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  • Liam Salmon

When artistic leaders violate their own safe space policies



Far too many of us have been there.


 

I’m sitting in on the first day of a rehearsal. It's a classic table read: the whole show’s artistic team sits around a table, and we start with the housekeeping. The artistic leader reads their company's safe space policies and explains that there are many avenues to report a hypothetical grievance, including themselves, the one other member of their company, and a mysterious board member who exists mostly in concept for the sake of this conversation.

They then explain that things can get heated in a rehearsal or creative process and to be kind to one another but know that if things happen, it’s because people express stress differently. This is a paraphrase, but it’s meant to condense what was said to express what they were trying to say.


Something didn’t sit right with me after they informed the room of this addendum, which was said directly after the official legalese policy. Once again, it’s taken me a while to write down my thoughts and process what I was feeling at that moment.


Yes: it is true. Tempers can flare, and we all have bad days. It is important to acknowledge our humanity in the process, always. But this is only true with a very important addendum… on the addendum that I’d like to add.


In the moment of a breakdown—for whatever reason, be that communication, emotional, or otherwise—the immediate duty of care is to those involved. That is, a person has expressed what may seem like a disproportionately large outburst to a situation. Take a pause, breathe, and maybe take a fifteen-minute walk to get out of the space.


Next, a post-mortem must follow, whether an email, apology, or some sort of closure.


Adding an addendum to a safer place policy that basically says, “If I outburst or say something I shouldn’t, it’s because I’m stressed, and I should get a free pass” is a gateway into allowing a loophole for abuse.


An example of this in a healthy practice: a different rehearsal room, different time, and place, and we’re rehearsing a scene. I’m sitting with the director, and we’re nailing the small, fine details of a particularly emotionally devastating scene for the character the actor was playing. Something odd happens during the run of it, and the director begins to give a related note. Suddenly, the actor has an outburst and declares, “I know! I know. Can we do it again?”


So, we do it again. And indeed – the actor knew and fixed the note.


Later that day, we had an informal check-in, during which the actor came forward and apologized. Immediately, we had a short discussion in which we made the subtext obvious: everyone in the room knew where that outburst was coming from and knew it wasn’t malicious. It was a process moment.


I think a very important key in this process is the check-in part, where we had a moment in a room to check and see that we were all on the same page. Then we moved forward, the play went on, and that actor delivered something to the part—a level of humanity that I didn’t even fully see in the character at first. Truly, it was one of the best performances I’ve ever had the privilege of being part of.


Back to that day when the artistic leader is reading the safe space policies. As they do so, I also think about two or three other moments when I’ve personally seen them violate their own policy. I think about the several stories of my friends from other leaders who have also violated their safe space policies or even have a track record of doing so repeatedly.


The problem with many theatre companies is exactly what I mentioned before. If something happens, your only recourse is to report your grievance to the offender, their one other employee, or a faceless board member. This is part of the problem that arises when a company can only afford to be a certain size, often having the only roles being Artistic Director and Executive Director—or something similar. Back to the scarcity problem, hey? It all comes back to scarcity.


Regardless of the economic reality, the question becomes, to whom are they accountable? If you’re working under a union, there’s one answer. But as a writer? It can be a little wild west out there. Personally, whenever I’m unsure, I go through the Playwrights Guild of Canada. I’m a member, and they offer services around arbitration (should it get there) as well as contracts and other advice and services. The guild has nowhere near the sway of Equity or IATSE, but it’s at least something.


Always think: How can I best protect myself? The sad reality is that too many leaders abuse their positions outright.


Let's do the hypothetical, shall we? An Artistic Leader of a company, who is also directing your piece, violates their safe spaces policy. Whether it's towards you or another member of the cast, what do you do? These are the options that you are most likely to have presented to you:

a) Talk to them and get yelled at in their office.

b) Speak to the one other employee who tries to defuse the situation without any other actions.

c) Talk to the board member and play the luck of the dice with someone you've never met.

This is a situation I've sure definitely never been in personally before, but what I can say from other people's experience: it doesn't feel great.


What I will say is that if you are on the receiving end of abuse, you do not have to play by or follow any of the rules they said you should. Be careful out there, but also know that structures are usually in place to protect companies over people under capitalism. That almost always means a board will go up to bat, take the side of, and protect their abusive artistic leaders.


One really helpful thing we can do and continue to practice is utilizing our whisper networks. Our nudges to friends in the industry, "I'm going to work with X; have you ever heard of them?" Nine times out of ten, if you have a good network, this is your safest bet.


Sometimes this is how you discover your situation hasn't happened in isolation. Spoilers: it often doesn't. Those sorts of people almost always have a track record. And all I have to say about that is: when someone repeatedly shows who they are, the best you can do is believe them. Hopefully, we will stop letting them become artistic leaders, though.

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