An academic expert on theatre has called for ethical training to be introduced into drama education, just as it is in many medical, law and business schools.
Harassment and abuse are “a very significant problem in the theatre”, said Daniel Foster, senior lecturer in drama at the University of East Anglia, citing a recent survey in The Stage in which 43 per cent of theatre professionals and students polled reported bullying, 31 per cent sexual harassment and nearly 8 per cent sexual assault.
Part of the problem was that “theatre is a field where you are in such close contact with the people you are working with, boundaries get blurred very easily and there’s so much physical involvement as well as emotional difficulty”, Dr Foster explained. When a young actor felt beholden to a producer or director who could make or break their career, “you want to do whatever you can to please that person and it becomes a very difficult thing to navigate”.
Dr Foster liked the idea of introducing more ethical reflection into courses, for example, on directing. But his main suggestion was to devote an initial introductory class to the issue of theatre and ethics, so that students could “look at issues of abuse and harassment, how not to be that kind of person – and what to do if you do encounter that sort of person”. The class could incorporate some basic moral philosophy and recent press coverage of abuse in the performing arts in order to “help students find a language that they can use, the language of power, the language of what it means to be harassed”. But it could involve “teaching various problems about ethics through the texts they are already studying”.
“Take The Taming of the Shrew,” Dr Foster suggested, “which has many examples of Petruchio ‘gaslighting’ Kate. He forces, cajoles and bullies her into doing things that she does not want to do and saying things she does not want to say…There’s an abuse of power and it’s a wonderful and rich text to discuss that problem.”
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dr Foster went on, “the Mechanicals are a group of players. Bottom is a bully and a big-headed actor who wants to get all the roles. And Quince is a poor director, not a pushy or abusive director but a bad director. You can take the texts students are already studying, pull out the ethical issues and talk about them.”
In the longer term, Dr Foster would like to see universities working with conservatoires and drama schools in developing such courses in ethics, and perhaps drawing up guidelines, “a compact of ethical theatre practice your theatre department or students would sign”.
Although aware that “directors and actors have affairs all the time” and that “some people claim you can work with the sexual energy and sexual tension that goes on in the theatre to make your art sharper”, Dr Foster was distinctly sceptical.
“I am very wary of this kind of argument,” he explained, “because it’s such a slippery slope and it’s very easy to abuse positions of power. There is a power relation which cannot be abstracted away.”