Chicago's comedy scene received some much-needed scrutiny when the Tribune published an article admonishing the iO Theater's initial response to sexual harassment claims. The issues came to light on social media, when several improvisers shared their experiences about aggressive scene partners and inappropriate advances from instructors. News sites picked up the story from there, and many women spoke publically about their experiences.
Performer Belinda Woolfson said, "I've had directors ask me out on dates and, when I've said no, they have punished me by taking away parts … some stopped talking to me completely." This describes a common form of discrimination and it's one of the reasons many performers choose to remain silent.
Stories like these exposed the comedy community as an unwelcoming place where aggressive members have preyed on other performers with immunity. The news articles, and the social media posts that inspired them, revealed a shared experience for many women in comedy. This was a conversation far beyond one or two voices. It was an uproar with the consistent message, "It happened to me too."
These stories might sound familiar to anyone who has worked in theatre, because these experiences affect every actor in every show, everywhere. Straight theatres and musical theatres use auditions to find actors in the same way that comedy troupes use auditions to find improvisers. Performers in all genres face similar challenges everyday.
Auditions are tough, and casting directors may be unwilling to hire a so-called "problematic" actor when there are so many talented people in line for the job. If you're worried that one complaint could stall your career, you're not alone. The dynamics of power persist from one type of performance to another, and we can learn from what happened in Chicago.
One major challenge comes from the way different companies handle internal complaints. While one stage manager may take the necessary actions, others dismiss issues without following up. Because many of these problems go unaddressed, repeat offenses are common. Another challenge comes from a lack of training while many small theatres lack the resources or foresight to address harassment at the start of their projects.
These are serious issues, and it's tempting to dismiss the whole situation as an insurmountable quagmire. How do you correct a culture where this kind of behavior happens every day? Even if someone creates an internal complaint path, one that addresses problems at the theatre quickly and efficiently, what would make a company agree to use it? These questions led me to expect a great deal of anger and disappointment when I started my research. Then, I met Lori Myers.
Speaking with this Chicago-based actor changed my entire outlook. Myers co-founded an organization called Not In Our House (NIOH) specifically to address sexual harassment in theatre. It's an exciting group, and it works in a few significant ways. Members of the organization host a support group for those who have experienced trauma, for those who need support, and for the improvement of the community as a whole. This is one of the most important facets of the organization, and it mirrors what we saw in the comedy community. The group also tackles contract language, develops a code of conduct, and will provide training for some companies.
When I asked how she would advise others who want to improve their theatres, Myers said, "You have to feel the climate of what people want in your community. Feel the climate of the problem. Try to find your solution, then branch out from there." Communication helped to change policies in the comedy community, and it's an effective way to start in other theatres as well.
That was the first step for Myers and her co-founder, Laura T. Fisher, when they first organized NIOH in 2015. Social media facilitated some of the first conversations, as did email and face-to-face meetings. The organization listened to the community and identified some of its most urgent needs: therapeutic and legal resources. NIOH collected these resources for those who needed them.
The group is also working on prevention and guidance for existing organizations. One of the most exciting projects happening at NIOH is the development and implementation of a code of conduct. The group released a press release in April, just a few weeks before debuting the full document, which says, "The Chicago Code of Conduct seeks to discourage, and provide early response to, harassment, intimidation, discrimination, violence, bullying, and unfair or unsafe practices within a production or producing company. It is also the belief that consistent language around these issues has the power to raise awareness in the community and create atmospheres with even greater freedom and respect."
Union actors already have something like this in place. The Actor's Equity Association has policies that pertain to discrimination, but there's still room for improvement. Myers noted that, "[New York City-based playwright] Julia Jordan has tried to work with the New York office for Equity. She was very inspirational with her statement of principle." Jordan, along with several other professionals in the community, published a statement that addressed these concerns directly. It voiced a powerful idea: that every actor deserves to feel safe where she works. It also laid out several steps to help make it happen.
According to this Statement of Principal, there are three effective ways to address many of these issues. These points are quoted directly from their statement.
1. We recommend that a clear statement be read at each professional production’s first company meeting outlining the procedure to file a complaint. The procedures and related contact numbers should be prominently posted on theatre and union/guild websites.
2. We recommend that each union or guild designate a specific person to receive complaints. This person should be thoroughly educated and knowledgeable about the procedures and be prepared to guide victims to them and to appropriate support services.
3. We recommend that, when appropriate, a mediation process overseen by a neutral professional be added to what the unions and guilds currently offer to parties in dispute over a claim of abuse or harassment.
The Actor’s Equity Association may share these principles, but the language on their contracts needs attention. Myers pointed out that in many contracts, "There's really no definition of sexual harassment. It falls under discrimination." That might not sound like a big deal, but these two concepts are not one in the same. The group hopes to work with Equity to update these documents over the next few years.
The new Chicago Code of Conduct addresses many of these concerns, allowing union shows and non-union shows to address major challenges with guidance from the community. I was initially concerned that companies might not be willing to cooperate, but that really hasn't been a stumbling point for NIOH.
Myers doesn't need to worry about earning the support of small and mid-sized theatres. They're already behind her. There are hundreds of theatre companies in Chicago, and many of them are taking an active role in the conversation. NIOH has already enlisted a small group of theatres to help develop and implement the Chicago Code of Conduct, and everyone will work together to improve it. Many other companies, even those outside of the program's pilot group, have wanted to address concerns for their actors. Now, they don't need to create unique policies on their own. They can use the existing code of conduct for free.
Myers is optimistic about the future, and her attitude doesn't come from naive idealism. As she mentioned during our interview, "I'm hearing lots of feedback about conversations that have started. I think word of mouth is really essential in a grassroots movement, and I think that's happened, which is really cool."
People aren't seething with anger or disappointment when they talk about the new Chicago Code of Conduct. For many theatres, it's viewed as a huge opportunity. Any company that signs up to use the code gets to wear their participation like a badge of honor. It's a symbol that tells everyone in the community that this group will not tolerate sexual harassment among their ranks.
So how can we respond to sexual harassment in theatres outside of Chicago? How do we address local issues? NIOH gets these questions all the time, and their advice goes right back to what we saw in Chicago's improv theatres. Talk to your community. Find out what your friends and coworkers have to say. Myers advises organizers to have these conversations first, so they can hear firsthand accounts from the people in their communities. Once you know what needs attention, you can organize support where it will make the biggest impact.
With the prevalence of social media and with so many ways to exchange private messages, actors can speak up to each other without fear of reprisal. These conversations can uncover common issues in specific communities, and they can spark incredible growth. The tides are turning in Chicago, and this initial progress all started with actors who found support in their communities.
The steps we take today will help every actor who comes after us. Myers captured this best when she said, "Young adults who are coming out of school now are very informed about how to protect themselves. We need to catch up with that. We've learned from the younger generation, and hopefully we can also say, 'If you speak up, you're not going to fail in your career in Chicago, you're not going to be blacklisted. There is overwhelming support behind you from people who have done this before you.'"
There are already a multitude of people addressing these issues. They listen for opportunities and take action where they can. If you want to get involved, you don't have to do it alone. We respond to sexual harassment in the theatre community as a community.