When I was studying acting there were multiple incidents that taught me my place. I was working on a show in second year, playing lovers with an older fella who was always teasing me about being prudish while “complimenting” me on my boobs, which was confusing. I was 21 and deeply uncomfortable working with him. On opening night, out of the blue, he tongue-kissed me in the middle of a party scene. Unrehearsed. No consent.
I was furious. I reported the incident expecting that my cast-mate would be reprimanded, thinking drama school would be the place to learn good conduct. Instead I was told to get used to it, stop being so sensitive, toughen up, and “take it as a compliment.”
On reflection the lessons I learned there set me up for a highly hazardous industry.
I told that story to a friend recently and she said: “At least that was at drama school and he wasn’t your director.” She told me that she’d had to deal with creepy comments about her “big boobs” from her highly regarded director while working for a mainstage theatre company.
Australian theatre we have a problem. Actually, we have a few.
We’ve normalised such behaviour and been socialised into believing that this sort of stuff is just part of working in the field
There are many more stories—ones that will make your skin crawl. (Did you hear the story about the powerful well-known older male actor who left faeces in his underwear on the dressing room floor night after night in a bid to gain the young, beautiful wardrobe assistant’s attention? When she reported it to management rather than speaking to the actor’s agent or confronting him, they simply gave her rubber gloves and a set of tongs.)
We’ve normalised such behaviour and been socialised into believing that this sort of stuff is just part of working in the field.
The current defamation case between Geoffrey Rush and The Daily Telegraph has triggered a conversation about a performing arts culture that has allowed sexual harassment and sexism to become the norm, something women and the less powerful just have to deal with.
This is the moment to recognise that whatever the outcome of the Rush case, when Justice Wigney hands down his decision in early 2019, there are problems that need to be addressed.
We need those men and women with power in the industry to stand up and acknowledge there is a culture which sees an alarming number of women harassed and silenced.
Instead, we’ve seen the guardians of the theatre world seemingly denying this kind of behaviour is pervasive or that it even exists.
In an article by the actor Neil Pigot and director Julian Meyrick in reference to The Daily Telegraph’s story on Rush, they stated “…there is a grey area, and it is sometimes unclear what is appropriate behaviour and what is unwelcome, unwise or going too far.”
The reality is many great women have left the performing arts or shifted their practice completely because the environment is so unsafe
I would like to challenge every single word of this statement: no no no no no no no no no. It is not difficult to identify sexism and sexual harassment, y’all just haven’t had to try, because more often than not you are the dominant force in the room, and because ENTITLEMENT.
The reality is many great women have left the performing arts or shifted their practice completely because the environment is so unsafe. Alison Croggon’s extensive coverage of the #MeToo movement’s impact on the Australian performing arts sector details a number of examples of this. Reading Croggon’s Witness articles last year and hearing directly from my peers shook me to the core. Learning that so many left because they simply could no longer work in environments where their perpetrators are celebrated and given the right to do whatever they want was bloody heart breaking.
If I really squint my eyes and maybe shut one altogether, I can see how powerful people in the industry might be blind to the injustice and inequality of this wonderful theatre they’ve built. But when their friends and colleagues - particularly women and those from younger generations - speak up, they need to see and hear.
It’s time to shift the power source and cut the cord. The old guard must be challenged and held to account, especially those who have been in the top spots for decades. In a country that professes to back the little guy, now is the time to stand strong and make your opinion heard.