It begins innocently enough: A theatre artist asks another theatre artist to dinner. In an industry where ideas are discussed, and deals often made, in dimly lit restaurants, such meetings are considered essential for networking. Such was the case for a New York-based actor when the literary manager of a Tony-winning regional theatre asked her out for a post-show drink.
“He had inside information about a show I was called back for, and there were people at this party I wanted to impress,” the actor recalled. He had flirted with her before, but she had told him she wasn’t interested. Then, as the two of them sat at the bar talking, the literary manager placed his hand on her thigh, and slowly moved it up, “until he was groping me,” she said.
She left the restaurant and never reported the incident, and declined to name herself or the man. “Being a literary manager, he is close to numerous playwrights I hope to work with someday, and I worry that he will continue to have the power to blacklist me with them in some way,” she explained.
It’s a common fear. After we solicited stories about harassment from the field last month, more than 100 theatre artists from around the country sent us emails or spoke to us over the phone and in person about their experiences. It is not only women who are the targets of harassment; men and gender-nonconforming individuals also had firsthand experiences to share. Most requested anonymity, citing an industry that, compared to Hollywood, is much smaller and more localized.
“We’re all friends, we all have to see each other all the time, we all go to each other’s shows, we’ve all dated each other,” said Rachel Dart, a New York-based director. But this six degrees of separation in the theatre means that when there’s wrongdoing, there’s more of a tendency toward silence because the threat of retaliation is greater. “Everybody knows everybody, so if you report someone, everybody knows that you did it.” Because of her own experiences with harassment, Dart started an advocacy group called Let Us Work, through which she has collected stories from more than 200 artists in New York City and uses that “anecdata” to advocate for change with unions and theatres.
What these numerous first-person testimonies show is that harassment isn’t just limited to the Profiles Theatres of the world—small theatres with no human resources departments, like the Chicago storefront exposed and shuttered last year for a longstanding culture of abuse and intimidation. This behavior runs rampant in both tiny companies and large organizations, in high school theatre clubs, university theatre departments, and community troupes. It is endemic at every single level in the theatre industry, whether it’s a director harassing an actor, a producer propositioning a playwright, an artistic director groping his actors, or even assault among actors. Playwright Israel Horovitz and Dallas Theatre Center literary manager Lee Trull may have been accused of harassment by multiple people, and lost or gave up their jobs for it, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.
As a woman, and as someone who has experienced harassment and assault in my personal life (but luckily never professionally), when I first put out the call for stories, I had an idea of why harassment in the theatre is a problem. Considering that 54 percent of all women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, misdemeanors in theatre were just statistically likely.
What I wasn’t prepared for was what these stories told me about the theatre industry: the way well-meaning artists, ostensibly dedicated to promoting empathy, could turn around and abuse their fellow storytellers. More chillingly, I learned of the way that too many institutional theatres, also well-intentioned and with harassment guidelines fully in place, nonetheless choose to look the other way when misdemeanors and worse happen under their roof.
Below, I share some of the stories I received with you. They are anonymized for legal reasons, and in many cases at the request of my sources. What I hope to show is that this problem is not about one man, one incident, or one theatre. The 100-plus people who contacted me typically did not name just one man, or even just two.
Just as there were many people who enabled Harvey Weinstein’s behavior, it is the theatre field itself that has allowed for women, men, and gender-nonconforming individuals to be harassed, then abandoned them when they spoke up. One question I asked those I spoke with was: What do you want to come from this conversation? Some said, “I needed to get it off of my chest. It’s been weighing on me forever.” Even more said, “I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
How do we make a theatre field that is truly safe, where everyone can do their best creative work? First, we need to confront how the field has failed its artists.
“We never think about the fact that, if it makes us uncomfortable, it’s not ok.”
1) Harassment Comes in Many Forms
The first thing that struck me as I listened to these people and their stories was the fear. The fear of speaking out, the fear of being identified, the fear of losing a job, the fear of never working in the industry again. I’m not alone in noticing that. In one part of the questionnaire she sends to survivors, Dart asks if respondents were comfortable with naming the perpetrator. “Most people have gone to great pains to not name the person who harassed them, which is interesting,” she remarks. “It contributes to the whisper network.”
The first building block of the whisper network is definitions: Not many people can clearly identify harassment when it happens to them, or when they witness it. For clarification, I asked Tom Carpenter, legal counsel for Actors Equity Association. He explained that harassment usually falls into two camps. One is transactional or quid pro quo harassment, where “an employer makes decisions affecting an employee based on whether or not that employee will agree to engage in sexual conduct,” he explains. “That can be anything ranging from unwelcome advances to assault.” (The latter of which includes unwanted physical contact—groping, unwanted sexual touching, rape.)
The other form of sexual harassment falls under the banner of hostile work environment, “unwelcome behavior that unreasonably interferes with an employee’s ability to do their job,” such as unwelcome lewd comments, sexually derogatory jokes or emails, or discrimination. One-off comments wouldn’t necessarily qualify as harassment, said Carpenter, but discriminatory behavior that is “persistent and pervasive” would.
One female literary manager told me that when she was an intern at a large institutional theatre, she was subjected to a variety of comments about her appearance. “I was working in dramaturgy, and there would be half a dozen of comments like, ‘It’s not so bad to have an intern around when they look like you,’” she recalls. In one conversation, with “a Tony-winning artist,” they were talking about her university education, and “he asked, ‘Are the girls fuckable?’ He then looks me up and down and said, ‘Oh, you went there.’”
She admitted she took those comments as a compliment, even though they made her feel uncomfortable. “When you work in an industry that constantly hammers you with: ‘The show is the most important thing, the show is the most important thing,’ you think, ‘Someone is making me feel uncomfortable, that’s not the most important thing,’” she explained. “We never think about the fact that, if it makes us uncomfortable, it’s not ok.”
These behaviors can range from creepy, like the ones mentioned above, to outright bullying. One actor recalled her experiences with a director who “singled me out and started obsessively verbally brutalizing me” in rehearsals. Some of his comments, she recalled, included “What the hell is wrong with you?” and “Did you bother to read the scene?” She noticed he wasn’t as cruel to the male actors in the room. To her, it seemed “weirdly aggressive and publicly humiliating.” The comments escalated until one day the director said to a male actor, while standing across from her, “‘Well, look at her, she’s just a cunt, she’s a stupid cunt, isn’t that right?’”
It is clear you do not need to touch someone to harass them. And in artistic industries where the myth of male genius still lives, bullying is usually treated as the necessary byproduct of creativity, even if it then contributes to an unsafe work environment. “We have excused bad behavior on a wide spectrum, for a long time,” said the literary manager. “I’ve heard an artistic director say, ‘It’s awful this person can’t do a show without screaming at people. But they’re brilliant and we’re going to work with them.’”
“People prey on people they think are the least likely to say something,”
2) Power Is the Key
In an industry where intimacy is acted out onstage, where an artist’s personal experiences are used as inspiration and discussed in the room as a kind of dramaturgy, and where showmances are common, the line between flirting and harassment can be blurry. And there are those who use that gray area as cover—especially those who hold power over others. It’s not a coincidence that former literary manager Lee Trull targeted young actors almost half his age, according to the web publication TheaterJones, who broke the news.
“People prey on people they think are the least likely to say something,” said playwright Winter Miller, who is a board member of the arts collective FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. “If you’re 21 years old and just trying to get a foothold in the industry, and if you don’t have a network of support, or if you’re a person of color or a woman and you don’t think you’ll be believed, you don’t want to be public with it.” In short, according to Miller, “The common denominator is that people in positions of power are more apt to prey on people they think have the least power so they don’t have to face consequences.”
A majority of the stories I heard were from individuals who were harassed when they were students, interns, or emerging artists. In one harrowing conversation, an actor recalled how one director she worked with grabbed her breasts during tech. “He started moving them around, and said, ‘God, these are gorgeous,’” she recalled. “The whole room stopped, and I said, ‘It’s fine, he’s gay!’ I then went backstage and sobbed.” It wasn’t a sexual move per se; it was a power move. Since he was the artistic director of the theatre and she was a young actor, to say anything meant losing the chance for future work.
Sometimes abuse of power can be more subtle. One costume designer recalled that when she was a student, she shared a kiss with a visiting director. What began as a mutual flirtation became more one-sided and uncomfortable, over a period of three to four years, culminating with a coffee shop meeting in which he told her he “couldn’t work with me anymore because he wanted to sleep with me all the time.”
Up to that point, the designer said, “I went along with it because I wanted to work,” knowing that if she said anything publicly, it would be her words as a young designer against his. Sure enough, when she has since told the story to other colleagues, they’ve told her the director had a reputation for making female collaborators feel uncomfortable but had never spoken to him about it. “It makes me angry, because to me, it seems like they value having this friendship with him for a job over a bigger cause,” she said, visibly frustrated.
When the allegations against Louis CK were made public, the comic released a statement that read, in part, “When you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them.” That imbalance is magnified in a small industry such as theatre, where the hierarchies make it clear who wields power (directors, playwrights, producers) and who doesn’t (actors, stagehands, interns). When abuses occur, it’s not a simple matter of reporting on your boss; for many it’s David against Goliath, except that Goliath has an institutional theatre behind him.
“Everyone’s policies say the exact same things, and if they lived up to those policies, the world would be beautiful!”
3) The Epidemic of Institutional Inaction
Of the more than 100 stories American Theatre received, a majority of people never reported the incidents to their superiors. Even many who belonged to a union were unaware of the processes for reporting an incident, or even who to report it to. Among those who did notify the theatres they were working for, most said that those institutions took no disciplinary actions to redress the problems (a potentially illegal move). Dart noted similar outcomes in her findings: “People said when they did report it, there was retaliation [against them], or the theatre swept it under the rug, and the person who harassed them continued to work there.”
While reading the Israel Horovitz story in The New York Times, one portion stood out (emphasis mine):
Since at least 1993, Gloucester Stage officials had known it was more than mere speculation: that year, Mr. Horovitz was the subject of an exposé in The Boston Phoenix in which 10 women accused him of sexual harassment and assault. The women’s names were not disclosed in the article. At the time the board’s president, Barry Weiner, dismissed the accusations and described some of the women speaking out against Mr. Horovitz as “tightly wound.”
This tendency to discredit victims and protect perpetrators has for too long been the default reaction. Even companies that have sexual harassment policies don’t seem to enforce them rigorously. “Everyone’s policies say the exact same things, and if they lived up to those policies, the world would be beautiful!” said Julie Felise Dubiner, an associate artist at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “But they don’t live up to those policies when it’s not convenient.” Dubiner recently helped OSF revamp its own sexual harassment policy, but she has previously worked at theatres where she said infractions were waved away.
One staffer at a Tony-winning regional theatre reports facing frequent gender discrimination from her supervisor. As one of the few female department heads at the theatre, she reports being paid a lower salary “than the next lowest-paid department head,” she said. “That department head was hired after me and doesn’t have a masters degree. I have asked for a raise and been told that I’m ‘being overly sensitive’ and that theatre isn’t about the money.”
Not only that, but her ideas are frequently discounted in meetings. “I once made a suggestion of moving a design deadline up by one week so that we could have puppets built before rehearsals started,” she said. “I was told that my idea was stupid. About 30 minutes later in that same meeting, a male department head made the same suggestion and was told that it was a brilliant suggestion. My coworkers have started to repeat my comments so that my boss will acknowledge my ideas.”
She reported those instances to the managing director of the theatre, who said she was “‘overreacting’ and that I should be more understanding because my boss is of a different generation.” She then notes: “Harvey Weinstein also used that excuse.” She requested anonymity for fear of her job; she has a mortgage and a family.
Another employee at another Tony-winning regional theatre has similar fears, describing the culture at the organization as a case of machismo run amok. “All of the male managers and the majority of the male ensemble actors behave in extremely inappropriate ways,” she said, detailing the way they grope female coworkers, tell rape jokes, and describe sexual exploits in graphic terms. She attributes this culture to the company’s artistic director, who frequently harasses the female actors in his employ. When this employee reported bullying from a male actor in the company to the theatre’s general manager, he told her to stay away from the actors and did nothing to reprimand the offending actor.
The ironic kicker: The theatre has an exemplary sexual harassment policy that promises in writing to hold perpetrators accountable. But when the prime perpetrator is at the top, apparently, it sets a tone for a work environment that is an “all-boys club” where this behavior is not only allowed but encouraged.
In frequent conversations I had with representatives from AEA, it was clear to me that it is up to the institutional theatres, as employers, to provide a safe working environment. The role of the unions is to make sure that harassment policies are clearly expressed to all workers, not necessarily to enforce them. Now the million dollar question seems to be: Who holds theatres accountable when they actively choose to look the other way?
“It’s easier to dismiss somebody than to believe something horrible about someone that you truly like.”
4) Victims Bear the Brunt of the Consequences
The most frequent reason people don’t report these incidents, and why they requested anonymity from American Theatre, is fear of retaliation. It’s not an unfounded fear. One female actor reached out to me saying that during a cast party held at a theatre, she was raped in a dressing room by a fellow actor. She had been on friendly but not romantic terms with the perpetrator. When she reported the incident to the theatre’s stage manager, he said dismissively of the rapist, “Oh, that’s him.” She considered filing a lawsuit but was told that for the assault to be considered a crime in the state where it occurred, there needed to be physical evidence of resistance.
Her reporting the incident had repercussions for her career, she said: She wasn’t hired on productions for which the rapist was hired, and her professional network “started shunning me,” she said. “People told other people I was crazy, and that I was making it up. One of my best friends in the world cut me out of her life.” Relocated to the West Coast, she now continues to act, but the lesson of her rape experience was that for most people it’s “easier to dismiss somebody than to believe something horrible about someone that you truly like.”
When that person is your supervisor, you may have no choice but to leave. One dramaturg did just that after almost a year of being grabbed and groped by the artistic director of the theatre where she worked. During her exit interview, she filed a report with the company’s accountant, who doubled as its human resources department; that led nowhere, and the artistic director still holds his job. Said the dramaturg, “It caused me to leave a job I wouldn’t have left, and potentially changed the course of my career. I was 26 at that point, but those jobs are so hard to get. It took me another six years to find the right job.” She added, passionately, “If one more man asks me why women don’t come forward, I’m going to punch them in the fucking face.”
As more people come forward with their stories, both privately and publicly, many are optimistic that a sea change is beginning. The crucial first step is to believe survivors when they come forward, and to take their charges seriously. It’s time the theatre field took the “whisper network” that has been used to protect perpetrators by ostracizing and silencing victims and turned it back on those who most deserve to be shunned: the powerful who prey on the powerless.
“I’m looking forward to the day when being backstage, when being in a play, doesn’t mean being groped or ogled,” said one actor. “We have a spark right now, we have a spark of change. There’s a line, I think it’s in Julius Caesar, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,’ and that’s what I feel like we have right now. That’s why I feel like I can rant with you for a little while. It needs to be said, the culture needs to change.”
This is the first of a series of stories on sexual harassment and abuse in the theatre. If you have information or feedback, you can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.