Not Us, Too! Cleaning Up Nonprofit Theatre's #MeToo Mess

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David Edelman

Featured Writer

Let me venture to guess that you consider your arts community, however you might define it, as a bastion of ethical values and a safe haven from a world that seems never capable of overcoming its prejudices, hatreds, violence, and other Trumpian aspects of contemporary life.   Or you might think it’s a platform from which to fight back against the wealthy troglodytes who are increasingly in control.  Unless of course you make theatre in any of the myriad places on earth where creating “political” art can get you locked up, beaten and tortured.  But here in America, particularly in the nonprofit arts world, we are free to be passionate and daring, to speak truth to power, or simply to hold a job or get a gig doing something that we love and can’t live without.  Here in America, we see ourselves as unfettered by the fear that our work will get us into trouble.  Here in America, that doesn’t happen. 

Or does it?

There are prisons and there are prisons.   Some of the body and some of the soul.  And while here in America it’s true that we won’t be locked up for making our art, many of us have worked in a field that entraps us, holds us captive, and damages us.  Many of us are indeed afraid, whether the fear is current  or the memory of fear from years ago (which, when recalled, can be just as crippling). 

We in the nonprofit arts world have witnessed, over the last year or so, the #metoo movement become the #ohnonotustoo realization.  In a very short period of time, respected artistic leaders of respected arts institutions have been outed and ousted for their predations and abuse.  We’ve read about it happening in Connecticut, Houston, Dallas, New York, Florida, and other places large and small which may or may not have made into the next day’s news cycle.  “Inappropriate behavior” is often cited in the press release, as quoted by a board of director’s president.  Inappropriate, my Aunt Fanny!  Inappropriate behavior is when I call these people “fucking creeps” to a class of grad students (but not a one has complained about my foul language).  And when I say “these people,” I’m referring to the perps as well as those within an organization who cover it up.

Lest you think I’m just raving about what I’ve read in the news, let me tell you about my own experiences.   In the late 1980s, I was managing director of a regional (LORT) theatre working with an artistic director who was, how shall I say, not well liked by his staff.  In my second year on the job, I was given written letters of complaint from five young women in our intern acting company, describing in detail how the AD was always hitting on them and grabbing.  They were demoralized and afraid of what would happen to them and their careers,  afraid of keeping quiet and afraid of complaining:  a trap, if ever there was one.  But they banded together and had the courage to say “enough.”  I went to the board and demanded they do something about it.  I told them, “either he goes or I go.”  I quit after he was given a slap on the wrist by the board.  Six years later he was “allowed to resign” because another incident got back to Actors’ Equity and caused an embarrassment for the theatre.

I set about looking for a job and became a finalist for the managing director position at another well known LORT theatre.  During my interview conversations with senior staff, I was stunned to hear them all (ALL!) tell me that the AD was abusive, it was a toxic environment to work in, and everybody knew it.  They were heading for the exits.  I informed the head of the search committee that I was withdrawing from consideration.  Eventually, the board of directors allowed the AD to “retire” with a hefty severance package - in 2018.  Right.  As if none of them knew.

I think about both of these situations often, and that perhaps I should have done more.  But in the 1980s, this was more or less tolerated behavior, just a bit of slap and tickle on the casting couch for the men at the top.  Personally, I was disgusted and couldn’t take it so I did what I thought was right.  Was it enough?   I also wonder what my career might have been if I hadn’t felt forced to quit or take myself out of the running.  What opportunities did I lose?  What was sacrificed?  Maybe that’s why I feel such a knot in my gut when I watch Brando in On the Waterfront.  I coulda been a contender. 

My experience demonstrates that the ramifications of abuse by artistic leaders of arts organizations extend beyond those directly on the receiving end.  The #metoos are not just those who were abused or bullied or humiliated by these men.  It’s a far-reaching prison that the abusers create for the artists and staff, aided and abetted by boards of directors who turn a blind eye or give a little wink.   I think about all the young people in organizations led by these men and how the staff keep their heads down and their mouths shut in order to keep doing the thing they love.  It’s living a lie.  A life in the closet.  And this, as we all know, is corrosive.

I chuckle at how we in the theatre biz used to go on and on about “the artistic home.”  Books were written on it.   No one had the instinct to pull back the curtain and reveal that a dysfunctional family lived in many of these homes.  We have tolerated and continue to tolerate the out-of-control egos of leaders as long as the art is first-rate.   We’ve perpetuated toxic workplaces as long as there are plenty of butts in the seats.    We’ve ignored the well-being of so many young artists and staff as long as we build the image of our institutions.   What a hot mess we’ve created!

It's time to clean house!

What do we do now, in this era of #metoo?  How do we fix this mess we have created for ourselves?  I think about these issues and also teach them to my graduate students in the Performing Arts Leadership and Management program at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia.  Here are a few prescriptions for arts organizations:

1.     Every arts organization needs to craft policies and procedures that state a zero-tolerance policy for abusive, bullying, and similar conduct by any employee or volunteer.  That goes for the board, too.   The policy needs to state that all have an obligation to report such abuses when they occur or are discovered.  These policies need to create a clear mechanism for reporting, indicate the procedures for investigating abuse, state that there will be no reprisal for reporting abuse, and maintain confidentiality.   The policies need to be distributed to all employees and volunteers on an annual basis, who must then sign a form indicating that they have read and understand the policies.  And make a few nice big signs to post in the theatre and offices that says “This is an Abuse-Free Workplace.”

2.     Contracts with staff (and there should be written contracts) must be clear that abusive behavior is cause for termination at any time and without further remuneration.

3.     Board members, in particular, must train themselves to understand the law.  They need to know what local, state and federal laws have to say about harassment and abuse.  They need to make this training a regular and ongoing part of board orientation and development.

4.     Boards of directors should require at least an annual review of all employees, using a system that elicits feedback from a sample of all who work with the employee:  direct reports, superiors, volunteers, major donors, etc.   It’s often called a 360-review process.

5.     Boards of directors cannot talk to only the senior staff.  A mechanism needs to be created for one-on-one conversations between members of the board, staff, and artists at all levels.  Boards need to gain greater understanding of what is happening inside the organization from those who work there.  This is a great way to not only uncover problems, but to help frame the big questions that boards need to tackle.

6.     Abusers need to be fired.  Not “allowed to resign” or retire.  And certainly without the benefit of a large severance package. 

7.     Finally, board and staff leadership need to recognize that creating a work environment that is safe, welcoming, nurturing and protective is not just some vague notion of what it means to work in the arts.  It needs to be carefully crafted and consistently applied.

I have no illusions that this awful behavior will ever be completely extinguished in our field, or anywhere else for that matter.  There will always be another Harvey Weinstein waiting in the wings, sad to say.   We will always have over-blown egos in the arts that lead some people to become abusive and to do so with a sense of impunity.  Nonetheless, to whom much is given much, much is required.  Leadership in the arts is a privilege afforded to only a few and they must take the obligations and responsibilities – all of them – quite seriously.    By the way, we have hundreds of university training programs in the U.S. that teach young people how to manage arts organizations.  Maybe it’s time we provided training for those who wish to provide artistic leadership, as well.  It might do them and us some real good. 

David Edelman is Director of Performing Arts Leadership and Management at Shenandoah Conservatory and the co-Editor of The American Journal of Arts Management