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There is hope for the Canadian theatre community

Diane Brown is the artistic director of Ruby Slippers Theatre.

As a seasoned actor, director and producer of many professional years – I need to speak out. Not one female theatre artist I have spoken to is shocked by recent headlines about sexual harassment and misconduct in our Canadian theatre community. Here is why.

If you are a woman in rehearsal and are uncomfortable with a groping director or teacher, sexual gestures or inappropriate language and comments – anything that makes you feel that your dignity is being compromised – there is a very good chance you will be labelled difficult. Or resistant. Taking offence to something is often interpreted as a sign of prudish "political correctness" that "censors creativity."

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This toxic culture exists in varying degrees from mainstream to independent theatre, and many victims are still silent. Why? Fear of reprisal, fear of being blacklisted, fear of failing the class, fear, fear, fear.

It's important to include theatre schools in this conversation as that is where it all begins. My experience, it turns out, was typical. Here are just two examples. There was a movement teacher who grossly manhandled female students to "show them" how it should be done. Today we call this sexual assault. Another, a director, was accused of rape. He simply left the country when his contract was up. Why were these people even allowed to teach?

Independent theatre is not immune to misogyny, which is perhaps worse in certain parts of the indie scene because bad behaviour can be celebrated in the name of "risk taking" and "breaking the rules."

Over the years, I have not been silent. The consequences I endured were commonplace: A director tried to fire me because I spoke to the producers about his harassment of a fellow actor. When firing me didn't work, I became his "whipping boy," meaning that I was the target of verbal abuse and public humiliation for the remainder of the rehearsal process. On another occasion, when I reported inappropriate behaviour, I was not taken seriously, told to "lighten up." Once, I turned down a major role from one of the largest theatre companies in Canada, citing as a reason that the director was abusive. Everyone knew it. My agent and the company told me I just ruined my career, and that company never offered me another role. And perhaps the most common consequence for speaking out was that you would be made to feel that you were actually the problem. But the radical truth is, men are responsible for their abusive behaviour, not women.

The sexual harassment and misconduct conversation has been one that has gone nowhere and resulted in no consequences for the perpetrators … until now. With consequences now seemingly happening here and abroad, I have hope.

I am hopeful that recent events will act as a catalyst, and the structures that protect and enable misogyny and racism to prevail in our white-male-dominated industry will be permanently disrupted. I am hopeful that women will be put in positions of power, that all types of diversity will be reflected in those positions and that the #MeToo movement will embolden more people to speak out and we will keep listening.

This is only the beginning of a long process of transformation, healing and profound change. And change we must, in the make up of our boards of directors, our artistic directors, our produced playwrights and our hired directors; these must reflect gender equity and diversity of all kinds in order for this change to be lasting.

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Hope equals systemic change within the Canadian theatre ecology.

People enabling abusers, on staff, on boards or in the rehearsal hall: If you are aware of power abuses and do not speak out you are complicit.

So speak out. The time is finally here. There is hope.

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly met with entertainment industry groups on Wednesday to encourage “zero tolerance” on workplace harassment in the arts. Joly says the arts sector is at the “forefront of social change.” The Canadian Press
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