This story is part of an issue about abuse, harassment, and sexism in the theatre. You can read other #TheatreToo stories here.
We were onstage during tech, waiting for a lighting cue, when my director grabbed my breasts. He squeezed them a few times and then proceeded to move them around in circles. After what felt like an eternity, he declared to all assembled, “These are fun!”
In that moment, I both wanted to die and apologize to everyone in the room. Shame is weird like that. Some context: This was my first acting job out of school. The man groping me was not only my director but the well-respected artistic director of the theatre where I was working. He is a gay man. I am a straight woman. There was no apparent lust involved, only power. He singled me out early, and for most of the rehearsal process I had been his whipping boy, so to speak.
By the time we got to tech, trying to act while also managing his unmerited low expectations of me had become utterly exhausting. We were in such a bad place that he hadn’t spoken to me, outside of giving me copious notes, for a few days. So you can imagine my shock when suddenly his hands were on my boobs. My first thought was, “Get. The. Fuck. Off.” The second was: “This only feels like a big deal.” When I looked up, the room was in shock. Clearly this actually was a big deal. After a moment my brain came back online, and instead of confronting him for fear I would be labeled as difficult (and difficult actresses don’t work), I did what felt safe: I pretended it was funny. “It’s fine. He’s gay!” I joked. Relieved, everyone chuckled and went back to work. I went into my dressing room and cried. A veteran actress sweetly gave me a hug and said, “You just need thicker skin.” That night I pushed the trauma down and got into costume for the preview. After all, the show must go on.
I cultivated a thicker skin. Which helps when you are being harassed—but it doesn’t stop the harassment or the shame of taking it. For the rest of the run I lost sleep, my stomach hurt, I was scared to come to the theatre, and my work was suffering. A “thicker skin” is only… well, skin deep.
At the time, my biggest question was, to quote Shakespeare himself, “To whom should I complain?” My first thought was my union. Nope: When the above encounter occurred, that would have been the wrong choice. Instead, according to Actors Equity Association, I was supposed to report it to the theatre, as they were my employer. That’s clearly a Catch-22 when the harasser also runs the theatre. In just the past year the union has made some solid steps forward in regards to this protocol, but the employer/theatre is still ultimately where the buck stops. It falls on them, not the union, to “enforce” their policies and, presumably, punish infractions.
It would seem obvious that it is the very job of our union to help maintain the working environment necessary for us to do our jobs. But lacking the language in our contracts, Equity doesn’t have much leverage to intervene on their member’s behalf. Luckily, I have some ideas that could give Equity the leverage they need, with the ideal outcome being prevention, and, in cases where harassment is committed, clear consequences and genuine penalties. As unions across America are losing power and feeling besieged, I hope these ideas will be taken as intended: as a way to strengthen our community and keep our members safe. I give thanks to the AEA members who have been fighting this fight for a while now (including Not In Our House, Fair Wage Onstage, Marin Ireland, and #TimesUp):
1. Problem: Workplace boob grabbing (and the like).
Solution: Create a sexual harassment policy. Period.
As of now, there is no such specific policy included in Equity contracts or in the Equity rulebook. There is the acknowledgement that discrimination is illegal, and harassment technically falls under discrimination. But there is no specific language in regards to harassment. This is something members have been asking for years. So why don’t we do it? A lawyer might say that putting the language in a contract would be redundant. Okay. Let’s get redundant. Let’s get so redundant that it can’t be ignored.
If we start with an abundantly clear contract, maybe we have a chance of affecting the culture at the heart of this problem.Sure, a lot of theatres have their own policies or codes of conduct, but they aren’t uniform. And again, it is up to the theatres to enforce (there’s that catch-22 again). What if Equity picked up the phone and called the other theatre unions and invited them to create it with us? Ambitious? Yes. But I’m betting it would result in something incredibly strong. If we lobby theatres to adopt it, this document should be read on Day One of rehearsals. And it should be read in front of everyone participating in the production, from artistic director to understudy. It needs to be clear: If you want to work with Equity stage managers and actors, you must respect these guidelines.
2. Problem: Repeat offenders.
Solution: An AEA Human Resources Department.
I will now refer to a scientific study on sexual assault. This may feel extreme, but there aren’t many scientific studies on repetitive sexual harassment in the workplace, and Bill Cosby, for one, is an actor and a rapist. So this is not entirely out of left field. A study by David Lisa and Paul M. Miller titled Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists found that only a few people in the study (4 percent) were responsible for a majority (28 percent) of the rapes. A repeat offender was likely to rape on average 6 times. Similarly, many well-known serial harassers have multiple allegations from different sources, but these have only emerged in the press in certain high-profile cases.Now, AEA members are contract workers, employed by various theatres, in various states, for short periods of time over a long career. If I were to report an experience of harassment at one theatre, only that theatre will know about it. After a few weeks, I would move on. And if the abuser is head of the theatre (as in the case of Gordon Edelstein), why would a theatre prioritize the contract-worker victim over their salaried boss? Claims are getting lost because no one is keeping track. To echo the calls of Chicago’s Not In Our House anti-sexual harassment group: To protect our members we need to create an Equity HR Department. This would consist of at least one specific, centralized person to report harassment to, with the option to report it anonymously if the victim chooses (alleviating the fear of reprisal that keeps many from reporting). If members can report to a person whose job it is to keep track of all reports, it means that none will go missing and repeat offenders will be easily recognized.
3. Problem: It keeps happening.
According to a 2004 study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “Men are more likely to commit sexual violence in communities where sexual violence goes unpunished.” We need to impose consequences. Once an HR rep flags an offender, the first step should be to educate. So if someone is found guilty of harassment, they would have to pay for a training session overseen by the aforementioned HR department of the Actors Equity Association. I think the director who grabbed my boobs could have really benefited from education on this subject. I would not say the same thing about an offender who is violent or who sexually coerces Equity members. The consequence for that should be a lifetime ban on working with Equity stage managers or actors.
And if an offender keeps harassing, even after education, racking up, say, more than 3 reports in the course of 3 years (with reports ideally coming from two different sources, with one individual being able to report more than one incident), then I propose a two-year ban from working with Equity actors. This could perhaps take the form of a “do not work” list at Equity, much as the union does when a tour company hasn’t filed proper paperwork. This is also something we could confer with other unions about and find equitable solutions for us all.
Look. We all know the myth of the “struggling artist”—the notion that our art is somehow made more potent by our pain, by our shame, by the trials we go through. It is the quiet, hard belief of some of our senior artists that “I had to struggle through it, so you should too”—and that harassment, humiliation, and bullying are rites of passage.
But it’s a myth, and we have outgrown it. Unnecessary pain and shame and humiliation are things you weather and survive, not profit from. Great art is not made because of this pain but in spite of it. Imagine what phenomenal art could grow in a rehearsal room where all members of a company aren’t afraid to take chances, aren’t afraid to do their jobs to the fullest, aren’t afraid to create?
I want that art. I want that future. I want that work. Equity: Let’s get to work.
Alexandra Henrikson is an actress, writer, and proud member of AEA who lives in Brooklyn.