March is women’s history month, and it feels like women’s history has truly been made over the past six months.
As the #MeToo movement gathered steam last fall, exposing misconduct in many fields, it was devastating but hardly surprising that the theatre field would have its own stories of sexual misconduct and violence. We were floored, however, by the quantity and severity of the accounts that came our way. In response to a Facebook posting by American Theatre senior editor Diep Tran, we received an avalanche of harrowing stories of misconduct, harassment, and violence in our theatre community. These stories came from employees of theatres large and small. Perpetrators included artistic directors, actors, and other freelance artists. Tran summarized these stories in a powerful online piece, “Unmuffling a Culture of Silence,” and followed it with an article on how individuals and institutions are addressing the issue, “What Happens After #MeToo?”
Meanwhile, in the first few weeks of 2018, two long-tenured artistic directors were fired or retired in the midst of harassment allegations. As the news rolled out, it became clear that their misconduct had been allowed to continue, either unchecked or undetected for many years. Within days of Gregory Boyd’s hasty retirement from the Alley Theatre in Houston, the Houston Chronicle came out with a stunning report uncovering a history of sexual misconduct and abusive behavior. While the theatre initially declined to comment on the allegations, Alley managing director Dean Gladden ultimately issued an apology for a lack of transparency and vowed to undertake an internal evaluation. That evaluation is being led by an extraordinary human resources expert and leadership trainer, Robbin Walker.
Meanwhile, at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, the board took an immediate and proactive stance, first placing on leave, then firing artistic director Gordon Edelstein the day after reports emerged in The New York Times alleging a pattern of harassment. They are taking steps to secure a safe and respectful workplace culture for all.
The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, with two staff members resigning over an alleged sexist environment in the scene shop, vowed publicly to address the issue head on, with an investigation and actions to bring about meaningful culture change. And last December, Dallas Theater Center terminated a key member of the staff after extensive reports of impropriety.
There are important lessons in how theatres both prevent and address harassment, and we look forward to exploring and sharing them with the field. But a key takeaway is this: The culture of silence can be profound and entrenched. And what’s required when there are reports of workplace misconduct, sexual and otherwise, is immediate action and transparency on the part of boards and leadership.
Employers should have written policies on sexual harassment and hostile work environments, with clear procedures about how employees can safely report violations. Employers may be liable, whether the offender is a senior-level staff member, a peer-level employee, a contractor, a board member, a donor, or the UPS delivery person. And yet in many cases, those who experience sexual misconduct simply don’t feel safe reporting it, no matter how much a theatre has channels for doing so. Why? For one, fear of retribution—of losing a job or of having a complaint follow them into casting calls for years to come. There’s also the fear of being further humiliated through an investigation process that may end in inaction, or the instances in which an individual musters the courage to make a report—and is met with a dismissive or crude response. Not everyone has a human resources department, and even if they do, HR departments are often not the first place people go to report infractions. As the Times has reported, HR professionals may be presented with a conflict of interest: While serving as a purportedly “safe” place for employees’ grievances, they are also often charged with minimizing exposure for the company. These two responsibilities don’t necessarily live well side by side.
In November, London’s Old Vic announced a new set of steps in response to harassment allegations leveled at former artistic director Kevin Spacey. Among other things, the Way Forward, as the new initiative is called, places responsibility on the board and management and defines behaviors that are “OK” and “NOT OK.” Most importantly, instead of maintaining a single reporting place, they’ve launched an Old Vic Guardians program to train multiple individuals within the organization to receive and handle reports of misconduct. There is also a clear and in-depth “dignity at work” policy. The Vic’s current A.D., Matthew Warchus, admits that the allegations have been “a shock and a disturbing surprise to many of us. It is incorrect, unfair, and irresponsible to say that everybody knew. But as a result of the investigation, what we have learnt is how better to call out this behavior in the future.”
A November New York Times piece by Valeriya Safronova lists avenues for reporting unwanted behavior in the workplace, including reporting to HR, filing claims with state and local agencies, and finding a news reporter to tell your story. As we’ve seen over the past few months, it is the failure of the legally mandated systems that has made the press a necessary avenue of redress for so many.
At Theatre Communications Group, our responsibility is to all of the organizational entities and individuals who make our national ecology so vibrant. We know that the turmoil caused by instances of sexual harassment and intimidation has collateral damage, affecting everyone within organizations and communities. We are committed to ramping up partnerships, resources, and training to help our theatres create the most transparently safe and equitable environments possible. To that end we’ve begun by creating a comprehensive list of resources for organizations and for those who have suffered abuse and feel that they have no recourse. For instance, we recommend the work of the Actors Fund, which offers both training and counseling for everyone in the performing arts. Support for the wider field may also include our own news accounts of theatres that are—and theatres that are not—taking action to ensure the safety and dignity of their employees.
We look forward to collaborating with all theatre leaders, trustees, staffs, and artists to help build a safer, happier, and more dignified theatre field for all who choose to work and serve within it.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!