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TBA Online: News & Features: February 2018

Theatre Too: Artists Take Steps to Address Sexual Violence

Wednesday, February 21, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by: Kim Tran

“What are theatres about?” asks SK Kerastas, Artistic Producer at California Shakespeare Theatre.

It’s midweek and already dark outside by the time a small handful of people assemble in Cal Shakes’ rehearsal studio. Their voices echo against the sporadic chairs and wooden planks strewn about the bright white space. Together, they comprise a new planning committee formed to tackle sexual harassment in Bay Area theatre.

Kerastas tells the group, “When I walk in a [theatre] space and see people talking about pronouns, checking in, these are signifiers that show people you’ve done work. It’s a deep understanding of what makes people feel safe.”

I’ve heard Kerastas articulate this sentiment in previous conversations, but stating it amongst this gathering of actors, directors, writers, and youth, who have gathered to talk about sexual violence and community standards, feels groundbreaking.

SK Kerastas. Photo by Dan Paz.

Kerastas is part of a new 15-member planning group of Bay Area theatre workers representing such organizations as TheatreFIRST, American Conservatory Theatre, and Theatre Bay Area. On February 29, the cohort is holding a town hall meeting at Berkeley's Roda Theatre. Hosted by Cal Shakes and Theatre Bay Area and entitled, “IT’S TIME,” the event seeks to bring regional theatre-makers and creatives together to, as the event announcement states, "make space for the conversation around sexual harassment in our field and in our local community.” 

For more info or to RSVP, visit itstimebayarea.eventbrite.com

This initiative has been spurred on by the ongoing national conversation about sexual violence, particularly in theatre and the arts. From Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement to Oprah Winfrey’s recent speech excoriating Hollywood predators, a once unimaginable mass reckoning is now here.

The growing outcry reflects a pervasive problem. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that nearly one in every five women in the United States has been sexually assaulted. The numbers are even higher for sexual minorities and people of color.

The Movement Advancement Project published a study that found 41 percent of transgender people are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Another CDC study reports  61 percent of bisexual women and 37 percent of bisexual men experience rape, physical violence, or stalking in their lifetimes. And according the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), Native American women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as any other race.

At the planning meeting, concerns about sexual violence went hand in hand with those of economic status and race.

Tracy Camp is a part of the Coalition of Bay Area Black Women + Theater Artists. The group formed last year in response to a production of Thomas and Sally, a play about Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, at Marin Theater Company. The Coalition is now in talks with MTC to implement measures—like more diversity in hiring—to more sensitively portray issues of racial and sexual exploitation.

Their work underscores some of the overlapping ways in which theatre artists experience harm. Camp says, “I was shocked at the hierarchy in theatre. In theatre you’re just constantly looking for a job, there’s no job security. I just imagined that everybody in theatre would be equal, but that’s no way the case.”

Power—in its myriad forms—takes front and center in the discussion.

Those in the room expressed concern that Bay Area theatre leaders haven’t always “walked the walk,” failing to address the intersecting ways patriarchy, racism, and economic struggle work in conjunction to affect theatre productions.

Local actor Tristan Cunningham describes the situation personally. She says, “As an actor, you come in and you just feel so lucky to be there. It’s like ‘thank God, I have a job.’ Speaking up or advocating for yourself is a really scary thing.” The absence of discretion and accountability have the potential to make rehearsal rooms unsafe.

Melissa Hillman, former artistic director of Impact Theatre and creator of the blog, Bitter Gertrude, says, “I have a collection of stories about powerful Bay Area actors young women had complained about and nothing had been done. . . Not one of them would let me publish the story. They were so afraid of retribution.”

It is exactly this climate of fear and impenetrability that the town hall aims to address. And while the Bay Area is new to this work, Chicago is at the front of the movement to combat and curb sexual violence in the theater.  

Kyra Jones. Photo by Juli Del Prete.

Kyra Jones works at the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education (CARE) at Northwestern University. As an actor and educator, she says this moment is long overdue.

Jones reviews plays and works with directors, actors, and playwrights to create a safer environment for audiences and artists around sexual violence. She says, “The more grassroots organizing we can do to hold institutions accountable, to not hold these shows or not cast these people, I think that’s the best thing anyone can do.”

She’s not alone in her beliefs or efforts.

Laura T. Fisher. Courtesy of Ms. Fisher.

Laura T. Fisher is a co-founder of #NotInOurHouse. She was one of many who authored the Chicago Theatre Standards, a free, downloadable agreement she calls “a practical document” theatre artists anywhere can use that provides guidance about “what to do when boundaries have been breached and who to talk to.” Fisher said before she wrote the now widely publicized charter, she heard a lot of “I just thought that’s how it went” from victims. In response, she created a shareable guide with the belief that, “If the work is safe, actors will go farther.”

Yet, what makes actors and artists feel safe has yet to be clarified.

Cunningham says, “I have a vision of a toolkit [thats says] ‘This is the person you call when something comes up.’ It had never crossed my mind that I could do that.” Mina Morita, artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre brings up the idea of a “Guideline for theatre in our area, a training structure.” And Kerastas has hopes for a collective initiative that involves workshops, human resources support, and a public gathering.

It’s clear the town hall is just the beginning.

Kerastas concludes, “This is just a start. This is just a gathering. It has to be something that’s seeding change."

Kim Tran is finishing her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies and Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies at UC Berkeley. She is a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. Her work has been featured on Vice News, Mic, Vox, and The East Bay Express. Find more of her work at www.kimthientran.com