Guardians Network: How The Old Vic are encouraging safer and more supportive working practices in theatre

GUARDIANS NETWORK: How The Old Vic are encouraging safer and more supportive working practices in theatre

Date Published: 16 April 2018

by Kate Varah, Executive Director of The Old Vic

In the aftermath of a crisis comes the opportunity to heal and repair, but also to effect change. In the wake of the Kevin Spacey investigation The Old Vic carried out last year, what became clear to us is that having the right policies and processes in place isn’t enough. If people feel uncomfortable using them and seeking help, where do they go?

Ideally, an issue would be raised first with a line manager, then with HR or a Union representative, then (possibly) with the Executive team, and ultimately, a suitable resolution would be found. But what if none of those routes feel right? What if people are uncomfortable sharing in that way?

We began to think about what or who could act as a neutral support, unconnected to HR or line management, to listen and advise. To act as an information resource on processes and staff that could assist, to prevent situations from persisting, going unreported or even happening in the first place?

The answer was in front of us – our workforce. And so we devised a new pastoral initiative, called Guardians: with them, by them and for them.

What is a Guardian?

A Guardian is a trained member of staff who acts as a sounding board for colleagues who have something they might want to share, but are unsure of the best way of doing so. Guardians help to ensure a consistent understanding of culture throughout the organisation. They actively listen and support, offering confidential advice on options with discretion and empathy. They provide advice as to informed ways of managing issues and how to escalate them, where appropriate. They are trained to maintain complete neutrality about issues raised with them. Guardians reassure people that they have a voice and can use it.

At The Old Vic we have just appointed seven Guardians from across the business. These Guardians have received specialist training on facilitation, safeguarding and listening, the culture and values of The Old Vic, and its structure and processes; and the programme will formally begin in April 2018.

Guardians Network

Guardians is a simple, transferable initiative that gives a common language and additional layer of protection for all workers (and particularly freelancers) as they move from organisation to organisation. This is an issue that doesn’t just affect one organisation, one industry; it addresses the issue of workplace abuse of power and unwelcome behaviour that sadly takes place across society.

And so, talking to others, we quickly realised that the Guardians scheme could have wider application - both within our industry but further into other sectors. We have set up a free to join Guardians Network, both in the UK and beyond, and we hope this will be an incredibly useful forum to debate, discuss and share best practice.

We will all have experiences and solutions with universal application that, through an open collaboration of resources and ideas, could benefit and strengthen us as organisations, and as an industry.

At The Old Vic, we've written practical 'how to' guides (download free here) so there is no barrier to implementation no matter what size the organisation or the level of their resource. And, through the Network, organisations can access pro bono legal training for their Guardians three times a year from Lewis Silkin, where we will share best practice within the group on anonymised trends and learnings and centralise resources.


If this scheme sounds like it might be of interest to your organisation, please let us know. We would be happy to talk you through our experience, why we feel this offers an additional layer of protection to both staff and to organisations themselves, and open up the Network and training to you.

It feels possible in today’s climate to be able to make a lasting change in the way we work together. Together, we are in with a real chance of rapidly evolving an intelligent new standard of protection and support in and around the workplace.

If you would like any further information about the Guardians programme, or to join the Guardians Network, do contact Executive Director, Kate Varah by email or Head of Business Development, Rowena Russell by email or 020 7928 2651.

In addition to our own initiatives, we are committed to UK Theatre and SOLT’s Ten Principles. These offer a shared vision to promote a safe and inclusive workplace environment that is positive and supportive, and that everyone – employers, employees, workers, freelancers, volunteers, directors and trustees – should adhere to. 

The Old Vic is also proud to be a part of the Lewis Silkin movement #aLastingChange, which is a useful resource for ideas, collaboration, information, legal insight and opinions on how we can create a long-lasting improvement in women’s experience of work and overall make the working environment a better place for everyone.*                                                       

* To access free precedent and share resources, go to

Old Vic logo


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.

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