“We have a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, and we have never had any complaints.” This is what I heard from the representatives of every Bay Area theatre company I asked (the ones who responded to my query, that is) regarding their histories and policies on sexual harassment. While this consensus paints a rosy picture of our theatre community and its progressive attitudes, I know, and many people who read this will know, that this is not entirely accurate. While we may be past the era of unscrupulous producers installing two-way mirrors in women’s dressing rooms (as was rumored to have been discovered during the Orpheum’s renovation years ago), theatre people are not too different from everybody else, and sexual harassment and assault are still all too prevalent.
We conducted an informal, anonymous survey through the Theatre Bay Area Facebook page and e-newsletter. While the sample size was small and necessarily self-selecting, the number of people who had experienced harassment was striking.
One San Francisco–based actor who responded to our survey remarked, “Theatre is clearly a different world than many workplaces regarding human resources in general. As such, I have found a lack of training regarding sexual harassment rights, filling of complaints and proper reporting of such incidents, to be the norm.” Another local actor expressed the sort of sentiment that perhaps keeps us from advancing on this issue, if not actively perpetuates it: “it’s the American Theater and not a regular workplace so ordinary rules don’t apply. Plus your [sic] only together for weeks rather than years. This school teacher mentality is inappropriate in this art form and should be abandoned.” The idea that the theatre (or any place) is and should be regarded as something other than a workplace, that it’s an environment where behavioral mores and laws don’t apply, seems to be the root of the problem (as is the astonishing assertion that, because of theatre’s transient convergences of personalities, one should be willing to put up with treatment in the theatre that is frowned upon elsewhere or even illegal). It’s a dangerous attitude: “The rules don’t apply to us, so we don’t need to acknowledge them. Stop complaining.”
While it takes a long time, generations even, to change cultural psychology, the steps we as a society take to redress our attitudes toward each other, and therefore the way we act, include implementing laws to dissuade—and promise severe punishment for—certain behavior. We’ve categorized inappropriate touching in public and in the workplace, we’ve delineated what constitutes harassing talk, we have criminalized nonconsensual sexual intercourse, and we have promised that breaching these guidelines will cost you your job and possibly your freedom.
But these strictures only work as well as the people implementing them, and again and again we hear about cases in which incidents of harassment were reported but no action was taken because managers purported not to know what to do about them. This is something that happened in a San Francisco theatre last year:
A woman works part-time in a local theatre. A board member of the theatre takes an interest in her, uses what are supposed to be work-related conversations to introduce topics that anyone might agree are inappropriate to the workplace, like what kind of semiviolent sexual practices he enjoys. She stops responding to his calls and frequent texts. Her colleagues notice what they interpret as nothing more harmless than his crush on her and tease her, even after she makes it clear to them that their teasing aggravates, rather than assuages, her distress. (Any sort of teasing by colleagues after a person has asked them to stop is illegal in the workplace.) He disregards her attempts to ignore him and continues to ask her out and make inappropriate remarks to her at work. She asks the artistic director what can be done about this increasingly intolerable situation. “I don’t know what to do” is the response.
Her initial complaints disregarded or met with confusion, she begins to second-guess her instincts, to believe that she has no choice but to accept the invitations of her pursuer. The frightening thing to observe in her retelling is the gradual dissolution of her autonomy, imperceptible to her at the time but unmistakable in retrospect, abandoned to his subtle but precise manipulation of her by the people who are required by law to intervene. She is alone in her suspicions that she is being subjected to morally and professionally indefensible behavior and worries that she will lose her reputation, her peace of mind, even her job, if she continues to complain about what no one seems to take seriously or believe that something can and must be done to stop it. Perhaps she has misjudged him? He brings her soup when she is sick. He invites her out for casual dinners and appears for a time to have accepted her request that their relationship remain strictly professional and platonic. The fact that nobody seems to take her worries seriously makes her wonder if she’s overreacted, and she starts to rationalize to herself that his behavior, though perhaps inappropriate and crass, is not actually dangerous. When he doesn’t do or say anything that makes her uncomfortable for several meetings, she lets her guard down a little, starts accepting invitations to dinners at his house.
One night, he rapes her.