Harassment in Theatre

By now I’m sure you’ve read The New York Times article that’s been making the rounds in the theatre community, detailing the experience of Marin Ireland when she was working with her then-boyfriend Scott Shepherd on a 2012 production of Troilus and Cressida, which was co-produced internationally by the The Wooster Group and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Ms. Ireland and Mr. Shepherd had been fighting at home, and one night, he slapped her so hard that she fell to the floor and returned to rehearsal the next day with a black eye. The Wooster Group made several efforts to handle this in the rehearsal hall – Director Elizabeth LeCompte “gathered the cast to talk about their feelings” and a therapist held a session with the cast that participants called “awkward and uncomfortable.” Now, Ms. Ireland and her lawyer Norman Siegel have drafted a proposal, endorsed by 500 artists and organizations, and sent it to the Actor’s Equity in hopes that they will change their harassment policies around violence and sexual harassment.

This story made me think about something that happened to me, and likely many other women, that I hadn’t thought about in some time. I’ve had several unwanted sexual advances that went beyond a pick-up line. Both were early in my career, and both were from men I was meeting with to discuss work or mentorship opportunities. #1 occurred when I was still trying to earn a living as an actor (my poor guidance counsellor). I’d developed what I thought was a strong industry relationship with an Artistic Director whose company I had previously worked for. #2 was a few years later, after I’d given up scrabbling for acting jobs in exchange for dramaturgy (out of the frying pan…). I was meeting with a dramaturg to discuss the possibility of an internship. In both cases, I thought the relationship was purely work-related: professional and friendly, nothing more. So you can imagine my confusion when #1 leaned over a coffee-stained table to shove his tongue down my throat (so far back that he tickled my tonsils). Or when #2 invited me to his office, after hours, and tried to kiss me — then, when I resisted, backed off and mentioned something about his wife and how he’d failed her. Yes indeed.

I was a young artist. I was hungry for work, training, and connections. I was not hungry for unwanted sexual advances.

So what was I to do? When I met with #1, I was an Apprentice Actor in the the Canadian Actors Equity Association. Equity requires that a number of steps be taken in handling incidents of harassment and these steps are clearly outlined in Article 8:08 of the Canadian Theatre Agreement. But the protocol all seem to hinge on the Equity member being under contract. What is equally important to my situation (in bold) is in Equity’s definition of harassment:

For the purpose of Article 8:08, Personal Harassment, sexual harassment is defined as an incident involving unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when:

(i) such conduct might reasonably be expected to cause offence or humiliation to another person or group of persons; or

(ii) the submission to such conduct is made implicitly or explicitly a condition of workor

(iii) submission to such conduct is accompanied by a reward, or the express implied promise of a reward for compliance; or

(iv) rejection of such conduct is accompanied by a reprisal, or an express implied threat of reprisal, for refusal to comply; or

(v) such conduct has the effect of interfering with a person’s work or performance by creating a hostile or offensive environment.

Frankly, items (i) and (v) apply to any incidence of harassment. In terms of my situation, no work had been officially offered (items ii and iii). I wasn’t working under an Equity contract. It was a coffee date to discuss what I’d been working on, and what was coming up in #1’s new season. Since there was no job offer officially on the table, because I was an apprentice, and because I wasn’t under contract, Equity couldn’t help me. In truth, I didn’t even think about contacting the Association.

With #2, who could I talk to about his behaviour? I knew his boss, but I didn’t feel comfortable taking the matter to them. I was worried I would be labelled a whistleblower, a Feminist with a capital ‘F’ (something about which Hannah Cheeseman wrote daringly in The Globe and Mail recently), the kind of person who tends to quickly become unpopular. Since then I’ve gotten to know #2’s boss a little better, and if this happened today I would feel more comfortable discussing it with them… but at the time? I was 23, maybe 24. I’d barely begun my career and I didn’t feel that bringing the matter to #2’s superior’s attention would do me any professional favours.

Needless to say, I haven’t worked with either of these men since – not because I couldn’t bring myself to (I wasn’t in a position to turn any work down), but because they didn’t offer. Maybe they were embarrassed or annoyed by my rejection, or maybe I wasn’t the right person for the job. Regardless,  both are still in positions of power, and both can use that power to influence the careers of young women.

In the last year or two, I’ve opened up about these experiences to a few other artists I trust. I always maintain the anonymity of the men involved — both are married, and I have no interest in shaming them in particular. To me what matters most is not the individuals, but the incidents themselves. At the time, I was more frustrated than offended. I knew instinctively that a door had been closed, but I didn’t quite know why. Now I know that what I experienced was sexual harassment. To those men, I was an object, not an artist.

Which brings me back to the story in the New York Times, which addresses not only sexual harassment but domestic violence and whose responsibility it is to mediate. This specific incident coloured an entire rehearsal process for the ensemble performing The Wooster Group’s and Royal Shakespeare Company’s collaboration, Troilus and Cressida. It’s clear that The Wooster Group and directors Elizabeth LeCompte and Mark Ravenhill took gentle steps to try to manage the situation. But gentle isn’t the right response to spousal abuse. There’s a reason there are such strict regulations around sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Too often in the arts, these structures aren’t rigorously applied. Take Jian Ghomeshi’s harassment of his co-worker at the CBC and sexual violence towards 15 other women. There are many similarities between journalism and the arts, but it’s the most obvious one that’s relevant here: a shortage of funds. For the CBC, the loss of their most popular personality and the host of their top rated show was a huge blow. Similarly, the loss of a lead actor in an international collaboration preparing for its opening night means huge financial loss for all involved. Neither the CBC nor the Co-Producers on Troilus and Cressida had much incentive to take a hard line with Mr. Shepherd.

In Boys With Cars, one of the plays in the trilogy to which this site is dedicated, Naz experiences an unwanted sexual advance from her boyfriend’s best friend, Buddy. This becomes public and, surprise surprise, Buddy isn’t blamed for the incident. Naz is. She is ostracized by her community and she “silent screams” her way through the experience. It isn’t until a beautiful moment at the end of the play, when she takes action in handling her abuse, that she is able to move on with her life.

“Silent screaming” is something many of us do when faced with harassment, violence, or abuse. I certainly did. Truthfully, after my encounter with #1, I didn’t know what had happened. In recounting the story to a friend, she asked me “What did you do? Did you slap him?” I tried to explain that, in the moment, I wasn’t outraged… I was baffled. And after realizing what had happened, rather than say anything I stayed silent. I wanted to avoid the same victim-blaming Naz experiences in Boys With Cars. I told myself it was harmless. And ultimately it was – I wasn’t scarred for life, I wasn’t dependent on #1 or #2 for work, and other professional opportunities came along in due time.

But now, several years later, I can’t help but wonder whether I did have an option, some kind of recourse, to deal with those “harmless” moments without fear? Have other young actresses had the same experience here in Toronto? If I had done something, spoken to an authority,  would I have protected them from a degrading and misogynistic act? The “what if” game is never really useful. You can guess but never really know what might have happened “if” – we have to live in the present. So I am. I’m speaking now. And will, if I ever encounter this again, find a measure of recourse to deal with what is never a harmless act.


Originally published by The New York Times on March 15, 2015. Written by Patrick Healy.


Sex and Violence, Beyond the Script

Members of their theater company, the Wooster Group, were shocked. As word spread about what happened, the play’s director, Elizabeth LeCompte, gathered the cast members together to talk through their feelings. One actor asked why Mr. Shepherd wasn’t going to jail. Others questioned whether the play should go on. Mr. Shepherd was deeply apologetic.

Ms. Ireland said that she came to feel that instead of doing something about Mr. Shepherd, a company veteran, the Wooster Group was putting the onus on her to stay or quit the play. She remained through the end of the show’s run in Britain, a decision that still gnaws at her.

“I continue to wonder where responsibility and accountability should be for what happened,” Ms. Ireland said. “Many actors don’t know what to do when behavior — physical, sexual, harassment, bullying — crosses a line.”

That confusion over blurry boundaries and accountability, the sense that there was no one impartial to turn to, has propelled Ms. Ireland into a cause that is gaining momentum in the industry. Together with a group of actors and theater professionals, she is pressing unions and others to create clear-cut protocols for registering and handling grievances about harassment in the theater.

While sexual misconduct and harassment policies have become more stringent in places from university campuses to dot-com start-ups, theater remains largely unregulated. And it is a unique work environment, one that asks employees to flirt and kiss, argue and fight, strip naked and simulate sex eight times a week for what can be months on end. After hours, sexual encounters are common among cast members; actors date one another, and directors sometimes date their actors. When powerful people behave badly, they have agents to protect them.

Given how decentralized the world of theater is, it is difficult to pin down exactly how common problems of workplace misconduct are. But interviews this winter with 45 performers, dancers, writers, directors and other theater artists from around the country yielded scores of accounts of firsthand experience with harassment and unwelcome behavior by fellow production members.

Ms. Ireland and Scott Shepherd, her boyfriend at the time, in the British production of the Wooster Group’s “Troilus and Cressida” in 2012. At one rehearsal, Ms. Ireland arrived with a black eye after they fought. Credit Alastair Muir

Women and gay men in their 20s and 30s describe being propositioned for sex by influential directors, casting directors and others who could help or hurt their careers. Young gay men harassed one another, and groping was a problem for all genders and sexualities. When performers did complain, they felt they weren’t taken seriously by those in authority. Many didn’t speak up at all, for fear of being labeled troublemakers in a small industry.

Though some theaters and the 49,000-member Actors’ Equity union have harassment policies in place, the provisions are largely toothless, many performers say. And the far-flung world of plays and musicals lacks a human resources department to complain to.

Ms. Ireland believes that a few specific steps would go a long way in helping actors and other members of a production respond to abusive or harassing behavior. Along with the writer Julia Jordan (Off Broadway’s “Murder Ballad”), and others, she is pushing Actors’ Equity and other theater unions on three proposals: to have a statement read on the first day of rehearsals for all Broadway and professional shows that describes how to file complaints about harassment or other unprofessional behavior; to designate union officials to handle these complaints; and to create a confidential mediation process where complainants and the accused can talk through instances of harassment, misconduct and abuse with a mediator and without fear of penalties.

Nearly 500 theater actors and artists have endorsed the campaign, including Jessica Chastain and Joanna Gleason, and the playwrights Lynn Nottage and Stephen Adly Guirgis.

“When you’re young, you’re vulnerable — you’re auditioning, you need your next job,” said Ms. Jordan, who recalled accepting an offer years ago to assist a prominent director only to lose it when she wouldn’t sleep with him. (She said she saw no point in telling anyone at the time, and declined to name the director now.)

“And when actors prey on actors, but everyone wants to put the show first and help it succeed, what do you do?” she asked.

Actors’ Equity officials declined to comment on the mediation proposal and the two other ideas, but said in a statement that its existing policies were “clear and strong.” Under those policies, the harassment or unprofessional behavior has to meet certain criteria for a complaint to be heard or to qualify for mediation, like occurring in a workplace (as opposed to a bar or an apartment) or involving Equity business.

Privately, union officials acknowledge that their policies — buried in Article X of the union’s bylaws and not easily found on the Equity website — are a mystery to many actors and that they plan to discuss new ways to confront unprofessional conduct.

Equity also declined to share data on harassment complaints, though union officials privately said it’s rare for members to file charges against other members. The last widely publicized case was Randy Quaid’s ouster from Equity in 2008 after actors complained to the union that he physically and verbally abused them during the Seattle production of a Broadway-bound musical.

Several Broadway veterans contacted for this article — Glenn Close, Sutton Foster and Donna Murphy among them — say they have never experienced harassment in the theater. And prominent casting directors like Bernard Telsey say they have heard few if any stories of predatory behavior.

Others believe harassment is as often as not in the eye of the beholder.

“I work on a highly sexualized musical, ‘Cabaret,’ where there has always been a certain amount of offstage ass-slapping and nipple-tweaking,” said Artie Gaffin, who has been a Broadway stage manager for 30 years. “Most people have thick skin or they know it’s all in fun, not personal.”

But talk to performers in their 20s and 30s and a generational divide begins to reveal itself. Younger actors seem to have less tolerance for flirtatious or licentious behavior than performers of earlier generations, particularly those who came of age in the 1970s when directors like Bob Fosse, a notorious womanizer, were Broadway giants.

Julia Jordan  Credit  Walter McBride/Corbis
 Sexual Quid Pro Quos

Hilary Bettis left her small town in Minnesota a decade ago to pursue dreams of acting and writing. She had talent, signing with an agent and getting commercials; she also had beauty. The combination led to theater opportunities, invitations for drinks and parties and more come-ons than she says she can remember.

One prominent producer, whom she would not name, offered to help finance a show of hers if she would masturbate him, Ms. Bettis said. On another show, a director personally supervised the choice of underwear that she would wear in a scene, and then wouldn’t leave when she wanted to change her clothes. (The female stage manager got him out.) Another director criticized her work in a make-out scene and proposed that she practice with him. She has also been referred to in derogatory terms for female genitalia, she said, and had her breasts and backside grabbed in audition rooms or at meetings on several occasions.

“I want to be known for my work and my integrity, not for being someone to sleep with,” said Ms. Bettis, 29, who is now a playwriting fellow at Juilliard.

Asked if she had ever complained to Equity or to management, she echoed the sentiments of many young men and women interviewed for this article: “I didn’t see it doing any good. I’ve been at auditions for Equity productions where I’ve been asked to take off my clothes for no good reason. When you’re just starting out in theater, the only realistic option has been to suck it up.”

Among the actors and dancers interviewed, four gay men and one woman said that directors or casting directors had demanded oral sex or dates in exchange for being considered for a job. These performers would describe their experiences only on the condition of anonymity, and they declined to identify the directors or casting directors.

Ryan Duncan, an actor who has appeared in Broadway’s “Shrek” and starred in Off Broadway’s “Altar Boyz,” recalled that on one of his Equity productions, the music director used graphic sexual innuendo with him during a rehearsal. Mr. Duncan complained to the stage manager, only to have the stage manager come on to him sexually too.

“So many gay men are in charge in theater, and there’s an attitude of, ‘We’re all guys, we all love sex, we can do anything to each other,’ ” Mr. Duncan said.

New York theater is not the only place where actors complain of unprofessional behavior going unchecked. In Chicago, a group of actors and artists met this month to discuss predatory behavior — mostly sexual advances and touching — in theaters there.

“We’re looking into forming a psychological support group, talking to theaters about our concerns,” said Lori Myers, a Chicago actress and Equity member. “We’re not ready to name names yet. But we are ready to take a stand so no more 19-year-old women have to take off their clothes in an audition for no good reason.”

(Harassment and come-ons are also a problem in Hollywood, said several theater actors who work there, but studios tend to have tough policies, and celebrity magazines, TMZ and other outlets shine spotlights on bad behavior.)

Like Ms. Bettis, actors tend not to complain to Equity or the police. Some, however, do go to stage managers, who are supposed to handle complaints. Results have been mixed, with both actors and stage managers, who are also Equity members, saying that stage managers are usually not trained to deal with harassment and that their primary interest is keeping the show running smoothly since they report to management.

Several stage managers said they had witnessed ugly behavior, describing actors being grabby with other performers or inappropriately using their tongues during kissing scenes. They also described numerous experiences of actors going onstage while drunk or high and being physically inappropriate with co-stars, and directors drunkenly groping actors or crew members in bars or bathrooms.

“When you’re just starting out in theater,  the only realistic option has been to suck it up,” said Hilary Bettis, a playwright and actress, about being sexually harassed at auditions and in meetings.Credit Earl Wilson / The New York Times

“I wish stage managers were more empowered on how to mediate and spot signs of abuse and threats and harassment and bullying, and trained on how to take steps to deal with these things,” said Justin Scribner, a stage manager who worked on “Rock of Ages” on Broadway as well as 10 other shows.

Few Policies in Place

Judging from interviews with performers and artistic directors the enforcement of sexual harassment policies differs widely among productions and theaters. La Jolla Playhouse in California, for instance, requires actors and others to sign a five-page “nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policy” to work there. One New York theater artist recalled being surprised by the policy and thinking, “Good luck in enforcing that.”

Many New York theaters, including the Public Theater, Roundabout Theater Company and St. Ann’s Warehouse, do not require people to sign policies, nor do Broadway productions. They rely instead on anti-harassment language in the Equity bylaws, labor contracts, or policies of theater troupes, though most New York performers interviewed said they were unaware of such language.

In the case of Ms. Ireland and Mr. Shepherd’s experience in London, the Wooster Group did not have policies in place at the time to deal with harassment or abusive behavior. (In November the theater’s board adopted a “whistle-blower policy” for reporting harassment.)

And while the fighting between Ms. Ireland and Mr. Shepherd was not related to their work on “Troilus and Cressida,” it created tension within the production. Two other people involved with the play recalled that Ms. Ireland’s black eye put many actors on edge, and some performances had anxious moments. A therapist met with the whole company at one point, but participants described the session as awkward and uncomfortable. Ms. LeCompte, who is the artistic director of the Wooster Group as well as the play’s director, said by email that she took steps to be sensitive, such as rehearsing scenes between Ms. Ireland and Mr. Shepherd with as few other actors around as possible.

Ms. Ireland described Ms. LeCompte as saying that it was fine if Ms. Ireland left the play, but she would have to do so quickly so she could be replaced. Ms. LeCompte denied this and said she neither put pressure on Ms. Ireland nor favored Mr. Shepherd over Ms. Ireland, a relative newcomer to the troupe.

By the time Ms. Ireland and Mr. Shepherd were back in New York, in the fall of 2012, their relationship was all but over. Ms. LeCompte wanted Ms. Ireland to continue with the play in a future production, but Ms. Ireland would do it only if Mr. Shepherd wasn’t in it.

Some months later, she sought advice from a lawyer, Norman Siegel, who proposed a discussion between Ms. Ireland and the Wooster Group. Some members of the group liked the idea, but others were spooked by the feisty and attention-getting reputation of Mr. Siegel, a former leader of the New York Civil Liberties Union. At the advice of a lawyer on its board, the group proposed meeting with Ms. Ireland and a neutral mediator. A compromise could not be reached.

“I wish we’d all been able to do mediation,” Mr. Shepherd said in an interview this winter. Of hitting Ms. Ireland, he said, “All I want to do is take that moment back, take it out of her life and my life.”

Mr. Siegel, who is providing pro bono advice to Ms. Ireland, drafted the three proposals given to Equity and other theater unions, but so far has been unable to persuade them to embrace the ideas. If none do, Mr. Siegel said, he will undertake a pilot project to offer mediation services free to any actor or artist who feels mistreated.

For her part, Ms. Ireland said that the policies she is now proposing would have given her a clear and immediate option in London to deal with Mr. Shepherd and the Wooster Group. Asked if she was on a crusade against Mr. Shepherd, Ms. Ireland replied, “I really hate that word — that’s not how I see this.”

“But I haven’t been able to let go of what happened in London,” she added a moment later. “And the fact that the Wooster Group is still working on ‘Troilus and Cressida’ — it’s an ongoing reminder of what happened.”

Under the title “Cry, Trojans!” the play begins performances at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn on March 24. Mr. Shepherd is still in it, but Ms. Ireland is not.