Misc 21/02/2021

Sexual harassment and power abuse of students at the Institut del Teatre

A score of witnesses report harassment and psychological abuse by some teachers

11 min
Margarida Xirgu square, with the Theatre Institute in the background

Barcelona"At the Institut del Teatre we called them "los niñas" (the girls) because they went after girls". It is a phrase from a Catalan actress that defines what has been going on for decades in a public institution, dependant on the Diputació de Barcelona, such as the Institut del Teatre. Over the last 30 years there have been a number of teachers who have abused their power over students with humiliating and sexual comments, even harassing them and in some cases sexually abusing them by touching them. In one case, such behaviour caused a student to drop out of school and move away. There has also been repeated and structural psychological abuse. These are not isolated incidents. ARA has spoken to hundreds of students who have put the spotlight on a dozen teachers and ex-teachers. Three are repeated: Joan Ollé and, to varying degrees, Jorge Vera and Berty Tovías. 

The students were already adults, very young boys and girls who suffered the abuse of people twice their age who could, at the same time, open the doors to the professional world for them. And all in a context, that of the performing arts, where feelings converge and limits are blurred. "They have a position of power over many young women who are forming themselves as people and actresses, playing with emotions and their bodies", explains actress Thais B. "You fell in love with the teacher and they fell in love with your ass, with your youth", sums up the performer Anna S. to refer to a motto applicable to many spheres of life. Some episodes took place inside the classroom, others outside. The Institut del Teatre (IT) defends that it has no formal complaints of harassment, despite accepting that certain attitudes have not been dealt with for many years. In 2018, the institution approved a protocol against sexual harassment. In fact, in recent years, the Me Too movement has brought to the surface many of these behaviours that have been normalised by society and are now no longer tolerated. 

A feared figure

With a long and reputed career in the world of theatre, Joan Ollé is one of the Institut del Teatre's most prestigious teachers as a stage director. He arouses the admiration of many students and having him as a teacher, in addition to the learning acquired, can provide work. But during his classes, humiliating and vexatious comments towards the students are commonplace. 

Marina P. -her real name, like everybody else's in this article- met Ollé in the second year of her studies. She was doing a project and wanted to interview him. "We met at Pa Patxoca [a bar next to the IT]. He was drunk and had no respect for me. When I tried to leave, he held me back verbally and physically. He would touch my back, my ass, my arms. He would come up to me and ask me for "kisses". He knew my boyfriend was his student. He put so much pressure on me to leave my boyfriend that I ended up doing it," she recalls. "He would invite me for drinks, for dinner.... He was famous and told me 'You're a good actress, I'll fuck you'. For me it was an honour, even though I knew that what was happening wasn't right". In those conversations Ollé promised that they would do a play together. "I thought: "I have to put up with this to have a job". Nor did he fail to mention how important and powerful he was, because he knew everyone in the stage world and everyone loved him and trusted him". In the third year he approached her again. "He told me that in the fourth year I could do the acting workshop with him and that he would take me on for a show. I was very scared, I felt I couldn't stand having him near me every day. I was really afraid he would get angry," she recalls. For two months she avoided him and, in the end, before the start of the fourth grade, she took a flight and went abroad. "I couldn't see myself going to the IT director to explain that I was being abused. I couldn't say anything to him either. It made me feel terrified," explains Marina, who filed a complaint with the Catalan Ombudsman to report what she had suffered, although it did not go any further because complaints between private individuals are not accepted. Marina is not the only one who left as a result of Ollé's behaviour. A few years earlier, an actress from outside the IT left for Madrid, among other reasons, to flee from him.

Juliana A. was the one who transferred it to the direction in 2016. She was a student of Ollé's in the last scenography workshop at the ESAD (High School for Dramatic Art of the IT). "He was holding a drink in his hand, which he put on top of the set design plans. It was a very tense meeting," she explains. Later, the atmosphere calmed down and they went back to sharing moments in the bar. "Once he offered to give me a massage. I let him do it, but I was pressured into it", she explains. He also sent her messages that she didn't answer. "He made advances towards me, and I spoke to the tutor and the workshop colleague. They didn't want to do anything. They were afraid". One day, Ollé even told her that he had spoken to another person, whose name he would not give, and that he had told him that she was "sexually obsessed".

In response to this, she went to other ESAD officials, who invited her to submit an administrative complaint to the institution. She did so informally, as she had been advised to do by a teacher. The management replied that they would have a conversation with Ollé. "He promised to change his attitude and explained that he had apologised. With this commitment, we understand that the lawsuit has reached its course and we break the instance", says the management of the ESAD in the document of response to the official instance that she ended up presenting, and to which the ARA has had access. 

"Nobody told me anything. No mechanism or protocol was activated", explains Juliana. She continued with the workshop and Ollé began to ignore her. "On the day of the premiere, eating in a restaurant, he commented that he wanted to fuck two students - who were a couple - and that he was morbid about it because they were lesbians. It was very unpleasant", she explains. Faced with these comments, she spoke to the management again: "I wanted to know if there would be any consequences, but they told me that they were closing the case. I was exhausted and gave up, I didn't feel like fighting any more".

Through meetings in the bar and projects outside the Institut, Ollé establishes close links with actresses who are just starting their careers. "He gave me a job in a production. He made the students in the other classes believe that we were involved, and everyone thought I'd got the part because of that. But we never hooked up," explains one actress. After one rehearsal, Ollé insisted that she go out to dinner with the whole company. "They went to expensive restaurants and I told him I couldn't afford it. He said he would invite me. I went and in the middle of dinner he said: 'These actresses, you pay for their dinner and you can't fuck them'", she recalls. During the years that they coincided in IT and on the professional stage, Ollé accused her of seducing him: "He was very perverse. He was always making comments about me in front of people. It was constant, he made me feel guilty".

Inside and outside the centre

Blanca G. met him for the first time in a workshop and, a few months later, he signed her up to do a professional show. "One day I accompanied him for a bit and he asked me for a drink. "We could make out,' he said. When I said no, he jumped on me and tried to snog me. I shook him off. I told him: "The day you can look at me like a person, and not like a hole, we'll talk," she explains. In the weeks leading up to the premiere, nerves were mounting and situations during rehearsals were untenable. The company stood up, and Ollé called Blanca into a corner. "After all I've done for you, you treat me like this? You'll never find work again", he told her. In the end they went ahead without Ollé, who on the night of the final rehearsal called the performers. "He told us: "You're whores, you're horrible, you don't know what you've done", she explains. 

Another girl who worked with him in her first professional play after her studies also worked with him. "He was very violent, he would tell everyone off. I had a very bad time, I would come home crying", explains the actress. He was the director and didn't respect anyone's personal space. "He came into the dressing room as if he was the king of the mambo. He touched an actress's ass and told us 'Oh, how beautiful you are'". Among the members of the company and theatre staff, such behaviour was tolerated, although one actor confronted him. "People said: "We know what Joan is like". It was a clear abuse of power and mistreatment", she says. Ollé would send her messages proposing to go out for dinner and spend the night in a hotel. Another actress was approached for a kiss during the Theatre Fair of Tàrrega.

The Institut del Teatre

"He has no limits whatsoever, he grabs someone and makes their life miserable. We used to leave a lot of rehearsals in tears," explains one former student. Another student said that, instead of assessing her, he would give her opinions about her physical appearance, which made her anxious. He would also invite her to dinner and talk to her about a professional project he was going to do. The presence of alcohol inside the classroom - despite the fact that it is forbidden in IT - was common. "He would come in with a glass of alcohol in his hand," says Carla. "One day, in Pa Patxoca, he was drunk and came to kiss me on the mouth. I shook him off", explains another girl. The lewd comments were recurrent. "He would say things like: "I would fuck all these girls, what do I have to do to fuck them", recalls Carmen P. 

Responding to the attitudes that have been ascribed to him, Joan Ollé points out that he has been in IT for 40 years. "I don't take anonymous accusations to heart. Let them show their faces," Ollé stresses. He also admits that there was a complaint from a student and that "it was shown that the accusations were absolutely unreal".

Other teachers

Ollé is not the only IT teacher to whom the students' complaints are directed. Jorge Vera sexualised in many of his classes. During one exercise, when it came to evaluating Bárbara M., he said: "She's really hot, she turns me on", addressing the other students. "Instead of evaluating my performance, he began to narrate in an erotic tone and in the first person what he would feel if he met me one day. He made sexualised comments about my body," she adds. Agnès recalls how, together with a colleague, he made them explicitly act out a sex scene even though the text they had chosen did not indicate it. "He made us undress and told us it had to be real. He asked us for details, whether he would pull back and where he would cum. We were both very self-conscious, we felt like guinea pigs. We ended up naked, with only a sheet between our private parts and one on top, acting out the scene in front of our classmates and those of the other class," he explains. On another occasion, he made a student dressed in a mini-skirt stand on a table and say: "You're really turning me on in this little dress". Barbara N. explains that she and a group of students brought Vera's behaviour to the attention of the tutor. " He told us that he couldn't do anything, that it had been going on for years", explain both the actress and a classmate, Xavier A. 

Vera denies that he said these kinds of sentences to the students, although there may have been comments that "hurt the students" but always linked to the work of the character. "I don't want to justify myself. If there is a real accusation, if a student says that I said it off-stage, they can file a complaint and I will agree with them. If someone has been hurt, I apologise," he says. 

Throughout his career as a teacher at the Institute, Vera had several relationships with female students. Anna C. was his partner for a year: "I was 25 and he was 47. It was hard for me to see that I had a problem, that I was in love with his power". Another actress ended up at Vera's house with him drunk. Nothing happened, despite the teacher's attempts. "He threatened me: "If you explain what happened, I'll explain what didn't happen". I left there very scared," she explains.

Vera is categorical when it comes to the relationships between teachers and students: "I have had consensual relationships, my daughter's mother was a student. But IT used to be an academy, not a formal education. Of course, things that I have done should not happen now, I won't deny it. Today this would not have to happen. I have grown up and I don't agree with certain behaviours".  

In his mask classes, Berty Tovías made the students crawl on all fours under the pretext of playing an animal. "He touched my ass, I reacted quickly and slapped him", says Matxalen D. He did the same with other former students, who define him as a teacher with "long hands", and underline that during his classes "uncomfortable situations" were generated. He gave Júlia as an example. "Look how she does it", he said to everyone, and made me put my hands on the floor and my ass out. He came from behind and grabbed me by the hips, touching his dick with my ass," she explains. Tovías assures that he has never received any complaint in this sense and that if there has been any situation of this type it has been " in no bad faith". "If necessary, I'm very sorry, but I have nothing to hide," he explains.

These three are not the only cases. Other teachers have taken advantage of their dominant position to have relationships with female students from different generations, repeating a pattern. There have also been harassment and humiliations. "I pulled my hair away from my face and the teacher said to me: "If a girl is about to suck my cock and she pulls her hair away from her face, she is a professional", explains Carla B. Another teacher has taught in a house in the mountains - despite the fact that the IT prohibits it - encouraging students to have sex with each other and engaging in sexual games with some students, and has also tried to have sex with some boys and girls, which causes a lot of discomfort because the students who have rejected him have to live with him every day afterwards. 

The response of the institution

For the school's management, "the Institute is a reflection of society", and certain attitudes of the teachers reflect a way of doing things of a past generation. In response to the cases of Ollé, Tovías and Vera, the director Magda Puyo assures that "we have worked to ensure that no pupil has felt violated, attacked or annoyed by the dynamics and methodologies of these teachers, but also of all the others". Puyo maintains that no formal complaint of harassment has been received in the last 10 years, despite the fact that the different school managements have been aware of the existence of complaints, many of them informal, and that they reached some of the teaching staff. "Workers have rights, if there is no complaint you can't dismiss them", argues Puyo, and makes it clear that since she took over as director in 2015 a protocol and a commission - made up of external IT technicians, teachers and students - were created to deal with these cases. In this sense, the IT has worked with some teachers to change their attitude, even reducing their class hours. Training sessions have also been held for teachers to detect and prevent sexual harassment in the classroom.

"The Institute, like many other places and communities, has not been sufficiently attentive to issues of a sexual nature. Partly because we didn't have the tools. It is very difficult to work at both poles, the victim feels like a victim and the harasser does not feel like a harasser", says Puyo, who, however, assures that most situations do not take place inside the centre: "What happens outside is everyone's responsibility, they are of age". She also points out that there are issues that cannot be prosecuted: "Sexual relations between students and teachers happen and are not seen as a problem, it is an intimate matter. I only have the right to talk about the negative consequences that happen within the Institute".

Although the management maintains that there are no formal complaints about harassment, over the years several students have complained to tutors and heads of studies. The situation reached such a point that in 2016 the Grup d'Acció Feminista (Feminist Action Group), formed by students, was created and actions were carried out to express discomfort at the sexist attitudes and psychological mistreatment of some teachers. A year earlier, the students had written a manifesto which they read at each performance, and which some teachers discreetly supported. 

Psychological abuse

For some students, the most serious issue is the way some teachers treat students. "Abuses of power are not always sexual. There is psychological abuse. We have seen many students with anxiety and depression," explains one actor. In this respect, the management is clear: "The humiliation of the student is deplorable, but you also have to be able to tell them when they do things wrong, the correction can be harsh". "There are 48 of us in each generation and every year there is someone who suffers from anxiety, who has to take strong medication, who is admitted to hospital.... The pressure is very high", Julia V. adds.

Until very recently, these attitudes went unreported. The issue of sexual violence was latent, but buried. It was a taboo, silence prevailed and therefore there were practically no reports. Until the emergence of Me Too, also in the cultural sphere, people who had suffered these abuses did not take the step of revealing them. These attitudes had become socially normalised. In recent years, however, as dozens of IT students have done, these silences are beginning to be broken.  

Jorge Vera and Berty Tovías retired and left the Institut del Teatre in 2016. Joan Ollé will retire this year. 

Research

If you know of any stories you can pass them on to the newspaper's research team here.

Breaking the silence of normalised behaviour: more than 80 cases collected within the sector

These articles that we publish today are the result of hundreds of interviews carried out over a year and a half in order to x-ray what is happening in the world of the performing arts and audiovisuals in Catalonia, just as we had previously done with the world of sport, schools, politics and the Church. During these meetings, some eighty cases of harassment, sexual abuse and abuse of power have come to light. Sometimes it is people from the academic world who take advantage of their hierarchy in relation to students. Others are people with power in the profession who profit from the precariousness and fears of young actors and actresses.

The headmaster of a school who tried to sexually assault a student when she was drunk. A television producer who told an actress: "If we don't fuck, I won't give you a raise", before adding: "I can put you out of a job". Another producer who told a performer: "To know if a girl is a good actress, I need to kiss her: I can see how she expresses herself". An actor who gave tongue kisses to an actress during a show, even though the play did not require it and she did not consent to it and pressed her lips together. A producer who asked for "more boobs" from an actress in the series he was working on. The ARA is committed to publishing as many stories as possible, as many as can be verified or as many as can be witnessed. Some cases will be explained by focusing on the aggressors, because there are many victims willing to explain them, while in others the focus will be on the process of overcoming that the people who have suffered have gone through. 

Selecting each case and deciding how to explain it is not an easy exercise. It can even be unfair to some people who have taken the step of telling two unknown journalists painful and intimate stories that have accompanied them for many years and that cannot be published. Each case has been analysed separately. We have looked for patterns in the actions of the aggressors to show that these are not isolated events. We have tried to make an exercise of responsibility by assessing the implications of publishing each name. Therefore, in some cases, beyond the names themselves, telling the story helps us to denounce a normalised way of acting from power.

Sexual abuse and harassment revolve around the abuse of power. It is a key concept for understanding the dynamics of a sector in which the limits are often blurred because it works with the body, feelings and emotions. Most actresses and quite a few actors have suffered from it. "When you reject a proposal from someone with power to go out for dinner or a drink... you can't call it abuse, can you? They haven't touched you, maybe they haven't insinuated themselves, but as a woman you know what it means to say no: surely that person won't give you a job in the future". These words by actress Àngels Bassas define the abuse of power. It is a behaviour that is present in the world of theatre and television, but also in many other areas of life.

This research, launched in October 2019, does not intend, far from it, to criminalise the sector. Nor does it aim to judge relationships between adults of different ages if they are consensual and there is no abuse of power. With this exercise we only want to state that there are cases. Like the case of the Aula de Teatre de Lleida published in May. Today only a few names will appear, but the ARA's commitment to continue breaking silences remains firm.

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