The XX Factor

Professional Theater Has a Sexual Harassment Problem

Marin Ireland is fighting back against sexual harassment and abuse in the theater world.

Photo by Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

In the New York Times this weekend, reporter Patrick Healy detailed a burgeoning movement to reduce the problem of sexual harassment and violence in the world of professional theater. Healy interviewed “45 performers, dancers, writers, directors and other theater artists from around the country” and found that the problem of sexual harassment is endemic, and that most of the current solutions are toothless. 

At the heart of the matter is how different it is working in theater than in typical work environments:

While sexual misconduct and harassment policies have become more stringent in places from university campuses to dot-com start-ups, theater remains largely unregulated. And it is a unique work environment, one that asks employees to flirt and kiss, argue and fight, strip naked and simulate sex eight times a week for what can be months on end. After hours, sexual encounters are common among cast members; actors date one another, and directors sometimes date their actors. When powerful people behave badly, they have agents to protect them.

Theater culture is different. There can’t exactly be a rule against fraternizing with your colleagues when your colleagues are different for every job. (Your boyfriend may not be your director now, but he very well could be for the next show.) But the combination of this loose attitude about dating your co-workers and the intense competition for jobs makes it very easy for those who want to harass to get away with it.

Healy found that old-fashioned quid pro quo harassment—exchanging work favors or using threats to get sex out of unwilling underlings—continues to be a major problem in the theater world. Actor and playwriting fellow at Julliard, Hilary Bettis, told Healy that she even encountered a producer who “offered to help finance a show of hers if she would masturbate him.” Another five interviewees, four men and one woman, cited similar experiences. Also common was using people’s ambitions as leverage to harass, knowing they’d be too afraid of losing opportunities to complain. 

Part of the problem is there’s no formal structure to deal with these issues. Stage managers “are usually not trained to deal with harassment” and “their primary interest is keeping the show running smoothly since they report to management,” Healy writes. The Actors’ Equity has anti-harassment policies, but most of Healy’s interviewees felt that they are hard to enforce, not confidential enough, are not very proactive, and require the victim to do a lot of heavy lifting, which is terrifying to someone who relies on having a good reputation to get work. 

Tony-nominated actress Marin Ireland, along with a group of about 500 actors and other theater professionals, is trying to change this, asking the Actors’ Equity to institute more thorough policies to fight against harassment and violence. They’re asking the union “to have a statement read on the first day of rehearsals for all Broadway and professional shows that describes how to file complaints about harassment or other unprofessional behavior; to designate union officials to handle these complaints; and to create a confidential mediation process where complainants and the accused can talk through instances of harassment, misconduct and abuse with a mediator and without fear of penalties,” writes Healy. 

Ireland’s own personal story is driving her. She was starring in a production of Troilus and Cressida with her then-boyfriend, Scott Shepherd, when, as Healy writes, “according to interviews with both” Ireland and Shepherd, the couple got in a physical fight that ended with Shepherd giving her a black eye. When she showed up at rehearsals with that black eye, some fellow actors were outraged and wanted him punished, but overall, “Ms. Ireland said that she came to feel that instead of doing something about Mr. Shepherd, a company veteran, the Wooster Group was putting the onus on her to stay or quit the play,” Healy writes.  

While Ireland’s story is an extreme example in Healy’s piece, it illustrates why regulation of this situation is so important. Stronger polices can refocus blame where it belongs, on the person who is harassing or abusing.