I’ve been playing in West End theatre orchestras for 25 years and have enjoyed it a great deal. As a gay man, I have never experienced any kind of direct prejudice at work, but I have observed that West End orchestras can be complicated environments when it comes to gender and sexuality.
Most West End musicians are male, which creates a baseline atmosphere of imbalance. And while musical theatre has a reputation for being a haven for gay men, my own experience is that a macho kind of maleness is more prevalent among musicians, perhaps as a reaction to the gay stereotype.
I mentioned that I have not experienced any kind of homophobic prejudice, but it’s possible that I might not know if I had. That’s because there is sometimes an ‘in-group’ in an orchestra pit, members of which may not discriminate against you to your face, but may move to exclude you when you are not present. I have witnessed this happening and I think most musicians know on some level that it happens. It’s why you see some musicians taking great care to act in ways that will not attract excessive attention, while others seem to act in ‘larger than life’ ways, deliberately making themselves figures of fun for the entertainment of other band members. Both techniques seem designed to make sure that relations with the rest of the orchestra stay positive.
This relates to gender and sexuality because some women and gay men seem compelled to play up aspects of these identities in order to fit in. For example, I have observed female musicians acting out passive, deferential or sexualised roles, as if they are going to get on better if they perform this way for the men around them. I have also seen women in pits become hard-drinking and ‘one of the lads’, which is another attempt at getting along with the boys. I have sympathy for both plights.
With gay men, I have seen some keep quiet in the hope that they will be left undisturbed. Others, meanwhile, play up to an ‘outrageous’ stereotype, which is comedic but ultimately unthreatening.
Both, in my opinion, are efforts at navigating the environment successfully, and may well be unconscious behaviours. It seems wrong to me that the dynamics in orchestra pits might trigger these responses.
Other workplaces probably have issues with in-groups, and I’m sure it could be argued that these observations also apply to other male-dominated professions such as the police. But it’s not particularly helpful to point out examples of similar problems elsewhere, unless we can look to see how they are tackling these kinds of issues.
I should also say that I have worked in pits where I didn’t notice this problem at all, but I have seen it often enough to believe that it does exist, and that it may be creating a barrier to increasing the diversity in West End orchestras.
What I would like to see is an environment where everyone feels free and able to be themselves, within reasonable appropriateness, while also doing a good job. The reality, however, is that some West End pits are currently environments where certain ways of ‘being’ are more acceptable than others. Long term, it will benefit all musicians if we can fix this.
The West End is a great place to work overall, and all kinds of musicians should get the chance to experience it.
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