Theatre Thoughts: Ethics

The Ethics of Professional Theatre

This is a link to the website of a theatre, outlining the code of conduct for professionals working in the theatre. As I searched further, I found that these came from a 1945 'Code of Ethics for Theatre Workers'

Socrates is considered to be the father of modern ethical philosophy
Painting: The Death of Socrates by Jaques Louis-David
Image Source:

Although the code of ethics linked to above is aimed mostly at actors, its author (Kathleen Freeman) stated that it applied equally to all who worked in theatre.  The code includes:

* The Show Must Go On! I will never miss a performance
* I will respect my audience, regardless of size or station
* I shall remember that my aim is to create illusion, therefore I will not destroy that illusion by appearing in costume and make-up offstage or outside the theatre
* I shall accept the directors advice in the spirit in which it is given for they see the production as a whole and my role as a part thereof
* I shall respect the play and the playwright, remembering that "a work of art is not a work of art until it is finished"
* I shall inspire the public to respect me and my craft through gracious acceptance of both praise and constructive criticism
Taken from 'Theatre Workers Code of Ethics' Freeman, 1945

Alongside this research, I have several books discussing the ethics of theatre practitioners, all of which have reworded versions of the Code of Ethics above. It seems there there are unspoken rules and practices which govern everyone who works in a theatrical setting, without them being made explicitly clear. It's interesting that we all seem to abide by the same rules in these scenarios: maybe it is that everyone working on a production is part of a team, creating something bigger than themselves, and these deep-rooted practices are simply part of the ethos and make-up of theatre practitioners?

The Art of Active Dramaturgy: Lenora Inez Brown

In 'The Art of Active Dramaturgy', Inez-Brown provides details of the steps a dramaturg should use when reading a new play script. These include reflecting on various aspects of the writing, but as she talks in detail about the steps, she covers aspects that relate to ethical practice, such as dispersing with preconceived notions or prejudices about the plays structure, plot or characters, and approaching with an open mind. She also talks about respecting the playwrights and their intentions, and not forcing their own methods onto a new play.

Another document I found detailed a research project and the ethical issues surrounding different aspects of performance, development, theatre in education and the idea of 'consent' in staging a production. This is a really interesting discussion and I will read it separately and comment further in the future.

I have also recently read a book called 'Theatre and Ethics' by Nicholas Ridout, which is concerned with the morality of theatre, talking about ethics in the context of the portrayal of right and wrong on stage, with reference to the ancient Greek plays and the medieval morality plays: "[exploring] theatre as a practice through which we experiment with ethical action." (RIDOUT, 2009) While incredibly interesting, the stance of a production to present a notion of ethics is a different discussion to professional ethics (i.e. a code of conduct) in the workplace.

'Theatre and Ethics' 

There is not a charter as such in the practice of theatre, and each individual establishment will have their own code of practice that those working there must adhere to: these include aspects of dress, behaviour, cleanliness and manners. However, there is a deeper code of practice that theatre practitioners adhere to. For example, the 'Code...' I discussed above has "I will not miss a show" as the first point. The article I linked to talks about the way that performers will push themselves through injury or illness to adhere to this, yet any official document would surely state that a performer is not required to work through an injury, due to health and safety concerns. This is where the line between personal and professional ethics, and personal and professional concerns become blurred.

Nicholas Ridoult: Theatre & Ethics, Palgrave MacMillen, 2009

Originally Published at


  1. It is fascinating isn't it?!
    I had a conversation earlier today with a friend where we talked about two acquaintances of ours who are both training in dance: one has sprained her ankle and the other has a recurring knee problem. The first dancer was made to take her yearly college assessments, despite recovering from an injury - she has obviously received a much lower grade than she would have done had she been at full strength, but this made me think about it from both angles: one, she shouldn't have been made to dance through injury. She should have been allowed full recovery time, however this would have put her behind the rest of her peers, and knowing the mindset of a dancer, she may have felt it more worthwhile to "show willing" and dance anyway, despite now being back at square one with her injury. Two: dance colleges are preparing us for a professional career: if a dancer in a company is injured, they are replaced. In an industry with massive competition and comparatively few opportunities, dancers will often play down the severity of an injury so as not to appear unreliable or unavailable. Maybe this is what the college in question was trying to instil? That in the "Industry" it's often seen as necessary or even admirable to dance through injury or illness?
    The second student with the chronic injuries has been basically kicked out of the college! She has not been able to fully participate in the course (now into her second year) and was advised that there was no longer a place for her on the course. Again, on the one hand I understand the college's decision: she's eighteen months behind the standard she should be and the problems are inherent and show no sign of going away in the near future. Therefore she cannot be expected to graduate at the required level and it's best if she stops dancing. On the other hand, though, the problems were there before she started at the college and should have been noticed during the audition procedure: surely it's the college's responsibility to help her overcome the injuries and look at ways around her participation level? Maybe hold her back a year rather than dismiss her? But then again, that wouldn't happen in the profession they're being trained for...

    Sorry, went off on one there a little bit didn't I?!

  2. It's a tough one, isn't it?
    Personally, I was injured a lot during college: some of it my own fault and some of it (I found out while I was training) due to problems that would have surfaced even if I had never danced. Because the injuries and issues were 'unseen' I felt that they weren't being taken seriously. I mean, I was injured *a lot* because of knee and hip problems, so maybe the teachers just got a bit bored of it? Who knows!? I was told by an osteopath at the time that if I carried on dancing to the level I was at, I'd be in a wheelchair before I was 30! I knew I was never going to go on and be a high-kicking can-can dancer, or whatever, so I finished my training and have worked steadily for the last eight or nine years. However, I'm now back in the cycle of appointments and x-rays (for which I get the results this week! Eek!)


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