Australia’s top performing theatre companies are set to release a set of standards around sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying in the theatrical workplace, following the high profile Geoffrey Rush defamation case.
Artistic and creative directors from nine member companies of the Confederation of Australian Confederation of Australian State Theatres met earlier this month to finalise a common set of standards aimed at addressing the reporting of inappropriate conduct, grievance and resolution processes, and subsequent disciplinary action.
The companies include Queensland Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Circus Oz, Bell Shakespeare, Belvoir and the Theatre Company of South Australia.
The companies have already signed up to industry principles of zero tolerance of sexual harassment or bullying – and fairness, confidentiality, transparency, and support in complaint investigation and grievance resolution.
Eamon Flack, artistic director of the Belvoir Theatre, told The Sydney Morning Herald that the changes were well underway before the Rush case, and even before #MeToo.
“Before, there were so many different set-ups at different companies,” he said.
“Now they’ll be the same everywhere, they’re talked about openly on the first day of rehearsals.
“This is how you begin to change the culture. You put everybody on the same pitch, whether they’re a brand-new grad or a big, powerful pillar of the profession.”
One quarter of actors report sexual harassment
The last study into the health of working actors was co-authored by Ian Maxwell from the University of Sydney in 2012.
It found high levels of anxiety, depression and stress were reported by the 782 respondents, with one quarter reporting they had experienced sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.
One person reported being grabbed on the backside and told it was about exploring gender politics, while a drama student said he was pressured into having sex with a well-known actor for help with “contacts”.
Maxwell said he would be surprised if stage actors would be accepting today, as the respondents were seven years ago, who had shrugged off the unwanted behaviour as something that “came with the territory”.
Rush case increased awareness
The Geoffrey Rush case, which involved allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the Oscar winner towards a co-star during the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of King Lear – aired in court and subsequently judged in Federal Court to be false and defamatory – has only heightened awareness of the issue.
Live Performance Australia – which represents commercial and independent theatre producers, music promoters, major performing arts centres and venues, stadiums and arenas, arts festivals, music festivals – adopted national standards, as did Screen Producers Australia.
These organisations have committed to proper record keeping, and promptly investigating all formal complaints, and referring incidents to police where warranted.
The have also pledged to provide support and counselling where there is a reasonable risk to an individual’s personal health and safety.
On the flip side, they have also committed to ensuring procedural fairness to any person who has a complaint made against them, including being given the right of reply and protection from vexatious complaints.
Drama schools have also committed to review their curriculum and teaching methods to give students the skills and knowledge to protect themselves.
Actors deserve protection
Industrial relations specialist Miles Hefferan from Sexual Harassment Claims welcomed the introduction of common standards in the theatre industry.
“Actors are just like any other employee, and deserve the same protections from discrimination and sexual harassment and bullying, just like every other worker in Australia,” he said.
“Unfortunately over the years, the performing arts has been one of those industries where inappropriate touching can be disguised as part of “rehearsals” or desperate young hopefuls can be pressured or manipulated into doing things they don’t want to do because they think it might help their career.
“If there are a set of common clearly defined policies that outline the standards of behaviour expected from people, and a fair but robust complaints and resolution and disciplinary process, then you can’t ask for much more than that.”