Wednesday, 15 November 2017

An Open Letter on Risk and Sexual Abuse/Misconduct in Theatre

Dear [   ],

It has been a long time. It’s been almost three years. During that time, we’ve made some interesting and difficult and world-shattering work together. I don’t regret that. And I wouldn’t change it.

Now that this phase of the project is over, hoping that speaking about it will not impact funding for any future stages of the company, I can write this in reflection. 

This letter is to you. In a secondary way, it is also to other people we know and other people we don’t, who have been in similar positions. 

The time I worked with you was complicated. I can’t address or testify to everything here, because there isn’t the space in one encounter to do that. And that’s not what I want to do.

We all agreed to work in a way that tested our boundaries and each others’. We agreed to be responsible for our own experience - what we did with our own bodies, what we invited, what we did to and with each other. I still believe in that agreement

In any work, but especially improvisational work, there is a simple dynamic: one person poses an invitation, the other person responds. Accepting or adjusting the invitation allows the encounter to continue. Rejecting it ends the encounter. We agreed that rejection was as important as acceptance.

Working with intimacy, sex, nakedness, and (nearly always) non-verbal improvisation, power and harm are sharper sometimes, but also can seem blurry, or at least, more difficult to talk about, than in more mainstream modes of working.

I believe abuse occurs when someone uses the power that they have to coerce someone into doing something demeaning, objectifying; to further disempower them. 

Often, a structure is set up where there feels like there is no option for the person on the receiving end. More specifically, there is no option where they do not lose power or autonomy. “Someone does x to me, or I lose my job” “My partner is violent towards me or  I leave and have nowhere to live” etc.

In a room filled wish cismen, exploring masculinity, there is an immediate power imbalance. I don’t know what others’ prejudices are. I don’t know whether you’re aware of what your prejudices are. Will you listen to me and my body like you do with the other guys? Or will you avoid me and make assumptions - make it my job to work to teach you, my job to work to avoid accidental or careless harm?

I was and am interested in those questions. I don’t think power imbalance is inherently bad. I think it’s interesting. I think acknowledging it and playing with it in a live and potentially dangerous way is an important thing to do in theatre, because that’s the world we live in. I can’t speak for you, but I’m pretty sure you agree.

That work breaks down and becomes not only harmful, but abusive in one condition. When we play with those dynamics, when we ask a question that pushes those boundaries, when we learn where the power lies - 

And then -

Someone makes an intervention that purposefully imposes that power over someone else. So the recipient’s choice is either to lose autonomy in that encounter, or to lose their autonomy in that moment as a performer.

At a theatre, in a play, it might be someone in power asking you on a date. You might find that appropriate or not, harassment or not. When you say no and they take your job away, that’s abuse.

In our work, it becomes abuse when the choice posed is to do something you’ve clearly communicated you’re not interested in or to abandon the encounter. Especially if that scenario happens again and again.

I believe that distinction is clear to both parties, in any work or social situation, so long as they are both paying attention.

We always said walking out is fine. Leaving the encounter is fine. However, when that’s the reason, things feel off. Because it feels like the question being put to me is no longer one where you are interested in something, and want to learn from the outcome. It often felt like you had learned, you knew where things stood. You wanted to cross an established boundary, not test one. Because you could, because you didn’t think I’d walk away, because you were too absorbed in yourself to hear or respect the warning signs - I don’t know why.

The same is true with desire in our work. We talked a lot about real desire and performed desire and how they were kind of the same thing and sometimes not. Everyone is allowed to desire everyone or anyone else. Everyone is allowed to not desire someone or anyone. That’s allowed to change over time. Including you and me.

Inviting encounters, suggesting desire, and letting me do something to pleasure you, then ending it, breaking off without showing any moments of appreciating or even listening to my body or desire is harmful once. The effect is sexually demeaning and humiliating. That might not be the intention, and I can live with harm. That’s part of working with risk. 

It is abusive when it is a long-standing pattern. That’s not work, that’s not engaged communication, that’s not listening, and it’s not critically or theatrically interesting.

That was your consistent mode of engaging with me for three years, in front of audiences ranging from someone very close to me to large groups of strangers. It is abusive. It’s a power play. It says “I can subjugate you sexually, get what I want, then act like I was never interested. I have the power and I want to remind you that you don’t” My choice is to do the thing - give you a blow job, for example, knowing you will most likely suddenly step away or push me or hold me down, recontextualising it and casting me in a demeaning role. Or I can not participate as a performer.

There was an especially awful encounter we had when were asked to do some work with just the two of us. I don’t believe I need to go into detail. I don’t want to relive it - I’ve been asked to do that once already, and that was traumatic.

We were in a locked room (common practice in the company due to the sensitive nature of the work), where you did that for an hour. I know you know that was a harmful session. I know you at least suspect that it was an abusive one. But you never reached out to me, never addressed it, never followed through on my invitations to meet up and debrief more generally.

I could have left. I could have left the group, I could have left each of those encounters. I didn’t. Because I don’t believe that space inherently invites abuse. I believe you made a series of choices. I believe I had a right to do that work without you being abusive, both generally and sexually.

And that’s what makes me angry. When I finally found a way to talk to the group about how moments like that were tied into the inherent imbalance in the room because of my body, you didn’t really engage. You never took ownership or responsibility. You never tried to check in with me or change, even when you suspected something was off. 

When that power imbalance is there, when abuse has already happened, it is so difficult to bring up, because the conversation has, in a sense, already failed. It is scary because the odds are that nothing will change. Writing this letter is not easy. And I honestly don’t know if anything will change because of it. 

I don’t know what your intention was in those moments. I don’t know what you thought you were doing that evening. But your lack of initiating conversation makes it hard to care about what your intentions were.

The impact was harmful and abusive. I know other people who have felt this in other rooms with you. Ones not so complicated and obscured as our company was. Their stories are not mine to tell. I have no idea as to whether they might want to speak out or not, and no opinion about whether they should. But if they choose to do so, I will support them.

As I said at the start, I do value things you did in that room. People and situations are complicated. This letter isn’t about those things. But it’s also not intended to make anyone feel vilified. 

I hope this letter both makes you reconsider your approach to working relationships and warns other people who might find themselves working with you in the future.

I hope it can open up conversation around the ways in which abuse can be built up over time in theatre practice, and the ways in which trans people, queer people, and other vulnerable groups find it especially difficult to speak about.

I hope it could be an extension of the current conversation around abuse to more experimental modes of working, with more detail and nuance.

I sincerely hope this letter does more good than harm.

To whoever is reading this, thank you. If anyone wants to continue a forward-facing conversation about preventing abuse in structures that hold risk, I’d be happy to be a part of that.


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