Monday, January 08, 2018

Power and Abuse

Vicky Featherstone
The year begins with the news that Vicky Featherstone - Artistic Director of the Royal Court - is the "most powerful person in British Theatre".  At least according to The Stage, which publishes an annual list of the "top 100".  In all fairness, I should say that it uses the term "influential", rather than "powerful': but the fundamental point would still seem to be that these are the people who can make and break careers.  Which makes it feel rather paradoxical when you look at the reasons behind the choice of Vicky for the "top spot".  Almost all the coverage, and the judges' own citations, are about the stand she took on sexual harassment in the theatre, in the wake of the scandals around Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Max Stafford-Clark etc.  Surely the whole point of these scandals was that they centred on men in positions of "power" (or "influence", if you prefer - theatre careers often develop through "influence"), who made use of those positions for their own sexual gratification?  Surely, if this calls anything into question, it is the very existence of the power structures that make this behaviour not only possible but endemic?

What Vicky did in response to the scandal seemed to me the opposite of "powerful".  She made the space of the Royal Court available for people to speak with impunity about their experiences.  She then made an ill-judged decision to pull Rita, Sue and Bob Too out of the Royal Court's programme on the grounds of its vague association with Max Stafford-Clark - a decision that she then reversed in response to public criticism.  I think she was right to reverse the decision; and that it takes a lot of bravery to admit, so very publicly, to having made an error of judgement.  Is that "powerful"?  Not in any conventional sense.  You wouldn't catch Harvey Weinstein backing down in public, would you?

And this seems to me to go to the heart of it.  Theatre should not be about "power" and "influence" at all.  It should be about talent, creativity, collaboration, and a sensitive, nuanced response to the complexities of the current moment. Such responses are achieved through open discussion and considered debate, not through "executive decisions". My friend Donatella Barbieri gave me a copy of Mary Beard's Women and Power for Christmas - and it's worth quoting at length:

"[We are] still treating power as something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called 'leadership', and often... to a degree of celebrity.  [We are] also treating power very narrowly, as an object of possession that only the few - mostly men - can own or wield...  On those terms, women as a gender - not as some individuals - are by definition excluded from it.  You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.  That means thinking about power differently.  It means decoupling it from public prestige.  It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers and not just of leaders."

This is how theatre works when it is truly meaningful, and not just a career ladder to pointless stardom.  But the journey towards that new and better way of the art form operating in society will not be helped by the perpetuation of The Stage's "power list".  Let's just scrap it, shall we?

And brava Vicky Featherstone, for suggesting better ways.