Years ago when I was just starting my career, several actors and directors I knew were working with an up and coming company (now gone). One of those friends showed a play I'd written to a board member. He loved it; he thought it would be perfect for the upcoming season. He called me and I met him at the theater. We talked about the play, we talked about the company, he had even drafted a contract! He suggested we meet for coffee the next week. We had a great talk, but as we left he asked when we would "have some private time." I answered that we just did. Over the next few weeks he made it clear that he wanted to date me, and that the production was basically contingent on that. I turned him down with as much tact as I could muster. He didn't deserve that consideration, but he made his position as a decision-maker very clear and I knew that humiliating him would have consequences for me beyond just that company. The great interest in my "fantastic" new play vanished as soon as it had sunk in with this guy that I really wasn't going to sleep with him.
I haven't talked to any professional colleagues about the incident, not then nor since. I've never been told by a fellow writer, a director, a performer, or a designer that they've endured a "casting couch" overture. It is impossible that I'm the only person to experience this.
So, what's really going on? Is sexual harassment a given in the theater, and I'm just naive? How on earth is an artist supposed to handle this?
Dear Gun Shy,
Thank you for your letter. You should know that taking this step to reach out about what happened to you is so brave and so important. It is going to help you get past this ugly episode stronger and happier, and it will decrease the likelihood, even by %0.01 that someone down the line will go through this him or herself—and even if they do, you’re decreasing the likelihood that they’ll go through it feeling as alone as you did. You are turning your hardship into a gift, an opportunity for us all to get better, and that’s ’effin beautiful. Many aspects of your letter moved me, but one that really stood out was your observation that no one else has ever spoken to you about a “casting couch” nightmare, and yet the cliche exists... I share your hunch that it probably happens more than we realize, and yet we don’t talk about it. Why not? I think again you hinted at some of those reasons—fear of career damage, (wrongly) believing “this is just how it is in the theater,” and of course, our old friend Shame. Whatever the reason, it sucks that, in a field essentially built around human communication, you’ve struggled to find or create a community of support after an event like this.
Your story illustrates the dark(est) underbelly of some of the issues that get lots of play here in HowlRound: the power dynamic between producers and artists, the fine (and easily exploitable) line between one’s work and oneself, and the often tricky terrain of navigating personal relationships (welcome or not) within a creative practice that demands vulnerability and exposure. Most of all, your story is a reminder that, even if theaters have all the outward trappings of professional institutions (boards, buildings, sexual harassment policies), it is not clear how well those workplace protections offered to full-time staff meet the needs of the great masses of freelancers waiting in the audition line, emailing the literary manager’s assistant, or having coffee with a board member. Often, a theater’s creative work is outsourced, and those folks (essentially, all temps) rarely have the same kind of recourse that even an job candidate at a law firm would receive if her superior behaved inappropriately. If an auditioning actor gets unwelcome advances from a director, but he really needs the job, he accepts it anyway. He likely won’t go public—as you point out, doing so could cause serious career damage, especially because he has no guarantee the theater where this incident took place will back him up.
This is a serious question for our community: If you run a theater, you take care of your employees. You take care of the artists currently working on a production. You even take care of the audience when they’re inside the building. But what are you doing to take care of the actors trying to get cast, the playwrights trying to get read, the directors trying to get hired? No, you may have no legal responsibility here, but in a very real sense, those would-be employees are your community, too. They might be next season’s artists—they might even be some future season’s artistic director. Make them feel welcome—go to the audition waiting room and meet them. Stay in touch with the director you didn’t hire for your last show. You can’t offer them health insurance, but making them feel part of the institution doesn’t cost a cent.
The reverse is also true. Gun Shy didn’t suffer from a lack of attention from the theater’s leadership—quite the opposite. But your responsibility to your theater's extended community of artists still applies. If you have a board member running amok, drafting bogus contracts while asking for dates, you have a leadership problem, and you are responsible. A freelance artist like Gun Shy has nowhere else to turn—she or he needs to remain in the theater’s good graces, and complaining about a board member is hardly a way to do that. A theater must be a good citizen itself, and it must promote good citizenship among its staff and leadership. Every member of the team represents this specific theater, and, by proxy, the theater field itself. (Where do you think that casting cliche came from in the first place? From it happening! Probably a lot!). Any board member who does what this one did either thinks this conduct is ok or knows it’s not ok and doesn’t care. Either way, you don’t want this person representing you in the community, no matter how big that annual gift is.
But back to you, Gun Shy. You asked three questions: Is this a given in the theater? Are you really alone? And how is an artist supposed to handle this? Your final question strikes me—how is an artist supposed to respond, as opposed to a dental hygienist or a shepherd.
At the end of the day, this is a story about your integrity. It’s about who you want to see when you look in the mirror. And if I could wax for a moment, it’s a story about who we as a field want to see when we look in our (collective, metaphorical) mirror. I could spend hours listing all the ways this producer wronged you, wronged his or her theater, possibly broke the law, and generally acted like a scumbag, but I’d rather focus on the immense, inspiring power of your moral compass. As I often say here, each of us has an individual responsibility to make this field a place we’d want to work. By placing your self-respect over your ambition, you did just that. Fully aware of the professional risks you were taking by turning him or her down, you chose the more honorable path. “Honorable” can be pretty lonely, as you soon discovered, as sadly our field frequently rewards certain kinds of negative behavior—the tendency to inappropriately blend the personal and professional chief among them. Did it cross your mind, in the days after you turned him down and the theatre stopped being interested in your play, how many other plays in that theatre’s season slept (or flirted) their way into the calendar? What about the other theaters in your town, or across the country? Sadly, actors are not the only theater professionals getting objectified. And yet, in that moment (and presumably since), you made a decision.
Somewhere in that decision, I believe, is your artist DNA. So, you ask, how does an artist respond to this kind of unwanted attention? An artists responds as an artist—the only artist they truly can be.
You’ve made it through this stronger and smarter, and it sounds like you outlasted this theater anyway. Now you get to write a play about it (or a TV treatment, let’s be real here). You get to laugh about it with your colleagues (changing names if you wish). And by doing so, you get to be the colleague another friend comes to with a similar story, and then you get to be the one to help him or her take the best action. But most of all, someday, when you are in a position of power and influence (as I am sure you will be), you will get to model the kind of community-building, respectful, loving treatment towards artists that you were denied this time around. You get to make this a field you'd want to work in. And, even better, this enlightened state will make you such a magnetic, charismatic person that you won't have to resort to sleazeball tactics to get yourself a date. Everyone wins!
The Bottom Line: A theater's community extends further than its weekly payroll list—if your staff or leadership prey on artists using institutional access as cover, you've got a problem, and you must fix it. If you're on the receiving end of this BS, don't just shrug it off—You don't need any gig that forces you to compromise your integrity. Instead, let your integrity guide you—and the rest of us—into building a better community.