harassment and gas on planet circus

October 3, 2008

Every year as a service to its employees, Cirque provides a mandatory session with an expert on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace.

So a few days ago we were subjected to a compulsory ‘workshop’ on the subject. This would not have been a subjection if the item on the timetable was genuinely a workshop. What we were provided with was a lecture by a poor motivational speaker with very weak audience interaction skills and a juvenile, yet patronising attitude in delivery. This was the purest expression of mediocrity I have experienced in the USA. No surprise at her success as a television personality.

The session ended with “Does anyone have any questions or comments?” and this is what I wanted to say but typically only found the words a few hours later. ‘Yes, I have a question; I want to know where do you get the balls year after year to deliver the same deeply flawed presentation of limited ideas about sexual harassment in the workplace to these Cirque employees. Flawed because I found your attitude to us condescending to the point of racism. Your use of language suggested your presumption that because you were addressing a group comprised of a significant number of foreign non-English speakers, we were also a group of pre-pubescent idiots. The repeated use of childlike, patronising exaggeration and pointed stress for linguistic clarity to the point of hyperbole, accompanied by overt gestures and facial mugging indicated an attitude to the audience which conflicted fundamentally with the subject matter of mutual respect. This is apart from the actual content of the speech, such as it was.’

I have had students who have shown better communication skills. The speaker displayed strident over-projection, poor delivery, weak rhythmic control of well worn punch-lines, and an inability to respond creatively and spontaneously to audience response and input. The primary source of examples to illustrate points came from personal incidents and events concerning herself and her career, the details of which we were continually subjected to. The central mechanism of interaction comprised a long series of banal and obvious rhetorical questions, to which we were expected to obediently chant the responses like a nursery school class. “Would that be a good thing to do? To touch Billy on his behind just because I felt like it…?” And a few of the company would murmur embarrassedly ‘No, it would not!’

The session was labeled a workshop yet the two hours was taken up by the speaker striding up and down an aisle in the auditorium, and with poor judgment of the venue and the sound amplification system, bellowing into our ears her ideas about sexual harassment and her experience, as well as anecdotes about her self, her family and her youth. Not one of us, not one person in the audience, I believe, truly engaged with the issue of sexual harassment as it manifested itself in this particular Cirque workplace. The highlight of the afternoon came in the form of a question by, I think it was one of the Brazilian skaters, who asked with exquisite innocence, “What do you do about someone who is just very loud?”

I understand that when a company employs many artists and technicians from other countries and other cultures, it is important, if not vital to give them clear information about the laws concerning this issue, and what is considered acceptable in this culture and what is not. But apart from the sub-standard quality and poor professional technical skill in delivery, the concept of this encounter between management and employees was fundamentally flawed. This concept was distilled by the speaker to a chillingly simplistic catch phrase; KYMS. ‘Keep Your Mouth Shut’. “Think what you like, but Keep Your Mouth Shut”?!! This is the central message we are brought together to have delivered to us as a ‘workshop’ on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace?!! What ever happened to ‘Listen.’ Surely the company could have benefited more from a true workshop which would provide structured encounters aimed at least as much at empowering the possible victims, as well as providing safe spaces for the participants to discuss sexual harassment as it featured in the present working environment. ‘These are some of the features of sexual harassment. Perhaps you have encountered or witnessed it. What has been your experience? How does that compare with other people in the group? These are your options if you do encounter or witness it. This is the support system we offer to help you.’

I would like to suggest that the speaker researches the methods of Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed, and that Cirque widens its search for people to deliver this workshop. There are companies in South Africa who specialize in dealing authentically with these issues for participants from widely dispersed social, cultural and economic groupings in such a way as to genuinely and meaningfully engage with the problems so that all participants have the chance to gain some insights which might help them in developing a new way of being with others. All the speaker did was lay down the rules, and state repeatedly; “This is the law in the US, and this is what you may not do.”

It raises the question as to why in fact Cirque includes this item on the Human Resources calendar. Is Cirque truly interested in engaging with the issue of sexual harassment and its context within the company, or is it merely interested in ‘ticking the box’ of preventative strategy with the least possible disruption of productivity. I contend that a company as progressive and open as Cirque could do a whole lot better but I am not sure that the corporate mindset wishes to. A real workshop on the issue might raise genuine concerns and disrupt the wonderfully profitable efficacy of the companies of dedicated artists and technicians.

Otherwise life here at LOVE continues apace. Company dynamic is great, the show is looking better than ever, training escalates and we are much more fully into the long-term rhythm of performance, rehearsal and training. We are also making extraordinary friendships. The day to day work is as demanding and fulfilling as one makes it and the experience is, bar my homesickness and missing my family, an absolute gas. My apologies for being so repeatedly and doggedly pompous.

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One Response to “harassment and gas on planet circus”

  1. Michael Tim Says:

    I love your site!

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