This week, The Stage released a study showing that of more than 1,000 theatre professionals and drama students surveyed, 40 per cent reported that they had been bullied, 31 per cent reported having encountered sexual harassment, and 8 per cent claimed to have been sexually assaulted. Respondents repeatedly referred to the fact that such behaviour was “ingrained into the theatre culture”.
Why is this happening in theatre, and what can we do about it?
By now, reports such as The Stage’s have become almost normalised. At the end of 2017, women showed us what should have already been obvious: abuse, harassment and bullying are part of every profession, a feature of every bit of daily life. But this report should remind us of the origin of this watershed moment: Harvey Weinstein and the fantasy worlds of stage and screen.
In a faculty meeting in my own drama department, I recently proposed that we start thinking about how to educate future theatre professionals on how to do their job ethically when we send them on from our degree programme to become professionals in the world. Teaching ethical principles is already built into medical school curricula. Ethics courses are required at all law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. And since the financial crash, MBA programmes are now much more likely to initiate their students with questions of corporate and social ethics.
But in drama education, where the boundaries are so blurry between director and instructor, and in a business where the casting couch is a cliché and we’ve seen too many individuals make and break careers and lives, a discussion of professional ethics is still surprisingly absent from student coursework.
In that faculty meeting, I was met with a classic problem of our field that I should have seen coming: Dionysus. Theatre artists, scholars and audience members alike relish the myth that drama has its origins in Dionysian rituals, the dithyrambic revels and choral dances of drunken devotees dressed like satyrs pushing the limits of social norms. With Dionysus as theatre’s patron god, all manner of excess and abuse is excused in the name of pushing art and artists beyond their comfort zones.
In light of this, to try to teach dramatic ethics could be seen as heresy against the Greek god of licence, liminality and liquor.
Of course, there are several problems with this. First, flatly claiming Dionysus as drama’s origins reinforces a Western cultural bias that already holds back dramatic innovation in many departments. Second, scholars still debate whether Greek drama really did originate with Dionysus. This is not to say, though, that Dionysus had no influence over the growth and development of Greek drama. It certainly did.
But then so much of what was great about Greek drama was the way that it helped the Greeks move away from a religious and towards a more civic world. In Athens, institutions like the law courts developed alongside institutions such as the theatre, and both grappled with emergent concepts of personal responsibility and ethics.
But the biggest problem with relying on this tired trope is that it is lazy and dangerous. It is by working within and against limits that we become really creative. Limitlessness is not freedom but chaos. And by challenging our students to look beyond the Dionysian and towards a more ethical approach to drama, we encourage them to become better theatre-makers, better collaborators, which is something that almost all theatre-makers cite as a measure of good drama. And that’s why we need ethics to be a part of our curriculum.
Not that we don’t already talk a bit about drama and ethics. We do. But when our students learn about ethics in drama, it might be by reading Plato or Rousseau, who are concerned with drama’s effect on an audience’s morals. Or they learn about the history of an art that often operates on the fringes of respectability and regularly beds down with the demi-monde, whether it’s Shakespeare’s South Bank with bear-baiting and brothels or the gambling-filled foyers of 18th-century Italian opera houses. Or sometimes we look at the ethical questions that works of drama raise within themselves: is Oedipus really responsible for killing his father and sleeping with his mother? Is Petruchio justified in “gaslighting” Kate?
But what these examples of ethics and drama lack is an ethics for the theatre-makers, how they are to be treated and how they should treat one another while doing their jobs. In a search for such examples, I recently ran across “A Code of Ethics for Theatre Workers” from 1945. At first, I was excited, thinking that this might provide some insights for today. But I quickly realised that this was not about creating a system in which those in power are more fair and just to those in their employ but rather was about making sure that actors give everything to their art. In first-person promises, rules range from “I shall accept my director’s and producer’s advice and counsel” to “I shall never lose my enthusiasm for theatre because of disappointments”. In other words: “The show must go on.”
And that really is the main ethical training that we give our students. But like the myth of drama as Dionysian in origin and therefore Dionysian in essence, this five-word dictum is dangerous. It allows us to abuse in the name of art. Or to ignore or excuse or enable abuse. As Woody Allen admitted in an interview with the BBC, no one would have come to him to discuss abuse because they would have thought: “You are interested in making your movie.” And only in making your movie. And they would have been right. Allen has long been more interested in making good movies than making things right.
And yet, these two things are not incompatible – making good and making right. Teaching ethics to theatre students will lead to better art, to more creative, more truly collaborative and even more daring solutions to problems. Ethics isn’t the same thing as the soul-crushing extraction of creative licence imposed by puritanical wet blankets. Too many people like to say that danger makes things better.
The US president has bemoaned players having to wear helmets as the demise of American football. But the truth is that the more prepared and protected we are, the more risks we are willing to take. The child who feels secure, who knows where her boundaries are, who knows that she is safe is more likely to push the limits, explore her boundaries and challenge the status quo than the child who has known only chaos. If you really want drama to be Dionysian, if you really want to push the limits of theatre, then make it ethical in the first place. Start with your students.
Daniel H. Foster is a senior lecturer in literature, drama and creative writing at the University of East Anglia.