(*This editorial was published in the Globe & Mail, January 30, 2018.)
As a seasoned actor, director, and producer of many professional years, and the Artistic Director of Ruby Slippers Theatre – a company dedicated to furthering the voices of women and diversity of all kinds – I would like to share some thoughts.
Not one female theatre artist I have spoken to is shocked by recent headlines around sexual harassment and misconduct in our community. To sum up our discussions, here is why.
If you are a woman in rehearsal and you are uncomfortable with a groping director, sexual gestures or comments, anything that makes you feel that your dignity is being compromised, there is a real possibility that you will be labelled difficult, or resistant, or lacking in a sense of humour. Taking offence to something offensive is often interpreted as a sign of prudish “political correctness” that “censors creativity.” This toxic culture still exists in many places and many are still silent. Why? Fear of reprisal, fear of being blacklisted, fear of failing the class, fear, fear, fear.
It is important to include theatre schools in this conversation as that is where it all begins. My experience, it turns out, was typical. Here are two examples; there was a movement teacher who grossly man-handled women students to “show them” how it’s done. There was a visiting director who harassed women daily and was eventually accused of rape by one of the students. He simply left the country at the end of his contract. Why were these people even allowed to teach?
Independent theatre is not immune to misogyny and it’s attendant bad behaviour either. Misogyny is perhaps worse in certain parts of the Canadian indy scene because bad behaviour can be celebrated in the name of “risk taking” and “breaking the rules.” Myself and some of my colleagues remembered, through our conversations, times when a rehearsal hall featured a director that described things in mostly pornographic terms, where a female actor was asked to take off her shirt and clearly did not want to, where actual physical assault was part of a scene, where public shaming of certain women in the room was the director’s M.O. This culture that claimed to be progressive, edgy, and risk-taking at times made “truthfulness” synonymous with ruthless, sexist behaviour.
We also discovered through our dialogue together that when we were not silent, when we spoke out in the past, this is what happened: directors targeted you more, or you were not taken seriously, told to lighten up, or treated as though you were the problem. Once I turned down a major role from a large theatre company citing that the director was well known to be abusive. My agent and the company told me I just ruined my career, and that company never offered me another role. The radical truth is, men are responsible for their sexual misconduct, not women.
In short, the sexual harassment and misconduct conversation has been one that has gone nowhere and resulted in no consequences…until now. With consequences now seemingly happening here and abroad, there is hope.
I am hopeful that recent events will act as a catalyst, and the structures that protect and enable misogyny and racism to prevail in our industry will be permanently disrupted. I am hopeful that women will be put in positions of power, and all types of diversity will be reflected in those positions, and the #metoo movement will embolden more people to speak out and we as a community will keep listening. This is only the beginning of a long process of transformation, healing, and profound change. And change we must, in the make up of our boards of directors, our Artistic Directors, our produced playwrights and our hired directors; these must reflect gender equity and diversity of all kinds in order for this change to be lasting. Hope = systemic change within the Canadian theatre ecology.
People enabling abusers, on staff, on boards, or in the rehearsal hall; if you are aware of power abuses and do not speak out you are complicit. So please be courageous and speak out. The time is finally here. There is hope.
Artistic Director, Ruby Slippers Theatre.