UCL grads’ theatre company accused of discrimination after firing actor over her mental health

They messaged her boyfriend to say they’d decided to fire her from their upcoming fringe show

A theatre company founded by recent UCL graduates has been accused of discrimination after firing an actor over her mental health.

Actor and UCL grad Tara was fired from her lead role in the show Next Time just days before the start of its run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Tara alleges that Polly Creed, founder of Power Play and director of Next Time, fired her from the show because of her disability. Tara has been diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and experiences panic attacks. She described finding it “hard to keep hopeful” and “doubting if it’s even possible to exist in the industry with disability”.

Power Play is an “activist theatre” company set up by Polly, a UCL Drama Society committee member in 2017-18, and several other recent UCL graduates. Their activism mainly focuses on gender inequality, but one of Power Play’s directors is also the cofounder of a mental health initiative, and they have shared articles on their Twitter account on how important it is to make theatre accessible for disabled people.

Their show Next Time had a full run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival throughout August 2018, with tickets priced at £12, and was one of four plays produced by Power Play. Power Play’s shows appeared in Lyn Gardner’s guide to shows to see for The Independent, and WhatsOnStage’s guide on shows to book early for Fringe 2018.

As part of the role, Tara was encouraged to recreate the feeling of having a panic attack during a rehearsal on July 25th, the day before their first preview performance. This in turn caused Tara to have a panic attack in the rehearsal room. She requested permission to go home and was eventually given permission to leave.

Later, Tara messaged Polly and suggested solutions to prevent similar occurrences happening again, including using a codeword instead of “panic” and avoiding shallow breathing during the performance, amongst other measures. To this, Polly responded “Will take all of that onboard and also lets discuss it thoroughly tomorrow”.

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Tara sends Polly suggestions for how to best deal with her anxiety

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Polly replies saying how useful these suggestions are

Tara described feeling shaky and asking for rehearsals to be pushed back a couple of hours so she could be ready for the evening’s performance.

The next day, Tara spoke to Polly, asking if they could move the rehearsal to hers. Polly refused, and Tara explained how she “can’t move right now”. At 10:32, Polly said “let’s just leave it today then. If you’re feeling better later could you give me a ring though?”

In a statement, Power Play said it had become impossible to reach Tara, and that she had become unable to attend rehearsals.

At 13:39, her boyfriend Matt received a message from Polly, saying that they had decided to fire Tara as she “was not in an ok position to do the role” and asking him how he thought they should break the news to her.

She says “We’ve really tried but I just think at this stage it’s asking too much of her.”

Polly continues: “Know it’s gonna make everything worse with the shame and anxiety but feel it’s important to have an open discussion as soon as possible because obviously we are gonna have to find someone else to step in.”

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Polly tells Matt, Tara’s boyfriend, of the decision to fire Tara

Matt responds saying: “To drop her because of a decision you have unilaterally made about her disability is wrong and unfair.

“The only person who knows if she is safe is her.

“If she says she is safe, and if she says you are not asking too much of her, and if she says she is capable, please be open to that”.

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Matt responds to Polly, telling her that the decision about Tara’s mental health is Tara’s to make

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Polly responds, saying that time is running out to recast Tara’s role

Polly acknowledges they had not consulted Tara on the decision over her mental health, telling Matt: “We would have loved for it to have been a collaborative decision but it’s just been impossible to get hold of Tara and time also isn’t on our side”. However, Polly had seen Tara at rehearsals the previous day, and told Tara they would discuss the action plan, and spoken to her three hours previously.

She said: “We’ll have a conversation but we are now pretty set in our decision cos it has been a dialogue over the last week and now it’s just timewise”.

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Matt and Polly discuss the decision

Polly also acknowledged that Tara was not aware of their decision. When asked by Matt if Tara knew about her concerns, she says: “Not explicitly but i feel like some of her messages have been suggestive of the fact that she has been”.

In an official statement, Power Play claim they acted out of concern for Tara’s wellbeing, and consulted Department for Health and Mind guidelines on safeguarding. However, the Department for Health guidance applies to mental health practitioners, and Mind guidance states: “Standing by people when they experience a mental health problem is not only about keeping hold of a valuable staff member – it also sends a message about your organisation’s values.”

Power Play also say they attempted to put an action plan into place to help Tara, in line with the Mind guidance which says: “All staff should be offered a personal action plan. This sends a clear message that employee wellbeing matters to the organisation and encourages early disclosure.”

Yet, when Tara suggested an action plan the day before, they agreed to discuss it, but fired her the next day, having been set in their decision.

Power Play also say they acted out of a concern for Tara’s welfare which had developed over the course of two weeks, rather than the single incident during the rehearsal.

Matt told The Tab: “Initially I didn’t really believe it. Then it began to sink in that they almost certainly weren’t going to change their minds, and I panicked, I felt very scared, very angry.”

“It’s definitely not the first time that people have treated Tara like she’s incredibly fragile or volatile, and then come to me and asked me how to ‘handle’ or ‘manage’ her. It’s offensive, ableist, and insulting to us both.”

Tara recalls that in the afternoon they asked to come over and talk: “They said that I was in a terrible state, and that the show was too much for me – that in Edinburgh it’d be worse. Ironically, Matt was saying just a day before that it had been a really stable month for me with only one panic attack. That’s what they don’t understand about disability – it affects you daily. So for me, this is just my life. For them it’s the end of the world. Also to say this show is ruining my mental health. I’ve had this illness since I was 11.”

Due to the presence of both current UCL students and UCL alumni within Power Play, Tara originally felt that she couldn’t speak out fully about her experience for fear of being ostracised in her social group.

However, upon discovering that they sat on an August 13th panel about accessibility in theatre whilst at the Edinburgh Fringe alongside Birds of Paradise, a theatre company formed to “employ disabled and non-disabled actors and other theatre professionals, to commission new work, to work in partnership with other organisations at home and abroad, to create positive images of inclusion and to encourage participation in the arts,” she felt that she could no longer remain silent.

On the panel, Tara said: “It felt like they were shameless and just revelling and rubbing my face in it. The audacity was shocking. At that point, I felt I had a duty to speak out and protect other disabled artists.”

In response to this, Power Play said: “Power Play accepted an invitation to speak on the Traverse panel about accessibility and diversity in theatre casting because we are doing the first ever survey about gender inequality in fringe theatre, so we felt we had something important to add to the conversation.”

The Tab reached out to Power Play for a comment and were told: “Power Play is a young company, created by friends from university, committed to fighting discrimination. Ensuring the safety of our collaborators and team is and will always be our priority.

“During rehearsals, a very serious safeguarding situation arose over the course of two weeks, and following safeguarding guidelines, we felt that it was unsafe for Tara to continue in the role, which required her to perform a set of actions that she had told us were triggering. Timing was critical because we had a public performance the following day and were due to leave for Edinburgh Fringe Festival days later. It had become impossible to reach Tara and she had become unable to attend rehearsals.

“We reached out to her partner, who is also a close friend and financial partner of Power Play, to try to put in place an action plan to support her. We are unable to discuss this in detail, given its sensitive and private nature and because we are going through the early conciliation process with ACAS. Before this became public we had already offered to pay Tara in full as if she had done the production, as a gesture of respect and friendship.

“We admire and love Tara as a phenomenal performer and a good friend, and have worked with her on multiple projects in the past (many of which tackled mental health issues). We are heartbroken that this has happened. We cannot share more than this, as it would be potentially illegal, disrespectful, and unkind.”