It may be a grey January morning but a palpable frisson hangs in the air at the Royal Court. It’s not just that two plays are about to open – one new, one a revival, both, as it happens, written by women – but in the past few months, this building in London’s Sloane Square has been at the forefront of a crusade to change the culture of theatre.

#MeToo sent seismic shocks through the industry, one where sexual harassment had long been the accepted behaviour of eccentric and untouchable “geniuses”. While public downfalls in theatre have, so far, been surprisingly few and far between – with director Max Stafford-Clark and former Old Vic boss Kevin Spacey the exceptions – it has also been one of the quickest sectors to galvanise for change, with the charge being led by the Royal Court artistic director, Vicky Featherstone. “The conversations I’ve had in the last three months are unlike any I’ve had in my entire career,” she says, “so I fully believe a real shift is taking place. But things definitely still need to break and be re-fixed, and that’s the phase we’re in now. It’s intimidating and scary, but lots of good stuff will come out of it.”

Gathering in the basement cafe on this frosty Monday are just some of the many women who, like Featherstone, continue to mobilise (click on ‘i’ on bottom right of photo for caption). Gina Abolins, the education manager at Stafford-Clark’s theatre company, made the brave step of being one of the first to speak up last year, when she accused him of persistently inappropriate behaviour; he stepped down soon after. Abolins draws hope from Featherstone’s newly drawn up code of behaviour, where “directors are no longer untouchable gods who can do or say what they like”.

Featherstone is keen to point out that this code, drawn up after a day of action held at the Royal Court in October, on which 150 anonymous testimonies of sexual assault were read out, is currently “an offering – the beginning, not the end, of the conversation”, and certainly not an edict for other organisations. But it is also the first time basic rules such as “You must take responsibility for the power you have” and “Call it out, straight away, even if it’s awkward to do so. Don’t feel shame” have ever been put down in writing for directors, producers and actors. Abolins, and Steffi Holtz, Stafford-Clark’s former assistant, intend to push for a similar code becoming the norm across the industry.

“It’s the power and the hierarchy, particularly within rehearsal rooms, that still needs to be flattened,” says Abolins, who has been inundated with others asking her about the process of whistleblowing. “A code of conduct, which empowers you to be able to go to a director and say, ‘That thing you just said to me made me feel uncomfortable’ and for a director to respond, ‘I’m really sorry. It won’t happen again’ – that would change everything. Imagine if no one was untouchable?”

Holtz nods in agreement. “I do think theatre, especially, calls for some sort of universal and mandatory code – because it is one big grey area, where everybody is an eccentric, and you don’t ever quite know where the line is.”

For director Lucy Kerbel, the challenge is how to create an entirely new ethos. The organisation she founded seven years ago, Tonic, fights for gender equality and has long forced institutions to look at their hiring policies and ingrained bias; now, Kerbel hopes to do the same in terms of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour. The two issues are connected, she says: “It’s all about looking at the fundamentals of power. If a disproportionate number of people moving into artistic director roles are white men, this type of behaviour is more likely to continue, and these macho environments will just keep going unchallenged.”

Yes,” interjects Meera Syal, actor and writer, and currently playing Miss Hannigan in Annie. “This is all about a rethinking of what it means to hold power, isn’t it?” Like Kerbel, Syal sees #MeToo as a progression of the long-running fight for equality and diversity across theatre, though she shakes her head in disbelief that it has taken so long for the pot to boil over. “This is a wonderful place to start dismantling a scared, tight little group that is holding all the reins – but we’ve also been here before,” she says. “It takes a long time to change the culture and we have to be ever-vigilant.”

She points to Sita McIntosh, the chief operating officer of WhatsOnStage, who, like Syal, has been in the industry for more than three decades and is an active voice in the diversity debate. McIntosh sighs and nods. “You think we’ve moved on, and then the Bridge, a brand new London theatre, announces its first season, and you just have to go, ‘Are you joking?’” The theatre’s debut programme, devised by former National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, featured work only by white writers, with its three consecutive opening plays all by men. “And then, going there, I saw only three black faces: mine, the man taking the coats and the man picking up the litter outside.”

“It’s not meant to sound negative – it’s just that we’ve been on the wave of change and optimism before with the whole diversity discussion. And we know from bitter experience that just signing a statement doesn’t make any difference,” continues Syal. “My hope is that, as this movement moves forward, it becomes more intergenerational and more inclusive of women of colour.” Syal looks around the table at the group of women gathered here today, whose ages range from 25 to 56, and breaks into a laugh. “But I’m not putting dungarees on again for anybody.”

For theatre company RashDash – made up of Abbi Greenland, Helen Goalen and Becky Wilkie – challenging the stories that are told on stage is also fundamental to changing the male-dominated culture of theatre. “As an audience member I know how often I have to turn off my patriarchy or my misogyny klaxon, to enjoy quite a lot of the stories that I see on stage,” says Greenland, to a rousing chorus of agreement. “And that all goes towards normalising a society where people feel entitled to bully and abuse their power, and are entitled to women’s bodies. So I would really love to see 2018 become a place where people are better at investigating the stories they’re telling.”

Greenland and Goalen hope #MeToo will embolden women writers. “It should encourage the gatekeepers to put on work that doesn’t necessarily fit into a patriarchal structure of storytelling, to allow that work to breathe – not just on the fringes but on the main stages as well,” adds Goalen. For Pippa Sa and Beth Watson of Bechdel theatre, a campaign and podcast challenging gender representation in theatre, solidarity is key, “creating new networks between younger and older generations”.

Featherstone refuses to criticise other institutions for not following the Royal Court’s example and laying out their own code of behaviour, but others in the group are less forgiving. “When Vicky spoke up, because it’s in her blood to do so, what shocked me was that the bigger establishments weren’t embarrassed into doing something bigger and bolder. Or be just as loud, or even just join in. But they didn’t,” says playwright Rachel De-lahay. “And then you look at the announcement for the new season at a theatre like the Almeida in London, and it’s all male writers, and it shows how people are still not even trying to change things. That’s embarrassing.”

Yet De-lahay, one of many women whom Stafford-Clark asked about losing their virginity, says she still feels a lot of optimism. “I feel excited that #MeToo won’t be a necessary thing for future generations,” she says. “I feel like there’s a future me that would walk into an office with Max Stafford-Clark and say, ‘Er no, that’s not an acceptable thing to say’ and walk out – as opposed to scurrying away and phoning a friend and perpetuating that culture of silence. And I feel that, as long as Vicky is there, being loud and rallying the troops – because sadly no one else is doing it – then we can make real change.”

For Featherstone, the key to making a fundamental difference is not to be afraid to make mistakes – this is, after all, uncharted territory. “It’s a bit like me with the Rita, Sue and Bob stuff,” she says, referring to her decision to initially cancel a production of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, her play about two teenage girls who have a sexual affair with an older married man, and then put it back on after allegations of censorship. “There isn’t a roadmap for this: we have to try things, and we fail and change when something else happens. We have to keep moving – we have to be fearless about it.”

Back row from left: Sita McIntosh, COO of WhatsOnStage; Abbi Greenland, RashDash theatre company; Pippa Sa, Bechdel campaign and podcast; Gina Abolins, Out of Joint theatre company; Vicky Featherstone, artistic director, Royal Court; Meera Syal, writer and actor; Lucy Kerbel, director and Tonic founder. Front row from left: Rachel De-lahay, playwright; Steffi Holtz, Out of Joint; Beth Watson, Bechdel; Helen Goalen, RashDash. Photograph: Ben Quinton for the Guardian. Hair and makeup: Dani Richardson. Shot on location at

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Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

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