Max Stafford-Clark was made to step down as artistic director of Out of Joint, the company he founded over twenty years ago and which has been a major producer of new plays and modern revivals ever since. Before that Max was the longest-running artistic director of the Royal Court from the late seventies to the early nineties. And before that he was co-founder of Joint Stock, a hugely innovative new play company from the 1970s. And before that he was associate director at the Traverse in Edinburgh. He has been a champion of playwrights and playwriting all of his life and, indeed, he is particularly associated with championing plays by women, most notably Caryl Churchill with whom he had an important working partnership for over a decade.
His directing methods have been hugely influential, particularly in his method of 'actioning'. This requires actors to identify the 'action' that is being enacted by each line: when you have the line 'Where are the scissors?', what are you actually doing to the other character by asking that question? You could be 'interrogating' them, 'involving' them, 'challenging' or 'accusing' them. By identifying this action, you lay bare the scene beneath the scene, the underlying transaction of the play. It's a valuable way of putting force and shape behind each line of dialogue but while a more Stanislavskian tradition can tend to solely concentrate on your own individual psychology, 'actioning' means everyone in the rehearsal room is aware and able to contribute to the understanding of what is going on. His directing is all about staging the dynamics of social transactions.
But now he has been forced out of his position at Out of Joint because of sexually inappropriate behaviour with young women. The Guardian reports that he told Out of Joint's Education Officer Gina Abolins: 'Back in the day, I’d have been up you like a rat up a drainpipe but now I’m a reformed character'. He apparently on a previous occasion suggested she try on a bikini in front of him and that she should have casual sex and tell him the details. Several other women, including the playwright Rachel De-lahey, have said that he would ask them personal sexual questions about, for example, how they lost their virginity. With his assistant Steffi Holtz, he made several personal comments about her appearance, touched her bum, and on one occasion said to her: 'If you were sat on the desk there in front of me I would eat you out'.
Stafford-Clark had a stroke a decade ago and his spokesperson has suggested this may have contributed to his 'disinhibition', but, of course, these stories go much further back than that. I remember reading Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia and assuming that the lecherous theatre director in that was based on Stafford-Clark. Since this story broke last night, a number of women in theatre have responded with variations of 'at last'. This was an open secret.
I hope that more women (and men) come forward to add witness to this story. Max is probably not the worst offender in the theatre industry but for thirty years he was one of the most important and powerful figures in the progressive, leftist, edgy, experimental new writing theatre world. It is impossible to guess how many actors', writers', designers', directors' and administrators' careers will have been shaped and damaged by his behaviour. The people who would not work at the Court because of him; the people who had to make horrible compromises with themselves to work there; the people neglected because of his lack of sexual interest in them; the people hurt and crushed by these actions; and more, the shrapnel of these actions will have scattered very far and very wide.
But let me just say a couple of things, because I already see a little narrative emerging that concerns me:
- 'It's a witch hunt'. No it isn't a witch hunt. Like Harvey Weinstein, Max Stafford-Clark was king of his castle for two generations. It is only now, with him in decline, that it has been possible for women to come forward without too much fear of the consequences. (I say 'too much' fear, because there is still fear. I note with shock that both Gina Abolins and Steffi Holtz have deleted their Twitter accounts.) The door opened just a little with Lucy Prebble's superb piece in the London Review of Books, which refers to 'a much older legend of new writing in the theatre' who was known to be a 'lech' (and who I guess is MSC). And now women are naming him, coming forward in a measured way with independent, specific cases, all of which seem to corroborate each other. They are brave and brilliant for doing so and should be listened to.
- 'No one is safe'. This is true or should be. If you've sexually assaulted women in the past, you are not safe. Nor should you be. The excuse that Weinstein used that he came into the industry in the 70s and that's how things were then is bullshit. Maybe men thought they could get away with it but where's the evidence that women were less horrified and crushed by sexual humiliation in 1977 than in 2017? There isn't any. If you behaved like that, it's because you knew it was wrong but you did it anyway. Of course some men's fear is that a false accusation will be believed and their career ruined without any due process. That would be an injustice, of course. But first, the history of this is that overwhelmingly women are not believed and that's why women don't come forward. Second, the history is that overwhelmingly when women do come forward it is because it is true. False accusations are the infinitesimally rare outliers; they should not drive who are are and what we want to be as a society, as a culture, as a theatre. We have a window now when women feel emboldened to come forward and I don't even want to say that's a good thing. It should just be normal.
- 'But he championed women playwrights'. Yes, he did. Andrea Dunbar, Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Sarah Daniels, Charlotte Keatley are just some of the women writers who were championed during his artistic directorship of the Royal Court. There's another list one could make of women writers who were championed by him at Out of Joint. But to think that this is some kind of balancing act is to fall for the very power dynamics that allowed him to abuse women. Max Stafford-Clark did not 'make' these writers; they are not dependent on him. They would surely have been major figures in our theatre if Max Stafford-Clark had not been born. They are each singularly talented, creative and extraordinary women and it would be every bit as true to say that they made him.
- 'But let's not forget his greatness as a director'. I agree; Max Stafford-Clark was a hugely important figure in establishing a style for new writing - plain, unadorned, clear, urgent. In fact, I think the theatre has moved away from his style, which can now seem rather leaden and unimaginative, but his historical importance should not be ignored. But here's the thing: his significance as a director does not counter-balance these accusations; it is part of what makes them so inexcusable. Because the man who invented actioning knows exactly what he is doing, when he says, 'Back in the day, I’d have been up you like a rat up a drainpipe but now I’m a reformed character'. The words themselves appear to suggest a kind of contrition, an affirmation of new-found saintliness, that the sexual threat is in the past. But if we 'action' it, we know what's going on: he is 'intimidating' Gina Abolins; or he is ' abusing' her; or he is 'humiliating' her; or he is 'assaulting' her. When he tells his assistant, 'If you were sat on the desk there in front of me I would eat you out', Max Stafford-Clark, the great director of new writing, with all his sensitivity to the interpersonal power dynamics when people meet and talk and boast and clash and compete and battle for territory and try to fuck with each other's heads, knows exactly what he is doing. He is, supremely and appallingly, a master in the dynamics of social encounters. His directing does not excuse his offences; it helps explain them.
Let me say one last thing. I know Max Stafford-Clark a little bit. I was a script reader at the Royal Court in the very early 90s and met him a few times through that. The Royal Court were, collectively, a visiting professor at Royal Holloway in the mid-1990s and we met a bit more then. He has visited my university a few times and I've bumped into him on various occasions. The last time I met him was in March when we were on a panel together, talking about Caryl Churchill's The Skriker. He was, as he always is, witty and full of insight and experience with just that little tang of outrageousness to guarantee the audience felt privileged and included and a little shocked. I guess that last characteristic is something he deploys at other times in other ways. I didn't know about his reputation really; I think I'd heard occasional things, but very distantly and very vaguely. Or is that true? Did I choose to hold those rumours 'distantly and vaguely' because I liked him? These moments are a chance for us all to think about our actions, to ask ourselves difficult questions and I do wonder now if I allowed myself a tiny bit of complicity.
So I like him, or I liked him. I am saddened by these revelations. I'm not sad for him really; I'm sad for the people around him who may or may not have known about his proclivities. But mostly I am sad for all the people who will have suffered over many years. I'm sad for our theatre which has this shit to deal with all the time. But no matter how sad, it's better that this is known. Often speaking out is a stark responsibility, a sad and stark responsibility.