In the wake of #metoo and #timesup I’ve been thinking a lot about how to realistically deal with harassment and abuse, particularly in the Arts. It’s challenging enough in ‘normal’ workplaces, but in ours there are so many complications. Situations arise in which artists very willingly participate in activities that would be utterly unacceptable in just about any other circumstance but are perfectly legitimate creative tools. Think of a director encouraging swearing and shouting at an actor to help them access the defensive rage for a scene, but with both parties coming out smiling and happy with the result. That kind of situation is just not relevant in the vast majority of workplaces and makes prescriptive safeguarding a huge problem in theatres and on sets.
Let me clarify what I meant by prescriptive safeguarding. I am talking about organisations prohibiting or encouraging specific actions (including use of particular language) in a way that is usual quite clear and simple (think ‘you’re not allowed to punch your boss’). This kind of protective rule has made a huge difference and is, sadly, still very needed – there are far too many people who will do horrific things if they aren’t overtly told no (and sometimes even then). But they are problematic – they are aimed at the average of a population (leaving people on the outer edges of any group poorly represented) and tend to be oversimplified, meaning they do not address the myriad abusive actions too vast to be put onto a written list. You can end up with some quite odd situations.
You can’t invite an actor to your house to do a read-through but there’s nothing to stop you grabbing her boobs to make a point in rehearsal.
If you are not from a theatre background you may assume that the above is ridiculous, that the boundaries in the Arts are far more comparable to anywhere else. Here’s a scenario to help you understand the fine line often trodden during a creative process:
A company is portraying the violent treatment of trafficked women. They are referencing Trump’s infamous ‘grab em by the pussy’ line and incorporating it into the piece, with the criminal characters assaulting the women whilst laughing.
Without anything else this already dictates one actor touching the genital area of another actor, something totally unacceptable in an office or on a building site, but quite relevant and acceptable in this instance.
The company discuss the fact that they’re unclear what this would do to someone in reality and the director suggests an exercise: the actors are to walk around the room and randomly grab at each other in way that would normally be unacceptable, mocking any sign of discomfort. By the end of this each actor has been groped and has groped.
Whilst this is a deliberately graphic (and made up) scenario I’m sure many of the creatives reading this will be aware that it’s by no means an impossible picture. Intimacy is a tool in this kind of work, not a protected personal experience.
It’s fair to say that standard safeguarding will not work for much of the Arts.
It may seem like we’ve got ourselves into an impossibly complex situation, but to my mind we have an incredible opportunity to explore and clarify ways that Arts communities can identify, prevent and root out abuse. Our work relies on individuals being emotionally safe enough to work so we have a vested interest in doing everything possible to create a safe environment.
Take the above scenario – there is no reason to assume that the participants would consider the exercise abusive. A safe professional environment could quite feasibly make this possible without hurting anyone. How?
Being informed of what’s happening, why it’s happening and being able to refuse without threat of disproportionate consequences.
A good company will be made up of people who understand the need for reduced inhibitions as well as the limitations of that; they will have spent time getting to know each other; each person will have a voice, have been asked their opinion and will have been shown respect and consideration up to and during this stage of the process. By the time you get to the situation above an actor will be prepared, well versed and feel trust for the people around them so this exercise to explore a sensitive part of the production will be safe.
And, crucially, if it’s not they will be able to say no.
Of every industry we are one of the best positioned to show the world EXACTLY what abuse is in all its forms. If a director wants to make an audience see discomfort and suffering they can work with actors to generate the right tone of voice, position of hand, length of pause to do exactly that.
One of the huge problems in harassment and abuse cases is what we consider ‘fact’. Often we’re told that those involved were at a lively party together or that they were working together on a project, but we’re not told what was being presented by the person being subjected to abusive behaviour at the time: their tone of voice, bodily tension, eye contact, fidgeting, facial expression… the list goes on. These things are often dismissed as opinion but most people without training in human behaviour would pick up on them. As specialists in portraying and sharing emotion we really have no excuse for failing to identify them.
Yet we still find ourselves saying ‘He just looked uncomfortable’, a phrase that is easily dismissed as a misunderstanding. What if we were to say this instead?
He was repeatedly turning his face away from her. He was consistently avoiding eye contact and, although his mouth was smiling, the expression did not reach the rest of his face. Several times he turned his body outwards then stiffened his shoulders, arms and neck, when she touched him and turned him back towards her.
Would it still be dismissed as opinion?
What if, in presenting a case, we were asked to use other performers to clarify what we saw or experienced? If demonstration recordings were used, with specific intonations to show what was implied as much as what was said? It’s the 21st Century and most of us have smartphones with cameras and voice recorders. If a friend of mine needed a set of recordings of the sentence ‘I’m not very happy with that’ to help explain the way they’ve been treated it would take me all of 10 minutes to get it to them.
We are trained to do this. We could do it for a character. What’s stopping us doing it for each other? If we want to change our industry we have to change our own attitudes and behaviour.
Everyone deserves to feel safe at work. The Arts are always a tough career master, with saturated markets, lack of funding and a constant battle for the recognition of skills and ability. The last thing we should be doing is dealing with abuse and cruelty to boot. We need to use our skills and creativity to keep ourselves and each other safe, and it’s not complicated, it’s little more than just paying attention.
That, and being prepared to keep speaking up.