This is Part 2 of an ongoing series on sexual harassment and abuse in the theatre field. Part 1 is here.
On Monday, Dec. 4, the lobby of the Public Theater in New York City was overflowing with people. At one end, attendees picked up tickets; on the other side they were lining up for a wait list. The crowd wasn’t there for a hot new show, but for a town hall about sexual harassment in the theatre industry. The 272-seat Anspacher Theater was packed, with people standing in the back of the house watching. In the “Quaker-style” meeting, audience members walked up one by one and spoke into two microphones on either side of the stage about their experiences with harassment, and about how the field can do better by survivors.
As I sat in the second row back, taking notes, one comment stood out in particular. “The only thing that works is conversation,” said one woman. She admitted that while “there is no way to prevent” harassment 100 percent, “the more we talk about it, the way we create a culture where it’s unacceptable.” In short: “The best medicine is constant, constant, constant conversation.” Judging from the many who spoke in that room, and the many artistic directors in the audience (including the Public’s Oskar Eustis), it seems the conversation is finally beginning.
With the proliferation of the #MeToo hashtag and its ripples through many industries, “It’s a survivorship momentum right now,” says Lori Myers, cofounder of Not in Our House, which has helped codify sexual harassment policies for non-Equity theatres in Chicago. “People are going to be more willing to listen because it can’t be something that’s swept under the rug anymore. Again, it’s another avenue to have more open dialogue about sexual harassment and intimidation and bullying. The momentum is definitely there.”
For actor and activist Marin Ireland—whose experience with domestic abuse while working on a Wooster Group show was the subject of a 2015 New York Times article—the current climate of naming and shaming perpetrators in the press makes her worry that the focus will be on individuals rather than the larger picture. To her, it’s a misperception “that we just have to hunt down each guy that’s doing this and once we eradicate them, we’ll be clean. It’s like if you saw a cockroach and you killed it and you’re like, no more roaches in my house! It’s a bigger systemic issue.”
To fix a broken system is a daunting challenge. But many individuals and institutions around the country have been stepping up to the plate to do just that, in big and small ways.
What Institutions Can Do
For the last two years, the Actors Fund has been training its staff in trauma counseling and setting up resources for survivors of sexual harassment and assault. If Actors Fund chief operating officer Barbara Davis could give one piece of advice to those working in an unsafe environment, it is this: Write everything down. When an incident occurs, she says, “It’s important to create your own records, and tell somebody what’s going on.” The point is to make sure there’s a paper trail and corroborating testimonies, in case there’s pursue legal action at a later time. The records should explain in detail “who saw something—did somebody else walk by or overhear?—and document names, the time, the location. As many details as possible is helpful.” The statute of limitations for filing a harassment claim can range from 180 days to 300 days after the incident, depending on state laws.
For many who are targeted, though, it’s the next step that’s shrouded in mystery. So they’ve documented the incident. Now who can they report it to? What actions can they take to make sure it stops? Last month Actors’ Equity Association sent an email to around 1,500 producers and theatres across the country stating that those institutions needed to make its sexual harassment policy available to all staffers and freelancers on the first day of every rehearsal, and have the chain of reporting and communication pinned on the call board backstage.
“I think it’s important for us to remind our members about their rights, and important for us to remind our employers about their responsibility,” says AEA executive director Mary McColl. “And how we think they should meet their responsibilities is to have an appropriate legal policy that they provide to our members.”
For actors who experience harassment from other actors, the first line of action is usually to talk to their local AEA business representative, who can help facilitate solutions and counseling. But for those who are not in a union, or who have issues with the member of another union (such as between an actor and a director), there have historically been very few resources for them. Stepping into this breach is the Actors Fund, the New York-based nonprofit which, despite its name, will take calls from any and all artists in the performing arts.
“So often [survivors are] not sure what their rights are, what their choices are, or how to seek legal counsel,” says Davis. “Also they’re not sure how they feel about moving forward, and they want a safe place to be able to talk through what they’ve experienced, what the impact is, and how to get the kind of help that they need. So our staff here can provide resources, can provide information on [the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], legal resources, and, most importantly, counseling services.”
Making sure theatres have a codified harassment policy and providing support groups for survivors is just what Myers and Not in Our House have been doing for the last two years in Chicago. What started out as an ad-hoc group of artists has transformed into a resource for the theatre field; Meyers and her cofounder Laura T. Fisher now travel around the country giving talks in different theatre communities about how to set up a sexual harassment policy. They have also been contacted by non-theatre unions, such as Screen Actors Guild, and asked if the Chicago Theatre Standards can be adopted for other industries.
Because harassment can include a whole range of behaviors, that means that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. One thing Myers asks survivors who contact Not in Our House is: “What do you want to see happen at the end of the day?” Most of the time, she says, “It’s them wanting to tell me and they feel better. A lot of time it’s just support; we hook them up with a good support system. In other instances, if it’s something really egregious, [we ask], ‘Have you sought legal counsel?’”
While legal action is usually available for more dire behavior, such as assault, there are fewer resources for people who experience microaggressions such as inappropriate comments. That is why Marin Ireland, along with civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, have partnered to launch a six-month pilot project where they will set up mediation services; where a victim and a perpetrator can sit down with a neutral third party (who doesn’t work in theatre) and come to a resolution. The project is called Human Resources for the Arts.*
“I have personally experienced things where, when it was addressed privately, the situation has gotten better,” says Ireland. “It would be completely confidential, completely anonymous. If someone goes to an artistic director, and they say, ‘I don’t know how to talk to that director about their behavior,’ they could call for a mediation.” The resolution could be as simple as “‘I want an apology, and you won’t say that again backstage.’”
For all of these options listed above, the onus is on survivors to speak up. Because there’s so much fear associated with that act, including fear of retaliation or reprisal, many try to provide a safe environment for people to voice their concerns. “The unfortunate thing is, you always kind of have to fight for yourself,” admits Myers. “There’s not going to be someone who can step in and say, ‘Okay we’re going to out this theatre, that’s going to take care of it.’”
But what happens when the source of the abuse is an artistic director? Myers cites Chicago’s infamous Profiles Theatre, where leader Darrell Cox regularly abused and harassed the company’s actors. What does it mean for Equity to insist that producers need a harassment policy when the producers themselves are literally the harassers?
“I think that at the very least, there should be a way that is outside of the institution, a way to report offenders,” suggests playwright Winter Miller, a board member of the arts collective FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. “Whether that’s a city-wide office or the [Dramatists] Guild, I think there should be a committee that has people from various places, so if one of those people in the committee is being accused or is turning a blind eye, that there are other people to hold them accountable.”
Of course, harassment isn’t typically a solo affair; there are perpetrators and witnesses, and they should not be let off the hook.
What Individuals Can Do
When intimacy director Tonia Sina was an actor, she was assaulted during a performance. It was a play where, on closing night, the actor playing her husband “groped me and stuck his tongue in my mouth—all this sexual stuff that we never talked about,” she explains. Since then she has been determined to make sure that experience doesn’t happen to other actors. She is the cofounder of Intimacy Directors International, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching intimacy choreography (including kissing and sex scenes) in a safe and consensual way.
“Actors are not puppets—they’re using emotions to tell a story and you can damage them internally and mentally if you push them,” she explains. Sina recently worked with the Stratford Festival in Canada, and part of what she emphasizes in teaching choreography is consent, so that every act onstage is discussed and agreed upon before proceeding. Just as when acting out a script, “there should not be a surprise line,” when performing intimacy, “there should not be a surprise kiss,” says Sina. “You can’t add choreography, because that’s actually assault in front of an audience.” She sees her job as making sure “everybody feels safe, everybody feels okay.”
For many, the key to facilitating a safer, more open environment is to emphasize the importance of communication and dialogue, and de-emphasize real or perceived hierarchy. That is why telling cast and crew, on the first day of rehearsal what behaviors are acceptable and what are not (and the consequences for breaking these rules) is important to many. For Jenna Clark Embrey, literary manager of Signature Theatre in New York City, giving those with less power the permission to speak to those with power is paramount.
“I’ve worked for amazing, amazing people in my lifetime, and yet, I can think of maybe one time where someone has ever said, ‘If something ever made you uncomfortable, let me know,’” she says. “The actual act of saying, ‘You can approach me’ is so important, and it’s not implicit.”
By creating an environment where speaking out is encouraged, inappropriate behavior is more likely be called out, and not just by those who are the targets. When Evan Cabnet was a freelance director, he would make sure to call out inappropriate behavior in his rehearsal room. “Nine times out of 10, what I wind up doing is pull the aggressor aside on a break or something, and framing it as, ‘I don’t know if you noticed that the comment that you said ruffled feathers or upset people,’” he explains.
Cabnet doesn’t direct as much these days (he’s busy leading LCT3 at Lincoln Center), but he believes that directors have a large part to play in creating “an environment where you make it clear that those things will not be tolerated. If someone makes a dirty joke on the first day of table work, how will those things be addressed?”
This idea of accountability, of not putting the onus solely on the person being harassed to speak up, is another way artists can create safer work environments for each other. Cabnet admits that one conversation may not deter “people who are actual predators,” but it may deter “people who may feel like they’ve been given license to behave a certain way and making it clear that that behavior is unacceptable.”
Another strategy mentioned by several sources was related to diversity: making sure more women are hired to lead theatres, direct shows, and that more female works are being produced. “The more we have parity, the less likely these things are to happen,” says Rachel Dart, the founder of the advocacy group Let Us Work. “If you’re a theatre that primarily produces theatre by white men, that sends a message too, of who is valuable and who’s not. Or if all the directors in your season are men. It sends a message of who is valuable and who is not, and whose voice is of interest and who is not.”
That isn’t to say that women can’t abuse power. But based on the more than 100 people who reported their harassment stories to American Theatre, perpetrators in the theatre field are overwhelmingly men. For many, teaching men about boundaries while the elevating voices of women is a fair, two-pronged solution. Amelia Ampuero runs the mid-sized Duke City Repertory Company in Albuquerque, N.M., which recently hired an outside human resources to codify their harassment policy (price tag: just $1,100). In her company of actors, women outnumber men, and “we reserve the right to terminate people’s contracts if they make people feel unsafe, that’s something we’re very open about,” she says.
For Ampuero, a top priority is to make her artists feel safe, and in the wider world, that should be a responsibility shared by both men and women. “I think socially, culturally, globally, we are absolutely failing the women in society, and we are also failing the men, because we’re not giving them the tools to be the best humans they can be,” she says. “Bad behavior is not only not punished, it’s reinforced and rewarded. It can’t just be about women keeping themselves safe anymore. We have to do a better job at teaching men about consent, and entitlement, and all of those things. I think we have to.”
*This information was added after press time.