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Accountability in Educational Theatre and Beyond

It's time to replace your Jimmy.

The theatre industry, like many, has always been a male-led industry, its content and conventions created by and for men. There was a time when women weren't even allowed to perform or attend performances. Yet, somewhere along the line, boys' masculinity began to be measured by how skilled they were at athletics. The performing arts became too "feminine" of a career choice, likely discouraging many young men to try out for the high school play, and thus discouraging a potential introduction to careers in theatre. In high school and community theatre productions, where many current professionals discovered their calling, recruiting men who can act (and sing, and dance) can be difficult. Often, if it's harder to fill male roles, a director or teacher is more willing to be flexible in order to have a successful show. Maybe they add Maria into "Edelweiss" sooner to mask Captain Von Trapp's tone-deafness. Maybe "Jimmy" is late to Thoroughly Modern Millie rehearsal a fourth time and they decide not to cut him because they have no replacement. In educational theatre, where there are usually more talented young women than a show can hold, women are held to different standards. It gets cutthroat. They have to work harder to "outshine" their peers. And they're replaceable. "Millie" gets kicked out if she's consistently late, because "that's how the real world works." And even though "Jimmy" was kind of a nightmare, he still gets cast in the musical the following spring.

Thus, the gender-based double standards in theatre are born. The following list consists of what I've observed men (mainly actors and directors, but designers too) get away with during various theatre productions:

  1. Sexual harassment
  2. Coming into rehearsal intoxicated/hungover in a way that noticeably affects the work at hand
  3. Repeatedly coming in late because of being intoxicated/hungover
  4. Repeatedly coming in late.
  5. Being rude to and/or assaulting crew members
  6. Laziness/generally being unprepared for rehearsal
  7. Disrespecting stage management
  8. Consistently not implementing notes given to them from a director
  9. Improvising lines unrelated to the text just for fun (including in performance, which is almost always a licensing violation)
  10. Disrupting designers' artistic integrity by switching up props and costumes
  11. Misusing prop weapons
  12. Disrupting directors' artistic integrity by making blocking, vocal, or character choices that were not rehearsed
  13. Literally THROWING THINGS
  14. Skipping or short-cutting fight calls
  15. Ignoring the requests of a Fight Captain
  16. Following female actors home from rehearsal
  17. Transphobic remarks in response to being cast in a drag role
  18. Using intimacy in scenes to sexualize and violate scene partners (see #1)

These behaviors, almost all of which I've encountered or heard about repeatedly over the last eight years I've been doing theatre, usually result in no more than a warning (or two or three) given by whoever is in charge (frequently, another man). Or they turn the other way. Second and third chances are given to abusers and bullies. Sometimes, leadership thinks letting these young men remain in the institution could "fix" them and make them realize the error of their ways. Or that those abusers and bullies cannot possibly be replaced by another actor. Little thought is given to what will serve the company of artists as a whole, which still jeopardizes the quality of a production. In educational theatre specifically, it jeopardizes the rest of the students' growth and well-being.

Sure, I've encountered actors and other artists who are not men that have disrespected authority, come in unprepared, and arrived hungover beyond-functioning (in college, everybody has come in hungover…). YET, imagine a rehearsal or show environment where non-male identifying actors repeatedly got away with some combination of the above behaviors. You probably can't. There's a reason. When they behave unprofessionally, they get reprimanded and learn from their mistakes, or are blacklisted from getting cast again. They don't get a chance to repeat problematic behavior. Male theatre artists, however, get second and third gigs. Men get ample opportunity to recreate their misbehavior (and abuse). Men get to leave with their diplomas believing they're invincible and don't have to play by the rules or be decent to others because they have talent. The amount of "talented" guys is limited, and that's why it's just too much of a hassle to replace your Jimmy, who doesn't know his lines or what the word "no" means.

My examples are mostly drawn from my educational experiences (some are from paid gigs). In Regional and Broadway theatre, I'm sure there's lower tolerance for some of the incidents I listed. But this is the culture that allowed the Weinsteins and Cosbys and Spaceys of the world to reap success for so long. It seems obvious to guarantee, but people are still benefiting from the attitude that, in theatre, women are expendable, but men are a finite commodity.

However, just because it's happening to professionals, it doesn't mean it has to keep happening. What if we began to hold men accountable for being both skilled and professional? We must stop letting young theatre artists believe that this is the "real world" when we all have the opportunity to redefine what the real world is. I have some suggestions:

1.) On a larger scale, the solution should start with placing more women in positions of power. As is the case with many industries, there is a major gender disparity in theatre leadership. According to the Wellesley Centers for Women, women have never held more than 27 percent of nonprofit theatre leadership positions at a time. As of 2015, 73 percent of LORT artistic directors and 62 percent of executive directors were White men. These studies also showed that many female employees held positions just one-rung below the top, suggesting that perhaps equally or less qualified men were getting hired above them. Both artistic and executive directors hold a tremendous amount of power over who is hired for their talent and who is fired for their misconduct. At this point in our society, having a male-majority leading your theatre often means misconduct is getting swept under the rug.

According to a study by the League of Professional Theatre Women, an average of 33 percent of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway directors were female between the years 2010 and 2015. If artistic and executive directors hold sway over season selection and who their money is going toward, the director has complete control over the atmosphere of a rehearsal room and the artistic interpretation of a text. There is no shortage of stories about male directors that foster a dictatorial show environment, where only their word goes. There is no shortage of stories about male directors that emotionally/sexually abuse actors under the guise of being a "genius," manipulating them into thinking being pushed beyond their limits in intimate or violent scenes is to their benefit as an artist. Ensuring that female directors are an equitable norm amongst theatre organizations, rather than the minority, will work to healthily craft intense moments in a script and can properly monitor a rehearsal room according to a (likely) first-hand understanding of gendered power dynamics.

The same imbalance is frequently reflected in the composition of educational theatre staff. At Michigan State, for example, of the ten Acting, Voice, & Movement faculty, four are women, but only one of those women holds a full-time professorial appointment. Of the eight faculty who regularly direct mainstage productions, two are women.

In summary: I can't count how many times the behaviors from the above list have occurred and the man in charge has made excuses for a problematic person, or turned the other way. A major cause of this is the systemic lack of gender parity in leadership positions.

2.) For Equity productions (and some non-professional shows), the stage manager will appoint an actor as a "deputy," with the intention that they will serve as a liaison to the stage manager to help maintain a comfortable rehearsal environment. To have more actor eyes looking out for one another, I would suggest appointing two production deputies. And make sure one is a female- and/or trans- identifying student. Again, they are more likely to recognize gendered misconduct and serve as an empathetic sounding board when/if such an issue arises.

3.) Actors, it's time to hold one another accountable. Everyone deserves to practice their craft in a non-threatening and encouraging environment, where their time and skills are valued by a company that behaves professionally and courteously. Step outside yourselves for a moment and question if anyone is being treated unfairly by a director or seems uncomfortable around a certain person. Tell your friend that it puts everyone else at a disadvantage if they're always late. Make sure they understand no one will want to work with them in this industry if they keep yelling at crew members. Think about whether intimate or violent scenes are being handled carefully and purposefully. If they're not listening to a director's notes, say, "Hey, it would help me out if you could [note] like [the director] asked you to do.”

If there is serious harassment occurring, be a diligent ally for your castmate, and help them know their rights and support options. Inform yourself of your Actor's Equity contractual rights, the theatre company's policies, your school's handbook, and local medical/ psychological services.

There is a theme amongst each of these three suggestions—accountability. If we all start looking out for one another, if we keep listening, if we have the courage to do everything in our power to shut down misconduct and misbehavior when it happens—everyone will benefit. Reprimanding students and actors for misbehavior isn’t easy or “fun,” but I urge theatre leadership to allow for the enjoyment and education of working on a show exist within the realm of accountability. It’s possible.

I don’t want to hear the excuse about “ruining his [education, career, reputation]” any longer when he is the one harming other peoples’ educations and experiences. If you truly want to preserve a perpetrator’s growth, hold them accountable for their actions. That is what will prove whether they are fit for the industry. They may recognize their wrongdoings and do better next time. By not holding them accountable, you’re selling them short, too. Give an opportunity for them to learn they are not untouchable, or they will certainly go on being destructive.

If casting is a concern, as an institution, you need to consider the amount of male actors you have available. If they’re scarce, you can advocate for shows that include a greater number of female characters and less male characters. Or, you can check the licensing agreement for whether you are allowed to change the gender of a character. Have prepared understudies. Reach out into the community for replacements if it becomes necessary. Don’t let disrespectful or abusive actors poison the atmosphere of your production because you’re afraid to lose their “talent” from the cast.

Is it time to replace your Jimmy/ Danny/ Roger? If you have to ask, the answer is yes. Your show will be better for all involved. The world will be better. Perhaps he will be better for it too.


Sources & Further Reading

Gender parity stats:

  • http://www.wbur.org/artery/2016/04/13/women-in-theater-boston
  • https://www.wcwonline.org/Active-Projects/womens-leadership-in-resident-theaters
  • http://theatrewomen.org/women-count-2015/

This article is an expansion of a Twitter thread I wrote earlier this summer: https://twitter.com/dontcallmebri_/status/1000212658451288066

Photos:

  • The League of Professional Theatre Women's 2017 Women Stage the World Parade (PC: Erik McGregor)
  • Women's Leadership in Resident Theatres - Executive Summary of Results and Recommendations (The Wellesley Centers for Women)

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