“Say No To This”: A Call to Stand Up Against Sexual Assault in Theatre

A while ago, I was surfing through Buzzfeed and ran across an amazing article called
Yes and…No. Standing Up To Sexual Harassment And Assault In L.A.’s Comedy Scene.” This is a beautiful, inspiring article on how a group of female comedians stood up against sexual assault and harassment in their industry and won. I started thinking about the relationship between the comedy scene and the comedians’ experiences and my own observations from within the theatre industry. The similarities were alarming.

As the comedians discussed in the article, the comedy scene’s culture made it very difficult for them to share their stories or work for positive change. While reading though it, I found myself identifying with many of the reasons the comedians hadn’t felt able to say something sooner. Here are a few that resonated with me:

1) I was so scared people would think I was crazy. This fear completely applies within the theatre community. It is already competitive enough to find an acting job; no one wants to add to the mounting obstacles by being “difficult.” I know I try to maintain my professionalism and keep my personal life out of wherever I’m working, sometimes to a fault. I know I also get scared that I might be overreacting to a sexualized situation. I have complained to a friend in the past about sexual misconduct in the theatre only to get the response: “well he/she is gay, so it doesn’t matter.” In an effort to be a team player, I would agree and move past the incident. That isn’t right. Unwanted sexual conduct is harassment, no matter the sexual orientation or relationship situation of the people involved – and this definition does not make you “crazy,” just informed.

2) “There was this pressure to be down for everything. I am a people pleaser, especially when it comes to my work. I always want to be the most prepared, the easiest to work with, and the most ready for anything in the rehearsal room. But that instinct has no place in situations that are at best compromising and at worst dangerous. While the notion of the “casting couch” might be a thing of the past (might be…), there are still other situations I’ve seen friends and colleagues be put in that are just as unsafe. Just because something is asked of you – whether it be in terms of casting, rehearsal or even performance – that you feel uncomfortable with, please know that you are allowed to say no.

3) “I know that’s sad, but I didn’t know who I could trust.” I have found some of my dearest, closest friends through theatre, but I still wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. From a casting perspective, I know I am easily replaceable – especially as a female. There are 20 other girls that could fill my spot in a heartbeat, and some are even quick to remind you of that. I feel like sisterhood is lacking in theatre. Instead of being able to support and empower one another, we are more concerned with being competitive. The only way that survivors of sexual assault can feel safe to come forward with their stories is if those around them provide a safe environment. Women/Men of theatre, we need to create that environment for ourselves! Stand by one another, rally for those who come forward with their stories and work for change in our industry.

4) “There’s apparently no right way for women to speak out. A few weeks ago, I had to go through a sexual harassment training session for my desk job. I spent an hour and a half sitting through an online training course that I had to pay attention to in order to pass the quiz at the end. I have never had to do anything like that for any acting job I have taken. Yes, there are clauses in my contract that I read before signing, but as a non-union actor, I have never been made aware of the steps I should follow if I am faced with sexual misconduct in my workplace. I have personally been in a situation where, after repeated instances, I finally (with fear) went to my fight captain, a friend whom I trusted, and told him about what was happening. He made my stage manager aware of my discomfort, and I never heard anything regarding my complaint again. While I am sure that an email was sent, or maybe there was a chat I was not aware of, our stage manager was not empowered to handle that type of complaint; that was not part of her job. It is hard when the theatre industry as a whole lacks an HR department – so it is up to us to find a new system. We need to be better about taking any kind of sexual assault claims seriously and handling them with the same repercussions as any other job. Yes, there is a layer of fun to how performers interact with each other – it isn’t personal – but we need to stand up for our boundaries and not tolerate anyone who steps over the line.

The only way that sexual assault will be addressed in theatre is if we give it the attention it deserves. The good news is that times are changing. This NY Times article talks about how “Younger actors seem to have less tolerance for flirtatious or licentious behavior than performers of earlier generations” and how performers are starting to stand up for their rights – to the point of bringing three different sexual assault proposals to unions such as Actors Equity. We have to be the ones to change the culture – we have to acknowledge that sexual harassment happens and is serious, say no to an uncomfortable situation without fear of professional impact, create a safe space for survivors of sexual assault, and empower a chain of command to deal with instances of sexual assault in the theatre. As theatre professionals, we are storytellers. Don’t let anyone hide part of your story.

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