The Motionless MeToo Movement in Community and Educational Theatre

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  • Izabella Mirza

The MeToo movement is one that has garnered attention and driven significant change in the past year. It’s been nearly impossible to go online without reading a story from a victim, seeing shares and positivity from allies, or scanning through cries for change on your Twitter feed. Great articles and exposés have led to change in leadership at some companies, the addition of intimacy directors in many, or other similar notes of progress, like stricter “no tolerance policies” and open forums to discuss issues related to harassment. However, in many amateur theatre companies, whether it’s a community theatre or an educational setting, the MeToo movement remains relatively motionless: a rallying cry heard and ignored. 

Sexual assault and harassment continue to be significant issues in many community theatre companies because, in amateur theatre, victims have less power, resources, and authority. This is something I was already much aware of, having grown up, like many other theatre-makers, in community theatre. I have a few MeToo stories of my own: my butt getting pinched by a 54-year-old man in an audition when I was twelve, stage managing at eighteen and facing crude comments in a touring house, and many others.

I have been out of working in community theatre for a while now but reached out to former coworkers from many different communities who grew up performing in similar summer stocks and children’s camps to hear about what community theatre was like with the supposed changes MeToo has brought. I was not shocked to hear that hardly anything has changed. Across ten states and dozens of community theatres, a large number of people reached out to me to share how little progress has been made. As I listened to these stories, a number of common factors jumped out at me, such as similar small budgets, founders who won’t step down, theatres in poor communities, and older men with important roles grooming younger performers and technicians. That is perhaps the most common story: an older actor or dance partner in a show getting too close to a girl or guy much younger than them.

One woman shared a deeply painful email about being assaulted when she was fifteen by a man much older. “When I told him my age, he got agitated and told me not to tell anyone, or else he could get in trouble, and I would too.” This woman has still been forced to make contact with this man in order to keep working in her community.

Community theatres often work with small budgets. These budgets almost always don’t allow for intimacy directors, but instead, get stretched thinly over whatever the script calls for and the director can’t live without. Many community theatres also often stay in the same hands: the family or group that started said theatre many years ago is likely still running it exactly how they began the company long ago, in a different world. Community theatres love to protect their own. This means the cliques can run rampant, and only make a theatre spaces more hostile.

Small theatre communities that rely on their network of community members are more likely to hide assault, and leave their performers and technicians vulnerable; because, as James* said to me, “people always want to side with [the name of a director] who’s worked in this small town for ten years, rather than the up and coming young actor who’s accused him of touching them while trying to block a romantic scene...but he hurt me, and people should have believed me, because men can hurt men too.” 

Dressing rooms and wing space also create spaces for assault and harassment- even though they shouldn’t. Many quick changes leave performer’s vulnerable to watching eyes. This shouldn’t be an issue, and often isn’t in professional spaces, but in community settings, many girls have been watched while they change, even when they’re wearing spandex and camisoles. This is especially an issue when older men share wing spaces with younger women, and a theatre doesn’t have a quick change booth, or the performer can’t make it to one in time.

I was sent a few stories of instances where a girl has been watched while making a change; later her body commented on by the viewer as if he had any right to observe or comment. A talented young actress and friend, navigating creating her own career in theatre, shared a story that hits home on a number of points, a familiar story that I share similarly about a 70-year-old man who watched she and her friends regularly as they performed and changed. “[He] was always in the wings, watching me quick change. [Later that tech week] one of the girls observed that Thomas* was staring through the window...while they changed. These girls were younger, some as young as 13.” Another story sent to me, “I turned upstage to fully change into another dress onstage, covered from the audience, but exposed, naked, to the upstage wing. Three men from the cast watched me that first run. I didn’t want to stop to say anything but had to speak up on night two when four men stood to watch me change, and one made a crude motion. My body is apart of my craft as an actress, but it’s up to my director and me to decide how and when it’s used.”

The issue isn’t only in community theatre, however. Educational settings such as colleges and conservatories provide a similar opportunity for harassment- but it’s often peer to peer. A former mentor shared college stories from nearly twenty years ago, “I remember my freshman year show...hearing our Prince Charming had tried to touch Evil Sorceress at a party last weekend. Now, this actress was being forced to share a stage with her attacker, so she dropped the show.” No theatre-maker should be denied an opportunity out of fear for their safety. I then reached out to some friends who graduated from college in the past year or two. I shared this brief story, and two of them shared moments that were almost identical, but that had happened in the last calendar year. One of them, a victim of assault, shared that she reported the incident to her school, but the Title IX case manager called the situation “unfortunate” and moved on “without enough evidence.” College is a step to building a career and future, part of building that career should be learning how to treat cast members with respect, not assaulting them.

College settings have very little protections, and assault is something many are already struggling to control. Combined with the issues of Title IX- getting the college not only to believe you but take action- students are left extremely vulnerable. This is even more so in performance settings, where the rules are often blurred or different. Football doesn’t require you to kiss your teammates once in a while, but theatre can, and when not handled with care, we put our young performers in situations that other young people manipulate.

What should be very black and white, starts to feel a little greyer. When so much of theatre lives in that grey, (intense labor, strange schedules, late nights, etc.) some people begin to misconstrue what else can be grey, but a person’s body and their consent are never grey, only black and white. The blurbs shared here don’t even touch the pain and detail shared with me by a number of victims, but merely scratch the first layer of what so many artists have been through.

If theatres in community and educational settings don’t face the reality of assault and harassment, the number of MeToo stories will only continue to grow in a world where there are already too many.

*Some names have been changed to protect the victims.