The 2017 TIME magazine named the collective “Silence Breakers” Person of the Year, honoring the survivors of sexual violence and harassment who spoke up in the #MeToo movement founded by Tarana Burke in 2006, which actress Alyssa Milano made viral in October 2017. Since then, the movement has led to an international discussion about victim blaming, reporting practices, and harsher punishments for sex offenders, as a wave of accusations has shed light on sexual misconduct in the arts, sports, academia, religion, and politics. For the first time, survivors of sexual violence and assault are heard and believed; the torrent of accusations has resulted in multiple firings, resignations, cancelled programming, investigations, charges, and public apologies of perpetrators.
The #MeToo movement, and particularly its impact on the film and theatre industries, takes me back to June 2016, when social media lit up with theatre artists sickened and disheartened the exposé on Profiles Theatre in Chicago Reader written by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt’s. The piece details the alleged mental, physical, and sexual abuse endured by stage actors and crew members for over two decades at Profiles–which has since shut its doors–under the leadership of then Co-Artistic Director Darrell W. Cox. Theatre long ago earned a reputation for chewing up and spitting out young hopefuls; being overworked and underpaid, brutal rejections, and physically taxing performances are all considered par for the course for the novice actor hoping to earn his or her keep. But inhumane misconduct is finally getting the attention its deserve thanks to efforts such as the #MeToo movement and Not In Our House, Chicago’s grassroots organization spearheaded by Laura T. Fisher and Lori Myers to provide preventative measures against sexual and violent abuse in the theatre workspace as well as support for victims.
At the University of Central Florida, where I am an assistant professor in Theatre for Young Audiences, a campus-wide campaign “Let’s Be Clear” serves to “increase disclosure of sexual and relationship violence,” claiming “the more people who come forward, the more who can be supported by campus and community resources.” In our theatre department, the play The Day Before Yesterday by playwright Israel Horovitz was pulled from our season after nine women accused Horovitz of sexual misconduct. To honor the training of the students already cast in the production while bringing light to the importance of the issue, the title was replaced by Rebecca Gilman’s play Boy Gets Girl, a play about stalking that “examines the culture that makes such sexism and harassment possible.”
In Theatre for Young Audiences, we talk about establishing and maintaining a “safe space,” an ideal that recent news stories prove is equally vital once actors age into adulthood. As I try to wrap my brain around the sheer multitude of victims and bystanders in these cases and countless others that remain unspoken, I reflect on how a young actor might allow their safety or the safety of their peers to be compromised, and what I could do as an educator and director to prevent this. In what ways might I unknowingly encourage students to put their art above their own basic human needs? How can I help young people mature into respectful adults, self-advocates, and agents of change?
Young actors are navigating tricky social terrains, adjusting to ever-changing hormonal and physical states, being influenced by pop culture and the media, and desperately seeking validation. For the young actors bit by the theatre bug, they may think there is no limit to how far they will go to get a dream role or give a great performance. As educators, our well-meaning pep talks about commitment, developing thick skin, and leaving baggage at the door might only perpetuate the young actor’s false belief that their bodies, hearts, and minds are only meant to be used on stage—rather than honored, cherished, and protected so that they may continue to grow and thrive both as artists and people.
Our industry cannot afford to keep sending the message to its actors that they must suffer in silence, and the change begins in theatre education. How can we train young actors to be advocates for their emotional, physical, and mental well-being? How can we empower students to recognize and respond to their intuition rather than ignoring it? What does it look like to teach self-protection and preservation as part of youth theatre curriculum? These are big picture questions that have no easy answer, and I hope this article will serve as the beginning of a conversation. In the meantime, these practices may help educators and theatre for youth practitioners take a step in the right direction:
Create a Community Agreement. This practice, where a group of people agrees on standards for how they will communicate with and respect one another, is common in community-based work but often overlooked in the theatre classroom. Encourage a class or an ensemble to have deliberate conversations about what mutual respect does and does not look like. The simple act of inviting students to sign the agreement and posting it on the wall is a valuable preventative measure. It also provides the ensemble with traction and a jumping off point for dialogue if the community agreement is ever compromised.
Consider the shows you select—and how you present them to your actors. Today’s high school theatre runs the gamut from the stereotypical Grease and Oklahoma! to significantly edgier material. I recall sitting in an auditorium watching a graphic high school play about youth rape and abduction, and wondering what measures had been taking to ensure the well-being of the young actresses who had to live these imaginary circumstances day after day. But lest you think you would never do a play with such challenging material, consider Legally Blonde, a musical comedy and popular high school choice. In the piece, protagonist Elle Woods endures sexual advances from her professor. The piece is laudable for its representation of a strong female standing her ground in such circumstances, but the positive outcome for the character does not make the moment one to simply gloss over. When encountering such material as a teacher or youth director, do you avoid it, ignore it, or use it to engage your students in dialogue that will help them explore and better understand the human condition?
Make consent a part of your practice. Physical touch is an important part of creating meaning and telling story on stage. Actors, however, still have the right to personal boundaries. Theatre educators can address delicate balance by promoting constant and open communication. Audition forms may provide the space for performers to disclose of their personal boundaries in writing. Classroom procedures can utilize the word “pass,” or encourage students to “step out and step in” if something feels uncomfortable to them, so that students know they can always opt out and then have an open invitation to rejoin the exercise as they feel more comfortable. Teachers and directors can model asking consent when demonstrating something with a volunteer or when blocking a scene; asking “May I touch your shoulder?” makes a strong statement to both the student you are asking it to and her peers who are observing.
Incorporate practices that encourage self-love and self-care. Yoga, meditation, daily affirmative statements, journaling, self-reflection: these tools aren’t just for your clichéd flowery skirt and scarf wearing theatre teacher anymore. Our society is sorely lacking in teaching youth how to properly honor and tend to their body and spirit, and when we fail to educate the whole person we see the repercussions in depression, suicide, addiction, and violence. A person who does not love and honor himself will eventually become disconnected from his body, making it harder for him to recognize mistreatment or abuse from others.
Stop telling your students that theatre is a small world. Many of the voices in the Profiles Theatre case spoke of being fresh out of college, new in town, or eager to get a reputable theatre company on their resume. While we should teach youth about professionalism and networking, we have to stop telling our impressionable young artists that they can’t burn bridges if need be. One of my favorite anecdotes I tell young people came from a friend who was working on a sex scene in a rehearsal process. When the scene was not working, the director suggested it be performed in the nude. As nudity was not a part of her contract, my friend refused, completed the run of the show, and has not auditioned for the company since. I eagerly shared this story to my students because as it turns out, my friend did not ruin her career with that move. Rather, her career continued to flourish, and she walked away from the situation with the confidence of having stood her moral ground.
Take a clue from the industry. The #MeToo movement and #NotInOurHouse campaign have gained widespread recognition in the field of theatre. As theatre educators, we should feel a responsibility to teach young people about trends and current events in the profession, and these stories are no exception (though please note that the aforementioned Chicago Reader article does contain sensitive and potentially triggering content). Think of the exciting potential of a unit where students study Equity rights, examine cases of mistreatment in theatre companies, and dialogue about the well-being of actors and what causes our industry to push its performers and technicians past their limits. The conversation you will begin about how we treat one another and how we advocate for change will serve all of your students—whether they choose to go into the business professionally or not.
As we prepare students for an industry that can be vicious to one’s sense of self-worth, can we bring a heightened awareness to how our students treat one another, and themselves? How can we treat youth with greater respect, so they are brave enough to demand respect from the field? Are these measures enough to keep the next Harvey Weinstein or Darrell W. Cox from entering the field, or to fully equip young actors with the skills they may need if and when they encounter him? Perhaps not. But shouldn’t we at least try?