The first time I felt the disorientating sting of sexism within the entertainment industry was not from a man but from a woman.
My first professional audition was for a film. A good one. I’m twenty and acting is all I want to do. I stayed in character on the train. I was even involved in a squirrel getting hit by a car and thought this must be some kind of sign that would orientate me towards the essence of my character. It was in fact just an unlucky squirrel.
In the room is a middle aged, rather angry looking lady, flagged by a stylish younger woman and an even younger man. The woman in the middle, the boss, sees I’m with a high-ranking agent. ‘How did you get an agent like this while you’re still at university?’ I think she’s sneering but I also think I must be wrong and so I tell her the story. An actor friend came to see a piece of work I did, he liked it, he invited his agent, he liked it too, so I now have the said agent. ‘Right so you’re here because someone fancies you – great.’ ‘I hope not,’ I say. ‘Go on and read then,’ she retorts.
I remember her words making me feel very small but also my earlier squirrel work had focused me. I had a job to do and I was going to do it well.
I did my reading and she was silent. ‘You have gravitas,’ she finally said. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘But I think you may be too old for this part. I’ll send you up for it but there’s probably something else here too’. She starts flicking through the script and something about her head suddenly breaking the angle of her eyes on me makes me smart again. Am I only here because someone fancied me? Am I? Before I know what I’m doing I’m standing up: ‘Don’t worry. Good luck with your film’. She looks a little shocked and says: ‘I like your look, I like your coat,’ as if it has some kind of deep meaning that I’m meant to understand. ‘Yes it’s warm,’ I say, perhaps with my own deep meaning I’m hoping she’ll hear.
I remember gratefully breathing in the air of the car park while reeling. What was that? Who was that? Now in my mid-thirties I might know who and what that was. This woman knew how the industry I was gearing myself up for worked. It might be I was indeed there because someone fancied me. I might also have been good at what I do. She may not have been making any kind of distinction between the two facts. She may also have thought that what she said was some kind of compliment: I recognise that you have the kind of currency women need to get ahead in this industry. I however, at that point, was ignorant of the male gaze having anything to do with what I loved doing but my gut told me to run a mile from that audition. The irony is I really wanted that part.
I wish women’s voices had already been clamouring in protest about the messy knotted feeling in the stomach when your skill set becomes confusingly entwined with your sex. Did I create this toxic atmosphere? Am I not capable in what I do? I wish I’d read the brilliant words of Lucy Prebble then and been able to recognise that this dynamic wasn’t just something I was bringing to the table. There was a strange atmosphere of underlying complicity but I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be complicit in. I hadn’t brought my sex into the room I just wanted to do my job. How do you kick back against this unformed atmosphere in the right way without feeling that you are the drag and without missing opportunities to do the work you love doing?
I wish I’d known what to do when sleazy casting directors texted me at 2am to tell me how talented I was. I wish I’d stood up to the older male actor who told a female TV director that he wouldn’t improvise for her because he’d worked with Mike Leigh and who was ‘this woman’ anyway? Or when I heard an actress complain in fury that her agent had put her forward for the ‘plain looking’ part and all the female actresses agreed nodding heads together in outrage. I remember thinking, aren’t plain looking people also people and isn’t our job to be, well, people?
Without trawling through the horror show of my experiences as an actress there is one that feels useful to share. Perhaps as a warning, perhaps as catharsis. I don’t know, but here it is:
This director had worked with Mike Leigh and thought that acting was holy. He didn’t like to think of the person in front of him as a person; he/she was a character and had to remain as such. The warning signs came when we were using a Leigh method to devise the background for the character. I was using people from my real life and sharing attributes of their characters. As a code of ethics, we agreed I wouldn’t talk about anyone he knew. He was choosing which of these elements to keep in order to build the background of our character. Information which was shared in confidence, was soon after used, without my consent, to make work, in ways which I now think are unethical.
The show we were doing together was a one woman show (written by a man) about a young woman who becomes pregnant by an older man and ends up being abandoned and killing her baby. The entire show is static, water drips slowly onto the performer and she is lit by a light reflecting off a small patch of water and onto her face. It was beautiful in its own way. During the rehearsal period I realised I was pregnant, from my own heart drama, and was going to have to have an abortion. I told the director because I had to. I was vomiting in the mornings and kept crying when we ventured into scenes involving holding the fake child, a bundle of rags and sellotape. I asked for time off in order to have the operation and recover but the director told me my experience would be useful for the part and that he’d hired me to do a job and I should do it. If I didn’t someone else would do the tour and we’d have wasted all the hard work we’d done.
I don’t want to name and shame this director. He was young and ambitious – as was I – and I have told him in person that I wouldn’t work with him again as well as telling him why. He has now grown up as an artist and again so have I.
Looking back I don’t know why I didn’t demand to delay the opening. But I also do know why: you are made to feel like there are a thousand women who’d take your part in an instant. I was made to feel like all this was my fault. This was my body. I had gotten pregnant. I felt ashamed. In the operating room the doctor said, ‘you’re the second actress we’ve had in today.’
On opening night my womb ached from the operation the day before. My actor friend who first got me my agent came to support, and only because he was there, (he was successful), my agent came too. During that performance a little part of me died; the part that stands on a table as a child and does a little turn to make the adults laugh; the part that has a kind of burning bright spirit and knows that words can make a room light up or time slow down. That night, for me, acting became harmful. Me and my little sellotape baby died and never came back again.
The show went on to get amazing reviews and be called ‘a masterclass’. Each night, for six months or so, I performed this masterclass while also trying to work out how to untangle myself from the experience; searching for how to still be part of the thing I loved without irrevocably hurting myself.
This industry is supposed to be about people, about humanity. If you’re going to destroy people while doing it, or want to do it so much that you end up destroying yourself, then what on earth is the point?
Now over twelve years later I’m still here. But here in the way I want to be here. I am now a director. Through a lot of hard work I rediscovered the joy and the beauty in theatre. I won’t let anyone tell me what theatre is or isn’t or who it is or isn’t for. I removed myself from people who cared about success and Hollywood and tried to seek out people that cared about making art, with skill and intelligence. No one is ‘breaking’ anybody in my rehearsal room – ‘breaking’ a phrase I’ve heard in a bragging tone used by male directors in regards to emotionally vulnerable actresses who finally ‘break’. I have no idea why breaking someone would be useful when making work, either in the long term or if you have any sense of human dignity – your actors are skilled collaborators and should be treated as such.
As a female director I feel honoured to be entrusted with a cast who are looking to me to support them. I always say before a cast goes on stage: you can do no wrong and YOU are more important than the show – because people are.
I realise now I was very unlucky as a young actress. I used to think, if I was being unkind to myself, that my radar was too sharp and I found what I saw too ugly to remain and perhaps that was my problem rather than a problem with the industry.
Now I must say I know lots of amazing people in this industry, male and female, who want to make good work. I am lucky now, as an adult, that I know these people and I’m hugely grateful for them.
My hope is that this new dialogue around sexism might mean that young women are better equipped to know their boundaries and their strength and that the people who abuse those boundaries will find it harder to hide behind their power.
I’d like to thank all the women who came out about Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour and all the women who have written in response with solidarity.
I wanted to be honest and brave and do the same.
This is going to be a long road but there’s plenty of witnesses here to support and work for the changes that we must see.
The entertainment industry must stop playing this old fashioned game. It’s uninteresting, unnecessary, disrespectful and harmful.