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.