Ben Vereen: The Necessary Fallout & the Needed Solution

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In case you haven't heard already, this morning the New York Daily News published an article detailing allegations of sexual misconduct against Tony-winning actor and Broadway legend, Ben Vereen. In the article, four actresses claim that Mr. Vereen sexually assaulted and/or harassed them during a 2015 production of Hair which he directed at the Venice Theatre in Florida. Multiple other cast members came forward with claims of other abuses as well. 

As mentioned in the article, I did have a hand in the publishing of this story by just connecting the victims with journalists who would report on it fairly and responsibly. 

The claims are terrible. They include forced physical contact such as kissing, fondling, sexual coercion as well as illicit texting and, in my opinion, the worst mental abuse of a cast by a director I've ever seen. 

Mr. Vereen doesn't seem to be denying these claims either. In a statement provided to the Daily News, he admits to misconduct and asks for forgiveness. 

“I would like to apologize directly to the female cast members of the musical ‘Hair’ for my inappropriate conduct when I directed the production in 2015. While it was my intention to create an environment that replicated the themes of that musical during the rehearsal process, I have since come to understand that it is my conduct, not my intentions, which are relevant here. So I am not going to make any excuses because the only thing that matters here is acknowledging and apologizing for the effects of my conduct on the lives of these women. Going forward, my having come to terms with my past conduct will inform all my future interactions not only with women, but with all individuals. I hope these women will find it in their hearts to accept my sincere apology and forgive me."

 Ben Vereen directing Hair at the Venice Theatre in 2015. Photo:  Renee McVety

Ben Vereen directing Hair at the Venice Theatre in 2015. Photo:  Renee McVety

While Mr. Vereen's contrition seems sincere, it doesn't absolve him for what he apparently did in Venice, Florida two years ago. On a human level, it's terrible. In the space of theatre, it's unforgivable. 

I don't think I'm romanticizing when I say that the rehearsal process of a show is a sacred time for an actor. It's where expression is explored, boundaries are tested and where long-standing walls are broken down. It's an intimate and vulnerable period where trust in your fellow performers, but most of all, your director is a necessity. 

These experiences are what the cast of Hair expected to have when accepting their roles. They did not sign up to have their director allegedly use his position and, in the case of Theatre Hall of Famer Mr. Vereen, his role-model status as a mechanism for sexual purposes. 

So what happens now?

I'd like to think that we can all agree that if someone uses their position or occupation to sexually abuse/harass others, then they should never be allowed to return to that profession. I feel the same about teachers, coaches, priests or government employees. 

So yes, a theatre professional who does the same, should never be allowed back into the theatre again. 

And yes, I believe he should be removed from the American Theater Hall of Fame. While this doesn't erase the many productions and honors Mr. Vereen has achieved in his career, it wouldn't be right for his name to appear alongside individuals who apparently never used their theatrical stature to sexually victimize others or worse yet, suffered abuses themselves. 

Is that harsh? Yes. Is it justified? I believe so. Does it repair the emotional scars these women have to live with and work through for the rest of their lives? Not even close. 

While this story is a sad, disgusting and infuriating bookend to an illustrious career, I believe it is the door-opening kick the theatre industry needs in addressing sexual misconduct within its ranks.

With the emergence of the "#metoo" movement, the Broadway community hasn't nearly been impacted the way that the film industry and political circles have. But we know that this kind of abuse has been rampant for decades. As lurid and shocking as the allegations against Mr. Vereen are, tragically they are similar to the many stories I've heard in the past that have never come to light. 

So now that the misconduct of one of their treasured own has come to light, the theatre industry needs to get serious when it comes to preventing this in the future. Forums and discussions are a good starting point but we need unions, producers and theatrical organizations to listen and take action. 

I remain positive that changes will be made. In fact, some have happened and others are on the way.

Last October, I brought up the past of resident Phantom of the Opera, James Barbour and Broadway's forgiveness of his sexual abuse conviction. Eleven days later, despite healthy box office receipts, Barbour left the production. 

And on January 16th, the strongest initiative towards education and mediation when it comes to sexual harassment within the theatre industry is going to be put in motion.

Actress Marin Ireland and Civil Rights Attorney Norman Siegel, with the support of the theatrical unions and guilds, will launch the Theatrical Community Sexual Harassment Education and Mediation Pilot Project (Pilot Project for short). 

"Under the education component, the Pilot Project will set out to provide written material informing individuals of their rights regarding sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, sexual abuse, and criminal conduct. Through an affiliation with New York theatres, the project encourages artistic directors to make a statement at every show’s first company meeting clearly explaining what constitutes as sexual harassment and the theatre’s zero-tolerance policy. Every person working on the production will be given the names of the theatre’s Human Resources department, Actor’s Equity (who has worked with the Pilot Project to train business reps to address sexual harassment complaints), as well as the correct point of contact at the Actor’s Fund—should such an incident occur. The cast and crew, as well as the staff at the theatre will also be given information on how to participate in the Pilot Project’s mediation process.

The mediation sector will give individuals in the theatre industry who are involved in incidents of non-criminal sexual harassment the option of engaging in a confidential mediation process overseen by a neutral certified mediator (volunteers will be working pro bono during the six-month test period). Possible resolutions as a result of mediation could include: an apology, a commitment to end unwanted behavior of a sexual nature—and in some instances, future counseling."

Initiatives like these are a great starting point for great change in the industry and I hope it continues. But as it does, more stories of sexual abuse and misconduct will be exposed. These stories might shock, sadden or anger you. But remember that whatever you feel is a tiny fraction compared to what victims of sexual abuse and harassment have to live with, often in silence. 

The "#metoo" movement is not just empowerment, it's unraveling generations of abuse that a population of people should never have had to endure in the first place. While some might call it "modern-day McCarthyism"(which is just stupid), it is not up to us to decide how long or painful that band-aid is to take off. 

While working on this story, I have become proud to know these women. This wasn't about sensationalism or feeding tabloid culture. This was about working through trauma, raising awareness and hopefully preventing an individual from continuing to work in an industry he allegedly used to abuse them. Their bravery, honesty and the fact that they are still standing is an inspiring thing to see. 

I hope that more men and women come forward with their stories of abuse, it will only aid exposing, healing and hopefully prevention. 

Some might feel that this is heroes falling from grace. I say, given their actions, they should never have had the opportunities to become that in the first place.