Naked auditions are an abuse of power

Naked auditions, filmed or not, consented to or not, are always an abuse of power (Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

When I hear allegations of harassment and abuse in the TV and film world, I long to feel a sense of shock.

Disgust, outrage and sorrow are well-worn reactions in my canon of emotions, but despite three years of training and 10 years working as a professional actor, I do not possess the skill set to act surprised. 

The TV and film industry has long upheld systems that protect abusive, powerful men, and casts out those lower down the career ladder who aren’t willing to play ball in the game of their own exploitation.

Naked auditions became a trending topic on Twitter last week, as allegations surfaced that producer Noel Clarke had subjected actresses to non-consensual filming during nude castings, among other accusations of sexual harassment and bullying. 

Naked auditions, filmed or not, consented to or not, are always an abuse of power.

The public understandably reeled in shock at the notion of taking off one’s clothes and being judged by a panel. It conjures up an image of seedy directors and crusty casting couches in some damp, grotty studio in the back streets of London, but I know that they could just as easily have taken place in plain sight.

While I have never been asked to get completely naked in an audition room, I have been required to strip down to my underwear by a reputable casting director, in a reputable casting studio, for a reputable coffee brand advert and asked to blow up a balloon til it burst in my face.

When I struggled to complete my assignment, I was reminded by the male director that all the other girls managed to do it without complaint. Therein lies the problem.

As an actor – and more specifically as an actress – there’s an ever-present, implicit notion that if you don’t jump through the hoop that’s laid before you, someone else will.

Actors are conditioned into thinking that their success is in direct proportion to their level of ambition and dedication to the craft.

While both are key components for a successful career, issues arise when those in power re-define ‘ambitious’ as ‘amenable’ and re-purpose ‘dedication’ as the ability to leave integrity and personal boundaries in the waiting room. 

During my drama school training, we were taught audition-technique classes. Alongside the obvious ‘learn your lines’ and ‘don’t be late’, we were told to smile, nod and ‘do whatever the director tells you to’.

We were moulded into a clone-army of compliant yes-men and it took me years to undo my psychological programming.

It was drummed into us that in order to be a true artist, we had to get comfortable with vulnerability.

Addressing sexual exploitation and harassment should not fall at the feet of the victims who call it out

While being vulnerable as a character on stage or on set can make for an arresting performance, the industry’s obsession with emotional and sexual exposure often means that the actor – not the character – is the one left most vulnerable.

I thought that asking questions made me difficult, that having boundaries made me unappealing and that saying no made me unemployable. Ten years on, I now know that these characteristics are what make me professional.

I accept that there are instances in TV and film where nudity or sexual contact are imperative to the telling of the story. I do not accept that actors should be expected to do anything and everything to accommodate such scenes.

In light of the #MeToo movement, clear guidelines and practices have been introduced so that actors can feel comfortable and empowered while filming intimate scenes.

The hiring of specialist intimacy coordinators has meant that instead of having to navigate the embarrassment or anxiety of a sex scene, they can focus on playing their character.

Much like a fight director, an intimacy coordinator will work with actors to choreograph a scene that they both feel comfortable with, as well as ensuring the director’s vision is brought to life in a way that works for all parties.

Too often I have heard stories of directors telling actors to just ‘wing it’ during a fight scene in the pursuit of a ‘raw’ performance. The result, more often than not, is a raw face and a black eye.

Once unexpected and unwelcomed physical contact takes place, no amount of apologies or explanations can undo the damage caused. The same goes for scenes of a sexual nature.

Intimacy director Ita O’Brien says, ‘Working with an intimacy coordinator will start in pre-production, during the rehearsal process. We will first talk with the actors and director about the work we do, outlining what our process is. This is the start of open communication, and will then discuss the scenes, the characters and storyline and what the creative vision is. Then we’ll work with the actors to establish agreement of consent and touch and most importantly, where is the “no”.’

Ita’s, ‘where is the “no”‘ really struck me. The entertainment industry seems to constantly be answering to lines crossed by men whom it held in high esteem, men who aren’t used to hearing the word ‘no’.

Why are we still depending on victims to come forward and relive their ‘no’ moments in order to change the behaviour of men who knew their actions were never truly met with a ‘yes’?

Addressing sexual exploitation and harassment should not fall at the feet of the victims who call it out.

The responsibility lies with those in power who witness it, those who enable a culture in which it thrives and, most of all, those who commit it.

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