or “yummy” in his workplace – because he is a “boring lawyer”.
As a member of the public, I could be forgiven for thinking that when Wigney says “theatrical workplace”, he assumes that the conduct of actors and the materials of our work are the same thing. Aren’t lawyers acutely aware of the power of language? And further, if “boring lawyer” really means “adult professional”, the implication is the “theatrical workplace” is populated by…who, exactly?
From Wigney’s perspective, it seems immaterial how actors achieve success and artistry. Only when they emerge from the vaguely distasteful, childish “theatrical workplace” and achieve great things can they attain seriousness, professionalism and insight.
Two days after the Daily Telegraph published the articles that are the subject of the Rush defamation trial, I heard Neil Armfield on the radio. Armfield is arguably Australia’s pre-eminent theatre director, and someone who has worked with Rush for nearly 40 years. When asked what he felt about the allegations that Rush had behaved inappropriately, he said: “…in all the weeks and months of rehearsal and performance, I saw absolutely nothing other than an artist at the top of his form, leading a company with respect and playfulness and great artistry.” I hadn’t read the articles, and at that point neither Armfield nor Rush had been made aware of the specific allegations.
‘If “boring lawyer” really means “adult professional”, the implication is the “theatrical workplace” is populated by…who, exactly?’
I wondered what emboldened Armfield to speak out so forcefully when he didn’t even know what the allegations were. Was it loyalty to a long-time friend and collaborator? Probably. Was it outrage that media can wreak so much reputational damage without due process? Certainly. But something else, something in Armfield’s notions of playfulness, disturbed me.
Much later in the middle of the trial, on a live broadcast of QandA from the Pop-up Globe, Armfield was asked about the impact of #MeToo in the rehearsal room. Again he spoke of playfulness. He explained that sexuality was not only part of the work that happens between actors, but between actor and audience as well. I was struck by the evasion of the question (which refers to sexual harassment) by this vague reference to the special conditions of our workplace. Perhaps Armfield felt that if he were to answer the question and address harassment, he might unintentionally imply that Rush was guilty.
On the same panel Toby Schmitz, a successful and much lauded mid-career actor and playwright, said that although he saw sexual harassment and bullying in the film and television industry all the time, it was a “very, very rare occurrence” in the theatre. He also evaded the question. It was left to Nakkiah Lui, an increasingly prominent Indigenous writer and actor, and Zindzi Okenyo, an actor and musician (and, somehow significantly amid all this talk of playfulness, a beloved host of Playschool) to answer the question and address its complexities.
Is it just a coincidence that the men failed to answer – that they in fact seemed not to have given much thought to the subject at all – while the women spoke so gravely and articulately about its complexities? Well, no. But this issue is more complex than a simple alignment of gender.
Last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) survey into sexual harassment in the workplace found a 49 per cent prevalence of sexual harassment in Arts and Recreation Services, affecting both men and women (the national average is 33 per cent). Watching this public display of the incomprehension of the facts, and how that incomprehension correlates with established, white, male power, it became clear to me how unconscious the powerful are of the impact of these behaviours.
Seeing some of our artistic leaders publicly closing ranks and defending the status quo does two more things. It exposes the language of power for what it is, and it reveals who the powerful habitually silence.
Recently a lot of commentary has focused on the generational aspect of behaviours such as sexual harassment and bullying. Sexual harassment is deeply linked to bullying: both behaviours exploit power. The language of power is bestowed by one generation to the next along vectors of privilege. The modes of transmission are complex and often opaque, and they include the fostering of affinities.
Power is transmitted in the selection of who gets trained in these affinities, who is “seen” to possess value, who is taught the formal and informal codes that confer merit and cultural currency. The tight bond between Schmitz’s and Armfield’s positions reveals one example of this transmission. This is not to imply that either are guilty of harassment or bullying, but to point out the relationship between established power and denial.
Blaming an older generation implies that while the history of the patriarchy has excused and permitted abusive behaviours, now that there is a new generation of resistance, all that is in the past. It is not in the past. It is written, directly or indirectly, in the experiences of every person who has been employed in the system.
On the one hand, we cannot erase our experience, or trash the skills, insights and knowledge of those who have held or conferred opportunity and power. We can’t lay waste to a whole system and the extraordinary achievements of its artists. (And all four Australian artists on that panel have been responsible for brilliant work). On the other, to truly protect the art form, and to weather the necessarily awkward transition, we – men generally and white men in particular – must include ourselves in the conversation, educate ourselves about what is not immediately apparent to us, and show forbearance toward positions that seem inconvenient or challenging.
Acting invites playfulness, but it isn’t child’s play. Child’s play can be cruel, dangerous, impulsive. We are professionals. Children don’t have a concept of professionalism. We work with impulse, but we don’t work alone, or in a fantasy. We make fantasies, but we are awake while we do so – otherwise we can get hurt. We don’t seek to get hurt, but there is always a cost.
We dream together, but someone has written down the laws of that dream, someone is there to guide us and there are those who bear witness. We are disobedient, but only insofar as it serves. We don’t just serve ourselves; we serve one another, the writer, the music, the image, and the audience.
Acting is about listening. In rehearsal, when much is still unclear, it’s about listening for words or images that rise up like beacons. It’s about listening to the theme of requests from a director. Listening is hearing, but it is also seeing and feeling. We listen to the work of our colleagues. We listen to our urges, our resistances. It is also about following – heeding impulses, spontaneity. It is listening for, listening to, listening through: and it is all challenging.
A practice of listening eases the mind away from itself. It seeks to make space in all this tension for presence. It is the way to work an opening in all the noise. To move away from self-indulgence and towards generosity.
There is no performance without tension. Acting is performing, just like playing sport, playing music, or singing. It is about managing tension: physical tension, tension affecting breath, the myriad tensions of anxiety, psychological tension, sexual tension. Tension is what we are trying to manage, and it is also what we are trying to create.
An actor’s work is about people. To meaningfully reach an audience member, there must be truthfulness in what we do. We achieve this by making ourselves vulnerable. We have skills, but we are also the raw material.
If we are to fulfil our obligation to be vulnerable – not to settle for confirmation of what we already know, but to explore parts of ourselves that provoke, surprise, delight or confront – we must trust that our rawness will be protected, and that our limitations will be respected. Trust is a partner of struggle.
At its best, the obligation to face difficulty is met with the permission to fail in the attempt. We give our consent readily, and when it is respectfully received, it can be very liberating. The nature of working in performance means that a great deal can be achieved with consent. But without it, professionally and privately, much can be undone.
If I am accused of harassment or bullying, when will I find out about it? And what am I entitled to know?
If an allegation of harassment is made in a corporate setting, the organisation is obliged to separate the two parties first and begin a process of investigation. It serves the interests of the complainant, the accused and the company to demonstrate that these kinds of allegations are taken seriously, and to acknowledge that a “business as usual” approach may exacerbate the situation for both parties.
This stage of the process is vitally important because it is the first opportunity for the complainant to have their grievance heard, and for the accused to be informed that their behaviour is having this specific impact.
‘The nature of working in performance means that a great deal can be achieved with consent. But without it, professionally and privately, much can be undone’
The protocol demands that interviews must take place in a neutral environment, with the implication that the company as a whole is interested in resolving this dispute, regardless of interruptions to productivity. This process also validates both the claim and the right of reply. We have seen many cases of sexual harassment that profoundly fail the complainant, but we also fail the accused by not giving them the space to hear and respond to the complaint.
This model is still fallible, but it has a lot to offer the performing arts (thank you Goldman Sachs?) In the world of performance, however, there are unique challenges for conciliation or redress in sexual harassment and bullying claims. In the theatre, for example, it is highly unlikely that a company will cancel a show (or several shows) until this kind of process is completed.
A recent example involved a woman in a main stage production who received inappropriate intimate and sexual advances from a fellow actor.
(This actor has given me permission to retell her story, which is an immensely generous and courageous offer. Her story includes behaviours that are potentially triggering for some readers.)
The production called for the two actors to play a couple. They were required to be emotionally and physically intimate on stage and his character was physically violent towards hers.
In the first week of rehearsals he told her that he had romantic feelings towards her. She explained that any romantic conversations were unprofessional and inappropriate. In the second week they were required to be intimate in the course of rehearsing a scene, including kissing. On a lunchbreak he said, “You’re a very dangerous person to act with”. It was hard, he explained, to act intimately with her, to kiss her, without wanting more. She told him that his words were unprofessional. Later that day he asked if he could give her a massage. He said he wanted to touch her. He said he needed to complete the impulses he had found in the rehearsal room. She said no. She recalled him looking wounded.
She told her director about his behaviour early in rehearsals. Neither of them knew how to handle the situation. The actor was worried that a reprimand might damage the delicate emotional terrain that was required for the work. Importantly, she was concerned that any resulting anger, or his bruised ego, might make it difficult to perform acts of intimacy and violence with trust.
After many more examples of unwanted attention during rehearsals and the performances, including the actor waking up from a nap between shows to find her colleague staring at her, finding love letters and gifts in her dressing room and unwanted and invasive touching behind the set immediately before an entrance on stage, she approached the director again to ask for help. Finally the director asked the actor if she wanted her to mention the behaviour to the stage manager and a senior member of staff. The actor agreed.
During the following week, the male actor began to extend an onstage kiss. It became noticeably long (so much so that an audience member commented). The night after receiving a note from the director to shorten the kiss, he grabbed her face on stage and forcefully pushed his tongue far into her mouth. This was never rehearsed.
It took a week for a senior member of staff to call the actor into her office. She began the meeting smiling: “So I hear someone’s got a bit of a crush on you”. The severity of the situation was completely minimised. The senior staff member asked her what she wanted to do. (This was the third time the complainant had been given the responsibility of deciding a course of action).
Firstly, the actor didn’t want this staff member, who had only moments before described his unacceptable behaviour as a “crush”, to speak with the man in question. How could she trust this woman? Secondly, given how he had responded to a simple direction to shorten a stage kiss, how would he respond in those scenes, and the scenes of violence, if he were formally reprimanded? She was scared. She decided not to ask for intervention.
Over the following weeks, not one staff member took any decisive action. The responsibility to decide on a course of action was pushed onto to the actor at every point. The actor eventually withdrew from the production mid-season. She wrote a report of the male actor’s behaviour, and was assured that this report would bind the company to formally investigate the claims. A couple of days later the company reported their findings. They had found the male actor safe to continue in the role. Her character was recast.
She requested that her replacement be told why she left the production. That never happened. The company told the replacement actor, and the rest of the cast, that she had pulled out due to illness.
All this silence.
This harrowing example demonstrates that disorganised protocols and a lack of appropriate training totally fails the complainant. As well as avenues to report, organisations must provide a safety net. It’s crucially important for a company to take responsibility quickly, and to be seen to do so. The burden of breaking out of the group to report a cast mate is already on the complainant and the company must share some of this burden.
A transparent process must be undertaken that informs the accused party and gives them the right of reply. The company must also consider the circumstances of the harassment, and if those circumstances are on-going – during performances, for example – the scene must be immediately re-worked in the presence of relevant colleagues and staff to return to what was agreed in rehearsal. And then a time and a place should be proposed for a professionally mediated conciliation process to begin. If conciliation is impossible, or the alleged behaviour is deemed to require legal or police intervention, other avenues can be pursued at this point.
It should be noted, however, that the principal arenas for dealing with sexual harassment, the state and federal Anti-Discrimination Tribunals, are broken jurisdictions. Although well-intentioned, they place the burden on individual applicants to bring a claim, will not deal with collective or cultural issues, are under resourced (and therefore subject to lengthy delays), are only permitted to deal with “recent” issues (within 6-12 months) and can only grant damages, rather than being empowered to actually stop the conduct. In terms of OHS law, the employer’s duty of care is limited to vicarious liability rather than a proactive, positive obligation to make workplaces free of sexual harassment. This means that currently government safety regulators such as WorkSafe do not see sexual harassment as a safety issue. They refuse to respond to inquiries and refer matters elsewhere. The industrial umpire, the Fair Work Commission, has no power to deal at all with issues of safety at work. All of that means that, if an issue cannot be addressed in the workplace, there is no functioning place to go.
The above example shows how the failures of front-line staff can leave an actor in a wholly disempowering or even dangerous situation. But if you remove the accused, the director and the senior staff member from this equation, does the system therefore improve for future employees? No. What lies behind this unconscionable outcome are the unwritten motivations and justifications upheld by company culture.
Intimacy in our work is a necessity. It can relate to physical intimacy, to simulated sex, to nudity, to scenes of partner violence, scenes of childbirth, or to family scenes where actors need to be physically close to children. It covers any act or relationship where the breach of consent might result in personal compromise. We have very clear guidelines about the protocols and practise of staged violence, because it is so clear what would happen if it were entirely improvised. As far as intimacy is concerned, however, the only thing that is clear is that too many people are confused about where the personal and professional boundaries are.
‘In my experience it has never been necessary to compromise the dignity of any person to make a work. And wherever abuses of power have occurred, they always, without exception, represent a diminishment of possibility’
A lot of work is being done in this area. Examples include protocols initially developed by NZ Equity President Jennifer Ward-Lealand and others, which were later championed by Ita O’Brien. O’Brien’s guiding principle is that everyone in the undertaking has a responsibility to assess risk: not just the producers, who are liable for their employees, or directors, who must be transparent about what they are trying to achieve in intimate scenes, but also actors, who must consider their own personal boundaries and the elements of a job that may be triggering or confronting. They are much the same as workplace safety rules – whereby it is not only for the employer to ensure safety, but it is the obligation of the employees to understand good practice, work safely, and to report breaches.
The arts have the greatest percentage of unreported harassment in the country (89 per cent of cases, according to the AHRC). Barriers to reporting – fear of recrimination, of being labelled “difficult”, of making the situation worse and so on – are among the greatest obstacles. In the performing arts, I hear many reservations about the enforceability of intimacy protocols and behavioural codes. Among the more reasonable objections are fears of establishing a stifling bureaucracy, or of reinforcing over-reactions to valid professional challenges, and the logistical and financial cost of all the extra time and personnel required to introduce and manage new protocols of behaviour.
But if the conditions of our work aren’t scrutinised, if the sanctity of the process alone is given as a reason why we are not bound by the rules of society, then all we get is the ends justifying the means. And this kind of dislocation of the art form from the dignity of its workers is anathema to me. In my experience it has never been necessary to compromise the dignity of any person to make a work. And wherever abuses of power have occurred, they always, without exception, represent a diminishment of possibility.
White Australia’s view of the great achievements of our artists is both limited and passionately defended because on some level our sense of belonging is troubled. We know we are not dealing well with the land that we live on or with the Indigenous peoples whose culture and stories have made meaning in this land for 60,000 years. The distortions that flow from this insecurity subtly inflect power dynamics in contemporary Australian culture at every level.
Most of our cultural institutions are inherently colonial and therefore racist as well as sexist, proscribing the pathways, platforms and value of any “other” representation. The colonial culture is entrenched – it has stolen ground to protect. This is not to say there isn’t goodwill, but even in the most progressive areas it’s clear that there are many challenges before the balance is meaningfully shifted.
Insecurity goes a long way to explaining the distortions in the way power is held and abused in the performing arts. Power is rare, and how it is jealously protected and selectively bequeathed perpetuates a lack of perspective. The codification of power and influence is linked with efforts to distinguish one era of creative control (however brief) from another, but in fact it isolates the “chosen ones” and does little to meaningfully expand the reach of the work. In fact new work, along with its new audiences, is the first casualty of this cycle.
I have learned from my experience in advocating for colleagues behind the scenes that there is little scope for change unless these problems are approached inclusively. This is a systemic issue – all the roles that make up our hierarchies are subject to the same inequities and prejudices. The issues are so entrenched that singling out individuals will never be enough.
When women have spoken out, they are often silenced; and we have seen how defamation proceedings in Australia are the least appropriate legal framework to reveal the truth. Judge Judith Gibson, of the NSW District Court, has said that in fact the Australian defamation law framework “may prevent the truth coming out.”
‘The unspoken law that domination of one kind or another warrants its own special conditions is prevalent, sadly, right across the spectrum of performing arts’
The media in general – both social media platforms and the mainstream media – are also complex and fraught arenas. In the case of social media, we are still coming to terms with its “frontier” nature and its powerful capacity for harassment. The mainstream media is subject to deadlines and agendas which inevitably result in the truncation of the stories they report, and the simplification of the complex environments they spring from. It’s also interesting to read in the AHRC survey that, although the media and communications sector makes up only 2 per cent of the Australian workforce, it has an 81 per cent prevalence of sexual harassment: the highest of any field. And this is the sector that frames the public discourse on the issue.
It is often said that the rehearsal room is not a democracy: we don’t make all our decisions by collective agreement because if we did, nothing would happen. There must be a leader to yoke the ensemble to a purpose. Respect for the authorities in the room is an irreplaceable key to successful work. But there is an important and delicate relationship between the guiding principles of the work and the unique human perspectives that populate it. We must consent to the rules, but we must also maintain the pathways of our individuality.
Under these tacit agreements, if one cast member is given permissions that others are denied, the necessary authorities are shadowed by an alternative. This amounts to usurpation: the privileged individual can dip in and out of the mutual compact whenever it suits them, and their impunity compromises all other liberties. Because the privilege is inherent or unspoken (who dares to utter the real reason?) it cannot correspond with the needs of the whole ensemble.
Try as they may to resist, the rest of the cast must take a position in relation to this influence. This might mean being forced to appease the privileged one with further favourable treatment, or it might involve actively opposing their influence, which usually results in further personal and professional compromises.
As common as this kind of favouritism is, the logic behind it is flawed. It assumes that by giving the privileged actor all the room they require, we (director/cast mates/company staff) will be giving them the right conditions for great achievement, and by extension, their achievement will lift the quality of the production and improve everyone around them.
But this mistakes artistic achievement for unrestrained power.
The bounty of success includes permissions for certain kinds of behaviour. This is not an exclusively male phenomenon, but it is bound up in the patriarchal framework – you get to be sexually desirable, or you can set the terms of your engagement at the expense of others, because in facilitating your potency, your elevation, we, as enablers, give you the best conditions to do your great work. The unspoken law that domination of one kind or another warrants its own special conditions is prevalent, sadly, right across the spectrum of performing arts.
When the powerful feel like the status quo is changing, they naturally feel anxious. I feel this anxiety. I am one of the powerful, even though I don’t command box office or employ people. My path has been eased by the privileges I am afforded in this system. My voice has grown because it has been heard. The prospect of unpicking the values that underpin who I have become and the work I love makes me uneasy. But I can feel the depth of the opportunity.
‘Men do have to learn to profoundly listen, no matter how uncomfortable it feels, and to find our voices in all of this’
When the #MeToo movement went viral, it became clear to me that this outcry wasn’t just about solidarity. It was about uncovering forgotten memories and reopening old wounds. Many women in my life spoke about at first feeling sympathy for these stories and then, when they thought about their own lives, realising how many times it had happened to them. There was a banality to the inevitability of harassment. The countless nicks and cuts had skinned over.
Sexual harassment and bullying affect men too, as perpetrators but also as victims. We must wake up to our roles in the banality of harassment and bullying. The necessary change does not happen without us.
We must call out inequities and abuses of power in our male-dominated system, because we know it intimately, because victims of this behaviour are punished or excluded for doing so. Our privilege protects us, but also it amplifies our voices, our choices and our behaviours.
The bond male actors have in the performing arts is that we are free to escape the rigid stereotypes of masculinity that pervade society. We need this permission in order to explore ourselves properly.
We are often asked to represent the more destructive facets and experiences of masculinity but, as we have seen in countless instances around the world, the same destructive behaviours are often permitted in our professional conduct, or in the conduct of our male idols.
The freedom we require for personal and artistic breakthroughs is crucial, and an extraordinary grace bestowed in our work. But the influence of the wider systemic imbalances and distortions is undeniable. This is why consent must be placed at the centre of the problem. Ethical, actionable codes of conduct are an urgent priority. We should be thinking, not about how these processes inhibit our expression, but how they might liberate it.
A vocal coach once taught me something invaluable about rage. I was trying to represent a ranting young soldier, bewildered, drunk, damaged by conflict. I thought I understood rage, and so I was reaching for all the colours of anger I knew. Somehow it wasn’t enough.
I sat exhausted and frustrated. My body felt heavy, my voice was tight, I wasn’t working well. I cooled down and we just sat talking quietly about the resistance I felt. She encouraged me further. A feeling had built up inside me while I was giving voice to all this anger. A feeling of impotence, of exposure. And it dawned on me. This boy’s rage wasn’t about anger at all, but humiliation.
This memory has returned to me because it reveals something more than a useful contrast in my work. It shows me more broadly what might lurk underneath rage. This soldier had been taught the disciplines and language of harm. In crisis, he realised that in every way he harms others he inevitably harms himself. He realised, in fact, that he didn’t matter: all that mattered was his compliance in the system of war. And now that he had been abandoned by that system, he was hopelessly lost. His rage didn’t make him feel better, but it was the only language he knew.
Perhaps this is not so far away from what lurks beneath my own anger, now? Perhaps I’m not alone?
Safe practise in the performing arts will be achieved wherever the appropriate respect and care is extended to every employee. This requires working behind the scenes to create space for the shift to occur. It means exposing the prejudices and distortions of power for the corrosive impact they have. It means taking time, slowing down, and searching our workplace for the expectations, rules and rewards that are necessary, and those that are not.
If I am to be proud of the workplace that has given me so much, and where I have witnessed such extraordinary compassion, ingenuity and grace, I need to find ways to see afresh what has become everyday, to address and forgive unconscious behaviours, and to promise to combat all those attitudes in my workplace that are, truly, shameful.
Dan Spielman is the newly appointed convener of the Equity Committee to Develop Intimacy Guidelines in the Performing Arts