In a recent blog post, playwright and author Monica Byrne detailed an experience of sexual harassment, which she reported to American Theatre last fall as part of a story the magazine was writing about the problem of abuse in the theatre. The details of her account were never published, and Byrne expressed understandable disappointment with the decision by the magazine and Theatre Communications Group not to publish it. Her post is compelling and authentic, and it demands from us some background, a response to her criticism, and an apology.
First, the apology. As is described in detail below, Byrne is one of several people who trusted us with the details of harassment they have experienced in the theatre. On reflection, however, we concluded we were not properly constituted to tell those stories in detail. We should not have raised our sources’ expectations that we could publish such a story; for that, we apologize to Byrne and others who were let down by their experience with us.
As to the background, American Theatre magazine was founded to cover, celebrate, reflect, and record the work of theatres and theatremakers in the U.S. and the world. Its founding organization, Theatre Communications Group, is supported by membership comprising theatres of all sizes and types, as well as individual artists. Like all journalists, the editors and writers at American Theatre are guided by a pursuit of the truth, but the magazine has never been, and has never represented itself as, an investigative news organization. It is, instead, one facet of a larger organization with direct communication, financial, grant-making, and consulting ties throughout the field to our entire range of institutions and individuals—links that make the magazine’s coverage uniquely rich and informed but also place constraints on its independence.
That is why, when examining systemic challenges and injustices in our field, our editorial approach leverages our unique role in the field but has historically stopped short of investigative reportage. To call out the field’s persistent playwriting gender disparity, for example, each year we tally our member theatres’ seasons with the gender of the playwright in mind, and urge the field as a whole (rather than any specific theatres) to do better than the prevailing 3-to-1 male-to-female ratio. Indeed we published an entire special issue of the magazine on this theme, lifting up theatre leaders who are leading the way with all- or majority-women seasons. In other cases, we have reported fairly and frankly on controversies at specific theatres whose work has been publicly challenged by activists, artists, or critics.
It is against that backdrop that last November, American Theatre’s senior editor Diep Tran posted a call for stories about sexual harassment in the theatre field. Tran has a well-deserved reputation for incisive writing on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Word spread quickly of her post, and she received more than a hundred responses, most from survivors who wished to remain anonymous, and a few who, like Byrne, spoke for attribution and on the record. As Tran continued her reporting, the organization—the magazine’s editorial staff and TCG leadership—began to determine both our editorial posture and the way the larger organization could provide resources for the field to combat harassment in their theatres and in artists’ work lives.
From TCG’s perspective, we believed our role was to develop external programming that could address the systemic issues from which abuse and the culture of silence emerge. We felt this was central to our work; and, indeed, many theatres and individuals have reached out to us for such resources. That work has included coalition-building, a comprehensive list of resources, a three-part webinar series, and planning for programming at our National Conference.
For the magazine, the way forward was less clear. There was—and is—a strong sense that the magazine should support the people who brought their stories to us by detailing the abusive environments and serial predators they’d named. Anything less, it is argued, contributes to the culture of silence.
At the same time, however, we also found ourselves grappling with the question of whether American Theatre as it is currently constituted could responsibly publish such accounts. We—the magazine’s editorial staff, TCG’s leadership, and Board—discussed what would be necessary to support this type of journalism, whether that journalism was consistent with the fundamental assumptions around the purpose of American Theatre, and whether those assumptions should change.
We looked at the additional capacity needed for this kind of journalism, and tried to assess our ability to properly support it. While American Theatre does its best to cover the entire field, the reality is that the coverage is the product of a very small editorial staff.
We also examined our unique position within the theatre field. As a service organization, TCG is a trusted source of guidance and insight when theatre leaders, individual practitioners, trustees and others are facing critical challenges. Would this important role be compromised if American Theatre were operating more frequently in an investigative mode? Would there be a loss of trust that would make us less effective at supporting the organizational changes our theatres require?
This is why we ultimately stopped short of the kind of investigative due diligence that would be required, legally and journalistically, to substantiate and publish the specific claims we gathered. We are nonetheless proud that in December we published Diep Tran’s excellent “Unmuffling a Culture of Silence,” the first and to date only fieldwide report on the full scope of this problem. We also published Tran’s similarly excellent follow-up story about efforts at theatres to redress and reverse these abuses and the culture that has enabled them.
Even so, as much as we debated the right way to move forward, our approach can rightly be viewed as part of the problem rather than the solution. By deciding not to “name names,” we reinforced a culture of silence that we believe—personally and professionally—must be fought against. By soliciting and then not telling the stories of Byrne and others, we added to their trauma. The consequences of our decision were made clear by many of those who have reached out to tell us: TCG can do better. TCG must do better.
We agree. Our board and staff are committed to examining the operating model and policies around American Theatre’s reporting in order to take on the difficult stories in the field more transparently. As we address the challenges around this, we will also seek input from the field we serve.
And that brings us back to where we began: restating our apology to those who shared their experiences with us. Our organizational wrestling with our responsibilities and abilities is in no way a reflection on the validity or importance of your stories. To the contrary, your stories highlight a system that relies on complicity to operate, and we believe your experiences speak for many. Through what we’ve learned—particularly about ourselves—we commit here to finding a better way to hold the field to account for its faults and to highlight its best practices.