It's Time to Change - Michael Simkins

It's Time to Change - Michael Simkins

Michael Simkins
by Michael Simkins, actor, author and former UK Theatre Magazine columnist.
Date Published: 09 February 2018
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The other night I found myself re-tweeting a clip from a 1970’s sitcom that a friend of mine – an actor - had posted on Twitter. The clip, a corny, Carry-On style example of old fashioned comedy bi-play, involving a randy male boss and a young but sassy female employee, was the sort of stuff I’d have once encountered any night of the week on stage or screen; and had self-evidently been placed on Twitter as a deliberately ironic comment on the seismic shift occurring in our profession and the wider world.  Yet despite the placement being decidedly tongue in cheek, I found myself wondering whether to re-tweet it or not. What if, perish the thought; my simple endorsement was misinterpreted as condoning such antics. In the end I left well alone.

But this small incident illustrates just how fast the landscape is changing in the workplace, and nowhere is this felt more keenly than in the theatre.  The recent instances of Messrs Spacey, Weinstein and others has unleashed a seismic reappraisal of what constitutes acceptable conduct, and how performers relate to one another is under reappraisal as never before. Yet for those of us, both male and female, who grew up in a less stringent environment, the learning curve can be a steep one, however convinced we may be of its necessity.

Unthinking or intrusive behaviour from one’s colleagues might once have been dealt with by either a coruscating put-down, or a slap on the wrist; but now such conduct has to be reported, documented, and dealt with through official channels. And quite right too.

But just how much has changed – is changing - in the profession, was illustrated at a dinner party I attended just before Christmas. Among the assembled guests were a quartet of successful actresses, each aged 60 or over, each with decades of experience, and each of whom had myriad tales to tell of how they’d dealt in the past with unwanted or inappropriate attention.

Some of the incidents were footling. Some were not. Indeed, my own wife, also an actress, and also at the table, recalled an incident in the early 90’s when she auditioned for a role in a play, one in which the lead character had to briefly carry her character in a fireman’s lift. On the day of the audition the leading actor, who attended the interview (and who was one of our best-loved and most respected performers) merely marched round the table without introducing himself or offering any pleasantries, lifted her over his shoulders and paraded round the room with her for some seconds before unceremoniously dumping her on the ground and remarking baldly, ‘She’ll do.’

Back then nobody batted an eyelid. Now it would rightly deemed crass and possibly exploitative. For those of us who grew up in other times and inherited cultural mores, and yet who consider ourselves to be decent and respectful, this recalibration of what is permissible and what isn’t requires constant self-vigilance, however overdue it might be.

Indeed, I now find myself checking myself in a rehearsal environment for the saucy or salty one-liner, lest it by misconstrued or deemed offensive. And as we all know, the dreaded term, ’banter’, used by culprits since time immemorial as a catchall excuse to explain away off-colour remarks or suggestive asides, has had its day. Rightly or wrongly such mores belonged to another time. But now it is time to change.

You might also like to read our recent Walking the Wobbly Lines blog by Cassie Chadderton, Head of UK Theatre.

To find out more about what we're doing at UK Theatre to encourage safe and supporting working practices in theatre click here. 

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