Thank you so much to all who came to this session to discuss this. It was really helpful and also very healing to listen to other people’s experiences. The reason I wanted to call this session is because we have quite a few cases of bullying at the university where I work and it is often visiting directors who should at students when they are feeling stressed or when things are going wrong. Students tend to see it as something which is a normal part of the process and that if a director is stressed then it’s okay for them to treat the actors or the production team badly.

This is something I have also experienced when I was a student and in my professional career. I felt that being shouted at or humiliated isn’t something I could report and is normal part of the production process.

Some things we discussed:

We talked about how sometimes when you point out a problem you become the problem yourself. So if you report someone who is bullying you, then you become seen as ‘difficult’. I think this is a big barrier to reporting especially when getting the next job relies on being liked and on people wanting to work with you again. If you start pointing out problems, some people might choose to not work with you again rather than solving the problem itself. So there is a big fear of not being hired if you point out bad behaviour and one of proving yourself as tough to get more work.

We also discussed how bullying isn’t only the big things, the obvious things which can clearly be seen as not okay. Sometimes it’s all the little things and the overall culture of a workplace or institution. Death by a thousand cuts. The micro-aggressions and how bullying is in-built into the DNA of a culture.

There are also times where the lines are blurred and you aren’t sure if what you are experiencing is wrong or not. Is it bullying? Sometimes it’s only when you tell someone else about your experience and they question whether it was bullying or not that you realise how you’ve been mistreated.

We talked about the power of naming things. How when you don’t know how to name it then you might not know how to talk about it.

Sometimes you may see bullying happen to another person and regret not speaking up on their behalf, of not pointing out how someone might be treated differently than how you are treated. This could be due to a fear of then also being treated differently, of aligning yourself with the person experiencing bullying and then being ostracised because if that. Being worried about getting future employment or how it will affect your reputation is a big barrier to discussing/reporting bullying. It also ties in to competing for gigs and not wanting to lose out on work.

We talked about how reporting bullying is a good thing, whether it is big or small events. How if people speak up this can start a conversation which can create cultural change and give support for those experiencing it. We talked about how it can be hard to report the small things, that it can be seen as silly or unimportant. Maybe cumulative reporting could be a thing? Everything is reported but doesn’t necessarily result in any action but those reports of small incidents are kept so that if we see that it is happening a lot, we can diagnose an underlying problem.

We talked about bullying being about the insecurity and fear of the bully. A fear of losing power or respect. Fear of not knowing something and admitting to it. A feeling of imposter syndrome causing them to lash out. Bullying is often a way to hide weakness, to hide the fact that you don’t know something that you think you should. It’s a ‘fight or flight’ response to feeling attacked.

This relates to power dynamics and hierarchies- if we can flatten out the hierarchy a bit and allow people in power to admit when they don’t know something to give up a bit of control and allow other voices to be heard then maybe there wouldn’t be such a fear of admitting that they don’t know all the answers or losing that power. Fear is the biggest barrier to creativity. When people feel fear of losing power, then they don’t listen to other voices which could enrich the production and the team’s practice.

We talked about how theatre can be a very output driven sector with a real focus on the final product rather than the quality of relationships within the team making it. How people can sometimes be seen as disposable, a means to an end with the show being the most important thing. We talked about how theatre can be really fast-paced, urgent, with a baseline of stress. The pressure of making something which we really invest in in such a short amount of time. All of this stress and time-pressure can lead to people snapping and shouting because of that stress. Sometimes shouting isn’t seen as bullying but as getting things done quickly and shouting at people as a way to get them to work faster. Doing what needs to be done.

Working long hours and working through breaks also doesn’t really help. I really loved the idea of self-care being an anti-bullying tactic. If everyone feels calm, happy, and that their needs are taken care of, maybe less bullying will happen? If there is less stress then maybe we’ll be kinder to each other. I really want to keep this in mind going forward and suggest 10 minutes of yoga or something when tensions get high and the team start treating each other unkindly. However, for this to work we need to change theatre culture to see breaks as something which will enhance our practice rather than detract from it. How taking a break and a moment to calm down can help us make better decisions and work better together.

There is also a culture of ‘suffering for your art’ and wearing hardship as a badge of honour. Working in technical, I am more likely to hear about bullying through stories at the pub than at work and these stories are usually framed as an experience someone overcame, a way of showing how good they are because they were able to do their job despite the obstacles. But if we don’t talk about these issues at work and not just at the pub then we can’t change the culture of bullying. If we continue to see suffering as a sign that people are working hard enough, that they are better at their job for overcoming, then we can’t make moves to create a better and safer work environment. We need to stop suffering for our art! Let’s self-care to enrich our art!

Part of the issue is that there isn’t a lot of motivation to have good relationships with freelancers because you can treat them badly and then never see them again. There isn’t much job security in freelancing making it less likely that they will report bullying so they don’t lose out of gigs. Since they are self-employed they don’t have an HR department who can help them. The work is so fast paced that there often isn’t time to reflect and feedback on a process because they are already off to the next gig.

It would be really great if institutions and organisations could pay freelancers to come back for a debrief, to invest in personal professional development of freelancers but this isn’t something done very often due to the cost. A fulltime member of staff can discuss experiences of being bullied once the show is over and there is more time, or report it to HR but freelancers don’t usually have that luxury. You can send fulltime staff on sensitivity training but organisations rarely invest in similar opportunities for freelancers. How can we change this?

It would also be great if we could all reflect and feedback at the end of a production instead of immediately moving on to the next one. We need to start taking the time to reflect on our practice and see what work and what doesn’t. This will also make reporting bullying more accessible. Some procedures to report bullying make it very difficult to do and this sends the message that the organisation doesn’t want to hear it. I went to a theatre recently where they told us their anti-bullying policy in the health and safety briefing. This not only made their policy more accessible but also made me feel like I wouldn’t be bullied; merely talking about it was already a deterrent.

It was also really useful to say it out loud and break that silence. To show that it is good to speak up about it instead of it being the elephant in the room. Maybe defining bullying and making that more clear would help to? Some people don’t realise that their behaviour is bullying due to it being so normalised. Some people don’t report bullying because they don’t realise that is what they are experiencing and that they have a right to ask for it to stop.

Some people don’t report bullying because they have done in the past but speaking up hasn’t changed anything. A feeling of being worn-down by the ineffectiveness of reporting and no longer having the confidence to speak up.

Exclusion can be a form of bullying, consistently ignoring someone or leaving them out. This is something which can be seen in lad culture which can be particularly detrimental in technical professions which are male-dominated where jobs are often decided on at the pub. If you are a woman but aren’t part of that lad culture, you may miss out on jobs. We need to intervene earlier to fix this culture and raise awareness of it in schools.

We talked a lot about the importance of communication. Of being able to talk to each other without getting defensive and really listening to each other. This can be very difficult to do (getting defensive is a very human instinct). Maybe having an external HR might be useful? It can be particularly difficult to discuss and report if HR is also the theatre manager for example. If the job is an add on to another job and that person is someone you work closely with. It also makes it hard for reporting to be anonymous and having anonymous reporting can make that process more accessible as there may be less fear of negative consequences.

Unions may be a good tool to do this as they are an external company who can help talk to the organisation.

It’s also important to communicate how a report is being handled and what has happened. To be transparent about the process so everyone knows that it has been listened to and considered.

I think we also need to be better at acknowledging that we are human. That we make mistakes, that we snap when we shouldn’t have, that we don’t always do the right thing. I think that if we can acknowledge that and ask for forgiveness afterwards than it will go a long way towards healing relationships. That through reflection and knowing our own weaknesses we can better manage them. For example, I carry around a lot of anger which has built up inside of me throughout my career. Experiencing a lot of sexism in my career means that I now have a rather short fuse when I feel that someone is being or is about to be sexist. This can result in my having a disproportionate reaction to some situations, blowing up over little things instead of keeping calm. I know this about me and try to take the time to calm down before responding, to give myself a moment to figure out if my response it too extreme or not. When I don’t catch myself in time, I apologise afterwards. Explain that I wasn’t just responding to them but the accumulation of experiences I have had. That my response wasn’t fair to them and I am sorry but also explaining what it was that triggered me.

Having open communication can be so healing. Many of the chats I have had in which we have listened to each other and forgiven each other for being human have gone a long way to healing past experiences of being bullied but not feeling like I could speak up about it at the time.

Bullying is such a complex and sensitive issue. We talked about how it is interesting to see where it happens and where it doesn’t. Who it happens to and who doesn’t experience it. Something to observe and reflect on moving forward…