After Suda: stricter professional rules for film and theatre?

The John Suda sexual assault case was something of a shock to the system for the local performing arts scene. TEODOR RELJIC asked theatre and television practitioners whether more stringent regulation is the way forward, and whether this unfortunate incident is symptomatic of a ‘hobbyist’ approach to the entertainment industry

The unfortunate incident involving Maltese actor John Suda – in which a prospective actress accused the senior TV and stage performer of allegedly asking her to strip and touch his private parts during an audition – was on the one hand a depressingly typical example of abuse of power with a sordid end, of the kind we’re sadly used to hearing about particularly in the performing arts sphere, at least internationally. 

On the other hand, it also sparked a discussion on the need for the theatre and television industries – such as they are, locally – to perhaps regularise their activities, if not push for a total professionalisation of the field.

Speaking to various theatre and television practitioners on the island, it became clear that while any further regularisation would be more than welcome, it wouldn’t serve as a ‘magic wand’ solution to prevent any future incidents of this kind from happening. But what also came across was a need to take the performing arts seriously, in a country in which they’re often considered an afterthought in the grand scheme of things; a hobbyist pursuit.

One of the first people to address the issue openly and apply professional rigour to what had by then become a sensational story, actress Nicola Abela Garrett drew on her experience at British drama school to contextualize what constitutes good practice when it comes to nudity on the stage. 

‘You are not obliged to be seen naked during an audition. Only after you are chosen are you to be seen naked, and that’s purely for the purpose of the filmed/staged scene, and not for most of the rehearsal period,’ Abela Garrett wrote on Facebook soon after the John Suda case went viral on local news portals and social media. Emphasising that any on-stage nudity is to be ‘negotiated’ between the actor in question and their directors and producers, Abela Garrett added that it is in fact ‘illegal’ for an actor to be asked to be naked during rehearsals and improvisation sessions, and that should nudity be absolutely necessary to the process, ‘you are to be provided with a leotard or dance belt which is to be worn throughout the rehearsal period’. 

Speaking to MaltaToday, Abela Garrett reiterated these standards, adding that, “a case such as this highlights the need for a representative body to safeguard performers and directors”. According to Garrett, such a body would “establish a followed status quo for the industry in Malta, which would include rules and ethos that will protect all parties within the profession”, whose protocol would, ideally, also be passed on to drama students. 

“This ethos would not just apply to incidences of sexual harassment or payment issues, but also to where stage combat and health and safety on stage and backstage is concerned,” Abela Garrett added, pointing out that by nature, the performing arts are “based on ensemble work and trust, and this idea strengthens the notion of performers and directors looking out for and after each other”. 

Fellow actress Pia Zammit in fact brought up an example of a sensitive and respectful approach to onstage nudity. Speaking of her own experience during the Unifaun Theatre production of Howard Barker’s The Seduction of Almighty God back in 2010, Zammit said that the show’s director, Amelia Nicholson, never asked Zammit to take her clothes off during the audition or rehearsals. 

“When then got to doing run-throughs of the show, we introduced nudity slowly and safely. I chose who I wanted there in the theatre with us, we had people guarding the doors to make sure no one came in. We removed clothing bit by bit, step by step. Everyone was so careful and respectful,” Zammit said, stressing that when a part requires nudity, “it should be the character who is naked, not the actor”.

While stopping short of suggesting that a regulatory body should be set up to combat any similar cases in future, Zammit believed that all performers should be informed of their rights, and what is correct practice. Zammit, a member of Association of Performing Arts Practitioners (APAP), added that the association will be holding a consultation meeting on 3 August to this end. 

Abela Garrett likewise emphasizes the importance of awareness in cases like this, rather than placing the blame on the ‘hobbyist’ set-up of the local performing arts scene.

“It has an immense part to play, but I wouldn’t say it is the sole culprit,” she said, stating that a case such as the one in question can happen within any professional context. 

“A lack of professionalism and awareness of personal and professional boundaries are conducive to blurred lines and consequently the abuse of power, in any industry.”

Television producer Mark Doneo was even more direct on this point. “The hobbyist attitude may or may not lead us to mediocre standards and poor talent nurturing,” he said, “but these incidents or not exclusive to amateurs by any stretch of the imagination”. 

“Unfortunately there will always be people who take advantage or outright abuse their position of power. Everywhere. The trick is keeping tabs, and that – love it or hate it – means name and shame once convicted. Obviously, high-profile incidents such as the Suda case helps students and parents be more vigilant or aware, in retrospect, hopefully,” he added.

Fellow TV director Abigail Mallia took a similar tack on the importance of bringing these cases to public attention. However, she lamented the sadly pervasive attitude of ‘blaming the victim’: certainly evident on online comment boards the minute the Suda case flared up. 

“One must support the victim who speaks up and appreciate the courage. Speaking up is, in my opinion, the strongest deterrent, and naturally and hopefully, the consequences that come with that. What angers me is people who blame the victim: ‘s/he knew what s/he was getting into’, ‘it takes two to tango’,” Mallia said, stressing that, “what one must get is that this is, above all, an abuse of power,” and that similar scenarios could be witnessed in various professional spheres not related to the performing arts – be they regularised or not. 

“These people act outside what is regularised, and if they get away with it, they will behave in the same manner over and over again.”

However, while agreeing that no amount of regularisation will be enough to stop sexual predators wholesale, actor and playwright Malcolm Galea claimed that the further professionalisation of performing arts would go a long way to solving key problems in the field – most of which have little to do with sexual misconduct. 

“Maltese actors could also benefit from having a minimum payment scale set in place, a scheme whereby they get paid for commercials based on the frequency at which they’re shown, a maximum limit of continuous rehearsal time, regularised accreditation processes, and a whole host of other things,” Galea said, adding that the above could be applied to writers and directors too. 

Galea believes that this upgrade in standards is urgently needed, since he claims that non-professional behaviour is rife in the scene, what with “cast members being made to rehearse well into the early hours of the morning, directors being faced with actors who repeatedly fail to learn their lines or arrive on time, music and material being used without paying for rights, the list goes on…” 

“Malta’s a civilised country. We’re less than three years away from being European Capital of Culture. It’s about time that we caught up.”