Why I Am Boycotting Writers Theatre in Chicago

When a board papers over staff misconduct, maybe it's time to just say no.

Take a break from Writers Theatre until the board proves it won't ignore abuse.

Boycotts are enjoying a particular resurgence these days. There are some who have urged us to #DeleteFacebook after the company’s massive data breach. I know people who have stopped reading The New York Times or The Atlantic after their recent hiring errors. And viewers are now wrestling with how to respond to the work of creators like Roseanne Barr, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen (and so many others) in an increasingly transparent world where we now know much more about these artists’ real lives and values than we used to. Personally, I haven’t been too gung-ho about any recent boycotts myself — skipping individuals seems fair, but for larger companies it feels like there could be better ways to improve what are otherwise positive institutions. (The New York Times, despite its missteps, did win yet another Pulitzer for its journalism this year.) But one place I haven’t seen as much talk of boycotting, and where I think this strategy could be used to great effect, is theater. Because if there’s a place I think could use a good protest, it’s Writers Theatre.

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The controversy at Writers, a widely respected company located near Chicago, is a few months old, so I’ll quickly recap. Last fall, CFR broke a story that former Writers intern Tom Robson accused longtime Artistic Director Michael Halberstam of sexually harassing him both verbally and physically in 2003. The story spread to other outlets; soon, the trade publication PerformInk released a more detailed account of how widespread Halberstam’s harassment had been, reporting that “what happened to Robson has happened to others,” and that schools were even warning students about auditioning for the company. Writers went into crisis mode; the board funneled a few statements through its PR rep and avoided public comments while they investigated the claims. A few weeks later, they found that Halberstam had committed “inappropriate and insensitive comments in the workplace” but had exhibited no other “inappropriate sexual behavior.” Halberstam, the board said, would receive “compliance training and executive coaching sessions,” and he issued an apology. Beyond that, the theater declined to elaborate on its investigation.

This kind of non-response response exemplifies the problem when boards manage their own misconduct investigations. Not only did Halberstam face little in the way of consequences (“executive coaching sessions” almost sounds like the good thing), but the board — on which Halberstam himself is a member — seemed defensive and unwilling to meaningfully address the full scope of the problem.

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I don’t think Halberstam is a bad person, and I believe his apology is honest. I also don’t think he should be exiled from the Chicago theater community, and I’m not sure I’d be opposed to him maintaining some kind of relationship with Writers (though I’m too removed from the situation to suggest what that could or should look like). But how does he still have his job there? Looking at stories reported from former employees — which are aligned with what I’ve heard as well — consider what would have happened if this had been a higher profile case, covered by more mainstream news. Consider what would have happened if a well-known business leader, celebrity or politician had repeatedly groped interns’ behinds, asked junior staff about their dating and sex lives, and made jokes about them being “too old” or “too fat.” Picture this going on for so long that people start warning other people about working for that individual. We’ve seen dozens of stories like this, haven’t we? And while there’s still work to be done, #MeToo has usually been successful at getting abusers fired, demoted or put on leave once exposed in the court of public opinion. Not in this case, though. Halberstam remains safe in the bubble of his theater, subject only to a secret, supposedly “very thorough” investigation. I wouldn’t be surprised if many patrons of Writers Theatre, especially outside the industry, don’t even know what happened there.

Worse than its arguably limp response was how the board reframed the situation to protect Halberstam. Claiming that all they could find were “insensitive comments” and no other “inappropriate behavior” isn’t just an evasive euphemism, it ignores the worst parts of the allegations. While I can’t speak for Robson, the former intern, his initial accusation clearly indicated that Halberstam repeatedly touched him inappropriately on his legs and backside as well. It may not be an extreme example, like physical coercion or rape, but subtle groping is generally still considered sexual assault. Was ignoring this an oversight or an intentional coverup? We don’t know. And it could be that the board did investigate these claims and found nothing. But if so, why would Robson have made it up? Why would another former employee tell PerformInk that what had happened to Robson had happened to others? Why is the board’s method for dealing with the worst allegations against Halberstam to simply not acknowledge them at all? I’m aware I don’t have all the details, and there could be more to this story that I don’t know, but something about this doesn’t add up.

Then again, this is not a surprising outcome. Boards that opt to paper over misconduct are the toughest nut to crack — and not just in terms of fighting harassment in the theater. By their nature, board are inclined to avoid messy issues — and therefore messy legal conflicts; even if some trustees favor strong action, they usually lack any kind of training or access to a blueprint for how to handle such situations.

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This is an issue that now seems to be having a moment as the theater industry figures out what the next phase of #MeToo should look like. Just recently in American Theatre, Editor-In-Chief Rob Weinert-Kendt and Theatre Communications Group Executive Director Teresa Eyring called for “immediate action and transparency on the part of boards and leadership” in cases of workplace misconduct. Author and playwright Monica Byrne, criticizing their call as insufficiently general, responded that we must be much more open about naming the specific theaters and individuals that are part of the problem. She objects to a culture of “niceness” that holds back real change, writing:

“Niceness means you’d rather cover up abuse than run the risk of alienating donors. Niceness means you convince yourself that, because you’re a good person with good intentions, you can’t possibly be part of the problem. Niceness means believing that, because an institution has done some good sometimes, that outweighs the abusers who both operate from within it and benefit from its silences.”

So while we may be well into the post-Halberstam-scandal period (I wanted to write more on it at the time, but I was covering yet another case of theater abuse), the recent flare-up of film and TV protests have convinced me that it’s time to revisit the Writers matter with a new idea. In the name of better board accountability, let’s boycott the company.

Don’t see plays at Writers. Don’t act in, design for or otherwise participate in their work. Deny them your attendance and your talents until there are real, substantive consequences for Halberstam’s long record of misconduct.

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Can a boycott work? I’m not naïve: it would need real traction in the theater community. It would probably have to reach outside the industry, too, to activate local patrons as well as subscribers. But what if enough people sent the message that boards can no longer protect staff who abuse their power? An audience boycott would speak the kind of language that a board can understand: money. An artist boycott would put Writers’ reputation at stake as well. If it worked, it would send a national message, establishing a clear precedent for how any of us can respond to any board that fails to hold their leaders truly accountable.

I know there are also a lot of wonderfully talented, generous and professional people who work at Writers and who have had nothing to do with the board’s approach. Their work is important, too. The goal is not to vilify anyone or to ruin the organization, but rather to see a single, and necessary, change to the board and to the staff. I realize the situation is very complicated. Surely, though, it’s possible to remove Halberstam if they really wanted to. Or, as in this case, if the board felt enough heat that they had to.

While not a habitual attendee of Writers, I was planning to see the rest of their current season, Smart People and Buried Child. Now, nope. No more. I hope you’ll join me, and that you won’t boycott silently — tell people that you are boycotting Writers Theatre and tell them why you’re doing it. Mention it on Facebook, Twitter, anywhere you engage with your theater community. Write your own statement (or, if you want, share this article) and make it clear that you don’t patronize theaters where leaders can abuse their power with impunity. And as a community, let’s compile a master list of theaters where known harassers or abusers are protected, so we know which venues to avoid. While I wouldn’t want to see the industry police where people can go, or to see anyone shamed from choosing to attend a particular theater, such a list could provide grassroots pressure that service organizations like TCG — which, after all, are funded by member theaters — cannot legally or financially afford to pursue.

#MeToo proves that we can expose workplace harassment. For its next phase, we’ll have to figure out how to respond when boards and other staff refuse to hold abusers sufficiently responsible for their behavior. And while boycotting won’t solve every problem or confront every challenge, it would send a simple message: if you don’t take action on employee misconduct, we’ll skip shows, decline roles and turn down productions until you do.