As I read the most recent issue of American Theatre, I was reminded that too often important stories are difficult. The pages are filled with searing stories from theatre professionals who have had to put up with unacceptable harassment in the workplace.
Let me be clear: No one should go to work fearing that they will be bullied or sexually harassed. Nobody should be touched without consent, presented with a quid pro quo, or pressured not to report bad behavior. Everyone should be respected in the workplace.
Making that simple idea a reality is a lot harder than it should be, especially in an industry where performing your job often requires major emotional and physical vulnerability. Nearly a year into the #MeToo movement, there remains some misinformation among the tens of thousands of people who go to work every day in the theatre— including about the roles of their employers and labor unions.
In particular, the article titled “Let’s Put It in Writing” highlighted a few issues we have had questions about from members over the last year, so I want to take a moment to address them. For example, the piece claims that Equity has no language in its contracts dealing with harassment. Not true. To cite just one example, the Production Contract used on Broadway has specific language making it clear that harassment will not be tolerated.
But what was especially concerning was the claim that when it comes to harassment and bullying, “Equity doesn’t have much leverage to intervene on their member’s behalf.”
Nothing is more important than the safety of our members. We can and do use every resource at our disposal to keep our members safe. In addition to the language in any specific contract, employers are obligated by law to maintain a workplace free from harassment and bullying. Equity takes that obligation seriously.
We have a variety of tools to hold an employer responsible if they fail to meet their obligation to provide a safe workplace. This can include simple actions, like making additional staff visits during rehearsals. It can include filing a grievance. But we can—and have—gone as far as to intervene with a theatre’s board of directors to make sure that our employers take corrective action, which has led to discipline for those engaging in abusive behavior.
The piece goes on to say Equity should set an expectation that, “If you want to work with Equity stage managers and actors, you must respect these guidelines (on sexual harassment).” I couldn’t agree more. That’s why last year Equity sent a series of emails to all of our employers reminding them of their legal obligation to maintain a harassment-free workplace. We demanded that each of them send us their policy on sexual harassment. We also reminded them that their policy should include provisions to prevent retaliation, that it should be provided on the first day of employment and that it should be accessible throughout an employee’s time on the job. We now have hundreds of policies on file and available for members to review.
We didn’t stop there. We also updated the language we use in our first rehearsal meetings, so that our members know about their rights from the very beginning of their time on a job.
Here’s the takeaway for any Equity members who might be reading this: If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, or if you are the target of harassment, call your business rep for a private and confidential conversation. Our business reps can help you navigate your options, and will only take action if you authorize them to do so. Calling us to ask for help doesn’t just benefit you; it also helps your fellow members. Because if you’ve been harassed by someone, odds are that you’re not alone.
Of course, we’re always looking for ways to strengthen our work when it comes to preventing harassment. That’s why in 2016, Equity partnered with the Actors Fund to develop a first-of-its-kind training program for our business reps. That curriculum has since served as a springboard and a template for other unions so that they can also to build out more training.
In the year since #MeToo, we’ve redoubled our efforts, which included holding a national meeting this year with members in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles who wanted more information on how we can work to eliminate harassment in the theatre. We held additional meetings from coast to coast, including one in May specifically for stage managers (who are often pressured to manage harassment situations, when in fact this is the employer’s responsibility). And we created more resources for members in Equity News and our member portal.
One recurring theme lurking in the background of many of the stories in last month’s issue was the theme of power imbalance. Too many actors and stage managers feel powerless to speak out. Changing that culture won’t be easy. But we’ve started the conversation by calling on employers who are concerned about harassment to help us change the culture and put more qualified women and diverse candidates into leadership positions.
Theatre, for better and for worse, exists within our society, not apart from it. For that reason, I don’t know that our work to prevent harassment will ever be finished. That’s why we also created the President’s Committee to Prevent Harassment, which has already begun discussing additional forward-looking strategies to eradicate harassment and bullying in the theatre.
All of the work we have done so far, and what we do next, will depend on our members providing us the information we need to help them. We know that even in the #MeToo era, it still takes special courage to report a problem in the workplace. I hope that Equity members who feel bullied or harassed, or who know someone who is, will call their business reps.
If you do that, and if you allow us to act, we will all be better for it.
Kate Shindle is the president of Actors‘ Equity Association.