If you’ve been following theater news out of Chicago, chances are you know about the recent conversations on preventing abuse and harassment in non-Equity theater. For anyone who hasn’t, a quick summary: On June 8, the Chicago Reader printed a lengthy investigation by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt exposing a history of emotional and physical abuse at the acclaimed storefront company Profiles Theatre. The treatment, according to the article, was primarily at the hands of co-Artistic Director Darrell W. Cox, whose alleged aggressive behavior, sexual harassment and refusal to follow safety precautions for fight choreography led to an often-unsafe work environment for more than 30 former cast and crew members who were interviewed. In particular focus was the theater’s award-winning 2010 production of Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe. Of a scene in which actress Somer Benson was slammed to the ground, stage manager Corey Weinberg said, “Those whimpers that she was making, those were real.” Cox was said to ignore the choreography of one sexual scene, getting so close to rubbing his scene partner between her legs that she eventually confronted him about it. As more details emerged, actor Kevin Bigley recalled being “paid $75 a week to get the shit beat out of the me.” Overall it is an outstanding piece of journalism, and I recommend reading it in its entirety for a comprehensive analysis of how abuse can go undetected for so long in any environment — including in the arts.
The response from the Chicago theater community was swift, the exterior of the theater wallpapered with issues of the Reader and the #NotInOurHouse hashtag trending across social media — inspired by the non-Equity rights group Not In Our House. Led by actors Lori Myers and Laura Fisher, Not In Our House began as a Facebook group after Myers received 178 responses to a status asking about the stories she had heard of actors being exploited. They have since become a proactive force, bringing the stories of Profiles Theater to the surface and also creating a non-Equity code of conduct to ensure that non-unionized artists still have an organization looking out for them. The day after Levitt and Piatt’s story ran, Not In Our House created a petition demanding that Profiles end its relationship with its artistic directors. It received almost 4,000 signatures, and less than a week later, the theater closed for good.
But Profiles is hardly the first theater with sexual harassment complaints. Chicago has recently been confronting similar issues in its comedy scene, and from the many stories I’ve seen lately on social media and in comments sections, in addition to more reporting, it’s clear that such behavior is endemic industry-wide. (I must note, however, that I don’t think we’ve seen any officially brought to court yet.) It’s also clear that this behavior is not usually as obvious or as public as Cox’s, with some of worst kinds of abuse effectively disguised as artistic practice. So, in this article, I’d like to comment on one of those subtler forms: casual sexual harassment. (I recognize that, as a straight man, I am somewhat removed from a situation that most directly impacts women and gay men. So if I misrepresent anything, please call me out and help me understand it more accurately.)
Exploitation in theater follows a few recurring patterns.
Whether or not a woman is willing to get naked or imitate sexual activity on stage has nothing to do with how much talent she has. Most plays don’t involve nudity anyway, and an actress can easily take on complex roles and have a first-rate career without opting for roles involving nudity. Why? Because her body is her body, her artistic choices are her choices. Nudity is one of those few things in theater that can never really be faked, and many actresses will gladly leave something so personal off the table. Let’s further note the myth that one needs to get naked to be a truly great actress is mostly perpetuated by men. While I can’t find equivalent stats for the theater world, in the film world the vast majority of writers and directors are men, and approximately a fourth of all roles require some nudity–three times as much nudity for women as men. Films with female directors, however, tend to present much more varied roles. Is it too much to suppose that the disproportionate representation of men in leadership positions can be tied to the disproportionate emphasis on the sexuality of female characters?
For all the men who know how to work respectfully with women, it’s clear that some men with artistic power will use it to get women in sexual situations or otherwise exploit them. One of the unique joys of theater is how its stories play out in real, live, unmediated reality; it literally brings our imaginations to life. But for some men, this as an opportunity to fulfill sexual fantasies while still presenting “art.” Look at Profiles: Cox sought out actresses he was attracted to, and regularly programmed sexually charged shows that allowed him to perform opposite them. And since he usually got good reviews, he got away with it for years.
The sexualization and exploitation of women, however, isn’t limited to directors and actors. Consider how often the appearances of women are evaluated in the scripts themselves. If you have any plays near you, grab a few and see how the female characters are introduced. I just tried this myself with three plays, and two of the three, both by men, introduce a female character as “attractive.” The third play, by a woman, did not describe the characters by their attractiveness at all. (In fairness to the men, one of them described a male character as “handsome,” but women in general still get their appearances mentioned more often.)
It is almost never necessary to specify a character’s attractiveness.
There are some cases in which a playwright may find it necessary to indicate one character being better looking than another one, but these are rare. If a character in a play is attracted to another character, we may deduce that this character is “attractive” — at least to the character finding him or her attractive. And if the character’s looks are never relevant, then it was never necessary to mention their looks in the first place. For plays in which the characters’ looks are mostly irrelevant, describing which ones are “attractive” is basically the writer saying “I don’t want ugly people in my play.”
Needlessly specifying the attractiveness of a female character, then, is another way for men to use theater for sexual fantasies. It’s sexism — a subtle, mostly invisible form of it — that defines women by their looks and sexual appeal when other traits are much more important. When a female character is defined by her looks, it’s more likely that the actress playing her will be defined by her looks and treated with less respect. Consider the hilarious blogs Casting Call Woe and Terrible Casting, and the Twitter feed @femscriptintros, in which a Hollywood producer shares real character descriptions from the screenplays he reads. (The web series Lady Parts also explores the sexism of women’s roles more generally.) Asking women to compete for a character who is “once pretty, now thin and weak” or “40, still a knockout” is just patronizing and insulting. (And if you think this is only a problem in film and TV, a theater company I work with received a script submission this season in which a female character is introduced “choking on a blowjob.” So there’s that.)
As we continue these conversations on harassment and exploitation in theater, we should remember that it doesn’t always present itself in the forms of obvious aggression or controlling behavior. Should we no longer produce plays that explore sexual themes sometimes? Of course not. But we do need to continue to recognize when sexist and/or exploitative creative decisions are being made and how to stand up to them. Because if we can’t stop sexual harassment in our imaginary worlds, how are we ever going to stop it in our real one?