After a pandemic-enforced period of darkness, theaters are returning to normal but a local group wants something better than the old normal.
Members of the Minnesota Theater Accountability Coalition have released a variety of guidelines designed to make creating theater healthier. As co-founder Laura Stearns wrote for Minnesota Playlist, "Leaders need to be willing to cancel the show, to fire the lead actor who puts others' emotional stability at risk, to call out the 'handsy' donor or the board member who doesn't understand what personal space is at a fundraising gala."
Stearns, a survivor of abuse at Children's Theatre Company in the 1980s who sued the theater and artist Jason McLean, convened the first meeting in 2019 of what became MNTAC.
"I called together a group of, like, 15 people to say we need to address harm that is happening in our industry, not just that happened 35 years ago," she said.
Fellow administrator Eric "Pogi" Sumangil wasn't at that first gathering but attended subsequent meetings. The gatherings struck a nerve for the actor, who has written about harm he experienced in the theater community.
"It was, initially, conversations about sexual harassment. But from there, it was, 'What about simply paying a livable wage so we can feel OK to go home and have families?' " said Sumangil, adding that punishingly long hours and low pay are so baked into the "show must go on" mind-set that they feel normal.
Many theatergoers probably don't realize that only a small number of Twin Cities artists make a living from the craft. Most work other jobs on top of the punishing hours-for-little-pay that are common practice in their art form.
MNTAC's "foundational standards" address anti-racism, understanding power dynamics and keeping youngsters safe. The guidelines cover communication, consent, harassment-free environments, work/life balance, healthy workplaces and equity.
It sounds like common sense to disallow racism, misogyny and harassment, but events such as this month's sentencing of an Anoka teacher who sexually abused students and the 2017 cancellation of a hazardous play suggest common sense needs a nudge.
Frank Theatre founder Wendy Knox was one of the first directors to endorse the document. She's friends with Stearns and Maria Asp, also part of the MNTAC administration team.
"It is great having it formalized," Knox said. "It's alarming how much harassment stuff does exist in the community that we're not aware of. Maria said within two days she got several calls from people who were so grateful and then proceeded to tell her their stories of abuse in local theaters."
Knox and Sumangil both speak of a "whisper network" (although Knox hates that term) that has existed in the theater community for years, in which information about problematic artists gets passed along.
"It's creepy when you realize the predators who are so easily dismissed. One I've heard several times is, 'That's just a generational thing.' Well, that doesn't really fly anymore," said Knox, who mentions a director who put his fist through a wall at a rehearsal and an actor who loudly questioned the talent of costars.
Knox said actors are notorious for going off at costume and wardrobe people backstage.
"When I did 'Sound of Music' at the Ordway [in 2007], the poor costumer was subject to being screamed at. This abusive treatment really is there and happening all over. So the idea of shining some light on it is great," she said.
In doing that, MNTAC is part of a movement. Similar organizations have created guidelines in Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles. Even before the standards were published this fall, area theaters were re-examining how they do business.
Jennifer Baldwin-Peden, currently appearing in the Moving Company's "Anamnesis," said she thought she might have to give up acting when her son was born with disabilities. Instead, she finds that more and more companies will accommodate her caregiving schedule.
At the Jungle Theater, they took advantage of 2020-21 downtime to chart a new path.
"It's figuring out the balance between moving work forward and being more humane. We're not doing 10 out of 12 rehearsals [cast and crew work 10 of a consecutive 12 hours] because they're brutal for the actor but even worse for the crew, who are in before and after rehearsals," said Robin Gillette, managing director of the Jungle. "Our Equity contract allows seven shows a week, which usually includes two-show days, but we made the commitment this year to only schedule six shows a week. So, only one show a day, which I'm hoping works out for the box office."
Across the country, there's a movement to shift from six-day workweeks to five. In all of this, the hope is that a better environment leads to better work.
"You can feel when there's a healthy work atmosphere," said Knox. "One thing I hear with Frank shows is artists feeling like they have a huge ownership. It's their show. They made it happen. That kind of pride in their work does radiate from the stage, whereas sometimes you see shows that are train wrecks because the rehearsal process was so fractured or toxic."
Members of MNTAC are making themselves available to address theater companies, not, Sumangil said, as "a group of people coming into your organization to wag their finger at you for a while. It's just trying to encourage everyone to get on the same page and say, 'There needs to be a bigger conversation.' "
Four companies already have endorsed the document but Stearns hopes all area theaters will read the standards aloud at the first rehearsal to indicate, "These are the baseline. You could do a lot more than this" to keep collaborators safe.
Stearns, stressing that the standards represent the labor of a large community of theater artists, knows it will take time for everyone to embrace them.
"We want everybody to be working in the best-case scenario and when it's not working properly, there is a system in place that will help make it work properly. Right now, there's no system," said Stearns, an actor, writer and stage manager who used to be the Guthrie Theater's wigmaster.
MNTAC's document will change. Sumangil said leaders already are using feedback from Twin Cities artists to help it "evolve," even as they work on a structure for oversight. Figuring out what to do when problems arise is part of the next phase of work.
MNTAC's goals are wide-ranging and involve a lot of complicated behaviors. But in the end, Stearns says, it's easy to summarize what they hope to achieve.
"What the document is asking theaters to do is prioritize the people over the art they're producing," she said.