Bully bully

In the light of the current revelations of patriarchal figures within the entertainment world abusing their power over women I wanted to add my support to those calling out the abusers, but also discuss how to add to the debate to cover all aspects of bullying behaviour within our profession. As a white male in his fifties I have had the extreme privilege of connections, education and luck to have had a very fulfilling career as theatre designer, yet have found on occasions, even within the last few years, that the working environment can be poisoned through the bullying behaviour of certain individuals regardless of gender.

On one job as a young assistant theatre designer, I was subjected to a daily regime of intimidation from a production manager who used me as the whipping boy to complain about all the ideas which the designer wanted to try out but which he thought were stupid.  As her position within the company was very secure, I took the brunt of his frustrations. I worked for the company for nearly six months and by the end felt sick with nervous anticipation of what new humiliation each day would bring. In other work environments there are appraisals, HR and  management structures that can be referred to, but as freelancers we designers are largely on our own dealing with the conditions of our employment. An agent may deal with contractual matters, but they are not on the ground to help you cope with day to day problems. I don’t think the world has got any easier for the current generation of young designers, the majority of whom are female, who are having to negotiate a workplace without clear boundaries or support.

I have sat in rehearsal rooms and watched certain directors, mainly of the older school who believe that true creativity can only be achieved by pushing actors to the limits of their mental endurance, by shouting at, belittling and deriding the actor in front of their colleagues. I have seen male directors who I felt were certainly inappropriate in their attitude to women, but yet I have never called them out as the culture of the rehearsal room in these circumstances is one of fear.  When the big beasts take control you can see how some people just keep their heads down while others turn sycophantic but nobody really challenges the status quo. The time spans of creating a production are always so tight that most people will put a bad show down to experience and just ride it out.

For me the worst experiences of bullying have been at the hands of certain star actors, insecure in their status, performance or looks, who see the designer as an easy conduit for their frustrations and, if you are doing their clothes, the obvious person to blame if things are going wrong. I once had an actor make me change what another actor was wearing as she felt she should be the only female character in the play wearing trousers. I was summoned to the dressing room and grilled, while my director and costume supervisor sat by helplessly trying to blend into the wallpaper. Looking back it is interesting that there was nobody to turn to for support in this situation. The expectation seemed to be that we would do anything to keep her happy.  This meant lying to the other actor and telling her I had made a design choice to change her look, even though it was not right for her character and we knew she was not comfortable with what we were asking her to wear.  I had to swallow the shame of the situation and was threatened by the star that if this came out she would see to it that my career was ruined. 

The default in most situations becomes appeasement, all of your own design ideas for the production go out of the window to keep the bully happy: what kind of chair would he like, how high, wide, what material ? You tell me and I will do it, anything to make sure he stays smiling, even if he didn’t have the basic respect to remember my name as the designer of the show in which he was starring.

 In the past I have felt shy of telling directors how badly certain actors have behaved in the privacy of a fitting room or backstage. It is often a surprise to the director who holds the power balance in the rehearsal room to hear how badly an actor behaves in private with those who are trying to make him look good but who are sometimes treated simply as personal servants.

So how to improve things? I know from the RSC trainee scheme which I initiated over a decade ago that there is a cohort of talented young designers who are finding starting out in the profession challenging. I hope they feel able to share experiences and have the courage to pass on the names of those whom they have been bullied by. We need to share these names with theatres and casting directors. Actors and directors need to know that if they bully those below them in the food chain of a production they will be called out. Of course there must be debate and even disagreement in the creative process, a fitting can be a very sensitive place, but even when you have made a bad design choice or are struggling to deal with an actor with an unusual figure, mutual respect and honest non-judgemental discussion are the key. For too long appalling behaviour has been excused as a necessary by-product of great talent, but that simply isn’t true. All the best and most successful work I have done has been in a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect where the sum of the parts was greater than any individual contribution and the work took flight. Those productions which were dominated by bullies sunk under the leaden weight of their meanness and the atmosphere of fear they created.

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