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Features Published 18 October 2017

Sexual harassment in theatre won’t end until it’s everyone’s problem

As the Weinstein revelations spark a bout of theatre-world soul-searching, Alice Saville writes on why men need to take responsibility for rooting out sexual harassment.
Alice Saville
Men running away from the problem in Young Frankenstein, on at the Garrick Theatre

Men running away from the problem in Young Frankenstein, on at the Garrick Theatre

Over the past few days, the #MeToo posts have piled up. They prove what everyone knows but no one really wants to deal with: that women and young men live with the threat of sexual harassment, and that it happens in nice arty jobs too, even (or perhaps especially) in the theatre, where everyone gets drunk together, physical boundaries are blurred, and there’s no HR department to go to when things get nasty.

The theatre world’s specific response to the Weinstein revelations has been both heartening, and predictable. Its established feminist voices have both spoken out, and taken concrete action. Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone has been brilliant: she opened a dialogue on Twitter, and then announced a day of action in response to the Weinstein revelations, including an industry-wide Town Hall on October 28th. RSC artistic director Erica Whyman has written a rousing piece in The Stage, saying “come on let’s end this bullshit”. Outgoing Camden People’s Theatre executive director Amber Massie-Blomfield has offered support for young women who need advice.

The response from men in the theatre world has been less visible. Most male industry figures have simply ignored it. The responses there are have mainly revolved around surprise at this ‘news’ and a murmur of interest round Lucy Prebble’s very well-written LRB article.

Hopefully it’s not because every one of them is shit-scared that their misdemeanours will come to light (though doubtless that’s true in quite a few cases). Hopefully it’s a sense of awkwardness, of not wanting to butt in on sensitive and uncomfortable discussions, as well as an unwillingness to interrogate their own behaviour. But the problem with this awkwardness is that it makes dealing with harassment into a problem that women have to sort out, when it’s a problem that’s both mainly caused and mainly fixable by men.

It’s draining, upsetting and unfair that people who’ve experienced sexual assault and harassment to have to live with both that experience, and the responsibility for sorting out the problem – while large sections of the industry respond with damage control, seeing them as an unhelpful distraction from business as usual.

Weinstein was allowed to keep assaulting women for so long because the movie industry moulded himself around his actions, insulating him from damage because he was too valuable to them. Talented people at every level of theatre are seen as valuable too, compared to the endless stream of young keen replaceable arts workers who labour alongside them. But what voices get lost because they can’t or won’t endure the situation?

Sexual harassment is confidence-crushing, and it holds women back. And so does the smaller, more pervasive industry sexism that it’s built on: feeling that your attractiveness to men is the most important thing about you (or important at all), feeling that flirtation is being belittled or reduced to the way you look, being seen as a girl, not an adult colleague.

There’s a parallel situation in the world of theatre criticism, where the male critics are routinely silent on the sexism in big name shows (with a few welcome exceptions). It’s just sort of quietly accepted that all female actors have to be hot and slim (at any age) and willing to be naked for reasons that might be both artistic, and so that the audience can obsessively scrutinise their bodies. Sexual violence is often presented as a sort of extra-nasty plot twist – never mind that theatre audiences are predominantly female (according to the Society of London Theatres, women comprised sixty eight per cent of theatre audiences in 2010) and presumably less likely to find something ‘deliciously dark’ or ‘blackly comic’ if it vividly brings back the memory of a horrible experience they’ve either had, or been taught to live in fear of.

At Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, we see a woman being pursued and threatened with rape by a seven foot monster. He throws her to the ground, and then her screams are transformed into apparent squeals of delight at the size of his penis. In another scene, a woman sings a comic ditty about domestic violence: “If he had an angry fit,/ I vas the first thing that he’d hit,/ but I didn’t give a shit…/He vas my boyfriend!”

In the eyes of almost all of Young Frankenstein‘s reviewers, this material was totally unremarkable. Natasha Tripney was alone in going for a two-star review that called out the show’s grotesque sexism, and she caused hundreds of commenters on The Stage’s social media pages to froth and foam about political correctness and joyless feminism.

If the most common way to deal with women who call out sexism and harassment is silence, a close second is this time-honoured strategy of casting people who object to rape jokes and sexism as humourless. Michael Billington’s Guardian review seems to do so, too, albeit in a weird coded way – “This may not be a show for sensitive souls whose idea of a jolly evening is sitting at home reading Walter Pater. For the rest of us, who cherish popular theatre’s roots in laughter and song, it offers two-and-a-half hours of time-suspending pleasure.”

It feels a bit weird that he thinks fans of Victorian aesthetics would have a particular problem with Young Frankenstein – until you realise he’s deliberately selected a writer he sees as effete, but not actually (and potentially offence-causingly) female.

In an excellent set of interviews with female artistic directors in American Theatre, Erica Whyman talks about her problems with rape scenes in plays, particularly comedies, using the female-authored examples of The Rover and The Basset-Table: “the ending of the last act is premised on a woman learning a lesson because she is threatened by rape. There isn’t anything dark or satirical about that.” I was inwardly cheering as I read it.

When I see women naked, beaten or abused on stage, I feel smaller. The way women are treated onstage sends a powerful message to the women working in the industry. Presenting these scenes as entertainment both normalises and glamorises sexual violence in a way that inevitably outweighs any attempted subversion or overarching message. And there’s also a real worry that actors are under pressure to perform these scenes as a sign of their professionalism or commitment. In Hollywood, similar scenes are inextricable from a culture that permits systemic sexual harassment (Lea Seydoux bravely spoke out about the bullying, pressuring atmosphere which created the sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Colour).

In the summer of 2015, I called out the graphic depictions of rape and domestic violence in two Edinburgh fringe shows. Both reviews resulted in a steady drip feed of tweets and facebook messages from men – some asking me to retract my reviews, some calling me classist for objecting to male working class experience, some plain abuse, some asking me out for a drink to talk it over. I started writing a long feature about rape on stage. And dropped the idea, feeling under siege, that I just didn’t want to be a part of this gross, depressing, one-sided conversation anymore.

There’s been a welcome shift since then. Even before Weinstein’s behaviour was made public, movements like Everyday Feminism launched an openness and a willingness to call out and confront bad behaviour. And Tumblr, Twitter and dedicated student activists have meant that ideas that were once the preserve of a few pioneering feminist theorists have gone mainstream for a new generation of feminists.

But the recentness of this current shift doesn’t mean for a second that this stuff is too difficult for male critics (like Billington, like many many more) to understand – any more than its too difficult for the male industry professionals who programme and write this stuff. Feminism is a critical lens to view art through, a set of basic theories that belong to everyone. And conveniently, work that relies on boneheaded sexist stereotypes is often pretty flawed elsewhere, too.

The past few weeks have shown why we need strong female voices commenting on theatre (and art, and film). But just as much, we need a bit of imagination, a bit of boldness from men in power. That means analysing performances through a feminist lens. Clear policies on sexual harassment. A designated person to talk through issues with. Unconscious bias training. A careful eye on how many work events involve large quantities of alcohol, and of who this puts at risk. And even more crucially, introspection and analysis of their own behaviour, and a genuine willingness to apologise and admit wrongdoing. Those are a start. But the underlying behavioural shift they rely on is one of responsibility. Sometimes it’s not enough to notice that “sensitive souls” are unhappy. Maybe it’s time to find out why.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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