It happened 14 years ago, but Twin Cities theater professional Deb Ervin remembers the episode as if it were yesterday.
Then a University of Minnesota student, Ervin had snagged an unpaid gig as an assistant stage manager at a community theater. But the opportunity turned into a real-world experience for which she was not ready.
“As I was preparing for a rehearsal, I was in a backroom and the set designer just came up behind me and started kissing my neck and licking me,” she recalled. “He was in his late 30s. I was 20. I tried to make a joke and whisked myself away, totally grossed out. We never talked about it, and it never happened again.”
Ervin didn’t report the incident, partly because she didn’t want to be labeled a troublemaker. But the unwanted encounter made her vow to work only with companies where she says she can feel safe. For her, those are ones where “we’re constantly talking about male privilege and about boundaries,” said Ervin, who is now associate director of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis. “Once women know they’re empowered to talk about their experiences, they will come forward, unlike the younger version of me.”
Her memories have come rushing back with accusations of sexual misconduct by famous men in the entertainment industry. In the theater world, Dallas Theater Center recently fired the director of its “Christmas Carol,” saying in a public statement that it had received a complaint about “inappropriate behavior” by him.
Members of the Twin Cities theater community are asking themselves what they can do to create safer environments for actors, designers and crew in a field where risk-taking is prized and boundaries get blurred.
Based on interviews with more than two dozen theater artists and administrators, it’s clear that theaters are taking a fresh look at their policies on harassment and inappropriate behavior. Some are adopting formal safeguards for the first time. Others, like the Guthrie Theater, are refreshing their policies.
The danger to young artists
Young people may be particularly vulnerable to harassment. They are more likely to find opportunities at smaller, emerging companies, some of which don’t have sexual harassment protocols in place.
Newcomers also may be less comfortable coming forward, said Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a New York-based service organization. “They’re entering the field of professional theater, and if they don’t have education about their rights, it becomes more difficult,” she said.
Aidan Jhane Gallivan is in that vulnerable demographic. A 23-year-old actor, director and designer, she has experienced inappropriate behavior and called it out, although, she noted, she has been careful not to cause a stink. Competition for roles and opportunities creates an environment ripe for abuse, she said.
“There are so many talented young women in town, and all of them are trying to work,” Gallivan said. “That competition lends itself to a conspiracy of silence. It’s a problem that pervades the industry. We deal with a lot of intimacy in our field, a lot of trust and vulnerability, and those are double-edged things for which you get praised and yet also make you a potential victim.”
One budding actor, Pegeen Lamb, 26, said she recently decided to leave the field after unsavory encounters with three directors. A Minneapolis native and graduate of the Guthrie Theater/University of Minnesota acting program, she dreamed of becoming a classical actor. Now, she manages a Twin Cities bridal shop.
“The whole structure of young women begging men in power to approve of them is horrible,” said Lamb, who felt her training was disregarded, and she was judged almost entirely on her looks and sex appeal.
“A director has a lot of power in this business,” she said, “and when he’s texting you at 1:30 in the morning, asking about your body and your clothes, it just creeps you out. You don’t want to go to work crying or fearful every day.”
Creating safer environments
Pillsbury House Theatre and Illusion Theater have harassment policies in place, while other companies, including Ten Thousand Things and Theater Mu, are writing them for the first time.
“It’s an important moment, and I hope that we use it to create much safer environments for all theater professionals,” said Ten Thousand Things founder Michelle Hensley, who said she is working with a group of actresses to develop a policy. “Artists have to get hired four or five times a year by different people and it’s a very vulnerable situation to be in,” she said. “The whole set-up is absolutely ripe for abuse. That’s partly why I started my own theater company, so I wouldn’t be at anyone else’s mercy.”
Eyring of Theatre Communications Group said she has heard from many companies that are refining their policies. And, because theaters employ so many freelance artists, she believes it’s important to reiterate policies often: “Bring them out at first rehearsal and make sure everyone there knows that these are the policies. Whether or not you’re full-time, these apply to you, and if you’re a victim of harassment, here is what you do.”
But rules are only as good as the understanding and enforcement of them, said Ervin of Heart of the Beast. “You can’t just post something on the wall and expect to call it a day. It has to be part of what you breathe and live and discuss every day.”
A time of awakening
The scope and scale of the problems are becoming apparent to all, said Noël Raymond, co-artistic director at Pillsbury House Theatre. “Every woman I know has at least one story of sexual harassment — every single one. When the #MeToo thing recently erupted on social media, it was just so sad, and liberating, to see how many people have been harassed. It’s also good, though, that we’re in a moment where women, and some men, feel empowered to speak out.”
Veteran actor, writer and director Sun Mee Chomet does not have a problem speaking out about behavior in the workplace. She said she encountered “hostile and inappropriate behavior” earlier this year from a fellow cast member of the Guthrie’s “King Lear,” and reported it to the theater’s management.
After investigating her complaint, the Guthrie took steps to strengthen its long-standing guidelines to guard employees against harassment of all kinds, not just sexual. The new policy, aimed at protecting actors and other artists hired on a show-by-show basis, is now read aloud on the first day of rehearsals and the first day of tech rehearsals. The theater also posts contact information for all of its key leaders, to whom confidential complaints may be addressed.
“We have a harassment-free workplace, and we communicate that directly to our artists,” said Guthrie managing director Jennifer Bielstein. “There’s been a lot of dialogue around this in the field in recent years, and most of our theaters” — meaning the League of Resident Theaters, which represents the nation’s largest regional playhouses — “have strong policies and values in place.”
She noted, “We have an unusual environment where people sometimes kiss in a scene, or are dressing in rooms where others are changing clothes. So we know these types of things can occur, and we need to be better in communicating directly with artists that if they are feeling harassment, in any form, they need to bring it to our attention.”
Chomet is glad she did. “The theater was a model for how to handle something like this, but I was scared about coming forward. I didn’t want to be known as a troublemaker, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my chances of ever being in a Guthrie show again. I just wanted to get a chance to do what actors do, which is explore everything in a safe environment.”
Correction: Earlier versions of this story included a mischaracterization of Sun Mee Chomet's harassment complaint to the Guthrie and an erroneous quote from Michelle Hensley.
Rohan Preston contributed to this report.