First published November 2007

Trying to unravel why some people in the theatre industry believe that bad behaviour is a synonym for “Artistic temperatment” and therefore acceptable. It completely undercuts professional behaviour and therefore the arts as a profession.

Bookstores and libraries across the world boast shelves and shelves of books on acting of theatre, of biographies and autobiographies, of people in the arts, advice offered by successful or celebrity figures in the arts. Covers with grainy photographs of clear faced people with crows-feet smiles, their hands touching their chin – looking whimsical yet knowledgeable, smiling into the distance. Advice, adages, anecdotes to soothe, and placate artists and novices in times of struggle, hardship, exhaustion, harsh criticisms, despondency and to excuse bad behaviour.

For a long time I have been thinking that there is truth in the sayings that surround the theatre/arts: about being tough, not taking no for an answer, being a creative genius yet a nightmare tyrant to work with. But something about them just doesn’t ring true and I believe that many of the clichés that paint artists as egotistical, selfish, loners, drunks, drug addicts and single minded arrogant people- users are useless, nonsensical, unproductive and completely untrue.

I don’t believe that the cliché of the tortured artist or financially irresponsible artistic flake is true or necessary. I don’t believe the casting couch is the main piece of furniture in most theatres. I also don’t think that to get to the top of your field you have to “use” other people. Early in my career someone told me that “theatre is about using people,” and he told me that until I realised we are all using each other to further our careers that I would always be a failure. My brow furrowed and I thought about this. I have often read about the fickleness of fame, the transience of the art form, about the superficiality of the entertainment industry. And it made upset me horribly to think that the industry is driven by a bunch of fair weather friends and opportunists who are “using each other” to get to the top.

I don’t believe that theatre practitioners are using each other to get to the top nor do they need that attitude or perspective to achieve great work. I believe the truth of the matter is that there is a mutualistic symbiosis in the artistic community which is based on needing each other, not using each other for individualistic gain. I believe we are contributing to an ongoing conversation about who we are, where we are and what we think in the era in which we live. I believe that directors need the passion and vulnerability of actors to reveal the fragility and comedy written down by playwrights. I believe actors need the playwright to provide them a frame work of creation. Actors need the director for guidance and suggestion and support. The actors need the lighting designer so they can be seen and can see on stage. Playwrights need directors to negotiate and to champion their words… what I am trying to say is, that theatre is a collaboration. To act or believe that it is every artist for themselves and to search out people to “use” is to deny collaboration. To deny collaboration in favour of getting what you can, when you can, from who you can to achieve success, is the saddest thing I can think of. It destroys the possibility for creation, for conversation: and THAT is failure.

I don’t believe in success at all cost. I don’t think that success should be at the expense of other people. I don’t think it has to be like that and I don’t think there should be. And I don’t believe that to be in the theatre, to “get ahead” you need to exclusively hang out with “theatre people”: after all, surely we are writing for and about the wider population, not just for our colleagues and peers?

Recently I was directing as a part of a collection of new works and during a break in the tech rehearsal I approached one of the other groups of actors who were visibly tired after a long and difficult night. I went over and offered an enthusiastic congratulations for a highly energetic and compelling performance: A courtesy I believe they deserve. By and large they greeted me with appreciative thanks. But I did experience a few silences and a few harsh words and a failure to engage with a key member of the group… I had the distinct impression they didn’t like me. Was I being too friendly? Did they think I was being insincere? Did they suspect I had ulterior motives for offering congratulations? Or perhaps I am being paranoid? After days of similar treatment I began to avoid this person after receiving some random expletives, I thought this is proof that I should probably avoid the unpredictable firing line of this person. I was confronted days later by this person blurting at me “By the way, I don’t hate you Gus, you need to toughen up or you’ll never get anywhere.” Now, its nice this person doesn’t hate me… after all I like to think they have no reason to… and I wasn’t devastated or losing sleep about their bad behaviour towards me. Just conscious, aware and wanting to avoid any uncomfortable and unnecessary acts of aggression.

Usually the most aggressive and abrasive people in this industry have claimed that I am “too sensitive.” And the old adage of “you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros to survive the industry” rears its ugly head again. I am sensitive. I cry in plays/movies/at the news. I feel for people around me: sometimes I am hurt by other people. I am sensitive and this isn’t something I am ashamed or embarrassed about. I cry. I laugh. I think about criticisms and rejections and I move on. It is more about resilience, than being “tough”. It is about “confidence,” not “arrogance”. It is about being strong in what you believe in. About offering on stage and in rehearsal the best circumstances to which make your colleagues work shine, not to use or compete with them to get where you want to go.

But there are certain standards of professionalism and interpersonal conduct which are sometimes ignored. Is this because of the myth of the artistic temperament? IS this because of the intense stress that may be experienced at different times during the creative process?. I would not expect any co-worker in any job easy to work with if they were rude, inconsiderate, hot tempered, selfish, egotistical etc. We wouldn’t tolerate this of our plumber, we certainly don’t tolerate it in our mechanics. Why should it be tolerated in the entertainment industry?

What this has encouraged me to understand is that I am not interested in working with badly behaved people. Divas? Prima donnas with artistic temperaments who are after what I can “do for them” not what they can do for their industry/art form. I don’t care how “talented” any one is. There is nothing good that comes out of being vicious, selfish and insensitive nor badly behaved.

I am interested in a fulfilling artistic exchange: is that naive? I also think that the most fulfilling creative processes I have been involved in have contained highly sensitive people. Not “self-indulgently sensitive,” but definitely in touch with their fragility, limitations and humanity, as opposed to being egotistical, overly abrasive, arrogant and badly behaved. I find that things are created in spite of those people not necessarily because of them. Talent and professionalism are not mutually exclusive. Arrogance and selfishness is not a pre-requisite for being in the arts. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. The pre-requisite is sensitivity. Being sensitive to the need of actors (and fellow performers) to fellow directors, to people in your industry, to the tenderness of a playwrights first draft, to your fellow designers, creators and collaborators. It is also being sensitive to the needs of the audience: to their time, money, attention. In short, being sensitive to the needs of others.

All art is an offering to another person: an audience, a viewer, a collaborator. It is an act of generosity in and of itself. I believe that artists have to be sensitive in order to create. The responsibility that comes with this right is best exemplified by a phrase the director Lindy Davies has in her rehearsal room to offer each other, at all times, “unconditional positive regard.”