Opinion: recent allegations about bullying and sexual harassment in theatre, television and film has prompted an examination into how training for actors can overcome such abuses of power

By Dr Tom Maguire and Dr Tanya Dean, Ulster University 

Allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have scratched at the surface of the abuse of power relationships by older male figures in theatre, television and film. You might dismiss these as belonging to Hollywood mythology, part of what writer Lucy Prebble has called "the grubby glamour" of showbusiness and the casting couch.

But this is in the face of efforts to set up legal protections and anti-discrimination policies in the United States, such as this one from the Screen Actors’ Guild. Yet, the response internationally to the #MeToo campaign, where women identify that they have been subject to sexual harassment, has only underlined the ubiquity of intimidation, bullying and inappropriate behaviour. 

Allegations against English theatre director Max Stafford-Clark prompted Vicky Featherstone, the first female Artistic Director of London’s Royal Court, to launch No Grey Area. Over the course of five hours, 150 stories of sexual assault were read out from the stage of the Royal Court, shining a light on the systemic nature of abuse in the industry. One outcome was a Code of Behaviour for the theatre industry to prevent sexual harassment and abuses of power. 

In spite of these revelations about the culture of bullying and sexual harassment in the arts, interest in training for the creative industries has never been higher

This year in Northern Ireland, actors' agent Mark Butler (McCrory) was prohibited by an Industrial Tribunal from operating any employment agency or business for a period of 10 years. This followed an investigation of allegations of inappropriate behaviour, sexual harassment and a prior conviction for indecent assault of a young actress. In Dublin, the Gate Theatre announced recently the appointment of an advisor to address concerns about sexual harassment and abuse of power, following widely-circulated social media reports about the behaviour of its former artistic director, Michael Colgan. 

Don’t put your daughter on the stage?

Noel Coward’s advice to Mrs Worthington in the 1940s seems even more relevant today, if just as problematic in its assumptions of how a woman should look on stage. Steeped in a culture of concern, Irish parents spend much of their time trying to protect their children from predators. Yet in spite of all these revelations about the pervasive culture of bullying and sexual harassment in the arts, interest in training for the creative industries has never been higher. 

Conservatoire training is offered by The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin which is closely linked with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, DIT’s Conservatory of Music and Drama and the Gaiety School of Acting. Across the island, other higher education institutions offer a range of programmes in media production, drama, theatre and performance. These are populated predominantly by young hopefuls who aspire to work in the industry. The majority of these students are female. What measures will prevent such damaging employment practices and prepare such female graduates to enter an industry with such a poor track record of sexual harassment and abuse? 

Waking the Feminists

When it emerged that the Abbey Theatre’s season marking the centenary of the Easter Rising contained only a single play (out of ten programmed) written by a woman, the Waking the Feminists campaign was launched to redress the exclusion of women from Irish theatre. A key aspect of the campaign was its research project and its Gender Counts report identified that the four highest-funded organisations sampled had the lowest female representation in a ten-year period. Looking at the first eight sampled organisations, there was a general pattern of an inverse relationship between levels of funding and female representation. In other words, the higher the funding an organisation received, the lower the female presence in these roles. 

Highlighting such structural imbalances in the theatre industry, ones which are replicated across television and film, can only increase the anxiety felt by parents about daughters who want to train to act or work in the creative industries. 

Leading change through training

Ulster University recently launched its £20 million Creative Industries Institute to bring together advanced research and teaching expertise in creative disciplines to collaborate with industry, government and communities. Addressing employment conditions for women falls squarely under its remit. 

Drama lecturer, Dr Tanya Dean - one of the authors of the WTF Gender Counts report and co-author of this piece - has initiated a cross-disciplinary research project, Pulling Back the Curtain in response to the unfolding situation in the creative industries and its implications for training in higher education. 

Educate all students on the legal definitions and ramifications of bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace

The aim of the project is to investigate the culture of bullying and sexual harassment within the creative industries and what can be done to empower graduates to change it. Working with colleagues in drama, media production and cinematic arts allows a multi-dimensional approach to exploring and hopefully addressing the issues for all arts workers.

Even at a preliminary stage, proposals are emerging as to what might be done in training to shift towards a more inclusive and secure professional culture for all within the creative industries. These centre on the development of an environment for practice that requires men and women to operate with mutual respect by encouraging training programmes to (a) explicitly critique gender roles on stage and film with all students in seminars, the rehearsal room and the studio so that they are not unconsciously reproducing oppressive gender norms; (b) train students in processes for working as collaborators in conditions of mutual respect; (c) train students in ethical working practices for the rehearsal room, studio and set; (d) educate all students on the legal definitions and ramifications of bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace and (e) develop each student’s identity as an independent creator from the start to promote a generation of artists who can  dismantle the hierarchies of power that allow abusers to exert their malign influence. 

If someone you know is thinking of applying to a course to train as a performer, you should ask what the course does to empower graduates to stand together on equal footing, regardless of gender, orientation or any other aspect. If the answer is nothing, look elsewhere.

Dr Tom Maguire is the Head of the School of Arts and Humanities at Ulster University and Chair of the board of Big Telly Theatre CompanyDr Tanya Dean is a Lecturer in Drama at the University of Ulster. She sits on the literary panels for the Abbey Theatre and Druid Theatre and is a board member of the Rough Magic Theatre Company. From 2015 to 2017, she served as a committee member for Waking the Feminists and was a Research Associate on Gender Counts report.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ