Geoffrey Rush inappropriate behaviour claim exposes role of theatre company boards

Any shock about yesterday’s reports of alleged inappropriate behaviour by actor Geoffrey Rush at Sydney Theatre Company was followed by surprise at how the company has dealt with the claim so far.

According to Rush, he was not informed about the complaint that is alleged to have occurred during the STC production of King Lear in 2015.

“Not to afford a person their right to know what has been alleged against them, let alone not inform them of it but release such information to the public is both a denial of natural justice and is not how our society operates,” Rush said in a statement.

The apparent clumsiness of how STC deals with complaints of inappropriate behaviour follows last week’s Daily Review report of a claim of sexual harassment.

In that instance, an actor complained of sexual harassment by a co-performer in an STC show. STC management ‘dealt’ with the claim, but the result was the actor who alleged the harassment left the production, leaving the alleged perpetrator free to continue in their job.

According to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Equity preliminary survey of sexual harassment in actors’ workplaces, 40 per cent of survey respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment of a physical nature (touching, groping etc).

The STC however told Daily Review last week that “Sydney Theatre Company has investigated a very small number of issues over the last few years”.

If these Equity statistics are an accurate guide, cases of alleged sexual harassment at STC either go unreported or those who experience them may not have faith in the investigation of them.

The Equity report suggests this may be the case given that of those members it surveyed, 60 per cent of people who reported sexual harassment said they were dissatisfied with the outcome.

Last month, Fairfax Media reported the anonymous account of an actor in an unnamed theatre company who did complain to that company’s management of sexual harassment.

When the issue finally reached a senior staff member, the actor described the process:

“She began the meeting smiling,” the actress said, before commenting: “So I hear someone’s got a bit of a crush on you”. “I was shocked,” she said. “I felt alone and unprotected.”

The board members’ role is not to tell the artistic director which plays to stage, but to provide ‘real world’ experience to oversee the smooth operations of the company.

STC, like any workplace, says it has clear policies in place around sexual harassment.

“STC has several policies – the Workplace, Bullying and Harassment Prevention Policy and the Grievance Procedure Policy. These policies are continually evaluated and updated. Inductions are carried out at the commencement of each production that refer to the existence of the policies and set out who employees should talk to if they want to discuss an issue.’’

Despite the intentions of the policy (similar to other arts company policies around the country), the very nature of an acting job creates challenges for those claiming sexual harassment and opportunities for those who perpetrate it. Acting is a tactile job; actors play couples and lovers with the intimacy (however feigned) that that involves.

The account of the senior theatre manager of the unnamed company in the Fairfax report above is perhaps not that surprising. Most senior management in professional theatre companies in Australia have come up the ranks working in performing arts companies where interaction between employees is far more casual and intimate than it is if, say, they were working in a 9 to 5 office job.

The STC instances and the Equity survey results expose how performing arts companies in Australia need to clarify and strengthen their sexual harassment processes.

If company management cannot effectively deal with a case of sexual harassment – or even recognise it when one is presented to it– then its board needs to take steps to change the company culture.

Theatre company boards are top heavy with bankers, financiers, lawyers, HR experts (and usually the company’s artistic director and CEO and a single artist).

The corporate board members’ role is not to tell the artistic director which plays to stage, but to provide ‘real world’ experience to oversee the smooth operations of the company.

These board members need to stop hiding behind vague “no further comment’’ press releases and drag theatre management into the 21st century. The exposure of these cases is only going to escalate.

27 responses to “Geoffrey Rush inappropriate behaviour claim exposes role of theatre company boards

  1. That the STC has handled complaints of harassment and bullying poorly has been shown to be true to those in the business for some time, and now their failures in this area have been made public.

    There are many complexities in the identification and reporting of harassment in any field. It seems universally true, though, that one of the forums where complaint is most compromised in our business is on the rehearsal room floor. For example, it is not rare to hear of productions where bullying or harassment has occurred when senior artists and people in positions of power are present in the room but have not spoken up or brought their influence to bear. Though the delicacies of the artistic process are absolutely not an excuse for different rules of consent, it does seem that even the most decorated and powerful artists can feel like it’s not their place to disrupt the process when they are creatively involved. So how confusing might it be for someone without that power?

    We can all say that we would hope to act differently and make generalisations about apparently uniformly consenting behaviour, but precisely because the work environment is complex, it is the responsibility of the management of said company to have effective protocols in place. Protocols that are best practise and that acknowledge all aspects of the procedure of complaint from identification through to PR.

    Essentially, it should be the focus of management to quarantine the people involved, accuser and accused, until these protocols and processes have been properly observed. Something the STC has clearly failed to do on more than one occasion.

    Harassment and bullying are commonplace and completely unacceptable. There is no special condition in the rehearsal process that excludes consent or requires suffering humiliation. Those who claim it is special in this way do not have the relevant experience to comment.

    Underlying the broader culture of tacit approval of harassment is the spectre of misogyny on the one hand, and on the other an embarrassing obeisance in relation to fame and power, box office and reputation.

    Misogyny is a major target for exposure in our time. And a world where profit and image protection are justification for the devaluing of someone’s humanity is not a world we want or should accept.

    1. Dan in this particular case, we have no idea as to what the nature of the compliant was , nor do we have any knowledge re how creditable is the evidence . Nor do we know who ‘leaked’ the story to the press, nor do we know the motive for the leak.

      Am reminded of the time when somebody asked E M Forster : ‘what really happened in the Marabar Cave ?’ To which Forster replied : ‘ I don’t know’.

  2. This is a shameful travesty of justice – pure and simple.
    This is going to end badly, for all concerned in the light of the Weinstein tusami sweeping the world.
    This matter should only be treated as pure innuendo and never oxygen until or if anything “substantial” was tabled.
    To not do so may mean the end of the STC and even that of the career of a most gifted man.
    All for copy Mr Murdoch? Have we not been there before?
    PUT UP OR SHUT UP!

  3. What a mess. The complainant and the STC must speak.
    It is wrong to accuse, then hide! It can’t go on. Someone..anyone… tell the truth. There are families involved. The STC’s management of the situation is a primer in what NOT to do.

  4. Richard; let me tell you a little story…….When I was a 19 year old student some 30+ years ago attending what is now called a G8 University doing a STEM course, there were a few females (4 or 5) with 150 males in second year maths class.

    The Lecturer was a 70 year old male PhD (Dr G), with an enthusiastic Julius Sumner Miller type of delivery. He would fire off questions to anyone in the class, and give pithy and amusing feedback on the answers received.

    One of the female students was asked a question and after some delay gave a wrong answer, to which Dr G replied “no, not tonight Josephine”.

    Having grown up with a few family WW1 veterans of the venerable Dr G’s age, I had heard plenty of that sort of humorous banter and slang.

    Laughter rippled through the class, and on it went. We heard later that the female student in question had made a complaint to the University authorities about Dr G’s ‘inappropriate’ remark, and the old boy was in some sort of hot water.

    So the female in this case was complaining about an authority figure in a 1970’s University setting where there were 150 witnesses to a harmless remark from another era. She must have just read ‘The Female Eunuch’ which was hot at the time.

    Come to thing of it, I was most offended by Germaine Greer on Q&A a couple of years ago commenting on Julia Gillard’s big bum and her lack of fashion sense in dealing with it. I think a complaint of ‘historical inappropriate behaviour’ on the part of Germaine should be made to the HRC, and invite ‘Meeto’s’ to the webpage: Germaineoffendedmetoo@bigpond.com

  5. Archie Lever clearly has no understanding of social stratification. It is exceptionally difficult to complain about abuse from those who are above you in the pecking order. Not many students ever complain about sexual harassment from a teacher or professor.

  6. Aren’t we Aussies pathetically derivative….some Americans decide to complain against civil war statues and pull some down….a week later we are seeing Captain Cook smeared with paint and noisy calls for statue wars. Harvey Weinstein is exposed in the US, then Kevin Spacey and more on both sides of the left-right spectrum….and now Oz has to have its celebrity exposures….

    Can’t any of these victims of sexual harassment give the culprit an uppercut at the time, or a swift kick in the crotch, or at least a good verbal bollicking heard by the whole cast?? That might have stopped the culprit in his (or her) tracks for good.

    He (its always a ‘he’) acted inappropriately some years ago and I have been mortally damaged by the act ever since. Does anybody remember Crocodile Dundee goosing the transvestite at the NY party and finding out he/she was a bloke?? It was a good laugh in the movie – now it would be promoting sexual assault!!

    One word about ‘inappropriate’ behaviour – and the accused’s reputation and career is smeared for life and in this febrile atmosphere – terminal.

    Like 18C, where the victims determine the crime (I felt insulted and offended by what you said so you have committed a crime!); the ‘inappropriate behaviour’ can be similarly subjective, determined by the victim. ‘He said he liked my looks and asked me out; and I was offended because I did not like the look of him, and therefore he is guilty of inappropriate behaviour!’

    If Mr Rush is guilty of what could be objectively determined as a sexual assault under the law; he should be dealt with in the courts. If he gave offence to someone by lesser ‘inappropriate’ behaviour; the alleged victim should have told him to bugger off in a loud voice; and let those around at the time know in a very loud voice as well.

  7. Definitely not handled well! To not even be informed of such an accusation? To not have the opportunity to respond? And to have the ‘anonymous’ accusation made public? Not even close to being handled well! I am struggling to understand the whole process and trust that Geoffrey Rush has the opportunity to know who the accuser is, what he is accused of, and to respond.

  8. Unlike many NFP/Social enterprises, arts companies are not “top heavy” with board talent. Board members are recruited not for their acumen as directors, but as recognition for, or in anticipation of, fundraising abilities. Some directors may (incidentally, through prior experience) have expertise, but they seldom become involved in HR. That’s what you have management for.

    Arts boards are for cocktails and connections. It’s that way in most countries – see the NY Met Opera management/board saga.

  9. The question I would be asking is how come a journalist can ask such a direct question of management in the first place without already having knowledge of what to ask? Does this mean that complainants are not getting redress from management and thus go to the media? I am not in any way inferring that Mr Rush is responsible but if so then the mediation process was a crock according to this person

  10. A single accuser, anonymous, a complaint whose content is secret, and the accused is unaware of the accusation. And then it appears in the press. I wonder if the STC realises what a monstrous abuse of process and of common decency this is. I thought those kinds of denunciations only occurred in the old Cold War Eastern Bloc.

    I assume the STC has presented Kafka’s The Trial at some stage. That is precisely the plight of Joseph K … and it seems the STC has taken altogether the wrong lesson from it.

  11. This is almost beyond belief. How on earth is it permissible to condemn someone, on such a public issue, on the basis of rumour and without substantiating evidence of a smutty crime? If the fault lies with the Sydney Theatre Company, they have erred egregiously. Hell, even a cat burglar gets a trial.

  12. I have known Geoffrey, not well, for some decades now. I am shocked at the report and the clear lack of transparency of this case. There is no doubt that many people are rightly being exposed now but the very nature of the way this has developed leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
    On the smell test if the principal accused was not allowed to know the facts how did the Murdoch rubbish get tipped off ? To damage a person’s integrity without giving them the opportunity to examine the evidence just seems wrong.
    I hasten to say I have no knowledge of this case nor should I. Until Mr Rush is shown the complaint it remains rumour and I hope will not do lasting damage to a man who has given so much to his craft, his peers and for all of us.

    1. He knew exactly what this was about before it went to the press. He has been playing dumb to help his “I’m the victim” narrative. NEWS CORP jumped the gun as they wanted to claim the story as their own. Just because the GP doesn’t know the facts doesn’t mean the claims aren’t true. People think Geoffrey has been damaged, but someone, anyone, think how hard this media circus might be for the complainant. They are the real victim.

  13. Perhaps we need to know the people involved in supposedly handling this public announcement – is it a case of professional jealousy/payback? For sure it can’t be simply a procedural error. And as with others and though from afar – I can scarcely credit that this is true – let alone credit the appalling injustice of the announcement.

    A friend in the corporate world in the HR side of things speaks of this Season of Good Cheer (and Office Xmas Parties – OXP) as the busiest time for all manner of accusations of harassment and further. Let all the corporate world power “heavies”/managers/underlings be absolutely on the alert right now

  14. Just because someone in the press asks a question does not obligate an answer. In a world where your young shop assistant needs to have a bit of a idea on confidential information and privacy principles the notion that senior people would talk about a specific individual to the press without the issue having been dealt with according to basic principles makes my head spin.

  15. A person who claims an offence and insists that the alleged perpetrator not be told, while expecting the employer deal with it seems calculatingly malicious, intentionally spiteful and not to mention somewhat suspicious. The next question is of course, was there an expectation for compensation? I hope the Management and Board also investigated the possibility of slander.

  16. No names, no facts, no evidence, nothing. All we have is a vague allegation of impropriety on the part of one of our finest and most widely reputable actors. Tragic – and in its handling of the whole business, the STC board should be ashamed of itself.

  17. The issue here is that there is a right way and a wrong way to address unlawful activity. And the right way does not involve unsubstantiated and anonymous accusations reported in the press. Sexual predators and bullies are a blight in any workplace, but fair process must be followed.

  18. Don’t theatre companies have CEOs? Handling issues like this is operational. I’d expect a CEO with advice from HR to deal with such matters, rather than having board members delving into day to day operations. Sounds like a structural problem.

    1. I agree Jenny but there seems to be pattern emerging of management not handling these issues well. However its board is weighted with corporate experts who should be providing their advice to management on such issues which can explode in their faces by damaging the company’s “brand”; (unless, of course they have done so and their advice hasn’t been very effective). Cheers, Ray

  19. I think this is appalling that one of our most esteemed actors has been treated this way. I cannot believe Geoffrey Rush would behave in an unprofessional manner – and I have known him for over 30 years. The unfair inference, with no actual facts, is an appalling miscarriage of justice and is denying his human and individual rights in being informed of the basis of of this accusation. Another huge blight on those who are supposedly responsible for HR policies in arts companies.

    1. “I cannot believe Geoffrey Rush would behave in an unprofessional manner – and I have known him for over 30 years.”
      This is a dangerous sentiment – because you haven’t seen something yourself, or haven’t experienced it, doesn’t mean it’s not possible. That’s not to say that the way that STC has handled the issue is appropriate, but surely a key issue emerging from the multiple instances of public figures being exposed as having committed various sexual and other offences lately has shown this.

      People who commit sexual assault, harassment, rape, etc, don’t look or act a particular way. They can live and work amongst people who have no idea, and would never think their friend/colleague/family member capable of committing such offences.

    2. ‘Those who are responsible for HR policies in arts companies’, would, in a typical structure, include the HRmanager, probably an operations manager, a ‘People and Culture’ manager or some such, the General Manager/CEO and, ultimately, the Board (with different levels of responsibility between a management board and a ‘strategic’ board).

      This is to say nothing of fellow actors, techs, ‘creatives’ and the director of each individual production who really, given the nature of theatre companies, need to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of management on the ground.

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