#IStandWithEJ

Anne-Marie Peard

Young women and girls who may want to be actors will be watching the Nationwide News v. Geoffrey Rush court case unfolding. What is it teaching them about their value in our industry?
#IStandWithEJ

Eryn Jean Norvill in Malthouse Theatre's Melancholia. Photo credit: Pia Johnson.

Nationwide News & Anor v. Geoffrey Rush is currently in progress at the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney. A famous actor has brought defamation proceedings against a tabloid newspaper.

On 30 November 2017, the Daily Telegraph published a story by journalist Jonathan Moran claiming that Geoffrey Rush had been accused of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ during the 2015 Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production of King Lear. It ran as a front-page ‘world exclusive’ with a large publicity photo of Rush from the production and the headline ‘King Leer’. It continued with a double-page spread focused on Rush’s ‘bard behaviour’ and was supported by statements detailing Rush’s denial of the accusations and noting that the complainant’s identity was being withheld by the STC.

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This was sensationalist journalism based on a pun headline and being the first to catch another celebrity in the repercussions of the #metoo movement. It sold a lot of newspapers, got a lot of hits and reached people who would normally avoid reading the Daily Telegraph. It became a story across all media even though it seemed to be based on gossip and hearsay. Gossip and hearsay are not evidence. It read like the rush to publish held back the vital steps of research and confirmation.

Let alone any confirmation that the complainant wanted their story told.

That’s atrocious journalism.

There was a lot of legal back and forth to get the case to court, but the threat to bring defamation proceedings began on 29 November 2017, the day before publication, when Rush’s lawyer also denied all allegations against his client.

Given it’s a case that accuses media and journalists of bending the truth, here’s the link to the evidence submitted: http://www.fedcourt.gov.au/services/access-to-files-and-transcripts/online-files/rush-v-nationwide. It includes emails, rehearsal notes, newspaper clippings, tweets, legal documents, and CVs; apparently work history and relative fame are important.

The emails between Moran and Rush’s lawyer and those between Moran and the STC are there. It’s clear that some attempt was made at confirmation, but it would also appear that nothing was going to stop the Daily Telegraph from publishing. According to emails from Rush’s agent and the STC, Rush was aware of the allegations as early as 10 November 2017. And, according to an email, STC management were aware of the allegations as early as 6 April 2017.

It’s also clear that the journalist knew the complainant’s name and didn’t publish it.

According to the submitted evidence, it is still unclear how Moran found out about it in the first place, especially as he knew that no formal complaint had been made and that the person in question did not want the story made public.

But none of this really matters because it’s now in court and the defence against defamation is that it’s the truth.

Actor Eryn Jean Norvill, known as EJ, could no longer choose to remain anonymous and keep the complaint informal. She had to appear as a witness for the newspaper. She had to appear as a witness for the publication that dragged her personal story into the public realm without her consent.

And in recent days, her name, her image and her evidence have been in major news reports, significant news publications and all over social media.

She has had to describe what was, for her, a humiliating and frightening situation where she knew she had no power. I don’t need to explain what the ‘inappropriate behaviour’ was because it’s now being widely discussed.

She’s seen respected colleagues defend Rush and deny that they saw, or have ever seen, any such behaviour by him. However, this week, another actor in the King Lear cast said he saw Rush cup Norvill’s breast on stage and make a ‘boob-squeezing gesture’ over Norvill during rehearsal.

‘Boob-squeezing gesture’. This is what it’s come to. Her breasts are being discussed in the Federal Court of Australia. How and if they were touched and if her nipple was covered by an alleged cupping action are being reported on.

Norvill has to endure this in court and her family and friends have to read, see and hear this.

Young women and girls who may want to be actors see this reporting and learn that their comfort, safety and bodies are so irrelevant that they can be discussed in intimate detail by anyone.

Actors and performers who have had similar experience see this. Is there any wonder that so many choose to keep quiet?

I wasn’t next to Norvill when these incidents occurred. But I have breasts. An accidental touch feels different from trying to cop a feel. And most people immediately apologise if they even suspect that they’ve accidentally touched a breast.

Norvill has been accused of lying, making a fuss about nothing and seeking publicity. But she didn’t start this. She made it clear to the STC that she wanted it to remain confidential.

Rush has presented himself as the victim from the day the story was published. Certainly, he is the victim of shoddy journalism, but by choosing to sue he’s continuing to put Norvill in a position where she is subject to further abuse.

She has explained in court how she was in a position where she was, allegedly, abused by someone who had a lot more power than she did. This happened in a space where the abuse was so hidden that no one saw it – abusers don’t do it in front of people. Or it was done in a way that those who did see it accepted it, ignored it, or laughed because a man air-groping the breasts of a woman half his age (and playing his daughter’s dead body) is apparently hilarious.

Well-known and influential friends and colleagues of Rush are supporting him or making excuses about actors being ‘needy creatures’ who thrive on ‘sexual energy’. It looks like no one is supporting Norvill. Just as no one supported her when her body was allegedly considered a joke in the rehearsal room.

But that’s not the whole story. Outside of the court room, #IStandWithEJ is all over social media.

She is supported.

#IStandWithEJ is being shared because the theatre industry is so much bigger than those people with the impressive CVs.

#IStandWithEJ is being shared because she is believed.

She’s believed because she has no reason to lie.

She’s believed because so many of us have heard about, witnessed and experienced this kind of behaviour in theatre and so many other workplaces.

When I was a child, I performed in pantomimes. I remember adults in the dressing room filling a condom with water and making dick jokes. It was the first time I’d seen a condom. That day, I learned about the kind of jokes that were acceptable in a children’s show. I learned to laugh and go along with feeling uncomfortable in a theatre workspace when I was 13.

It’s time for this to stop.

Talent is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. Being ‘nice’ is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. Thinking it’s harmless is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. Claiming ‘it’s a joke’ is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.

Being ‘from a different generation’ is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.

Non-consensual sexual conduct is unacceptable behaviour. Unwelcome touching is unacceptable behaviour. Using your power to intimidate is unacceptable behaviour. Turning a blind eye when witnessing such behaviour is unacceptable behaviour.

Continuing to put a victim in a situation where she has no choice and is open to further abuse is unacceptable behaviour.

In a better world, Rush may have admitted to his alleged behaviour, acknowledged that it made Norvill feel uncomfortable, apologised and used his considerable wealth, influence, fame and power to ensure that our theatres and rehearsal work spaces are safe for everyone. Instead, he supports the accusation that she’s lying.

In a better world, the well-known, well-paid, respected and popular actors, directors and managers giving evidence might have used their influence to make sure that all performers are safe in their workplaces. Instead, they support the continued abuse of a woman who has no reason to lie.

What if …

What if they stop now and decide to try to create a better world?

I have no idea who is going to win this case. But no matter the result, EJ Norvill is believed and hopefully the outcome is that anyone who speaks up against abuse and harassment in theatre, and in all, workplaces will always be believed and supported.

Yes, #IStandWithEJ.

About the author

Anne-Marie Peard has been a Melbourne-based independent theatre critic, arts writer and editor since 2006. Before that, she spent many years working in festivals and arts event management in Adelaide, Perth, Canberra and Melbourne. She writes for various arts publications as well as her blog, Sometimes Melbourne. She also teaches arts journalism and criticism at Monash University, and has been a panel member for awards including the Melbourne Fringe and Green Rooms. Follow her on Twitter: @SometimesMelb