Bullying & harassment in the performing arts


The session on Bulllying and harassment in the workplace at IETM Porto was moderated by Lian Bell (Ireland) and Yamam el-Zubaidi (Sweden). Their presentations highlighted the recent developments in their respective countries in the aftermath of the #metoo campaign, which unveiled how common bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct are in the media and performing arts sector (like most other professional sectors).

In Sweden, in November 2017 over 800 actresses published one of the major newspapers in the country (Svenska dagbladet) an article with hundreds of testimonies of sexual harassment and a manifesto, which used the hashtag #tystnadtagning (a phrase that corresponds to the English “lights, camera, action”, literally meaning “silence, action” or “silence, grabbing”). The minister in charge has been making a number of statements and called the CEOs of the 3 major publicly financed institutions within the performing arts for a meeting. At some point she said: “The government is taking this seriously” – quite a strong message in the Swedish political tradition. Following this, the Swedish Performing Arts Association (employers’ organisation) and the Swedish Union for Performing Arts and Film (trade union) appointed an independent 'Commission against harassment in the performing arts' to carry through an independent enquiry. The final report (also attached to this article) pinpoints the 'culture of silence that pervades the industry' and proposes some practical tips (see page 5 of the report - in English). 

In meantime the CEO of the Stockholm House of Culture & City Theatre was accused of harsh style in leadership, which might have contributed for not handling sexual harassment at the institution, among other things. He was never accused of harassment himself. An independent enquiry concerning the working conditions was commissioned. During the enquiry he chose to leave his position. A number of weeks later he ended his life. This tragic event initiated a new vogue of public debate on how accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct are handled. 

More recently, the husband of a member of the Royal Academy of Sweden (awarding the annual Nobel Prize for Literature) has been publically accused of sexual harassments and misconduct. The academy members voted for his wife to stay, after which 3 members of the academy decided to leave their positions. Later on Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Academy left her position as well. This triggered an additional public debate on the consequences of the meetoo movement. While the whole discussion about the Swedish Academy started with a man being accused of sexual misconduct, it ended up with the first ever woman in the position of a permanent secretary leaving her position. 

Overall, in Sweden the effects of the #metoo campaign are still being felt, but mostly in terms of rhetorical positioning. Now that the Nobel Prize in Literature – a Swedish trademark - is at stake, the issues may come up on the political agenda, especially in the view of the general elections in September 2018. 

In Ireland, the #metoo campaign was most evident in the Michael Colgan case. Colgan had been Director of the Gate Theatre, the second highest funded theatre in Ireland after the National Theatre, for 33 year. There had been rumours circulating about his behaviour for many years. In the wake of #metoo, and the #WakingTheFeminists campaign in Ireland, a young director called Grace Dyas wrote a blog post about her experiences with him - she found that it was the only way to tell her story publicly since traditional media in Ireland are subject to very restrictive libel laws. This sparked an outpouring of stories from other people who had worked with Colgan. The Board of the theatre quickly commissioned an independent investigation, but initially refused to publish the report, until, thanks to pressure from artists and activists, it was eventually published. In the meantime, since Colgan is retired, it appears that he is accountable to no one – the theatre, the Arts Council and the Department of Arts are all claiming they are not in a position to be accountable. 

In the wake of this, the Irish Theatre Institute (ITI) was asked by the Minister for the Arts to help develop a code of behaviour for the theatre industry, and it is hope that this code will be adopted in the coming months. ITI also facilitated a major event in March 2018 for the theatre community to meet and discuss what could be done. It appears that the Arts Council and Department of Arts are going to continue discussions on how to support the sector in eliminating bullying and harassment in the theatre workplace.


image from the #metoo campaign
© GGAADD on Flickr

The session at IETM Porto continued with group discussions that allowed participants to share their experiences and to suggest practical actions to take. The following lines sum up the main points of discussion and the resources shared by the participants. This document may be further updated at a later stage.

  • Problems of bullying and harassment don't concern only our field but society in general. We need to shift from a culture of entitlement to a culture of consent. A respectful behaviour is about human decency, but in the end we need guidelines. We need to start at the level of (professional) education.
  • The developments of the #metoo campaign in Sweden showed that, in the (performing) arts field, a culture of silence prevails - silence from the victims and from the witnesses, all afraid to speak up. The culture of silence is possible when the hierarchy fails to show leadership, and when working conditions that are common in this field (temporary contracts, etc.) create a 'floating' working environment which does not make people feel supported (independent artists are particularly vulnerable if they think their experience isn't a part of a collective conscious and therefore don't tell anyone). 
  • There is a problem of power structures in this sector: we like to be 'unregulated' and 'free', we often see people in power as godlike artistic 'geniuses' so we don't dare to speak up. But we need to define rules, boundaries, and responsibilities. 
  • In some countries (e.g. Italy) there was no #metoo discussion, only silent complaining. But problems are there, too.
  • We need to think how to support individuals experiencing harassment, especially when this happens outside the office/work space. Remember that sharing stories is delicate: how to share information that is not damaging, but useful?
  • A first step for everyone is to consider our role and monitoring our own behaviour. Most is about awareness: how do we speak to each other in a team? Which kind of jokes do we accept? We need to build a professional environment that increase awareness of these issues. Make sure this is part of the conversation in your own organisation.
  • Some organisations pin a policy document in an elevator, so that when visitors come to the office, they can see the principles of the organisation on entry. 
  • In addition to the above, when a new individual joins the team and gets their keys to the office, they are sat down and asked to work through the Code of conduct with a member of staff and finish the meeting by signing the document; this means there is no excuse for not knowing the code of conduct. 
  • Remember also that a policy and a code of conduct (or behaviour) are very different things!
  • Leadership is key to empower every team member, consider everyone in the system. Implementation of policies and procedures help to talk about all this and define rules and boundaries (what is and isn't acceptable practice in the rehearsal room, I'm the casting process, in collaborations on the whole etc.), thus increasing people's knowledge & capacity to speak about what was unsaid. 
  • Trade unions for the sector have a key role to play. 
  • Directors or producers aren't the only ones who can and do behave inappropriately. However, there is a difference between experiencing (or perpetrating) abuses as an emerging artist or as a director in the spotlight. Abuse entails different consequences for victims and perpetrators: there can be larger consequences for a victim that comes forward as opposed to the perpetrator being put to the side. People fear coming forward with their experiences.
  • Managers hiring directors with a story/rumours of abuse/misconduct (or with a strong temper) have a precise responsibility; they should ask clear (although difficult) questions on how to deal with those stories/rumours. Again: set clear rules/boundaries, and inform them in advance of possible procedures in case of certain behaviours. Also, in case of rumours: how does the leadership investigate? How much/to what should it believe?
  • Overall, it's not about good and bad people, 'we VS them': if these things happen, the arts community has a problem and we all have to deal with it. An objective observer may more easily call out bad behaviour. Those who are misconducting should know that they can also find help/deal with it. 

Practical tips/experiences and resources:

  • Some organisations pin a list of principles in the elevator, so that everybody working there or visiting can see it. Others ask workers/staff to sign a Code of conduct. These practices allow a shift 'just having a policy' to actual practice; such approach can change the culture of harassment. 
  • In some countries there is a new professional figure, the 'intimacy director', helping actors involved in intimacy on stage to feel comfortable in that context. There is a useful document of best practice guidelines in relation to intimacy on set here
  • Related to power abuse is the issue of representation. In support to #metoo, some men started the #iwill campaign, claiming e.g. that they won't join a panel is it's not gender-balanced. 


  • Some resources on this are included in IETM's publication 'Life off-stage. Survival guide for creative arts professionals' (free download, EN and FR). More resources are on IETM websites' Theme 'Inclusion'
  • Waking the Feminists (Ireland) supported the 'Amplify Women Harassment Toolkit', a free guide to help freelance workers and employees of any gender if they are experiencing bullying or harassment
  • CALQ - Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec recently issued a declaration for a 'harassment-free work place' - 'Pour un environnement de travail exempt de harcèlement' (French only)
  • The Royal Court Theatre in London launched the initiative 'No grey zone', collecting stories of abuse and misconduct in British theatre. Following a gathering, they issued a 'Code of behaviour preventing sexual harassment and abuse of power' that is freely available online 
  • This article by Belgian artist Ilse Ghekiere explores '#wetoo: What dancers talk about when they talk about sexism' 
  • This article by Lian Bell illustrates reviews initiatives, changes and movements to combat abuse of power in the performing arts

...Now it's your turn!

Comments and additional resources are welcome:

  • to share other resources, please post an article on IETM website, in the Themes section 'Inclusion' (you need to log in first);
  • if you wish to continue the discussion with the IETM community, use the IETM Forum (log in to the website first); 
  • for other messages that you don't want to share widely, feel free to drop us an email at [email protected] 

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