DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: Nepotism

This column was originally published here.

Emma Jane Denly begins a brand new monthly blog Devil’s Advocate, a regular provocation about topical or controversial issues.

This month she plays devil’s advocate with the topic of nepotism, with a theatre professional who wishes to remain anonymous.

EJD: Nepotism has always been one of those issues that theatrical types just don’t want to tackle. The injustice of one person being promoted above other candidates due to a helping hand – particularly when the benefited individual doesn’t appear to be as talented as or even vaguely interested in the job at stake – is a testy subject. If you and I, similarly placed in a competitive and over-subscribed industry, were ever to be offered a break by a friend or relative, we would be morally challenged. Conversely, if this never happens and we declaim “THAT’S NOT FAIR”, our statement could be professionally disadvantageous: the likelihood of offending a prospective employer, in whatever field, is high, as nepotism is so rife.

Is there more than one type of nepotism – the fair type and the unfair type, or are there some cases where being “helped along” is acceptable? Finally, is nepotism in all its manifestations empirically bad? Can we comfortably holler that we are “holier than thou”?

Anon: There’s a murky distinction between nepotism and advocacy that makes this issue very complicated. Nepotism is the advancement of someone related to you, whereas advocacy is, in theory, meritocratic. Fair or unfair nepotism? The employment of anyone in any job who doesn’t merit the position should be seen as unfair. It fundamentally is, IF we want to believe that those who ‘get their foot in the door’ of professional theatre deserve it. However, we don’t seem especially committed to this view of our industry. This is usually because most of the people in the industry, including myself, can point to a time when they were given an opportunity they don’t feel they deserved. All this gives us a wonderful freedom; if we’re all in the gutter together then no one can call ‘holier than thou’.

EJD: So you’re saying we all need to get out of this “gutter” of friendly recommendation and the occasional leg-up… And where does this revolution start? At what point do you say, no, I don’t want that job at, say, the Globe because I only got my foot into the interview room because a friend of mine propped the door open? You’re already having to write under “anonymous” because of what you call the non-meritocratic tendencies of the industry – somewhat playing into the system itself – so I’m inclined to say that you must agree that some parts of it are useful or you’d come out and defy it directly.

In your dream world, then, if there were to be a solution, what sort of procedures would you count as acceptable?

Anon: I’m writing anonymously to preserve the principle of what I’m trying to say. I don’t want my entire argument wiped away when someone says, “ah, but you were given such and such an opportunity”. My career has been aided and advocated by several people. I’d like to say it was all down to my talent (and it is true that I’m not related to those advocates) but I admit the truth is it’s probably 50% luck.

The principle is: it shouldn’t be up to us. We have neither the voice, influence or money to reform the system from where we are. The best we can do is to say that when we get to the top of the ladder we’ll treat those below us better – but of course at that point the catch 22 is already in effect; we’ve reaped the rewards before pointing out our unethical behaviour along the way.

What procedures would I like to see put in place? Cover letter, CV, interview. The Young Vic does this and they have the best training directors – a peculiar correlation? I think not.

EJD: So, institutions like the Young Vic that have the money and the resources to interview and sort the presumably massive quantity of applications for their directors’ scheme are behaving correctly, and you’re saying that anyone with the same facilities available should do the same? OK.

What about employers who can offer similarly wonderful opportunities, exposure or projects who don’t have the time or money? Examples of that kind of altruistic procedure amongst theatre practitioners working at theatres with less funding, or even working out of their living rooms, are few and far between. I don’t believe many unpaid directors would sit through even 60 auditions after posting an open casting call – and we both know that applications would be ten times this – if they knew they could ask one of their friends to take the role. What you are proposing as a solution to nepotism is limited to very few places, and therefore I don’t think your proposed revolution will ever seed itself.

Anon: Again we’re blurring the line between recommendation and nepotism.  If a director has an actor/actress they’ve worked with previously who is perfect for the part, then it’s a simple hiring choice. It’s when someone is given a similar opportunity because their father/mother/uncle/aunt/godfather etc. is involved that the situation becomes unfair. I accept it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between these, but we must at least try.

Budgetary requirements are so small as to be irrelevant. We are not talking about thousands being spent for these processes to go in place. It’s not an insurmountable task even for small theatres; theatres already doing so include the New Diorama, The Gate and The Finborough.

My point is this: we are holding ourselves to a depressingly low standard. Personal relationships are not always malevolent forces of corruption. Advocacy of talented youngsters can ensure that the right people get the right opportunity at the right time. However, our commitment to fair and honest application procedures as a mandatory requirement is flimsy at best. This is doing the industry damage – it breeds insular artistic vision as well as debasing our belief in our own talent.

EJD: Perhaps it is a case of cornerstone institutions leading by example. I don’t think that this excuses us, however, from any behaviour that could be dubbed nepotistic – and this is defined differently by different people. Therefore you, and I, and anyone else wanting this increased vigilance will have to act accordingly. The phrase “squeaky-clean” comes to mind. In the public forum, I’m sure that there are some who think that the line between nepotism and simply choosing a friend for a task is not as clean-cut as you perceive it.

  • What are your thoughts on nepotism? Do you have any thoughts on the definition of the issue, and are there any cases where nepotism is acceptable?
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