Power and Humiliation in the Theatre
Reflections Post-Harvey Weinstein
I’m twenty-one, a budding actress fresh out of drama school and new to the city. Through a friend of a family friend, I’ve found a sublet, a one-room walk-up with a sleep alcove on the Upper East Side over by the river. It’s grimy and it’s cold, and as winter approaches, I cover the bed with my coat, a flea-market moth-eaten fur (remember this detail).
I’ve been offered a paid internship at an Off-Broadway theatre. The associate producer takes me under her wing, like a surrogate mother of sorts. I act in readings, sit in on auditions and rehearsals, copy scripts, read and comment on scripts. I get my first acting gig there. Granted, it’s a small part, but it’s a start. I get an Equity card. The producer invites me to out to a show and dinner with her husband, arguably the most powerful agent in the business at the time, and his best buddy, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter.
I’m nervous at dinner, but I’m also worldly, opinionated, and know a thing or two about the theatre. I drink too much expensive wine, but still, here I am at the center of power, and I’m holding my own.
It’s late and dark, the screenwriter offers to walk me the few blocks home. I accept. I invite him up for a beer to continue our conversation, about theatre, most likely, though I don’t remember. What do I know (or care) about men’s behavior or desire? I’m madly in love with the associate producer, think of her day and night. Anyway, he could be my uncle. He’s at least twenty years older than me. I am flattered by his attention and interest, which I take to mean that he might cast me in his next movie.
What happens between our sitting on the couch and landing in the alcove on my bed, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that I was very lucky because the screenwriter couldn’t get it up. Perhaps it was too cold. Perhaps my body resisted, and this demoralized his manly organ. Perhaps this embarrassed him. I remember him leaving at some point. When I woke out of a drunken stupor the next morning, there was a $100 bill on my bed with a note telling me to buy myself a blanket.
I can’t say which came first, the humiliation or the fury. I reported what happened to the associate producer. Her response was a deep sigh and a shake of the head. I don’t know if she said anything to her husband or to the screenwriter.
I never saw or heard from the screenwriter again. But sometime after this incident, I did run into the powerful agent, the husband of the associate producer, at a reading and he invited me to come in and see him. I never did. Within a few months, I had extricated myself completely from the acting business. It had left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt debased. I began to see the whole profession in a new light. I noticed that in the plays I was going up for the male characters treated the women characters in the same way as the screenwriter had treated me. I began taking classes full time at Hunter College, in history and philosophy. I got a teaching degree. I felt like a human being, respected for my mind. That should have been the end of it for the theatre and me.
And then, as fate would have it, I wrote a first play. I was finishing a master’s in journalism at the time. The insistence on “objectivity” in print journalism felt constraining and dishonest (who knew that objectivity would come to seem like a blessing). I wrote another play and then another, and suddenly I was back in theatre, this time as a writer. I completely forgot about the screenwriter, until one day his untimely death from a heart attack was announced on public radio. I was happy to hear the news, but quickly erased it from my mind.
A pox on Harvey Weinstein, for what he did to so many women. Like others, I’ve felt depressed since the scandal broke. Still, the whole tawdry thing has forced me to pause and reflect on what happened to me all those years ago. I’m no psychologist, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the episode with the screenwriter had a lasting effect, despite my having repressed it for so long. I would hazard a guess that I internalized the humiliation, and that my treatment at the hands of the screenwriter groomed me for a lifetime of humiliation in the theatre.
Unless you have been exceptionally lucky, you will have been humiliated by someone in the theatre, and not once, but over and over.
You might be surprised to learn that humiliation is a field of inquiry in its own right. In 2001, the German social psychologist, Evelin Lindner, established an institute, or “global network,” her preferred term, to study humiliation. She called it Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies.
Writing in a journal of psychology, Lindner and her co-researchers (or co-Nurturers of Dignity, as they refer to themselves) describe their mission thus:
We suggest, that it is time to fully acknowledge the “radioactive” potential of humiliation that poisons human relationships and obstructs constructive political engagement, both locally and globally. In essence, we contend that humiliation is “a nuclear bomb of emotions,” perhaps the most toxic social dynamic of our age…[It] is crucial to recognize that we are always working with partial knowledge and this knowledge will grow clearer as more people—from all realms of society, from all backgrounds and experience—contribute to the conversation.
This is my attempt to contribute to that conversation.
Unless you have been exceptionally lucky, you will have been humiliated by someone in the theatre, and not once, but over and over. Writing in Psychology Today, the psychiatrist Neel Burton reminds us that
Humiliation need not involve an act of violence or coercion. A person can readily be humiliated through more passive means such as being ignored or overlooked, taken for granted, or denied a certain right or privilege…by being rejected, abandoned, abused, betrayed, or used as a means-to-an-end rather than an end-in-him[her]self. To humiliate someone…is to deny [their] very humanity.
You may not like to talk about what happened to you. As Neel Burton also points out “people who are in the process of being humiliated are usually left stunned and speechless, and, more than that, voiceless.”
But we all have our theatre stories. I want to share another here, however painful and embarrassing. You will notice, I am not naming names. I doubt this essay would be published if I insisted on naming names, but I wouldn’t want to anyway. Such stories are a dime a dozen, the offenders, interchangeable. For better or worse, bad behavior in the theatre is much more widespread than some might like to believe or admit, right across the country (there are, of course, the noble exceptions). And if sexual offenders are overwhelmingly men, when it comes to dishing out humiliation more generally, women are, sadly, right up there with their male counterparts. Anyway, here’s the story, it happened not all that long ago.
The artistic associates, folks in the literary departments, casting agents, literary agents, know what is going on. …Some of them have also suffered humiliation at the hands of these people. But by saying nothing, they are complicit. In fact, by saying nothing we’re all complicit.
On one of my rare trips to the city, the artistic director of a major Off-Broadway theatre known for championing new writing agrees to meet me. We’ve met in the past; I’ve even had a few readings there, but it’s been a while. As I take my seat in front of his desk, he lets me know in so many words that I’ve crossed a line by requesting to meet with him instead of one of his subordinates. In this way, he has put me on notice from the get-go that this meeting is an act of generosity, perhaps mercy, and I should be very thankful. I swallow, probably thank him, and make my pitch. I think I have convinced the artistic director to take a look at a new play of mine and am feeling fairly good about the meeting, all things considered, when he asks me who else I am seeing while in town. I mention the literary manager at another Off-Broadway theatre, who is a fan, apparently. The artistic director looks incredulous and tells me, “They’ll never produce your work.” I don’t ask him to explain himself, I say nothing. For however many minutes the meeting lasts, I am simply fighting with all my strength to hold back tears of fury. I am stunned and speechless. I feel like crawling out of the building. (The original meaning of the verb humiliation is to “bring low.” The Latin root of the noun, “humus,” translates as “earth” or “dirt.” I think that sums it up pretty well.)
Would this artistic director have treated me differently if I had been a man? I don’t think we’ve had the studies yet on this aspect of discrimination. My hunch is yes. I suspect though, that men’s reactions to humiliation are different from women’s. I had a friend who immediately cut off anyone who tried to humiliate him. He may have lost some opportunities in his chosen profession, but he had his self-respect. I don’t know too many women who could or would allow themselves this luxury. They’d be cutting off right, left, and center. Most women, never having had power, are not in the habit of successfully resisting its practices. And whether sexual or otherwise, humiliation is a function of power.
Not a lot needs to be said about power in the theatre. Though theatre has become irrelevant to the culture at large and also to most of cultured society, within its tiny confines, its leaders wield tremendous power, as we all know. Unlike other businesses, this power is unbridled, there’s no human resources department, for example, where one might address a complaint. We have our artists’ organizations, of course, Actor’s Equity and the Dramatists Guild, but they’re busy with the nuts and bolts of the profession. I’m not aware of their taking any action regarding the dignity of their members and what would that look like, anyway?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can think of no example of an artistic director who has been called on their bad behavior. As I have suggested by my example, they use their power to bring artists low, but they also make and prop up the careers of others in a profession of utter scarcity. They are apparently beholden to their boards, but these mysterious boards are focused on success measured by fund-raising and filling seats. The nearest analogy I can find for too many theatres is that of fiefdoms with weird kings and queens, spiteful and cruel in equal measure; sadists surrounded by sycophants. A more measured assessment might explain artistic directors’ propensity for humiliating artists as the professional, often oblivious, reflex of those with unchecked power.
I see no reason to hold out hope that these artistic directors will change. Some of the worst offenders are likely to step forward in light of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and feign outrage. Where there is power, there is hypocrisy. I gave up long ago thinking that nailing some Luther-like proclamation on Best Practices for Artistic Directors and Their Staff to the doors of theatres would make any difference. The artistic associates, folks in the literary departments, casting agents, literary agents, know what is going on. Some of them are also expert in the art of humiliation, while others appear helpless against it. Some of them have also suffered humiliation at the hands of these people. But by saying nothing, they are complicit. In fact, by saying nothing we’re all complicit.
The culture critic, Neal Gabler, in a tremendous piece on the cultural meaning of Weinstein and Trump’s abuse, identifies practically every one of us as enablers. For Gabler, enablers are the root of the problem, not the Trumps and Weinsteins. I’m going to quote Gabler at some length because I think what he has to say is important, also for us in the theatre.
This is about the people who let the louts get away with their behavior: the enablers. This is about how we live in a culture of enabling where people are increasingly complicit in letting power define values, which is a way of letting our values steadily erode…In short, this isn’t about Weinstein’s and Trump’s failings of personal character. It is about the failings of our social character. …Weinstein…was a reprehensible human being even without accounting for his treatment of women. His bullying, his rants, his temper, his reign of terror were common knowledge in Hollywood for decades. Apparently, his sexual harassment was an open secret too. Dozens if not hundreds of people knew. Those who worked for him and facilitated his liaisons knew. Those agents who sent clients to him knew…A number of entertainment journalists knew. They all knew. …Now that Weinstein’s cover is blown, the excuse the enablers have proffered for their silence is fear—fear that he would take revenge, fear that he would blacklist them in Hollywood and abort their careers, or, among journalists, fear that he would pull ads from their publications. The other side of the fear was favor. …It doesn’t take much to see how feeble these excuses are. When you break them down, they amount to this: I was willing to pimp for Harvey Weinstein so that I could advance my career. For, in reality, it wasn’t fear that motivated these enablers. It was opportunism, and it was the vicarious exhilaration they got from drafting in the wake of Weinstein’s power…
I do see a ray of light in the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I agree with many others that this may be a transformative moment, a cultural shift. The transformation will have to come from us, though, at whatever cost. This means we have to change our reaction patterns. Speak out, storm out. We must reclaim our dignity. Swallowing our humiliation, sweeping the dirt under the carpet, is no longer acceptable. No encounter with an artistic director or a member of their staff should end in humiliation, sexual or otherwise, ever again. Not only have we been damaged by our silence, but the theatre, itself, has been damaged. Let’s face it, many of the most sensitive, the most wounded, have walked away, taking their talents with them.
It has always seemed ironic to me that an art form that takes as its subject our humanity, should be in the hands of people who show so little humanity when it comes to the treatment of artists. But historically speaking, this is nothing new. Let’s take as an example female actors, who made their first appearances on British stages in the Restoration period and were subject to humiliation and associated with prostitutes, who, god knows, have lived with degradation from the beginning of recorded history. (I can’t help thinking here of that $100 note left on my bed as a young actress.) And it occurs to me that along with our personal memories there is also a historical memory of humiliation that lives on in the theatre. So, perhaps, the final demise of this dying institution isn’t such a bad prospect, after all, making way for a future theatre that treats its artists with dignity.