Calling Out a Problem: Sexual Harassment & Theater

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Viewing the AudienceAfter reading Theatre Bay Area’s recent article about sexual harassment in theater, I found it disturbing, retweeted it, and moved on.

Hours later, at 4 a.m., I woke up remembering a young woman’s face.

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Picture this: A theater in midtown New York. The show is successful. Parts of the stage crew consist of young people getting their start in theater.

I answered an ad to work backstage. At that point, most of my experience was in downtown, nonprofit theater. The midtown, commercial atmosphere was different, but fun. A young woman about my age takes me through the motions, showing me what I need to do during the show.

One night, I’m sitting backstage. My trainer is in a prominent position, waiting for a cue to manipulate the curtain. I turn around casually in her direction and see an actor aggressively groping her. She looks absolutely terrified.

It’s her face that woke me up from a sound sleep last week. “That happened,” I thought to myself.

Back then, I had no idea what to do. I remember another actor shrugging it off, saying it was par for the course. I was stunned. It wasn’t long before someone connected with the show cornered me in a dressing room, twisted my arm until it hurt and told me to kiss him.

The Production Stage Manager discovered what happened to my young colleague. Before the show one night, she questioned me about what I saw. I answered, truthfully. She asked me if I had anything to add.

I did. I told her about the dressing room incident and named the man who did it. She sighed and told me he was a friend. It had to be a misunderstanding. After all, she thought he might be gay.

I didn’t care if he was gay, straight, or bisexual. He hurt my arm – intentionally. It wasn’t about sex. He did it because he could.

When the Production Stage Manager spoke with the actor, everyone in the company knew it. Because afterward, the look in his eye was pure ice, cold and scary.

Never underestimate the power of physical and mental intimidation. Lesson learned.

I quit. Quickly. Within weeks, I had another job, in downtown, nonprofit theater. During a rehearsal break, I told two male actors about my experiences. They were outraged.

“Has anyone contacted Equity about this?” one of them asked.

It never occurred to me. Nor did it make much sense. I wasn’t in Equity. There really wasn’t anyone who could help us.

So the experience was over. And I told myself it was a freak occurrence. Stuff like that only happened in midtown theater. Stuff like that only happened in commercial theater.

Sometimes I’d pass the theater in midtown and think, “that’s where that happened.”

And with enough time, it became that thing that happened a long time ago.

 

The story is anecdotal. But that’s all we have. Have there been any studies about sexual harassment in theater? Has it been discussed in the theater community? Does it happen within the LGBT theater community as well?

In 2012, many people wondered out loud why female playwrights are underrepresented on the stage. Those same folks have counted productions and created statistics. The numbers tell a story, but I’ve long thought they were also indicative of attitudes about women in theater. How women are perceived and believed.

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Those statistics also tell the story of a young woman getting groped as she waits for her cue. They tell the story of another woman working part-time at a theater company who gets raped by a board member.

Those statistics also tell the story of a blogger whose breasts became the topic of conversation of a meeting at a theater service organization.

I predict in 2013, more people will talk about their experiences with sexual harassment and maybe even assault in theater. I predict others will point their fingers back at those folks to tell them how they could’ve handled it all so differently.

And in 2013, I also predict many in theater will be involved with one play or musical about social justice. Because it’s far easier to talk about equality onstage than it is to notice what’s happening backstage.

In the theater community, it’s a pattern. People notice a problem and talk about it. Others refuse to believe it because they don’t engage in that behavior. They don’t know anyone who does. So the finger gets pointed back to the people who started the conversation. It’s YOUR problem and YOUR responsibility to deal with it.

But maybe theater has a problem. And maybe it’s time for theater to do something about it.

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Laura Axelrod
Laura Axelrod is a writer, filmmaker, playwright and actress. Her plays have been performed in New York, California and Europe. She has also contributed to The Birmingham News and AL.com. Her book reviews were distributed nationally through Newhouse News Service. She is a Curator of The Clyde Fitch Report. Read more at www.lauraaxelrod.com.