How We Stop Abuse in Theatre

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The initial response to the devastating exposé of the abuse at celebrated Chicago theatre Profiles Theatre was swift and decisive: we were all appalled. Nearly everyone in the industry decried the abuse in no uncertain terms. We were appalled that a theatre would continue to allow such actions, even from a founding member and a widely respected (and lauded) artist like Darrell Cox. “How could this happen?” we asked ourselves. “Not in our house,” we repeated, echoing the Chicago group bravely attempting to stem abuse in Chicago theatre.

And then, because we were not the ones accused, we went about our business, which includes hiring abusers and making excuses for them.

When I posted the story on social media in June, I wrote that I would stand by anyone in the Bay Area who needed someone to stand with them. A number of people contacted me privately to share their stories. Not one was willing to come forward publicly for fear of retaliation and public scorn. A few refused to name their abusers, instead providing me with leading clues like, “won X award X year” or “directed a lot of [playwright] during [years].” One mentioned that she initially wanted to file a report to AEA, but was cautioned against it by other women– fear the consequences, she was told. For good reason– our culture is unkind, to say the least, to women who publicly speak out about their abuse, especially at the hands of powerful men. Our first impulse is to call her a liar, out for personal gain. As if anything could be gained that way but scorn, trauma, pain.

I thought long and hard about what to do with these stories. I won’t make public accusations because these aren’t my stories to tell, and I will not violate the consent of these people who bravely shared their stories with me. But I will take this knowledge and create a primer for fellow Artistic Directors and others in positions of power– including board members– at theatres to give them a clear picture of where we have failed our people over the years and how we can do better in the future. I will not name names. But I can point to where we went wrong.

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1. Make sure that everyone working in your theatre understands that you have a zero tolerance policy for abuse. I never did this, trusting to our “culture of respect,” and I count it as one of my worst failures as an Artistic Director. Openly state your zero tolerance policy while clearly defining “abuse” and clearly stating consequences. Not in Our House (linked above) is developing a Code of Conduct for non-AEA theatres that they are allowing others to access online, but not to adopt unless they are a designated pilot theatre. They hope to release adoption in 2017. Until that time, it’s a great document to use as a model to create your own basic set of rules. While we cannot yet adopt their code, I feel strongly that we in the indie theatre community cannot continue to run with *zero* code of conduct. If you’re an AEA theatre, do not assume that everyone on your team knows and understands AEA rules of conduct. Make sure everyone knows what you expect, and what you will not tolerate. THEN ENFORCE IT.

2. When people come to you with stories of abuse, complaints that someone is making them uncomfortable, complaints that someone is not respecting their boundaries, LISTEN TO THEM and BELIEVE THEM. Quietly take other members of the team aside and talk to them to get a clearer picture about what’s happening if necessary, but believe me, very few take the risk to come forward without good reason. Then enforce your zero tolerance policy with its clearly stated consequences. Do not protect abusers, minimize abuse, or sweep it under the rug.

3. Pay close attention to the behavior of the people you have on staff. People will not always be brave enough to come forward about bad behavior. Sometimes people gaslight victims by claiming that the abuse is “just the way he is,” “not a big deal,” or “just because he’s a genius and passionate about his work.” Victims begin to second-guess themselves and worry about the consequences of coming forward when others are minimizing or excusing bad behavior. There could easily be problems, even abuse, in your house without anyone coming forward to tell you about them directly. We must be proactive. Think: Has any director in your theatre ever berated an actress in rehearsal until she cried? Has any director in your theatre insisted they could block a fight themselves, despite their lack of training and/or certification, putting your actors at risk? Has anyone in your company publicly derided the work of others on the project as “stupid,” “worthless,” or “idiotic”? Has a choreographer ever told an actor in rehearsal they were “talentless” or “useless”? Has anyone on your team made a racist, antisemitic, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or otherwise bigoted joke? Has a production photographer joked publicly that he was only planning to take pictures of the scantily-clad young actresses in your show? Does someone in a position of power at your company proposition young actors, start affairs with them while they’re under contract, single them out and flirt with them during rehearsal? Has someone in your company threatened to dock someone’s pay for refusing to do something that’s outside the scope of their contract? Has anyone in your company violated any contract (for example, used someone else’s writing or fight choreography without permission) and insisted that others maintain secrecy? Pay attention and nip that behavior in the bud.

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4. Stop hiring “geniuses.” As I say above, “he’s a genius and just passionate about his work” has long been used to excuse abusive behavior. We’ve created a mythology around the “auteur” whose passion is so great that he “can’t help” flying into rages, berating people who “aren’t on his level” or who don’t give him exactly what he wants (as it changes from day to day or he fails to be clear about it). Sometimes his affairs with young actors in the show are part of his “passionate” persona. He just can’t help himself! He makes unreasonable demands and insists others work around the clock to satisfy them. When his work is racist or sexist, lavish excuses are made for it. It’s “brave,” “daring,” or “honest.” Asshole “auteurs” are not cute. They are assholes. And more often than not in this collaborative art form, the work suffers for it. No one is doing their best work when their goal is to keep someone from screaming at them. Make “respectful” a more important quality in an artist than “mad genius.” And while I’m using the male pronoun here because the “auteur” mythology is largely white and male, these people come in all types. Stop hiring “geniuses.”

5. Stop perpetuating the mythology that anything should be tolerated because “the show must go on.” This is, in part, a corollary to #4 because it’s trotted out as an excuse for the behavior of the asshole “auteur.” “We just need to get the show up” is a fact, but you don’t “just need to get the show up” at the expense of the health and safety of the people working on it. Your “auteur” does not actually need to behave like a jackass, and only does so because it’s tolerated. You don’t actually need to hold people after the stated end of rehearsal. You don’t actually need to brush off the very real concerns of your actors about working without a fight director. You don’t actually need to brush off the concerns of your actresses about an actor creeping on them backstage. There is always a choice.

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I understand these conversations are difficult to have. I understand your “genius” has been a member of your company, or its AD, for years, and contributed wonderful things to it. Perhaps your “genius” is even a founding member, like Darrell Cox, or a personal friend. I understand that your “genius” makes your theatre money and wins it awards, again, like Darrell Cox. I understand that you believe the ends justify the means, because the livelihoods of others are dependent upon the success of your theatre, and that’s a real, palpable burden. I understand that your “genius” likely believes his behavior is totally justified, and will be resentful and angry if called out. I understand– believe me I understand– that even people who aren’t protected by a “genius” status are protected by the fact that you believe you will be screwed without the work they’re doing for your company.

But you do not need to tolerate this behavior. It may be as simple as laying down the law with someone and being clear about what you will not tolerate. It may be that this person refuses to address their behavior, and they need to be let go before they demolish your mission, your reputation, and your company.

You do not need to keep hiring these people. For every “genius” you hire repeatedly despite known bad behavior or even known abuse there are five overlooked artists who are wonderful to work with.There’s no reason to tolerate this behavior.

I have made errors in my career because I believed I “had no choice,” but I did. There is always a choice. And I will carry the shame of those decisions until my dying day. I remember the names of every person I failed to protect, either because I believed wrongly that I had no choice, or because I was ignorant of what was happening in my own house (which is just as much my fault, because if someone wasn’t coming to me, or if I failed to see something, that’s on me). It’s a weight I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

As long as we continue to protect, excuse, and ignore bad behavior, it will continue to happen. As long as we continue to reward bad behavior and even abuse with future employment, prestigious awards, and coveted positions, we’re plainly stating to our community that our people are worthless to us; that people (especially white men) in powerful positions are untouchable; that speaking out will be ignored or punished; that there’s nothing that can stop the abuse.

But there is. WE CAN STOP IT by refusing to continue tolerating this behavior. By refusing to continue protecting and rewarding abusers. By refusing to continue pretending that the bad behavior of “geniuses” isn’t abuse but “passion.”

WE CAN STOP IT. It’s our choice.

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10 thoughts on “How We Stop Abuse in Theatre

  1. I wrote a recent piece about this myself: https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/in-for-a-penny-playground-rules/

    I also recently had drinks with a talented actress who was recently in a show with male co-star who didn’t get the hint that she wasn’t interested. Fortunately, nothing happened and she was happy to 1 – have no scenes with him and 2 – have the rest of the cast on her side. She told me that gossiping about “who’s doing whom” in Bay Area theatre is such that it’s almost expected that an actress slept her way into a great role.

    I can’t recall the last time someone has EVER suggested or implied that about a male actor.

  2. Robin Edwards says:

    I would love to tell you my story since right now I am in the middle of a situation where terms like this have been thrown around.

  3. Megan Merrill says:

    Thank you. I would also suggest that, along with the initial conversation about the zero-tolerance policy, everyone be given a process or path to make a complaint about inappropriate behavior. Particularly with non-Equity theatres, the abuser is often the person in charge, and without a union, where do you go with your complaint?

    Having been on the receiving end of abuse, I commend your readiness to take responsibility for bad behavior that you weren’t aware of — I feel it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep each other safe. I’m working with Not In Our House to develop a kind of witness guide for actors and crew to help possible victims of problem behavior be safe.

  4. Larry says:

    This is all very good, but I would also include abuse against playwrights. This can include little things like unauthorized changes by producers, directors, and actors to a playwright’s title, dialogue, and stage directions to larger issues like demeaning the playwright in public during rehearsal, asking for endless unnecessary rewrites, or using a blog to attack works the director has already accepted for performance. It’s one thing for a director to find genuine weak points in a play that could be strengthened; a famous example was how Jerome Robbins (notoriously abusive to cast members himself) saw how the opening of “A Funny Thing” was falling flat during out-of-town tryouts, and how Stephen Sondheim came up with the number “Comedy Tonight” which saved the show. It’s another thing for a director to take an “I know better” attitude which rides roughshod over a playwright’s language and vision, especially when the playwright is at the director’s mercy.

    Donna Hoke has covered these points and more in this excellent blog post:

    http://blog.donnahoke.com/lack-of-playwright-appreciation-arrogance-or-ignorance/

    • Megan Merrill says:

      Respectfully, Larry, I think we’re talking about apples and oranges. You and Donna Hoke are correct that playwrights and their artistic work — and their contracts — need to be fully respected.

      But in Chicago, we are talking about actual, physical abuse. Sexual coercion and harassment. Deep, long-lasting emotional abuse. We’re talking about how powerful people use their positions of power — director, artistic director, actor, etc — and the necessary emotional openness of theatre to use other people as playthings.

      They can do this with impunity because their victims are afraid of ruining their careers, of getting a reputation as “difficult.” In Chicago, at least, there are so many more women than men in non-Equity theatre that we are sometimes treated as disposable. For every actress unwilling to put up with abusive behavior, there are ten behind her waiting for their chance, we are told.

      The artistic director of my theatre company coerced me into a sexual relationship, isolated me from my friends, family, and even other company members, and emotionally bulldozed me so badly I developed panic disorder. I was just one of *six* that I know of who suffered similarly at the same company. And no, it wasn’t Profiles. This kind of behavior is far more common than most want to admit.

      That’s why it’s so important that artistic directors — and other actors, and crew, everyone involved — take responsibility for keeping the work environment safe. When a director screams at an actress that she’s a worthless cunt, you don’t make yourself small in the corner and feel grateful it’s not you. You say something. When someone comes to you and says they’re being groped off stage to “get into character” or the fight choreography isn’t being followed, you don’t rationalize or make excuses; you listen, and you do something about it. We ALL need to hold ourselves accountable for maintaining a physically and emotionally safe environment.

      • Larry says:

        Megan –

        Thank you. Your rebuke is entirely justified, and I would never want to suggest that making changes to a writer’s text is in any way comparable in severity to sexual abuse of a performer under a director’s power. Situations of this type are in fact not unique to theater or to female victims. A young male actor I know was told he and his female counterpart had to appear nude in the first professional play for which he was hired (they were playing Adam and Eve). A pianist I went to school with was signed for a New York debut, but only on condition he slept with the impresario. I read of a young male model who was instructed to strip naked and masturbate in front of the photographer, in order to “relax” for the shoot. Two of these three complied (the pianist screamed “Hell no!” and got his debut anyway). But the problem is everywhere.

        Gertrude did however speak of psychological humiliation as a component of abuse, and I do believe the situations I mentioned fall under that heading, in a statement like: “Has anyone in your company publicly derided the work of others on the project as ‘stupid,’ ‘worthless,’ or ‘idiotic’?” A playwright may spend weeks, months, even years on a play, and to be told especially in public by a “genius” that his or her efforts are all worthless or in need of the genius’s correction can be devastating. I don’t wish however to minimize the emotional devastation of physically or sexually abusing a vulnerable young person by a director in power. The situation at Profiles was despicable.

    • Lori Myers says:

      Hello. I am Lori Myers and I founded the movement Not In Our House Chicago Theatre Community. I work with Laura T. Fisher on the Chicago Code of Conduct. What Larry speaks to is a systemic issue that falls into intimidation and bullying. Although the CAT rulebook for Central Actors Equity (weakly) covers intimidation under discrimination, I feel that this issue is not completely defined within the contents. What Larry is speaking to is something that we need to keep embracing when constructing the Chicago Code of Conduct. The Code is now a 25 page document that covers a variety of front-loading architecture from dressing rooms to auditions to disclosure. Our hope is to ensure that we try to be as inclusive as possible to Playwrights, Stage Managers, Designers, Crew and all folks that step into the theatre. When any theatre artist is humiliated and intimidated and bullied we need to listen and be in the room for one another. While what the survivors experienced in Chicago at Profiles theatre or within the Bay community is not a direct comparison, what Larry is speaking of is still something we need to keep striving to resolve.

  5. This is wonderful. Thank you. You are absolutely right about this, we all have to be proactive. And it is so difficult as an AD to make these kids of decisions and take these kinds of actions, but this, “You do not need to keep hiring these people. For every “genius” you hire repeatedly despite known bad behavior or even known abuse there are five overlooked artists who are wonderful to work with.There’s no reason to tolerate this behavior.” is so TURE!

  6. Somer Benson says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Your words mean a great deal to me. Would appreciate your support on our next step to facilitate real change in Chicago Theatre. Sincerely, Somer Benson
    https://www.change.org/p/actors-equity-association-encourage-actors-equity-to-take-responsibility-and-apologize-for-their-inaction

    • Done. Thanks so much for posting this, and for having the bravery to share your story. It’s already helped so many others in beginning a national conversation we very badly need to have.

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