TBA Online: News & Features: November 2012

It Can’t Happen Here: Sexual Harassment in the Theatre

Monday, December 10, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Laura Brueckner
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By Larissa Archer

"We have a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, and we have never had any complaints." This is what I heard from the representatives of every Bay Area theatre company I asked (the ones who responded to my query, that is) regarding their histories and policies on sexual harassment. While this consensus paints a rosy picture of our theatre community and its progressive attitudes, I know, and many people who read this will know, that this is not entirely accurate. While we may be past the era of unscrupulous producers installing two-way mirrors in women's dressing rooms (as was rumored to have been discovered during the Orpheum's renovation years ago), theatre people are not too different from everybody else, and sexual harassment and assault are still all too prevalent.

Photo: "Silence" by Alberto Ortiz on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

We conducted an informal, anonymous survey through the Theatre Bay Area Facebook page and e-newsletter. While the sample size was small and necessarily self-selecting, the number of people who had experienced harassment was striking.

One San Francisco–based actor who responded to our survey remarked, "Theatre is clearly a different world than many workplaces regarding human resources in general. As such, I have found a lack of training regarding sexual harassment rights, filling of complaints and proper reporting of such incidents, to be the norm." Another local actor expressed the sort of sentiment that perhaps keeps us from advancing on this issue, if not actively perpetuates it: "it's the American Theater and not a regular workplace so ordinary rules don't apply. Plus your [sic] only together for weeks rather than years. This school teacher mentality is inappropriate in this art form and should be abandoned." The idea that the theatre (or any place) is and should be regarded as something other than a workplace, that it's an environment where behavioral mores and laws don't apply, seems to be the root of the problem (as is the astonishing assertion that, because of theatre's transient convergences of personalities, one should be willing to put up with treatment in the theatre that is frowned upon elsewhere or even illegal). It's a dangerous attitude: "The rules don't apply to us, so we don't need to acknowledge them. Stop complaining."

While it takes a long time, generations even, to change cultural psychology, the steps we as a society take to redress our attitudes toward each other, and therefore the way we act, include implementing laws to dissuade—and promise severe punishment for—certain behavior. We've categorized inappropriate touching in public and in the workplace, we've delineated what constitutes harassing talk, we have criminalized nonconsensual sexual intercourse, and we have promised that breaching these guidelines will cost you your job and possibly your freedom.

But these strictures only work as well as the people implementing them, and again and again we hear about cases in which incidents of harassment were reported but no action was taken because managers purported not to know what to do about them. This is something that happened in a San Francisco theatre last year:

A woman works part-time in a local theatre. A board member of the theatre takes an interest in her, uses what are supposed to be work-related conversations to introduce topics that anyone might agree are inappropriate to the workplace, like what kind of semiviolent sexual practices he enjoys. She stops responding to his calls and frequent texts. Her colleagues notice what they interpret as nothing more harmless than his crush on her and tease her, even after she makes it clear to them that their teasing aggravates, rather than assuages, her distress. (Any sort of teasing by colleagues after a person has asked them to stop is illegal in the workplace.) He disregards her attempts to ignore him and continues to ask her out and make inappropriate remarks to her at work. She asks the artistic director what can be done about this increasingly intolerable situation. "I don't know what to do" is the response.

Her initial complaints disregarded or met with confusion, she begins to second-guess her instincts, to believe that she has no choice but to accept the invitations of her pursuer. The frightening thing to observe in her retelling is the gradual dissolution of her autonomy, imperceptible to her at the time but unmistakable in retrospect, abandoned to his subtle but precise manipulation of her by the people who are required by law to intervene. She is alone in her suspicions that she is being subjected to morally and professionally indefensible behavior and worries that she will lose her reputation, her peace of mind, even her job, if she continues to complain about what no one seems to take seriously or believe that something can and must be done to stop it. Perhaps she has misjudged him?  He brings her soup when she is sick. He invites her out for casual dinners and appears for a time to have accepted her request that their relationship remain strictly professional and platonic. The fact that nobody seems to take her worries seriously makes her wonder if she's overreacted, and she starts to rationalize to herself that his behavior, though perhaps inappropriate and crass, is not actually dangerous. When he doesn't do or say anything that makes her uncomfortable for several meetings, she lets her guard down a little, starts accepting invitations to dinners at his house.

One night, he rapes her.

The purpose of this story is not to reveal the obvious, which is that there are rapists among us—nor even that however peachy the social climate of our theatre community is made to sound by people who speak on the record, there have been incidents of harassment and abuse and will be more if more theatre workers don't know their rights and, if they are employers, their responsibilities. Rather, it is to highlight the catastrophically ineffectual response on the part of the company to the situation intensifying under their nose. Three parties failed in the eyes of the law: the assailant, obviously; the director, for not handling the situation; and even the victim's colleagues, who continued to tease her after she asked them to stop. The victim herself, traumatized by the event (and perhaps highlighting a lack in our preparedness and support for victims of sexual assault as a society at large), did not report the crime to police within three days, and the DA felt it unlikely that she would win a case of her word against her assailant's. Not wishing to relive the horror in front of him and others, she decided against pursuing a civil suit. Safe from public scandal, the theatre company itself chose not to take any action against the attacker, and he is still on its board of directors.

Under California Government Code section 12940(j), here is what any sort of employer is legally required to do to address harassment under his or her watch. First, the employer must recognize when harassment is harassment. The legal definition is "unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment." "Severe" conduct would be assault or rape. "Pervasive" conduct is the more usual kind: repeated advances, verbal or physical. Once the object of the advances has expressed discomfort because of these advances to the person making them, it becomes illegal for that person to continue making them. Once the object of harassment complains to the employer about the harassment, the company becomes "strictly liable," which means the company is responsible for any damages awarded the accuser, should it get to that point—whether or not the employer knew the law, knew what was going on, or did anything to prevent it or stop it. It is not even incumbent upon the accuser to show that he or she was unable to perform their job because of the harassment. It's your basic "ignorance is no excuse" rule.

This is an important point with regard to theatre companies. The larger companies I talked to had well-defined procedures in place to prevent and deal with sexual harassment should it become an issue. California Shakespeare Theater and American Conservatory Theater both distribute an employee handbook that delineates their rules, the law and what actions a worker should take when harassed. Large-scale companies that employ a lot of people and hold a high-profile position in the community also know they have a lot to lose, and can afford to hire good counsel.

But smaller companies often develop organically out of the desire of a few like-minded artists simply to create art. Their concern with the less spiritually enriching aspects of running a company doesn't always seem to reach beyond the obvious needs of fundraising and insurance. (And any organization composed of more then 15 people—employees or volunteers—is a "company" and is therefore subject to the same laws any larger company is. Did you know that?) I have worked with several smaller theatre companies in the area, and I don't remember seeing the Fair Employment and Housing Act posted anywhere. It is supposed to be posted somewhere, such as a green room, visible to anyone who works for or with the company.

Somewhere along the line an artist finds himself at the helm of a business, and whether he realizes it or not, now bears the responsibilities of a business owner. Ignorance or failure to act is not an option. This may seem obvious, but talk to people in the community (maybe not representatives of the companies, but rather actors, volunteers, people who have worked for these companies and who are not under the same pressure to present the organization in a good light). Spend an evening at the Union Square thespian hangout, the White Horse. You'd be surprised. People tell stories that reflect a very different reality than the rosy one that company officials tell.

Which brings us back to the survey. The results indicated some disparity between what people in positions of authority at said theatres (41% of respondents) believe they have achieved in terms of dealing with harassment that occurs on their watch and what people who have been employees say. To the question, "Were your employees/volunteers aware of the procedures for reporting/handling harassment in the workplace?," 71% of employers or authorities responded "yes." However, 77% of respondents who had worked for theatre companies replied "no" to the question, "Have theatre companies that you've worked for made clear their policies on sexual harassment?" Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that 59% of people (of either position) who responded have experienced harassment in the workplace, and most who did didn't report it in any official capacity. Neither is it surprising that most respondents who had experienced the harassment and did report it claim that little or no change resulted from their complaints, whereas the authorities to whom incidents were reported claim, almost across the board, to have addressed and eliminated the offending actions with improbable efficiency. One felt fully satisfied in his ability to handle—or perhaps more accurately, to dismiss—such incidents effectively, stating, "I prefer people feeling comfortable speaking frankly about their sexuality or their hunger. No matter how wrong it may seem to you Puritans. You had your time—let us have ours. I can handle it without your help thanks."

Despite the clarity of the law, there are ambiguities that present themselves even when theatres adhere to the law. Namely, how can artists—especially physical artists, which is what actors are—allow themselves to "go" to the places they need to with each other onstage, which requires establishing trust with each other in the rehearsal room, without breaching protocol? How can they be vulnerable, aggressive, intimate and open as artists while protecting the sanctity of their private selves and respecting that of their colleagues? ACT's human resources manager, Kate Stewart, explained that it begins in training: MFA students are taught that basically no advance toward another, whether onstage or backstage, is too negligible to require an explicit, honest hashing-out of what each party is comfortable with. It brings to mind the much-derided sexual consent policy Antioch College posited in the early '90s, which required that every step in the dance of love be preceded by obtaining verbal consent in the unsexiest language ever devised to frustrate the amorous.

But perhaps the risible Antiochian model works, as it seems that many of the conflicts described in the survey arose from people either being unsure of their rights (to be able to approve or reject the physical and verbal treatment they receive), or a failure to take seriously people's right to choose how they should be treated, which a dialogue determining what each party found acceptable or unacceptable would resolve. That seems key to addressing the problems regarding harassment in our theatre companies. Anterior in importance to learning and familiarizing theatre workers with the laws surrounding this issue, and their own companies' procedures for handling such problems, is the adjustment we need to make regarding the discussion of them in the first place. This starts on the personal level, between two people. We have to have the courage to tell people when their behavior or the way they talk makes us uncomfortable, and in turn have the sensitivity to take people's complaints against our own behavior and talk seriously. And when in doubt, ask.


Larissa Archer is a writer and theatre worker in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in many local and national publications, and can be read at larissaarcher.com.