Sunday 18 August 2019

Gate's ex-leading man caught in the spotlight

Women have accused Michael Colgan of inappropriate behaviour and bullying, writes Maeve Sheehan

TOP NAME: Michael Colgan retired from the Gate last year. Picture: Arthur Carron
TOP NAME: Michael Colgan retired from the Gate last year. Picture: Arthur Carron
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Grace Dyas, the playwright and director, was the first woman to go public with allegations against the former director of the Gate Theatre, Michael Colgan.

Last night, she was one of eight. Since she posted her blog at 8.30pm on Friday, October 27, others have followed her over the line to make public their allegations relating to their own individual experiences with a man who was until his retirement one of the most influential figures in Dublin theatre.

The women's allegations, aired on social media and in print in recent days, range from harassment to inappropriate remarks and behaviour.

Dyas, a young director and playwright, posted details of an encounter with Colgan in a Dublin pub in which Colgan was allegedly rude and abusive.

Annette Clancy, who is now an academic and lecturer in University College Dublin, had already shared her own story with friends on her private Facebook page, days before Grace Dyas had published hers. She alleged that when she went for an interview for a job with the Dublin Theatre Festival, Colgan was on the interview panel.

She claimed that he noted her qualification in holistic massage therapy and then suggested that she might give him a massage. She retorted that he couldn't afford her.

When Clancy read Dyas's post she decided to make her Facebook page public. Since then, more women came forward, publishing their accounts of their interactions with Michael Colgan, that vary from rudeness and hostility to allegedly inappropriate behaviour.

The other women include Ciara Elizabeth Smyth, an actor, playwright and director who accused Colgan of inappropriate and bullying behaviours. There is also actress and writer Ali White; choreographer Ella Clarke; theatre producer Ruth Gordon; and Aisling Kennedy and Kate Holmes, who are former Gate employees.

Michael Colgan has not responded to these women's allegations and he did not reply to calls or text messages from this newspaper. His silence to date has not stopped the storm clouds gathering over the arts in Ireland.

Some have questioned whether an external investigation is merited, especially following the findings of widescale harassment borne out in a survey by Irish Equity last year. The union, which represents actors and performers, comes under the umbrella of Siptu.

"We have for many years had anecdotal evidence that this was a problem in the arts industry," said Karan O'Loughlin, the Siptu organiser.

"Nobody made a specific complaint to me about the Gate or any other theatre. But the general language was that there were open secrets about particular individuals - and that everybody knew, but nobody said it."

The Gate Theatre - while not identifying anyone - has set up a confidential email address for anyone with concerns and said it would appoint an independent professional to handle any concerns raised.

Last night, a statement issued on behalf of seven of Colgan's accusers rejected the Gate's process and instead looked to the Government.

"We welcome this attempt by the Gate to communicate with potential victims of abuse of power, but we question the independence of any process that is funded and administered directly by the Gate," the statement said.

"Michael Colgan sat on the board of the Gate for many years. This undermines our confidence in the impartiality of the current board. We will not email our experiences in their written form to the Gate using their confidential email address."

The statement referred to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's previous comments, which encouraged people to come forward, while noting the need for "due process".

"We remind An Taoiseach, his Ministers and those in positions of power that due process also ought to protect Irish women's human and constitutional rights to bodily integrity and liberty, that equality is protected by law - and we call on them to take meaningful action to restore trust in these processes," the women's statement said.

"To anyone who has experience of abuse of power, or for whom this is ongoing, in the words of the late Christine Buckley 'we believe you before you open your mouth'."

What happens next depends on whether women other than those who have already come forward use the Gate's confidential email address, whether further allegations will emerge, and whether those making them want them to be investigated.

Michael Colgan, who stood down as director of the Gate last year after 33 years, is an influential and well-connected individual. He was perhaps the highest-paid person in Irish theatre: his total salary package in 2016 was €231,000. His friends have included former U2 manager Paul McGuinness, the late playwright Harold Pinter and the celebrated actor Michael Gambon.

Since his retirement, Colgan has been acting as an arts adviser to developer Sean Mulryan.

Tony O Dalaigh, an arts consultant who served on the board of the Gate Theatre and is a former director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, recalled yesterday that Colgan was "full of charm" with the board. He had no knowledge of any allegations against him.

"He was a very affable guy. I had no engagement with any member of staff that he was acting like that," he said. "Michael, with the board, would always be full of charm.''

However, he added: "I knew that Michael was regarded as a tough employer, that he was regarded as a tough boss. But that's all I'd be aware of."

O Dalaigh does recall an interview with a young woman called Annette Clancy, who was applying for a post with the Dublin Theatre Festival in the early 1990s.

He said he can "verify" that the interview happened as she has described it: when it came to Michael Colgan's turn to ask her a question, he noted the qualification on her CV and mentioned a massage.

O Dalaigh also recalls her able reply to Colgan - that he couldn't afford it.

"I thought it [the comment] was inappropriate. But I wasn't shocked, I have to confess," said O Dalaigh this weekend. No one took Colgan up on his remark, he said. The chairman of the interview panel moved on the next question, and that was that.

Sunday Independent

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