There seems to be an eternal paradox in this industry. And it is this: how do we ever speak truth to power when the imbalance of power is fixed into the system that constantly wishes to maintain that imbalance?
We have a movement when truth is spoken and the sexual predators, the power hungry, the bullying of our industry are confronted and brought down only to discover, in the very next breath, that there was another bully, another sexual predator, another person enabling themselves by the power imbalances in this industry and being enabled by all those under them. They too saw the awful behaviour and looked away; said nothing; excused it.
I have a fight going on in my head about certain people that I have worked with, powerful people, who bullied, traumatised, silenced me again and again. The fight is with myself for allowing it to happen and not calling it out, or calling it out too late. Or calling it out and watching them suffer no consequences. They get off scot free. But the actor never gets off scot free. Ever.
The fight is that I have suffered the consequences of speaking up. You feel like you become the problem because no one actually asks for your side of the story. They all just look away. You are left bereft of a voice and you scream the story into the void in your head and you try and rise above the noise but sometimes there is only noise. Deafening. “LOOK WHAT YOU DID! WHY DID YOU SAY THAT? EVERYONE ELSE ENJOYED THAT PLAY. THAT EXPERIENCE. WHY DIDN’T YOU? WHY DID YOU HAVE TO SPOIL IT? WHY COULDN’T YOU KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!? WHY DID YOU KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT?”
Once, when I called out a director and technical team for dropping two heavy cycloramas too close to all the actors on stage, I became the scapegoat of the directors rage. She humiliated me with awful notes in front of the entire cast, notes I never understood and when I asked to have rehearsals on the scene to work the notes in question, I was ignored four times by the stage manager, the assistant director and the director. So each night I had to go on stage and humiliate myself in front of an audience because I didn’t know what I was doing in that scene. The director flies home, the stage manager sits in her anonymous box, but the spotlight was on me, the actor. And night after night that scene would hurtle towards me and I would sweat and shake and know that, because I stood up to power, I was to be humiliated every night.
I was humiliated once by an artistic director. I had just done a major role as an understudy in the Shakespearean canon. It was a brutal, challenging role, but I worked so damned hard on it trying to prove to myself that I could do it. Prove to my family that all the sacrifices were worth it. Prove to all those that loved and supported me that this choice, to be an actor, was worth it. It was the artistic directors play. I was a triumph. I was overwhelmed by the standing ovation I received. I had put every ounce of what I learned over twenty years into that role. The artistic director comes to my dressing room afterwards and the first thing he said to me was: “Well you couldn’t do that every night…” Not one word of congratulation, of support. Just that.
I wanted to spit in his face and tell him to fuck off. I wanted to ask him if that’s all he could say when I was exhausted, had worked my butt off to also prove to him that I was worthy of a place at his illustrious theatre company? I was emotionally fragile from the piece and the euphoria of pride stopped the pain that day. And I made some joke agreeing with him because…he was in power over me and I had none. I was to grovel for a job with him over and over in the succeeding years even though I have nothing but contempt for him. But he can offer me work. No one else can. And when I think of those words and the inadequacy of them, the way he dismissed everything I had worked for, to humiliate me in front of my peers in the dressing room, I should have known then that I would never be taken seriously.
Actors are replaceable. And there is the power struggle’s foundation. As an actor you are just the tool that when blunt can be discarded and another take your place. And within that, silence is born. It’s why it is so hard and takes so much time for predators, bullies and their ilk to be unearthed. We actors know the price we pay. It’s that we’ll never work again.
But it always amazes me how it is the small moments that add up to years of pain and confusion. These examples I have given seem so small in comparison with the stories of sexual abuse, rape and humiliation that I have read in the papers of the world. But a bully starts somewhere, and a predator is enabled by so many people excusing or turning away and remaining silent throughout years of escalating putrid behaviour. And those in power remain untouched.
Only recently in theatre history an executive producer stood down from a well known show that he was producing in the West End (he is American) because his bad behaviour came to light. And no one asked, not one person stood up and asked the UK producer if she knew of his awful behaviour and let it happen anyway because they were producing a show together. Because the only truthful answer to that question would be: “Yes, I did know, but I never cared enough until he was caught and called out. Then I cared. And severed the relationship.” The hypocrisy. We all know the awful behaviour of people, it’s a surprisingly small profession in that way. And once again, the UK producer of that show got no scrutiny, no questions on facts she must have known. And there are no consequences for her. None.
These moments of speaking out is a mingled relief and fear. Fear for the consequences, relief for the story, finally being told and not parading itself constantly through my tired mind. But the consequences for an actor are manifold. Careers smashed, confidence undermined, creativity sullied. Look at Ashley Judd, a fine actress whose career floundered because of HW.
When we speak truth to power there is nothing but consequences for actors. I wonder when the tables will really turn…