When I joined Bristol Old Vic around 14 years ago there was a simple anti bullying policy in place which formed part of the Company Rules. That policy basically implied – “if anyone is a bit mean to you - tell us and we’ll sort them out - and all will be fine”.
Don’t forget we’re into the new millennium here too – but I’d imagine that that way of doing things hadn’t changed since the 70s.
There was no definition of ‘mean’ or ‘anyone’ or how it would be sorted out. It seemed unthinkable that anyone would ever need to use it – everyone rubbed along quite well on a day to day basis – as far as we know. And if it ain’t broke why fix it?
The Weinstein’s and all the other alleged perpetrators of abuses of power in all its forms have touched us as an arts organisation, sure they have, but in the past year we have had experiences much closer to home which have changed the way we think about how to manage situations around workplace bullying and harassment.
Without going into unnecessary detail, we had a range of some very complex issues across two productions last year which respectively challenged the extents of our existing policy and caused us to reconsider and clarify the standard of conduct that we expect from our actors and creatives when they are working here with us at Bristol Old Vic.
When these difficult situations occur, the ripples spread far wider than the immediate organisation and can threaten the continuation of productions; and they nearly did on this occasion.
There is always a risk of theatres treating casts more favourably than their own staff would be treated in a similar situation, simply because they (the cast) are currently responsible for keeping our audiences buying tickets (and consequently us in jobs!), and all the reputational factors that also go along with possibly needing to cancel a show etc.
Fortunately it didn’t come to that in our case, as we have some skilled staff and a willing cast who were able to work with everyone involved towards a mutual agreement – and the show went on.
But as a result of a full evaluation of this challenging time, we decided to develop a RESPECT Charter and a RESPECT Statement – a level of expectations of behaviour that we require not only our permanent staff, but also our casts and creative teams to literally sign up to in the form of an extra page in their contracts.
It is hoped that by stating our expectations upfront - if you like – and saying ‘this is us and how we are’ we are more able to keep an open dialogue and resolve any emerging issues before they become overwhelming, potentially threatening the artistic integrity of the production and, equally importantly, the wellbeing of the cast and creative team.
We hope that, as a result, the potential consequences of unacceptable behaviour can be in no doubt to anyone.
I developed our Charter and Statement with help from our producing team, who dealt with much of the fall out of the situation last year. They were instrumental in helping me make it a readable document, but also one that will leave the person signing it in no doubt that we are serious about making Bristol Old Vic a safe and healthy place to work - and an organisation that would shine light into dark corners if it needed to – and wouldn’t need asking twice.
It’s in its infancy, and will be piloted from this year. But more importantly it doesn’t only set out the standards we expect from staff and creatives and the action we could take - but also what we hope to empower in them – the confidence that, should they need to raise any concerns about bullying and harassment or abuse of power – they will be listened to, taken seriously and their concerns will be acted upon.
UK Theatre and SOLT have published a handbook to encourage safer and more supportive working practices in theatre, including our 10 Principles, a legal checklist, example policies, procedures and resources, and more - find it here.