Women on Brave Creative Spaces

As part of the blog, I had planned to get reflections both from a man and a woman post-Brave Creative Spaces long table. But we at Imago decided instead of asking one woman to share her thoughts, we invited three women to chat about their thoughts with me on the long table and, one month on, the questions they still have about how we can move towards harassment-free spaces. The women are: Leni Parker, an actress who has been in the industry for over 30 years; Lauren Holfeuer, an actress/playwright who has recently relocated to Montreal from Saskatchewan; and Katey Wattam, an emerging director. I’m Sophie Gee, a director. We communicated by messenger one snowy afternoon last week.

We started by sharing some impressions on the event and then continued from there:

Leni: I felt as a middle-aged white actress, that it was my job to sit back and listen. I think as I grow older I become less tolerant of the bullying in our workplace. But I’ve seen it ALL…

Lauren: I also felt like it was my job to listen and support

Sophie: Yes, I guess Lauren, as a newcomer, you felt it best to listen and learn about your new community. I find it interesting that you felt the need to listen, Leni, because as a woman with a long career, you have seen it all. You have privilege being a white person but you are also a woman…

Leni: Yes, I was speaking with Sophie on the phone the other day, and I was saying there’s this fear of jumping in, but also a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. I don’t want to become comfortable in silence but I believe that, at this point in time in my career, I’m here to support and to foster a beautiful creative space.

I am responsible for standing by and witnessing some of the bullying and not supporting my fellow actors. As a person of privilege, and also I am the, or one of the victims of some of that harassment over the years.

Sophie: I think a lot of people in the community, while they want to support, are worried about saying and doing the wrong thing. This is new territory, how we deal with harassment that’s out in the open, as a community.

Leni: We are really feeling that now. We are feeling that what’s the next step in trying to put this into words. I really think the community needs to continue the long table on a regular basis, to provide an open forum for people to speak about this.

Lauren: Out of curiosity, what do you feel might be gained by an ongoing long table discussion?

Katey: I have many thoughts—my first impression was that folks had varying levels of comfort and familiarity with the subject matter and pro-survivor vernacular—and I saw a need for filling these gaps in knowledge, which an ongoing long table discussion would help to facilitate.

Sophie: Good point, Katey. We all need to be educated on this. As a community we have a lot of learning to do.

Leni: There are huge gaps – pro-survivor vernacular, perhaps my generation is lagging behind.

Lauren: I feel like I’m just catching up now too!

Leni: I just wanted to say one thing that I thought was important. I’m teaching at Concordia University… I have first year actors in my class and I’m teaching scene study. I am trying to drop in the idea of giving them a voice in the room from the get-go, from the moment these young artists step into a rehearsal room. So I am arming them with tools that they will use when they get into that room and get into those situations where they are going to feel a bit overwhelmed or even bullied by a person in an authoritative position in rehearsal. I’m giving them artistic tools to use in terms of their work, but also that voice that they will need to learn to express themselves but also to protect themselves.

I strongly believe that we need more support for young artists. We need to understand them. We need to listen to them.

Sophie: I remember witnessing abuse at the NTS when I was a student and I didn’t speak up. Not one person spoke up, of a whole room full of people, except one really brave young woman. The abuse didn’t happen to her but she called out the abuser very publicly when we were all sitting in a circle afterwards.

Lauren: That young woman did a very brave thing.

Sophie: OMG it was insane. I’ll tell you about it privately (ed – but why privately? Why won’t I name what I witnessed?  Why am I hesitant to name the abuse and abuser? It’s because I don’t want to cause any pain for the person who directly experienced the abuse. I don’t want the person to be retraumatized.)

Leni: I tell my students every day, be strong, come in with a myriad of ideas about the work, but also SPEAK UP. Communicate. I’ve watched actors lose their voices. So upsetting. We are all about communication.

Sophie: I think it’s a group health issue, not an individual crime, so it’s good to teach young students to speak up, even if it doesn’t happen to them.

Leni: Amazing, Sophie. (ed – I cannot take credit for this. I read about this in a Guardian article. Here’s the sentence: “The history professor Joanna Bourke, who wrote the brilliant book Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present, has just started a five-year project for the Wellcome Foundation entitled Sexual Violence, Medicine andPsychiatry, the aim of which is to “take sexual violence out of the little box called ‘crime’ and into the huge field of public health”.)

I thought it interesting what someone said at the long table a couple of weeks ago, that sometimes people are afraid for their jobs if they speak up. And that has to stop, we need to support actors, stage managers, etc.

Sophie: But this taking on of responsibility for the whole, how far does it extend? Does the community have a responsibility to respond when there’s harassment or do we leave it to the police?

Lauren: I think we as a community do have a responsibility to stand up. Often, traditional judicial systems are not able to respond to these kinds of personal crimes.

Sophie: Lauren – how would this taking responsibility manifest itself? By barring/boycotting perpetrators of violence and their work?

Lauren: Other than finding the courage to speak and to listen, I’m not sure what this responsibility looks like. That’s what makes me so frustrated. I’m desperate to act and instead I’m left wondering ‘what do we do now?’

Sophie: And also who does the investigating? Who is the arbiter of the truth? I’m asking these questions because I’m struggling with them.

Leni: I’m struggling too.

Sometimes I think it is more of a legal matter; in terms of what happened to me in the workplace, that was dealt with through Equity and a mediator. So someone stepped in, there were things that we could settle without it going into a legal sphere.

The justice system can be seen as a broken system. It is. But how do we as a community sort through the more dangerous issues?

Sophie: We’re not trained or equipped to handle such conflicts. Not yet anyway.

But people obviously individually can make their own decisions and take their own actions, and maybe collectively that adds up to some kind of power. Like if you knew that X person was a creep and someone asked you about X you would say, well, I wouldn’t work with him, he’s a creep. And the person doing the hiring would make their decision that way. This obviously has been going on for a long time, the whisper network.

The problem with this whisper network is people outside of this network might not know X person is a creep unless people spoke out publicly. And X’s behaviour might not stop and the guy might even be unaware of it (which yes, can seem incredible…) so they continue on with their behaviour.

Leni: Ok, so the bigger, or rather biggest issue is male privilege. Can I say it? Is that the root of it all? Or is it simply abuse of power?

Katey: I think we are also talking about a case of male silence and male ignorance as well–the inability and unwillingness to speak up and/or the inability and unwillingness to comprehend the magnitude of their actions or lack thereof. However, I think the issue is much more complex than male privilege, and it intersects with so many different lived experiences of folks of all genders. Sexual violence and/or sexual harassment affects folks of all genders and/or orientations.

I feel like the next step would be for the community to educate each other on varying topics—because for me, as a survivor, I could tell that everyone there had good intentions and a capacity to support young artists and survivors—it’s just a question of who takes on the emotional labour to meet folks at their level of knowledge and broaden their horizons.

Leni: I love what Katey has said. Just saying.

Sophie: Katey, how can the community better support survivors?

Katey: I think folks need to go through the personal process of learning and unlearning the ways they interact with each other and understanding that consent is a practice and a process and something that needs to be constantly reinforced, recalibrated, and redefined.

Leni: Did you see that recent story of the pregnant mother in the airport with her toddler? And how when she was losing her shit, because she was just too overwhelmed in the moment, these women came and formed a circle around her. They came to her rescue. We need that circle. And it can’t only be women.

Sophie: Wow, I love that. I didn’t hear of that story. That’s me many times

Leni: I thought of you.

Sophie: lol! I’m a harried mum that’s for sure.

Yes, men need to be part of the solution for sure. There’s a lot of listening and learning for them to do. Lots.

Lauren: and what a great metaphor, the circle they formed, to echo the setting of the long table

Leni: Yes.

Lauren: we all came to sit with one another and be present in the work

Sophie: and for the most part, lots of people were there to listen and learn.

Lauren: That’s right. And by being active listeners we support the work

Leni: I would love to see you all in person. At a table. And I will listen. And we can forge our path forward. I have less time left on this planet than you all, for sure, and I am in service. This time around, I am in service.

Lauren: what a lovely sentiment

Leni: I have to unchat now!

Sophie: Leni

Sophie: Katey and Lauren – did you want to chat a bit more? Did you have any questions post-long table? I have a lot of questions….

Katey: ask me questions

Sophie: ok – here’s one. I hear from women a lot that it’s not our job to educate men. But how else will they learn? Being a person of colour I hear this a lot in the POC community too (“it’s not my job to teach white people about racism”) but I think it’s always easiest to change a heart by talking to people, sharing a table, meeting eye to eye. So – what do you guys think about “it’s not women’s job to teach men”?

Lauren: To me what that sentiment means is that men need to start ‘leaning in’. They need to start looking for answers and asking for clarity. But if a man comes to me looking for clarity, I am willing to provide what I can.

Katey: it’s hard—because I feel like folks open themselves up more to lived experiences and vulnerability—but at times I do find it is exhausting to re-hatch and re-live traumas to get someone to understand where you are coming from—so I guess it’s not just women, but survivors and people who have experienced marginalization and otherness. Does that make sense?

Sophie: Katey, yes, you make a good point. It would be a lot to ask a survivor to teach men about abuse. Maybe it’s the job of allies to help educate, not survivors.

Katey: I think folks who are able to grapple with their and others’ trauma and break it down in a way that is digestible—I have personally worked on figuring out my limits, and I know to some extent what conversations I am willing and not willing to have with men/people in general.

Lauren: That’s a great point Katey.

Sophie: That’s really good. And you made me realize that while it is not difficult (but it is exhausting) for me to have these conversations, of course it would be for a survivor.

Katey: I feel like working through this as a community needs to be partnered with a lot of personal work and self-reflection.

Sophie: Any questions from you, Lauren, or you Katey?

Katey: hmmmm i just have a lot of thoughts as of now—maybe kind of a question
because we talked a lot about safe spaces and I feel like a true safe space can never entirely exist
so maybe what do you folks think about it? because I have thoughts

Sophie: I don’t think there can ever be a truly safe space. I think we can be responsive to make it safe, but it’s difficult to know and plan for what might make someone feel unsafe, given everyone has such different lived experiences. But then again, we do want to create spaces that are safe and be preventative, not just reactive. I don’t know. I know there’s concern amongst some artists that a safe space might be difficult to create challenging work in.

Lauren: I have never experienced a safe space. But I do think that the work we do to attempt to create and uphold a safe space is of great value.

I think pursuing a safe space means we have to talk about the things each individual values about safety and in knowing more about what people need we become able to respond to those needs.

Lauren: At the round table again and again, we heard a variety of people express that their fear of losing their jobs kept them from acting or speaking up. Is it possible to remove this fear from people? And would it accomplish anything?

Sophie: I guess it would mean companies taking active steps to support survivors and their careers.

Yes, I think if we could remove that fear it would open people up to speaking up so much more. I know I didn’t speak up because Ilabeledwant to get a bad reputation. Which is ridiculous.

Lauren: It’s not ridiculous! It happens! Women get labeled as difficult and then they don’t get hired again.


Lauren: which is tragic

Sophie: We’ve been going on for a while now so we’ll start to close. But I want to say that restorative justice is really interesting to me.

Katey: I do think restorative justice is an interesting and important tool to work through things as a community. I was first introduced to it by Kahnawake peacekeepers a few years back

Lauren: I’d be very interested in having some concrete skills when it comes to restorative justice. What are some of the methods a small company, a community, etc. can take into their own hands?

What’s next?
These questions, experiences, values and philosophies will inform our first Brave Creative Spaces pledge meeting which took place last week at Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal. The Brave Creative spaces committee is made up of a group of volunteers who are emerging and established theatre artists in the Montreal English theatre community. The committee will work collaboratively to draft a pledge with resources, policies, values and vocabulary that advocates for safer creative workspaces. The pledge’s objective is to be a tool and resource for Montreal theatre artists that reflects the intersecting needs and values of our community. The hopeful deadline for the pledge is September 2018 and the committee will be transparent about how work is progressing. Please feel free to send us resources, questions or concerns you might have.

Thoughts on how to be brave in moving forward:
These difficult conversations catalyze a necessary unravelling of embedded injustice. These difficult conversations are also rife with complexity and trauma. With much work, unlearning, self-reflection, compassion and bravery, I do think we can hope for a kinder, safer and more equitable future for our arts community.

Do you have any other thoughts on how to be brave in moving forward?

Let us know!