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Accusations of a toxic culture of bullying have rocked a prominent Melbourne theatre company just as the state government ties arts funding to behaviour standards.

Four people have left St Kildas Red Stitch Actors Theatre within the past six months, one citing fears for her safety, amid a series of complaints to the companys managers and board.

Red Stitch Actors' Theatre in St Kilda East stages eight productions a year.

Photo: Chris Hopkins

Red Stitch has been lauded for its innovative productions and as a springboard to bigger things for many of its alumni since its founding in 2001. It stages eight plays a year, which attract annual audiences of up to 20,000 people.

Two employees who made formal complaints to the company about its handling of such issues have been let go in recent months, one of whom has since lodged an application with the Fair Work Commission.

A male employee, who was the subject of a complaint of intimidating behaviour towards a female employee, recently resigned after he was notified of the allegations against him.

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And a male ensemble member was the subject of a complaint of inappropriate behaviour towards a female employee. Management conducted mediation with the ensemble member and complainant and no further action was taken.

In an email seen by The Age, a woman who quit the ensemble late last year said in a communique to the company: “I no longer feel safe or comfortable working at Red Stitch.”

Company management has described the events of the past six months as “devastating” to morale and potentially to the companys reputation, on which it relies for philanthropic donations and audiences.

Casey Bohan, 27, an aspiring actor, worked casual shifts behind the bar and in the box office at Red Stitch for over a year.

Ms Bohan believes she was let go in May because she complained to management about what she called a "toxic culture" at Red Stitch, and about the way she and others who had spoken out had been treated, in an email she sent to the entire company and the board.

She said she was replaced within days of sending the email. She had missed one day of work due to illness but had received no warnings before she was told she was no longer required.

"They never complained about my work," she said of the company's general manager, Fiona Symonds, and artistic director Ella Caldwell.

"It would have been better to say, 'We hear you … what can we do to make you feel safe and comfortable?',” Ms Bohan said. “To show some sort of care in the people who had come forward. Not that they would be ripped to shreds.

"It was almost immediately as you made a complaint about someone, they were protected. The onus was on us to prove how we were affected."

The company said Ms Bohan was replaced by another employee who had experience with a new ticketing system it was introducing and that her replacement had nothing to do with the complaints she had made.

The Age has talked to a number of people who have worked with the company over the past five years or more.

Some have told of being screamed at repeatedly and subjected to vicious personal attacks at work, and of witnessing others experience similar treatment. They include young people, some fresh out of the university, who have abandoned a career in the industry after experiencing such behaviour.

Red Stitchs code of conduct states that all members of the company must behave with “courtesy, respect, honesty and integrity”. The company “does not tolerate bullying, sexual harassment or discrimination,” it says.

A resignation letter sent by a former board member in 2013 accuses the board of ignoring a culture of “bullying and invective”.

An excerpt from the boards minutes seen by The Age show that it discussed the complaints made by the board member. They include instances of “terse behaviour” – including shouting, rudeness or aggression – notably by long-standing ensemble members towards younger ensemble members and guest directors or actors.

The board resolved that it had found “no pattern of bullying … exhibited sufficiently by one ensemble member”.

Red Stitch has confirmed it had received two formal complaints and two informal complaints over the past six months in relation to bullying, harassment or intimidation. Each of the complaints had been handled in compliance with its code of conduct, it said.

It said several complaints overlapped and stemmed from what it considered unfounded allegations against an ensemble member that did not relate to his work with the company.

No evidence was presented to management suggesting anyones safety was compromised, and management felt that it had no basis on which to take action.

Red Stitch general manager Fiona Symonds said many members of the company described the past six months as among the most tumultuous in its history.

“I would say that it had a large and devastating effect on the company,” Ms Symonds said.

“We are a company whose ongoing existence depends upon our reputation, upon the willingness of artists to work with us and for philanthropic support. Allegations of this kind are hurtful and damaging and undermining to the morale of the company.”

Anthony Adair, who has chaired Red Stitchs board for most of its history, said he was aware of discussion about some peoples behaviour prior to the most recent complaints, but that no other formal complaints had been lodged with the company.

“I think there have been isolated incidents where there are disagreements, and sometimes loud disagreements, but that doesnt amount to bullying,” he said. “It has to be sustained over a period of time.”

Last month the state government announced it would introduce new standards related to harassment and bullying which would apply to all companies that receive funding from its arts arm, Creative Victoria.

Companies that did not meet those standards risked losing their funding, Creative Industries Minister Martin Foley said at the time.

Ms Symonds said Red Stitch had received formal notification from Creative Victoria of those new standards. She said Red Stitch was in the process of updating its code of conduct and making sure everyone who worked with the company was made aware of them.

Red Stitch receives funding from Creative Victoria – $77,000 in 2016 – and Port Phillip Council as well as from philanthropic sources.

Debbie Cuthbertson

Debbie Cuthbertson is a senior writer and Saturday chief of staff at The Age.

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