As a Director, I Failed to Protect My Actress from Sexual Harassment
For the past couple of months, I have been fortunate enough to speak with dozens of men and women who were subjected to various forms of sexual misconduct with the entertainment industry. Listening to them has opened my mind to a variety of issues and changed many previously held opinions. But it has also made me think back on my own interactions and dealings as both a man and theatrical artist. I've been asking myself two questions:
1. Was I apart of the problem?
2. What should I have done?
When going back and thinking on my past experiences, I can say that while I never sexually harassed or abused anyone, I know that there was an instance where I failed to properly put an end to it.
Years ago, I was directing a production that involved two characters who were having an affair with one another. During the rehearsal process, the lines between reality and fiction started to blur with the actor (who was/is married) and he began sending emails to the actress he was working with that made her extremely uncomfortable.
They would say things like "Do I fantasize about you, about watching you sleep while I'm holding you safe in my arms? I guess I do" and "It's about time someone showed you what unconditional kindness and love is."
The emails escalated to the point that he propositioned her, "I'm requesting/offering one afternoon so that I may love you the way you deserve to be loved. Sex optional, no strings attached, no regrets, total secrecy."
The actress, to her credit, rejected his offers and kept the issue private. That was until the actor's emails became more intense and angry at her dismissal of him.
At that point, which was two weeks before opening night, the issue was brought to my attention. After consulting with the actress as well as the theatre's administration, I pulled the actor aside and told him to cease contact with the actress. He did and we got through the run with no other problem.
But looking back on it, I didn't do enough. In fact, I didn't come close.
While the actress didn't want the actor fired because we were so close to opening night, that's not a decision that should have weighed on her. It was my job and I chose poorly in that regard to not dismiss the actor from the show immediately.
In addition to victimizing the actress, what this actor did was a violation of the intimacy in the rehearsal process in the highest order and it destroyed the creative dynamic between the cast. Before I found out about the situation, there were times where I directed scenes that included intimate physical contact between the two. I can only imagine what was going through the actresses head at the time and I'm sickened by that. Not to mention the fact that she had to keep performing them during the run because I failed in one of my main jobs as a director, protect your cast.
While we have seen the massive amount of sexual misconduct stories coming out of Hollywood and Broadway, it's not hard to imagine that there are just as much, if not more, instances of sexual misconduct happening in the amateur circles. The sad truth is that when these things happen in community theatres, response varies and it's often handled by people ill-equipped to handle them. While there isn't a governing body in most areas of community theatre, I believe, just as Hollywood is doing, they need to take the time to seriously re-evaluate their response to instances of sexual misconduct. While professional circles have unions and other organizations that can thoroughly investigate and protect their members, community theatre artists don't have that. That's why I feel Ben Vereen was able to abuse his amateur cast the way he did.
So I hope going forward more local theatres address this topic appropriately. I would suggest bringing in professionals on the subject to train staffs on how to handle these issues when they arise and hopefully prevent them. I would also advise that community theatres draft clear and concise policies on sexual misconduct. Because the last thing I would want is for another director to fail to prevent their cast in the way that I did years ago.