Devoted and Disgruntled 8

Dealing With Dickheads

Ellan Parry - 27 January 2013




This session lasted the full hour and a half, and covered a range of topics including dealing with bullies, bozo structures, how not to be a dickhead yourself, and what responsibilities companies and artistic directors have to respond to unsolicited emails….

Does the theatre industry encourage or facilitate ‘bad behaviour’? A man who'd previously been a social worker said he was constantly amazed at the behaviour that people in theatre were expected to accept / get away with, behaviour that would never be acceptable in, say, an office environment.
We're essentially talking about bullying - but in our industry this can be confused with ‘artistic integrity’, ‘risk-taking’, ‘not following rules’ - behaviours that are considered good for creating ‘art’ -

the idea that ‘if it’s not painful, it's not art!'

how do we draw the line?

we think we have to be pushy to get on - but does that encourage / reward people for becoming bullies?
some people thought this was especially bad in London - is the culture here particularly ‘hard’?

In most workplaces, there are structures to deal with bullying, a manager or somebody to report to - theatre in general neither defines a code of behaviour, nor has a structure to deal with bullying - what can we learn from other work-places?

Social worker has a good tip: ‘write down everything the dickhead is saying, don’t explain why, ask them to slow down or repeat if they go too quickly' - apparently this is very good for stopping people in an aggressive rant and making them think twice about what they're saying.

There were several people in the session who were or had been artistic directors, or managers of companies - we talked quite a bit about how there's actually quite a lot that companies or ADs can do to create a culture that doesn't tolerate bullying - setting out guidelines for behaviour, especially at the beginning of a project or when employing a new person.
This can be done quite subtly, doesn't have to be like a code of conduct that people have to sign up to, but it's helpful to be clear about how you expect people to behave.

A company I worked with last year called Vital Signs were very good at this, they mentioned it in my initial interview and again on the first day of the rehearsal - basically just said that as well as producing quality work, it was also very important to them that nobody had a horrible time and that everyone was respectful of each other - I thought this really made a difference to the process, I definitely found myself checking myself if I started to feel a bit stressed and about to get snappy in tech, I think this was the same for everyone - resulted in one of the calmest techs ever!

Although there is plenty that companies can do to encourage a respectful culture, it's much harder as a freelancer, coming into a company - what do you do if your boss or someone you work with is bullying you?

-find the right person to talk to about it - if necessary someone outside the company, agent, union?
-maybe someone just doesn't realise how their behaviour is affecting you - find a time to talk to them about it, have a neutral third party with you when you do.
-West Wing reference - ‘don’t argue with the chicken' - don't legitimise it by getting drawn in -try not to engage
-try to have conversations in person, emails can be problematic, lead to misunderstandings
-find a way to connect with the person and ‘turn’ them
-find your support networks
-We can all help by not being dickheads ourselves - a really good point, though ironically made by someone who loudly interrupted and talked over me to make it! - I think this bears out the point that it's easy to accidentally be inconsiderate in the enthusiasm of the moment, we need to be both passionate and considerate.
- have your own personal code of conduct and respect - set it out up-front, as early on in the process as possible - this can just be a simple, brief conversation about how you like to work
-Know your duties, accept your responsibilities
-define your terms
-find out what your most ‘comfortable defence’ is
-learn to meditate
-visualise a cricket-bat hitting away the aggression as it comes toward you
-accepting people's different values
-toughen up
-learn to move on
-stand up for what you believe is right
-be polite

a suggestion that this might be a generational thing, a culture that's dying out - thoughts?

we talked about whether the ultimate quality of the work overrides the behaviour that got you there - or whether the quality of the work is affected by how the people who made it.
Some people thrive on conflict, make ( or think they make? ) better work because of it.
It would be boring if we all just got on all the time and went around being nice to each other (?)
Belief that conflict makes for better work - is this why the theatre industry gives us permission to be horrible to each other?

Bozo structures - a lot of places have a hiring process that encourages people to hire people they think are less intelligent and less competent than themselves so they don't feel threatened. We talked about companies who had deliberately set out to employ people who shared a set of values, who were passionate about what the company stood for, and the value of employing someone you thought was better than you.

Do hierarchical structures breed abusive relationships?
Bullying can also be rife in more ‘collective’ structures - the person who can shout loudest wins.

It was observed by someone that a lot of stage managers interview really well, and then turn out to not really give a shit about the job - agree? disagree?

It's all about POWER
how do you take the power back in a bullying situation?
how do freelancers get some power?

conversation moved on to what responsibilities to companies and artistic directors have to answer every unsolicited email they get?
shouldn't take long to respond with a short, polite, standard reply or at least acknowledge receipt - but from the other side, it's difficult to be swamped by people who all want something from you.
Examples were shared - eg someone emailing Tanasha Theatre saying they'd always wanted to work at the Royal Court - have the politeness to check your email before sending it! Another example was an artistic director taking the time to read and feedback on an unsolicited script, but not being thanked or acknowledged - be polite, especially to people who've done you a favour!
lots of people said they'd rather be turned down than ignored.
talk about ‘gate-keepers’ - what responsibilities do they have?
advice from some companies - personal call or even visit can be better than an email.

So - this is me trying to record what was discussed - but what might we do next? Speaking personally, I've come to the conclusion recently that we have a problem in our industry with bullying - I'm wondering if there's any action we could collectively take on this? perhaps a basic code of conduct that theatres could choose to sign up to? should we have the ability to ‘blacklist’ theatres / people even? this could easily be abused, unfortunately. I got lots of really useful advice from this session about what I and all of us can do as individuals to not be dickheads, and to thwart the dickhead culture - but is there something more we could be doing collectively? Any thoughts on this would be really appreciated, and very interesting! Thanks to everyone who took part in this.




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