A little over a year ago, America elected a president who bragged on tape about committing sexual assault. What a difference a year makes. Today, charges being made against men in entertainment and politics for abusing their colleagues, with a few prominent exceptions, are believed and action is being taken to stop the abuse.

The time is ripe for an examination of misogynist practices in theatre programs. Full on harassment and assault may not be happening in your department as far as you know, but places where women are devalued and set against one another are fertile ground for predators. Eliminating and preventing abuse requires more than riding offenders out of town on rails—it requires creating a culture in which women are valued and respected.

empty theatre seats
Photo by Peter Lewicki.

Some characteristics of a program operating under a patriarchal culture are obvious, others less so. (I address here only the characteristics of a patriarchal theatre department, but remember that patriarchy goes hand in hand with racism and other forms of oppression, so where you see one, you’re likely to see the others.) To people who’ve been in one department for a while, these attitudes may have been become almost invisible, or they may seem all too familiar as things they have been trying to change for years. In either case, no, this is not “just how theatre is.” Theatre can and must be better.

The following are red flags that may indicate the presence of the kind of deeper disregard for women that enables harassment and abuse.

  • Students, especially the women, regard one another as competitors and not collaborators.
  • Your season includes more roles for men than women even though women make up the majority of your students.
  • Concerns about “safe spaces” are put aside for male-led rooms, where leaders are considered daring and risk-taking for violating boundaries. (See “The Myth of the Male Genius,” by Amanda Hess.)
  • Female students are constantly being asked or volunteering to get naked.
  • Your season selections have a recurring theme of violence against women.
  • Guest artists and adjuncts use their lack of accountability as an excuse to form inappropriate relationships with students, both male and female.
  • Students feel like they have to choose sides.
  • Artists are rewarded for making work that romanticizes and aestheticizes violence against women.
  • Professors turn a blind eye to bad behavior because they’re worried about their own careers.
  • Women who seek change are cast out, both professionally and socially.
  • When women bring bad practices to light, the powerful are more concerned about their reputations and that of the institution than the well being of the students.

Short of harassment and assault, cultures with some of the characteristics listed above mean that female students are being denied an education equal to that being afforded male students. They are less likely to be mentored, are provided with fewer avenues to participate and learn, and, for the actors, their roles are limited to that of objects rather than subjects, defined only by their relationships to the male characters. Men with degrees from such programs graduate with more experience, more confidence, and a greater chance of success than their female peers.

Students who find themselves in such an environment might consider having a conversation with their college’s Title IX coordinator. Title IX, part of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972, requires that educational institutions that receive federal funding provide equal opportunities to students of all genders, and that applies to both curricular and extra-curricular activities. Most often invoked in reference to sports, Title IX actually covers every aspect of the educational experience, from course offerings to housing to counseling services.

Colleges and universities are allowed three ways of proving that they are in compliance with Title IX. They can a) provide participation opportunities for women and men that are substantially proportionate to their respective rates of enrollment, b) demonstrate a history and continuing practice of program expansion for the underrepresented sex, or c) fully and effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.

In other words, departments that provide more roles for men than women where there are actually more women enrolled and those women have demonstrated an interest to participate may be in violation of federal law. In fact, the phrase “substantially proportionate to the rates of enrollment” implies that the requirement is not that there be a fifty-fifty split between male/female opportunities, but rather that there be a split proportionate to enrollment. If your college actually has more women than men enrolled (women comprise 56 percent of college students nationwide), it should be choosing a season with more roles for women than men. Similarly, if there is more interest in acting from women than men, in order to fully and effectively accommodate that interest, your department should probably be providing more opportunities for women than men.

Departments that repeatedly subject women to pervasive sexualization may also be in violation of Title IX because that leads to a hostile environment for women. So might be departments that repeatedly sweep abuse under the rug, for the same reason. (Most of the high profile Title IX complaints regarding sexual assault rely upon this argument.) Students who have raised complaints about unequal treatment, harassment, or abuse that were not addressed should consider Title IX a resource they can use.

Retaliation is real—believe me, I’ve experienced it—and fear of it often keeps individual women from speaking out. But as we have seen over and over these past few weeks, where harassment, abuse, and enabling happen, they happen more than once to more than one victim. When women speak out, they almost always find out that they are not alone, and it’s much harder to retaliate against five women than one. Talk to each other and have each other’s backs.

Faculty, you can begin changing the culture of your department now. Changing your season selection, casting innovatively, and interrogating gender norms in your classes can all go a long way towards creating a culture that values women. For example, you can:

  • Choose plays with roles for women that aren’t defined entirely by their relationships to men.
  • Allow women to play male characters as men. It’s all pretend, and audiences are willing to buy it if you are.
  • Flip male characters in public domain works to be female. My general rule of thumb is that if the character’s penis or prostate is not part of the plot, there’s no reason he has to be a biological male.
  • Get permission from living playwrights and estates to flip roles in their plays, too.
  • Create and enforce guidelines like those offered by Not in Our House to ensure that nudity and violence are handled within a culture of consent.
  • Offer a class about the history of sex and violence on stage that teaches students to think critically about it.  Interrogate the common director’s argument that nudity is “essential to the story.” Hint: If the playwright didn’t write it in, it’s not essential to the story.
  • Host an “Intimacy for the Stage” workshop and learn how to deal with sex and violence within a culture of consent.
  • Offer stage combat classes and insist that any stage violence be choreographed by a certified fight director.
  • Believe female students who speak up, and believe female colleagues who do the same.
  • Invite your college’s Title IX coordinator to come speak to your students about their rights under federal law.
  • Include a statement in your syllabus against sexual misconduct that also outlines students’ rights under Title IX.

Let’s stop teaching our students that “this is just the way theatre is” and start teaching them that theatre can and should be an equal opportunity art.