Like many young directors, Rachel Dart strings together a year of work out of internships, workshops, 10-minute play festivals and assisting gigs. She rarely turns down a job. But last fall she had to.
“Just a couple of months ago, I was asked—very unwittingly, by the person who asked me, who had no way of knowing—to collaborate with someone who had sexually harassed me,” Dart says. She had reported the incident at the time (“I went through all the right channels, all anonymously”) and the theatre took action. The perpetrator was fired from the show—only to be rehired, again and again, for other shows at the same theatre. Turning down the job offer was all Dart could do, because the man who had harassed her essentially kept his.
“That was the moment I decided, ‘I’m over this. I don’t want to hear that this is happening to anybody anymore,’” she says.
Dart has cautioned others away from working with her harasser—just as she, in turn, had been warned about him by someone else. For many artists starting careers in the theatre—both women and men—this is the only way you hear about harassment: in an aside, as a piece of gossip, a whispered word of advice. You might announce that you got a part on Facebook, then receive a private message letting you know to watch out for so-and-so. A friend might text you, counseling you not to go alone to that professional lunch.
All too often, serial perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault enjoy long careers in the theatre. As the Chicago Reader’s of ongoing abuses at the Profiles Theatre revealed, harassment can sometimes cycle and recycle through casts and companies, circulating as rumor but enabled, for the most part, by silence and fear.
This time Dart has decided to make as much noise as she can. Her project, Let Us Work, began as a call to action posted on Facebook, addressed to unions, theatres, and artistic directors, asking them to do more to protect their creative workers from sexual abuse. This January, Let Us Work circulated an anonymous online survey to gather statistics on harassment, particularly among Dart’s community of New York City-based freelancers, many of whom work outside of the protections of unions like Actors’ Equity. “The goal is to collect the numbers, to hear the stories, and then to share them with anybody who will listen,” Dart says.
The results have just started to come in. “Interestingly, but unsurprisingly,” Dart notes, “virtually every single response to the survey from someone who had been harassed or who had witnessed harassment said that the perpetrator was a superior.” Some respondents were artistic directors themselves. “It’s fascinating,” she adds. “A lot responded that, yes, they have been sexually harassed, but no, their company does not have a sexual harassment policy.”
While many larger institutions have HR departments and codes of conduct to protect their workers, few smaller companies do. Dart speaks from her own experience: “It gets tricky when you’re doing an unpaid workshop of a new play, with a new company, run by people who are still figuring out what that means and how to manage people. A sexual harassment policy is the last thing on a small company’s mind.” In these cases, she wonders, “What protects us from sexual harassment, and if it does happen, what recourse do we have? Our only recourse is to tell the stage manager and hope that they care.”
Let Us Work, Dart hopes, could catch the stories that fall through the cracks, and could even help to fill those cracks once and for all. Recently Dart met with Laura T. Fisher, cofounder of the Chicago-based activist organization Not in Our House. Like Let Us Work, works with non-Equity companies to formally adopt sexual harassment policies of their own. This season 21 Chicago theatres began piloting a code of conduct drafted by the organization, which will evolve in response to feedback from the community.
The work of Not in Our House has galvanized Chicago’s non-Equity theatres around the issue of sexual harassment. Let Us Work, Dart hopes, can do the same, gathering momentum from across New York’s diverse freelance communities, as well as from the groundswell of feminist activism unleashed by the election of President Trump, who faces his own allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
For individuals looking to help, Dart encourages anyone and everyone to fill out the , or to follow . “We have a question on the survey which asks, ‘If you have ever been harassed or assaulted by a theatre colleague, did you find that your behavior changed?’” Dart says. “A lot of people said yes. It’s why they quit acting. It’s why they don’t want to go to shows alone anymore—because they’re afraid of running into their harasser.” These stories, Dart believes, help make policies personal. “Institutions may say they have a zero-tolerance policy, but unless it’s taken seriously, by people who understand what sexual harassment is and the effect it has on a person’s life, nothing will change.”
What makes harassment so difficult to address in close-knit theatre communities could also be one key to fixing the problem.
“People start working in theatre because of the people,” Dart says. “We’re open, loving, and affectionate, so the boundaries can feel blurry.” That same empathy and desire to connect, however, can be its own form of direct action. “If you know someone who has been harassed, let them know that you believe them and that you support them,” she advises, “and if you know somebody who has perpetrated it, have a talk with them, too, if you feel like you can.”
Ariel Sibert is a dramaturg, writer, and theatremaker.