Working on a Better Climate ("You Dont! Have to Endure It" initiative reflection)
The original intention of this article was to look from a distance at what happened after the performance in Prague by two students of the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU), Marie-Louisa Purkrábková and Oleksandra Chernomashytseva, on 29 June 2021. They read together in front of the main entrance of DAMU on Karlova Street twenty-two anonymised personal testimonies from their male and female classmates (including one testimony from the Janáček Academy in Brno - JAMU) who felt discriminated against and abused to various extents by their teachers. The event was organized by the newly established “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative, whose representatives are, in addition to the two performers, Prokop Novák (a student of DAMU), Karolína Vaňková (a student of JAMU), and Kateřina Císařová (a DAMU graduate). I listened again to the public debates on YouTube about the current state of class instruction at both Academies of Performing Arts (DAMU and JAMU), and read various articles that were published on the topic. I ended up as the observer – definitively not a neutral one - of an advanced debate where several thematic lines and general tendencies can be identified. (I feel obligated to say that I am a graduate of DAMU. I am therefore more in contact with this school; despite the fact that the “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative focuses on both DAMU and JAMU, so I tend to deal more with the consequences of the initiative in Prague.)
adopting non-functional measures The reactions provoked by the “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative clearly showed that both theatre academies have for a long time been breaking their own ethical codes, which were adopted ages ago. According to the Initiative and its supporters, many teachers are so firmly established in the hierarchy (at the university, but also in the Czech theatre environment in general) that there is no mechanism to let them and their colleagues know when the teachers misuse their powerful positions. In addition, the signatories argue that the Academies not only overly trust their teachers’ ability to accept criticism and to set clear limits for ethical behaviour for themselves, but also for their environment. In informal conversations among the students, there were frequent complaints about the way the Academies ran their courses, and the students were also convinced that there was no point in complaining out loud. They believe that voicing such concerns might harm their future career opportunities. (To be fair, it is important to say that there are also students who are mostly satisfied with the existing atmosphere at the Academies.)
The signatories of “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative say that there is not enough trust in the Academies’ leadership, and this has never been mentioned aloud. Even helpful gestures, such as establishing an Ethics Committee at the Academy of Music (AMU), were viewed with mistrust. (The chair of the Ethics Committee, Jana Pilátová, resigned from her position after the events sparked by the performance of You Don’t! Have to Endure It as she saw no point in continuing her existing work in the Ethics Committee: as seen in the minutes of the Ethics Committee (AMU) meeting, 20 July 2021. She additionally confirmed this in a personal interview.) At the special session of the Academic Senate of DAMU in July, the Vice-Dean for Research, Alice Koubová, said that there was no suitable form of supervision at the Academy. In agreement with this view, appropriate measures were later adopted. It must be said that most of the objections of the “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative were against the Department of Dramatic Theatre and the Department of Scenography (including the program for international students). At the October meeting of the Theatre Faculty of Janáček Academy of Performing Arts (JAMU), Klára Mikolášková, a graduate of JAMU, described the atmosphere. She mentioned an ongoing problem; that teachers are not able to accept criticism from their students, or even admit that there might be a conflict. “I have been noticing for a long time the tendency of the Academy to self-praise and clap themselves on the back. Criticism is not sought after, nobody asks for it, and there is a feeling that criticism is not desired. Once uttered aloud, criticism either remains unanswered, or is brushed off with some buck-passing counterargument such as, “we are doing what we can”. Most importantly, criticism is immediately felt as an attack. As if the academic environment was automatically incontestable, self-enclosed, with its own rules, and not interested in any outside perspectives.” It is also symptomatic of an atmosphere that does not welcome openly expressed opinions, that the students of both DAMU and JAMU have ignored the ‘suggestion box’ installed by the universities. The majority of the Academic Plenum (university management and the academic community) viewed anybody in a long-term influential position with suspicion when they proclaimed something like “I cannot stand hypocrisy, humiliation…” This very sentence was uttered by the former rector of JAMU Petr Oslzlý. The Head of the Department of Scenography, Jan Dušek, issued a written statement that was read by his colleague Kateřina Štefková at the meeting of the Academic Senate of DAMU: “I hate anybody being humiliated, not only the students.” A recurring theme of the debates was the discrepancy between what the teachers claim and how they, according to the students, actually behave. According to the supporters of the Initiative, the theatre academies have had the aura of a free artistic environment for decades, but the younger generations felt manipulated by some ‘consensual agreements’ they had no active part in making and which have stealthily degenerated over the years.
In addition, there were countless complaints about the teachers neglecting their work duties (especially at JAMU in Brno, but also elsewhere). One week before the first public session of the Academic Senate of JAMU, there was a premiere of a production called WAITING or The Study of Studies aimed critically at the pedagogical approach of the Theatre and Education Department, which the authors considered very lax. One of the authors, Anna Hřebíčková, explained that the students started to work on the project long before the performance of You Don’t! Have to Endure It, about which they had no information. She summarized the mood during the rehearsals: “We were ready to face the danger of not finishing our studies and to risk this just before the final exams. We did it because of the future of the Theatre and Education Department and its huge potential.” Olívia Fantúrová, a graduate of the Directing and Dramaturgy Department at JAMU, pointed out the gradual lessening of feedback that she received during her studies, and called it “teaching through silence”. The other side confirmed the legitimacy of this complaint as well (alongside many similar comments by other students) when Andrea Jochmanová, a lecturer in Theatre History, said that she received many emails from the students thanking her for giving them feedback on their work at the end of the semester. On this occasion, they often confessed to her that they do not receive feedback on their seminar assignments in other subjects. At the same time, both teachers and students continually mentioned the fact that one of the reasons why the teachers are so busy is their dire financial situation, which forces them to seek other jobs outside of the university.
a mere personal agreement is not enough The Vice-Dean of DAMU, Alice Koubová, summarized the situation in an interview for the Slovak theatre magazine, kød: “The problems of DAMU are on the relatively fragile edge of unethicality, there is a possibility to solve the problem by mediation, apology, change of behaviour, written warnings, or even individual sanctions within the framework of labour law.” Fortunately, the initial concerns that real criminal offences had been committed were not confirmed. More likely, the substandard environment of the theatre Academies, where the courses frequently took place in very small teams, accelerated the problem and made visible a gradual change in the way of thinking that is also happening under the surface in other levels of society. Studying at art academies often touches upon areas where socially accepted rules are missing. Karel František Tománek, the Dean of DAMU, repeatedly agreed in public debates with Alice Koubová that it is absolutely essential to focus on the negotiation of rules in each situation as the context might change ad hoc. This is especially true because the content of the studies is difficult to place within consensually accepted norms. The way the different participants expressed their opinions on the current situation showed, in my opinion, a clear generational conflict that goes beyond the stance of the individual speakers to questions of ethics and exceeds their personal interests. This level of the dispute is strongly influenced by a radical change in the understanding of authority, conflict, and, last but not least, the aim of artistic work. Such an approach to artistic work is probably inaccessible and difficult to understand for anybody formed by ideals the younger generations do not understand at all. Šimon Peták, a member of the Academic Senate of JAMU, cooperated closely with the Initiative by moderating the subsequent debates in Brno. In his article for Občasník JAMU, he formulated the problem in a similar way: “The Initiative repeatedly emphasized that they address an issue and do not attack specific teachers, their aim is a change of paradigm, not individual personal changes.” He also wrote that, “There is no point in denying that a part of the problem is the generational difference between those born during socialism and those who grew up in a pluralized and globalized Europe and refuse to adopt relationship patterns created by a life experience that does not apply to them. It would be useless to conceal the fact that the requirements of the Initiative have an (implicit) ideological basis. One of its main ideological pillars is the view that the students should get an education in a way that is respectful, not authoritative (the purpose of studying at any school is not only to obtain knowledge, but to become educated in the more general sense).”
The school representatives claimed – completely contrary to the “You Don’t Have to Endure It” Initiative’s proclamation – that everything should be solved via personal consultations and not on an institutional level, as the problems with the approach of the individual teachers to the educational process are very sensitive in terms of intimacy. They repeated that these are individual cases that need to be addressed via personal consultations, not systemic problems. I believe it is because these teachers could not understand fully how the Initiative relates to a total change of paradigm (including a whole range of topics that might be controversial as well as those that are generally agreed upon). It is, nevertheless, possible that they understood the context well, but for some unknown reason refused to see the large number of problems raised by the Initiative as a complex whole. The suggestion to solve the problems merely on a personal basis was supported primarily by the teachers most frequently criticized by the “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative: Jan Dušek (Dušek was leading the Department of Scenography, DAMU, for many years, but today is no longer the Head of the Department), and Jan Burian (the Head of the Department of Dramatic Theatre, DAMU). Similar views were also expressed by people who supported the Initiative, for example Jana Pilátová, the Chair of the Ethical Committee at Academy of Music (AMU), and Vratislav Šrámek, the lecturer at the Department of Alternative Theatre and Puppetry at DAMU. Those who formulated their arguments most clearly were primarily worried that the reforms might lead to increased bureaucracy that could intervene with the subtle and often very intimate communication needed for theatre work. As a result, even these teachers joined the heads of the big theatre departments of DAMU in suggesting that the problems should be addressed individually in personal consultations, not systemically. Šrámek’s argumentation is typical of this group of teachers (the Initiative sees them as being able to set the standards of ethical behaviour for themselves and the people around them): “It is not a question of ideology, it is a question of how we will be able to tolerate each other. I mean the relationships of students to teachers and vice versa. Let’s try to focus on the core of the matter. We do not want to end up with needing a special sub-regulation to a regulation of a sub-regulation of a regulation to the article number 3958 in case we would like to say something while giving a lecture. That is not what I want to live to see, please.” The arguments of the most frequently criticized Heads of the Departments were not clearly expressed, so it is difficult for me to cite them. The incomprehensibility of their arguments might be the biggest problem for the signatories of “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative). Vladimír Mikulka, an external teacher at the Department of Theory and Criticism at DAMU, expressed a similar opinion. He understands that it is a real problem, and it is good to address it, not to belittle it. However, he expressed his fear, given his repeated experience with such well-meant initiatives, that the issue might be taken over by extremists or hysterical people and that any reasonable efforts to create a systemic solution might end up in senseless excesses and censorship.
a willingness to talk about conflict It is very rare for me to be able to explain my opinion to people who believe that everything should be solved on a personal level. I do not think that there exists some universal law that would always change the effort to have reasonable supervision into a terror of norms and regulations. Vice-Dean Alice Koubová, given her expertise in the philosophy of ethics, works as the Ethics Ambassador at DAMU, approaches the problem with the knowledge of possible threats and keeps mentioning that she tries very hard to make sure that these threats do not become a reality. She won my sympathies by being realistic: “In all institutions there is always conflict. I’m sorry, but the fact that discrimination happens is normal (…) We cannot dispute it. (…) It is interesting to see how we deal with discrimination, not that we doubt its existence.” (Podcast Suflér, www.idu.cz called Women, Men, Emotions and Statistics. Who controls Czech culture?) According to Koubová and other members of the university management who support the Initiative, the solution should not mainly be the newly set up regulations such as the creation of an anti-discrimination platform or an ombudsman’s office. I have not come across anyone in an influential position who would support the Initiative and at the same time claim that the main goal is to have a final agreement on a stable, systemic solution. In my view, it is not even suitable to use the word “system” as the signatories of the “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative do not use it, they speak about a paradigm that the school needs to adapt to. They agree that the new regulations should serve the main goal, which is the creation of the safest atmosphere possible that would be welcoming to open conflict discussion. If possible, it should be carried out with discretion and always respect the presumption of innocence. There should also be an environment without a tendency to stick to the letter of the individual regulations too much nor just to multiply the existing ones, but it should strive for deeper understanding of their meaning.
The new leadership of DAMU actively promotes as crucial the ability to admit publicly the existence of a conflict; be it internal or in a relationship; and they have organized several meetings about this issue. (Since autumn 2021, the Theatre Faculty of JAMU led by the Dean, Petr Francán, have come up with their own internal activities as well.) The teachers, mostly from the older generation, have often stated in their speeches that they consider any self-revelation about the existence of a conflict as a failure with potentially fatal consequences. This stance was summarized by Jiří Šesták, former director and dramaturge of the South Bohemian Theatre during a speech at the 4th session of the Academic Senate: “If there are problems – and I believe there are – it is necessary to solve them within the institution, not to make them public and let the genie out of the bottle, which would then harm the institution as such. I say this with the full responsibility of a director of a large theatre having had a lot of experience. The most important thing for our work is what happens on stage. It is important mainly because we need an audience in front of the stage; for our work to be meaningful. Any conflict that is ventilated outside to such extent harms our work and also the work of all the other people.” In opposition to this view, there is the opinion typical for the younger generation that the environment that outwardly pretends to be without conflict actually looks suspicious and does not inspire trust. Eliška Děcká, the Vice-Rector of AMU for Research and Development and Art Research, expressed similar views at the Culture Get-Together Conference organized by the New Network platform. According to Děcká, it is better to be an institution that is forward-thinking, and deals with its problems than to represent an institution that falsely claims to be without problems and refuses to speak about them.
The whole issue is connected to the crisis of traditional understanding of authority, responsibility to subordinates, and the idea of an ideal relationship between an individual and a group. During the discussions, while being very critical of the existing system of hierarchy at the theatre Academies, I have not noticed any ideological dimension that would call, for instance, for non-hierarchical management of the schools. The ideal of a leading personality, however, in the opinion of the signatories of “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative is definitely not an individualistic leader who comes to the Academic Plenum just to listen to critical comments and then continues to work alone “like a dog”. Furthermore, it is not a person who in the problem-solving phase behaves non-transparently, and who tries to improve the situation that concerns everybody only on the basis of information gathered through some behind-the-scenes agreements. The supporters of “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative argue that the changes should be negotiated publicly, but not necessarily every single detail. However, when the resetting of rules for the entire institution is at stake, it is absolutely crucial. The signatories have repeatedly expressed their mistrust of those who tried to minimalize open discussion of past mistakes, while admitting to various degrees the existence of unaddressed problems. One of the people with low authority for the signatories is the above-mentioned Head of the Department of Dramatic Theatre DAMU, Jan Burian. Although he tried to use a friendly tone at the 4th session of the Academic Senate, he left almost immediately after he finished his speech. He did not participate in the detailed follow-up debate, which was seen as an intentional gesture of arrogance.
On the other hand, Peter Francán, the Dean of JAMU, seemed like somebody who is personally touched by the situation, yet he still fulfilled many stereotypes that cast doubt on the sincerity of his concerns. However, as an external observer I think that this impression was caused by the prejudices of the supporters of the Initiative. One month later, JAMU introduced several new regulations that were forthcoming to the students: every week there is a thematic meeting of academics and students (the topics discussed include for example bullying or sexual violence), an Ethical Committee was established, and the school psychologist Lucie Hornová, together with two mediators, formed a “consortium of mediators”), whose members are required to have also legal expertise. However, at the time of the 4th session of the Academic Senate of JAMU, Petr Francán seemed like a person who has the tendency not to deal with problems at all or to solve them without consulting with the theatre community. He was repeatedly criticized for organizing the first meeting regarding the “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative only in October, and only after repeated requests from academy graduates. To understand how Francán saw his own position, this statement is very telling: “The fact that I stand here means that I am on the top and I bear the responsibility. I stand or fall on it. Who else should have the responsibility other than the Dean. /…/ I called for this meeting, and I am with those who called for it.” The students, however, had more sympathy towards his Vice-Dean Michal Zetel, the Head of the Department of Musical Acting and Vice-Dean for Art Work. It his case, it was easier to believe that he is really ready to accept his responsibility for any unfair treatment of the students. He said directly: “Your criticism is legitimate, and you have a full right to it. I did everything I could. I know that is not an argument you would like to hear. I am ready to resign. I say this openly and it depends merely on the decision of the Board of Rectors, it is not necessary to discuss it in the Academic Senate. If the Dean or the Academic Senate find my service inadequate, it is no problem for me.” A sincere willingness to forego one’s powerful position, or to allow one’s conduct to be publicly examined and criticized, is something that seems to revive trust in people entrusted with leading positions. The current Dean of DAMU, Karel František Tománek, consistently uses a very similar approach in all negotiations based on the same principle. His position is easier, however, because unlike the other Heads of Departments and school leaders, Tománek started as the Dean of DAMU just days before the initial You Don’t! Have to Endure It performance.
an artist should not be a “star” In the subtext of the above-mentioned debates a more general dispute is taking place: if we talk publicly about conflict on the level of intimacy, does it always lead to excessive bureaucracy or escalated hate? The steps that have been taken in recent months might offer an answer to this dilemma. My positive view of the new regulations is based on the fact that until recently I used to be a student at the Department of Theory and Criticism, and I perceived the atmosphere in the Master’s program as manifestly adverse to a deeper understanding of contemporary theatre or any original theatrically-critical concepts. I think that the department did not support, they even punished, the courage to take risks and to search for inspiration in unresearched areas of the discipline. Therefore, I agree with the stance of the Initiative, and I would express my many reservations in exactly the same words as the authors of the twenty-two stories (I have never had any experience with any of the more serious ethical transgressions such as sexual harassment). I also understand really well the inner conflict of many of the students, who feel uncomfortable as they criticize a teacher who they otherwise respect as a professional and actually like – I feel exactly the same way. This is one more reason why I appreciate the diplomatic way the new leadership of DAMU deals with the problems in the individual departments. (As a result of the “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative, there have been a few changes regarding the teachers, but if I had not been investigating this issue, I would not have learnt about them. Concerning JAMU, according to the latest information by Šimon Peták, a member of the Academic Senate, the silence about the whole issue indicates that nothing has been actually done regarding the teachers. However, four students have moved to a different department. As Peták explains, the Initiative probably helped them realize that they do not need to endure uncomfortable situations. However, they have never confirmed of their own accord any connection with the Initiative.)
However, I do not think that everything is ideal now, and there are still significant communication problems. At DAMU, there has always been the danger that the debates will fall into open ageism as, according to the Initiative, the departments fail to employ teachers from younger generations. There was the same risk at JAMU when it was mentioned at the October Academic Plenum that the average age of the teachers is 61,5 years. Most of the time, however, this subtext was indirectly present. Jiří Adámek, a member of the Academic Senate of DAMU, suggested that the Heads of Departments should not remain in their leading positions for decades. At the often-criticized Department of Scenography, Jan Dušek was the Head from 1992 to 2021, when a younger colleague, Jan Štěpánek, replaced him. This change, however, had nothing to do with the “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative. At the most often criticized Department of Dramatic Theatre, on the other hand, the current Head of the Department, Jan Burian, has remained in his position since 2001. The Academic Senate of DAMU agreed to add a DAMU Status Amendment stating that the Dean can appoint the Head of the Department only for two consecutive terms. Thus, without mentioning age directly, a generational change has been given a chance. Dean Tománek supported his older colleagues in his speech by saying that it is very beneficial for the university if the older colleagues stay in the departments as long as possible in order to share their expertise with less experienced colleagues. This is the only aspect that makes me wonder to what extent the university actually manages to avoid going from one extreme to another. If the climate at the school is welcoming to generational change and it is suggested that the older teachers should remain at the university, but not primarily in the leading positions, one might wonder if it actually just might be a case of buck-passing, “I don’t discriminate, but…”.
There are many other regulations that focus on motivating the students and teachers to talk about conflicting situations. The DAMU leadership started to organize various lectures and meetings where the Dean and the Vice-Dean try to encourage the students not to be afraid to use the institutions created for those who feel they are the victims of unjust and manipulative behaviour. “If a person feels that they have become victims of discrimination, it is appropriate to deal with this situation. It often might be an ambiguous and complicated situation. It is a common feature of discriminating behaviour to make light of the given situation and to blame the discriminated individual. This can make the potentially discriminated person feel doubtful about their right to complain and make them feel ashamed instead. All the more so it is important to seek a consultation and to clarify what one’s situation actually is.” (Dance Zone 2021/2, page 29, The Speech of Vice-Dean Alice Koubová.) On the other hand, the university leadership appeal to everybody involved to share information publically only in the minimal amount possible, and they promise complete discretion and to respect the principle of the presumption of innocence.
At the first Ethical Culture Monday (a weekly meeting at DAMU analogous to the meetings of the academic community at JAMU), a new university psychologist, Tomáš Sedláček, mentioned another important direction the current university leadership would like the negotiations to take. Towards the end of his lecture, Sedláček spoke about the fact that in an abusive situation those who feel to be the victims, but do not complain, are partially responsible for the situation as well. This, however, applies only to situations where the superiors create an atmosphere where the people involved feel safe and those in the leading positions support their subordinates to express their criticism openly. Meetings such as Ethical Culture Mondays cannot be seen as self-redemptory and their mere existence does not promise any miracles; however, I see these events as beneficial at least on the symbolic level: as both sides, the students and the teachers, participate in these meetings in similar roles as listeners. It also seems that the general concept of an artist is undergoing a significant change. It is more and more frequent to refuse to see the role of the artist as someone exceptional, extremely talented and unusually capable, who is ‘above’ the general society. This perception of the ideal is typical of some of the older teachers who wanted their students to aim for this ideal as well. The supporters of “You Don’t! Have to Endure It” Initiative, on the other hand, see the artist primarily as someone who is a member of a team, alternatively as a lone individual, who in his or her otherness is equal to everybody else. This difference in approach was described for example by Anna Řeháková, a graduate of the Department of Acting led by Oxana Smilková, when she explained how difficult it was for her to accept well-meant praise she received from her supervisor. As a result, Řeháková felt excluded from the team and sometimes she heard her classmates say that she did not deserve her place at the Department.
Another unfortunate pedagogical approach that went far beyond the line of ethics was the most often discussed case from the You Don’t! Have to Endure It performance. It was about a love affair between a student and a leader at the Department of Dramatic Theatre at DAMU that academic year: “He often wrote to students various personal messages in which he judged them. I was the only one he was kind to, he incited me to hate my classmates and thus made me feel that he was the only one I could trust. As he was praising me all the time and despised the others, I tried to do everything in my studies as he liked because it was the only way I felt worthy in the brutally competitive environment.” (Dance Zone, p. 16, Story n. 17.) If the student had not been continuously reassured by the teachers, perhaps unconsciously, that the aim of her development as an artist is exceptionality or to become something like a solitary genius, the arguments about her exceptional intelligence would not have impressed her so much and she might have ended the dangerous situation immediately.
The fact is that the generation gap between most of the teachers and the students contributes to the creation of situations where many are manipulated into respecting values that they deep down do not consider meaningful. If such a situation had remained unnamed, it would have placed many teachers in positions where they would continue manipulating by their mere presence - not on purpose, but just by not being asked to reflect on how society and the way young people think has changed during the years they have been working in the universities. It is this aspect of the situation that I consider to be the most conclusive argument for defending the continuous introduction of regulations, including the ethically controversial but in the current situation defensible appeal for a generational change of the Heads of the Departments.
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 2, volume 2022
translated by Hana Pavelková