The Sexual-Abuse and Harassment Scandals Blowing Up on Broadway and The Theatre World Beyond
At a powerful event at New York City’s Public Theater, actors and theater makers from on and off Broadway told stories of sexual abuse and harassment, and how best to fight back.
The young woman said she did not have stage fright. She was looking around the room to see if the alleged perpetrator of the sexual assault she had endured was there.
“I don’t say that just as a victim, but also a witness of an assault,” she said.
The alleged perpetrator made “a ton of money” for a theatrical organization. The young woman did not. She had felt guilty about not coming forward as both a victim and a witness of abuse, she said, but “the biggest impact” of an assault was felt by victims rather than by perpetrators.
“Sometimes the only sense of power in these situations was in choosing when to come forward,” she added, speaking of those she knew who had yet to speak about what had happened to them. “I am outing myself as a witness to a crime,” the woman said. “I want to say to the other witnesses, ‘I am one of you.’” When they were ready to come forward, she would be there to support them.
In the space of two intense hours, the stories flooded forth.
In the audience of the Anspacher Theater of New York City’s Public Theater, people—the majority of them women—who work within the city’s theatrical industries gathered Monday afternoon to discuss sexual abuse, harassment, and assault on and off Broadway, and sometimes far from Broadway, at a “town hall” event.
Two microphones had been set up. There was no panel of experts but rather a sharing of experiences, memories, stories, advice, pain, courage, bravery, and strength. Only one man stood up to share his experience of assault and harassment.
The event was organized in the wake of the sexual-abuse and harassment scandals assailing so many industries and as rumors swept New York’s theater community that an exposé or exposés on Broadway abusers and harassers was about to be published. After the recently revealed scandals involving James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera and Peter Martins at New York City Ballet, theaterland appears to be the natural next focus.
Casting director Justin Huff was fired from Telsey + Co. last week following allegations of sexual misconduct. In early November, Variety reported the Actors Equity Association reminded theatrical employers that harassment policies should be addressed on the first day of work.
Broadway, one woman said at the Public's town hall, was “the Wild West. You just take your chances.” She had been sexually harassed, she said, by a famous person. Her mother had told her not to make a fuss. Well, she said drily, if that was her mother’s advice she would obviously not follow it. So she began to make a fuss and reported the incident. Her colleagues, she said, had pleaded with her, “Please don’t. It will be bad for us.”
The woman paused in her recollection and said, disbelievingly, “Bad for you?”
As a preschool teacher, she had tried to “raise kids not to be assholes.” Working on Broadway, it had been “terrifying” to see people “not being decent to each other.” Just as in preschool, punishments had to be enforced to show accountability, she said.
She had been fortunate: The two men who oversaw her sexual-harassment complaint had listened to her and acted quickly and positively. “Now I’m going to take my HR [human resources] experience, and where there isn’t HR, I will be the HR people,” she said.
The “town hall” structure of Monday’s “(Mis)Conduct” event, inspired by the Quaker tradition of “deep listening and sharing,” forbade the mentioning of specific names or organizations, said Stephanie Ybarra, director of special artistic projects at the Public. (The Public has also published a list of resources relating to sexual abuse and harassment for those working in theater.)
Ybarra said the Public had held a similar event after the election of President Trump, with the question—shared with this event—of “What next?” as the theatrical community confronted “decades and decades of insidious behavior, sexual abuse, and misuse of power.” People would be limited to speak for two minutes.
A stagehand said in her field of work she was one of four women working with 200 men.
“They talk about what they want to do to their girlfriends. There are microaggressions, like them telling me I’m not strong enough to move a box, then they tell me they like watching me push a box so they can watch my ass.”
The stagehand had complained. Her boss’ solution was to say she wouldn’t have to work with that person, or “I could walk away and find a job elsewhere.”
She was incredulous that this “solution” would see her leaving a job she loved and was qualified to do.
“So I can’t pay my rent and student loans because some guy can’t keep his pants zipped,” she said angrily.
Why were there so few women working in technical areas, why were there so few female stage designers? she asked. “I’m so tired of comments about my boobs, about the way I walk, about not being strong enough, but then that it’s ‘nice to see something while they’re working.’”
A staff member from Signature Theatre noted that when scandals break and organizations choose to fire people, those decisions are financial ones: The organizations worry that the scandal will adversely affect ticket sales. Those decisions are also far too late. “As theater artists, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we don’t hire people who hurt other people,” the woman stated, to applause.
The stories kept coming.
An actor of 11 years’ standing had been sexually assaulted while preparing a scene. She asked if some of the silence around sexual abuse and harassment in the industry was down to the dreams held by aspiring actors, “and the fragility of those dreams and how vulnerable that makes you. You put up with the behavior in pursuit of them.” You may lose your dream if you speak out, she said.
A playwright said that one might feel unsafe on the subway or the street, "but you can feel unsafe in a rehearsal room." How can one make performing love scenes safer? she asked. “Not everyone wants a hug all the time,” she said. “Not everyone wants a massage. This is not to say to walk on eggshells, but an unwanted physical thing can make people feel unsafe.”
An actor stood up to say she had been assaulted by her acting coach two years ago. He did the same to two of her peers. “I am finally at a place where I want to tell people.” The coach had worked with the Public, she added. “His tactic was to prey on directly out of college actors, not in the industry, not in the union, with no resources or institutional help.”
Another woman said she had had an awful experience reporting the alleged perpetrator of her sexual assault to theater bosses.
She was not given the opportunity to be anonymous but was told her name was not shared with the perpetrator.
“It felt like everyone in the office was looking at me. It felt like the whole meeting the HR woman was covering their [the company’s] ass, as if she did not understand something bad had happened to me. A couple of weeks later I was told ‘appropriate action’ had been taken ‘to ensure this conduct does not repeat itself.’”
The woman laughed drily: “There was no person connected to that action.” She was told the alleged perpetrator had been granted anonymity, even though his name had been discussed in meetings and written in emails. “I don’t know if he’s been fired. I don’t know anything. She [the HR representative] has closed my case, but I don’t have closure. I won’t go back there to see shows in case he is there.”
Every news alert about sexual abuse and harassment is like a “gut punch,” the woman said. Initially she had a tendency “to process alone” what had happened to her but had found the benefits, and recommended to others the same, of speaking to loved ones and friends, “instead of just living with it—that sucks even more.”
One young woman, a carpenter at the Public, said how valuable the event was, but not to forget that so many people who would benefit from it, and from the advice and strength to be gained from it, couldn’t be there. They had to work.
Younger women had spoken first at the meeting, one asking “as a cis woman” how would she not be silenced by non-binary and trans activists urging her not to “gender sexual assault.”
A survivor of sexual assault herself, she had been told by a female DA that there was no way to prove her assault had been different from the sex she had been having.
She said lawmakers, even liberal ones, “could not be trusted” to enforce positive change. That change came from “culture” and from everyone making themselves “a little less comfortable” in speaking up and challenging wrongdoing. “We are in this room, and the people who have the means will change it,” she said.
Another woman said she had been one of those whose story had led to The New York Times highlighting the alleged sexual misconduct of Israel Horovitz. He had “stolen” a year and a half of her life, she said.
She asked why the Actors Studio or Columbia University had not taken action against Horovitz sooner.
“I don’t have a good sum-up, but fuck him,” she concluded. (Beau Gravitte, artistic director of the Actors Studio, stood up to say he had just taken over running the institution, having inherited an organization of “non-action. It can happen. It can change,” he said.)
A 19-year-old stood up to say she felt a lot of guilt over how and if she could cut an alleged abuser (of two friends) out of her life.
Another young woman cautioned against responding too “violently” to rumors and accusations, which could prove “toxic and dangerous.” If the pendulum was swinging extremely in favor of those now speaking out about abuse and harassment, she could imagine a time when it would swing back, just as violently, against them.
The young woman asked what was gained if people simply lost their jobs and livelihoods as a result of being accused or prosecuted. “How can we show love and compassion to people who have made mistakes?” she asked.
It was important, she said, to “have both sides”: to punish those who have committed wrongdoing, and for there to be the just repercussions flowing from that, but also “remembering our love and compassion” for people who are still human beings. “I want people to do better,” she said.
Another speaker earned a cheer, and a round of clicked-finger applause, by stating simply, “We can’t afford to be assholes to each other anymore. If someone has told you you’re an asshole, check it out, because maybe you are.”
A survivor of rape said compassion was wasted on abusers. “We want to think sexual assaulters and rapists are like us, and that education works, but my experience is what they did is a final degree in a number of steps they have taken to treat someone inhumanely.”
The speaker recommended "zero tolerance and mandatory firings" for all abusers.
One woman wondered if a “truth and reconciliation commission,” akin to what had been used in South Africa and Bosnia, would be a useful model to emulate in addressing sexual abuse and harassment.
One male actor said he had worked on Broadway for 18 years and now taught young people. He wanted to know how the theater world could start afresh. If it was impossible to change “the last 100 years of theater,” how could the industry construct a new code or way of working?
A second man, a playwright, stood up to say the “tissue” around sexual abuse and harassment” could not be separated from other oppressive social systems upheld by “reticence and an inability to say and speak the things we see. People we all know stay quiet.” The issue was not just about sex but also race and class. The challenge was to oversee change “without burning down everything.”
An older woman stood up to ask why “we are acting as if we are surprised. We can’t be surprised. If I opened the Times and read that the pope was a sexual predator, I would not be surprised.”
Another theater practitioner said she had worked in the theater communities of Chicago and Austin, “so tiny” that everybody is friends or linked and there is “no one to hear you.” There should be a coalition of theaters within which it was possible to submit anonymous complaints, too, she added, deriding, to cheers, the effectiveness of “a fucking Human Resources department.” Whisper networks were powerful, she said. “But now it’s time for a speaking network.”
A dancer, producer, and activist who works as a volunteer for the Crime Victims Treatment Center said most of the sexual harassment and assault she had experienced had been on stage.
It was vital that people in theater spoke about what had happened to them, she said. It might be uncomfortable, she said, “but you have to be right and wrong about it, and everything in between. The only thing that works is a constant conversation involving everybody. The more talk there is about it, the more we create a culture where it is unacceptable everywhere.”
One actor noted the power imbalances on sets, of what a woman risks if she challenges a male playwright or director. Playing by the rules of the male-dominated game, a freelance director noted that she had “craved” attention from older men she worked with, and got it. (She had used both her relative youth and her whiteness, she said.)
Was what she experienced harassment, she wondered aloud. “Probably,” but she was getting a validation from it at the time. She wanted to ensure she was “in” rather than “out” when it came to getting work, and so—as many others may do—had to work within a warped set of power dynamics to advance.
Another woman also spoke of the “blurred boundaries” in theater—the relations and friends who end up employed on productions, and the boundaries between “making personal connections and what happens when that becomes unwanted attention.” The woman asked how one could have a close relationship with a supervisor that was intimate without being abusive.
Another actor told a story of blatant gender discrimination, about a theater company firing her in 2011 when she became pregnant and then finding a sneaky way to deny her severance pay. Sexual harassment, the woman said, did not exist in isolation but rather alongside more general inequality and the wage gap.
An actor of six years’ standing said that as well as being sexually harassed, she noticed “the chronic dismissal of females in the rehearsal room,” contrasting the “privilege of being a man to collaborate freely” with how a woman is “perceived of being a diva. Sexism can be boiled down to the silencing of women. My industry is one of emotions, but if a woman emotes in the rehearsal room, she is seen as crazy.”
The event ended with some stirring words of hope. A 21-year-old accepted, to laughter, that while it was normal for people her age not to believe they are wrong, that they also believe that change is possible. Whisper culture—“avoid this dude on the first day of a job”—was positive, she said.
“When we give up hope that change is not possible, change is never possible,” she said to applause from young and not-so young alike.
An African-American woman said she had felt empowered to be around other women of color in a rehearsal room, only to have a male actor attempt to undermine that power by hitting on her and being crudely suggestive.
The other women in the room let her know they could see what was going on and that it was not OK, she recalled.
Every time the actor offered her a croissant she made a strange, inhuman sound, she said.
This, as desired, put him off.
“Be angry, stay angry, keep doing it,” the woman said. “Yes, it hurts, but let’s keep moving together. Any time someone makes you feel uncomfortable, make a sound.” The audience applauded and laughed.
As theater professionals, she added, “we love people, but we’ve got to make sounds, to say, ‘No, this is not cool.’ We are powerful.”
—With additional reporting by Robert Silverman
If you work on Broadway, or in theater more generally, and want to talk about your experiences of sexual abuse, assault, and/or harassment, please email [email protected]