The explosive report by Fairfax and the ABC this morning of allegations against actor Craig McLachlan marks the arrival, with a thud, of a reckoning for the Australian live entertainment industry.
The long and detailed allegations by Christie Whelan Browne, one of the biggest names in musical theatre (made with two other female colleagues) against McLachlan during the 2014 production of The Rocky Horror Show, mark a turning point for the industry.
Unlike the recent, anonymous allegation of inappropriate behaviour made against Geoffrey Rush during a production of King Lear at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2015 and its subsequent inept handling by the company, today’s allegations leave no other response but to be dealt with squarely.
By going public with their allegations, Whelan Browne and her co-performers from the show, Erika Heynatz and Angela Scundi, have signalled to the industry that allegations of sexual misconduct in theatre have to be taken seriously whatever the standing of the complainant or the accused in the cast – or the industry.
As the MEAA Actors’ Equity survey of its members found last year, 40% to 50% of its respondents had experienced sexual harassment including “unwanted familiarity, leering and unpleasant jokes”, 14% said they had been sexually assaulted, 11% had been the victims of physical assault and 10% had been stalked by a co-worker. The report also found 9% had experienced indecent exposure.
Despite this, the survey found 58 per cent of respondents said they were rarely or never told how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace and 47% said that when it was reported, the issues were handled poorly or worsened.
The public stand by Whelan Browne, Heynatz and Scundi will change that by encouraging others not to remain silent.
Today’s revelations will likely send the widespread industry into a panic as it is forced to deal with, rather than evade or hide from dealing with complaints of harassment.
The fact that the Rocky Horror producers, the Gordon Frost Organisation (GFO), has not (so far) responded to the ABC/Fairfax report is perhaps a sign of confusion in how to deal with the public airing of harassment allegations in its workplaces. The ABC reports that lawyers for the GFO have been resistant to requests from the three women for an investigation into their claims and the GFO has threatened to sue the women for defamation.
McLachlan has strenuously denied all allegations against him, but it is hard to imagine that the current tour of Rocky Horror, in which he stars as Dr Frank-N-Furter and which has just begun in Adelaide, can continue until the allegations are dealt with.
Today is a first for the live theatre industry and its implications will be far reaching. Producers and theatre company managements will now have to deal thoroughly with complaints of workplace misconduct and not simply pay lip service to them by publishing well-meaning policies on their websites.
UPDATE: GFO and McLachan agreed later today that he withdraw from the production pending an outcome of an investigation.