Is theatre a safe space?

By Roshan Jacob

The Royal Court’s have decided to set in place a ‘Code of Behaviour’ in theatres across Britain, which suggests that there is a problem to begin with. The fact that a black and white spelling out of right and wrong is worrying, and seems indicative of a wider social problem. As if the the immovable existence of the wider law wasn’t sufficient in determining what an actor should and shouldn’t do. A mere look at the harsh title of the new Behaviour Code beginning with a proclamation against ‘Abuses of Power’ and ending with the reassuring ‘a hope for culture change’ hints at a major, carpeted and hidden underbelly of the theatrical world.  

Numerous stories punctuate the world of theatre with ‘behind the scene’ abuse. Ms. Ireland of the Wooster Company believes that actors often don’t know what to do when physical, sexual, harassment and bullying- ‘crosses a line’. Her statement was released after the Tony nominated star had domestic struggles with her co-star resulting in her being slapped across the face and knocked down the floor. Her black eye the next morning was proof of a scene few dare to address. However, Ms. Ireland is but one of a few who have reported such a happening in her interview; for others, it is a risk of social shame, and potential damage to their careers, that prevents them from stepping into the light.   

An attempt to address the standing problem of unregistered sexual misconduct was finally brought to fruition by the convening of the ‘No Grey Area’ at the Jerrod theatre. The event sought to uncover untold stories of corruption and abuse in British theatre. The voice behind the chant for change is Vicky Featherstone, the architect of the ‘Code of Behaviour’. Her decision to ‘be really fast about it’ and the avoidance of multiple drafting sessions suggests an urgency to the issue at hand.

The attention of high profile figures such as Featherstone coupled with the success and attendance of the event is but a confirmation that the realm of theatre is riddled with abuse. There was no shortage of experiences shared with one hundred and fifty accounts of sexual abuse being read out to the attending audience over a course of five hours. The artistic director deems her urgent drawing up of the theatrical conduct code as a reaction to the horrifying allegations against recently Academy-banned Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein. The allegations against the mogul amount to over fifty women coming forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct. Those who fell afoul of Weinstein’s eye include British actor Lysette Anthony, Lucia Evans and even Gwyneth Paltrow who was only twenty-two when she was reportedly summoned to the director’s hotel suite.

The argument for a required code of behaviour is further strengthened by House of Cards star Kevin Spacey facing allegations based on his sexual conduct from different areas of Hollywood and the theatrical world.  

Some view Hollywood and Broadway and West End to be mask-giving agents, allowing actors to hide behind their manufactured personas. Spacey’s own brother Randy Fowler claims that his sibling was enabled by his celebrity status to carry out sexual advances against those not protected by fame and the red carpet. Spacey’s manipulation of the accusation of sexual misconduct to refocus attention towards his emergence from the closest as a newly public gay man is only proof of the power that he has garnered after season’s worth of attention. Richard Dreyfuss, Antony Rapp are just two of ten that have worked with Kevin Spacey that have accused him of abusive sexual misbehaviour. Despite this, investigations into the matter have resulted in Spacey’s rise on twitter prominence alongside his publicity advisor’s reassurance of his fans that he was ‘receiving treatment’. It appears to be a classic ‘assistance and guidance’ of a rich criminal into therapy while a poor one is condemned to jail.  

The public sphere of the actors isn’t the only element which involves inappropriate behaviour. Such allegations extend to the men of the script and direction- Max Stafford- Clark. Multiple women have voiced their concerns about Stafford-Clark post his ousting from theatre company ‘Out of Joint’ including his assistant and multiple women he has directed over the years. So far an apology has been issued, while his spokesperson claims it is Stafford Clark’s pseudobulbar palsy and ‘occasional disinhibition’ which is to blame for his lack of control of ‘sexual expression’ since his stroke and brain injury’ in 2006. To what extent, the injury is responsible for his misguided actions is yet to be discovered.  

The first step to progress within the formerly undisclosed dark side of theatre is the acknowledgement of a problem. The publishing of Vicky Featherstone’s ‘Code of Behaviour’, an announcement of a major issue affecting new and veteran actors across Britain, also presents a new gold standard for what is expected of those involved in theatrical production. Theatre in general cannot be stamped with a ‘safe space’ symbol overnight with a hundred percent guarantee no harm will befall any aspiring actor. The emergence of such a problem into common circles of conversation is but recent and the extent of the issue cannot be measured of yet. Despite this, the action of Featherstone and the attention of international media to the issue can only be registered as a very positive step in the right direction.   

Photograph: Alexander Kluge via Creative Commons

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