Addison — I suppose it’s no surprise that in this moment, which I believe will be seen later as a historic time of a consciousness shift, that this is the topic for my column this month. It’s the subject of conversation everywhere I go, the news alerts most often on my phone, the talk of the theatre community across the nation: Someone else has abused their power. Someone else crossed the line with their coworkers. They’ve been doing it for years. Everyone knew, and no one did anything.
I am a woman in the world. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only prerequisite to have been a victim of sexual harassment and assault.
Some of my experiences were from jobs I had that weren’t in the theatre. Some of them were just from walking down the street. Some were more complicated events with people I knew and trusted. But what is most resonant right now is a story from my early life as a theatremaker. It shaped me, and I reflect on it often as I encounter these stories that are being discussed in the theater community. I’m no reporter, this isn’t a call out, this isn’t even a fully developed thesis. These are just some of my thoughts.
When I was a freshman in college, I auditioned for the student-directed projects, of which there were seven that semester. I was called back for all but one, which was an accomplishment in my first year of college. I was excited, nervous, and perhaps a little arrogant as I spent a few days making my rounds to callbacks, which basically meant I was cold-reading scenes with other actors that I was paired with on the spot by the directors.
On the second day, I auditioned for a play called Voice of the Prairie, in which I was reading for Frankie, a young blind girl, in a scene with a young man where they eat a watermelon, which turns into a mess, and he licks her, and then they kiss. Well, in my audition room, I was paired with a senior named James. I’m unclear if that was his real name, he may have just called himself that. He looked and dressed like James Dean, slicked back his hair, and was always smoking cigarettes and wearing them like accessories. We read the scene for the first time in front of the director, and James went for it. He licked me, and next thing I knew we were kissing. “This is what we do, I guess,” thought 18-year-old Joanie. This guy was older than me, he knows better, I let him take the lead. The director proceeded to ask us to do the scene over and over in its entirety, and therefore watched us make-out eight times. Eight. In my memory there was tongue involved, which is unusual for stage kissing but is somehow unsurprising because the kissing always started as a lick. I just looked up this play and found an entire production on YouTube in which this event was just a short kiss that happened quickly and was very sweet. Our version was not that sweet. Especially by the eighth time. Objectively, as a theatremaker, I agree with the less-sweet choice—for a production, after weeks of rehearsal.
I left that audition a little shocked but calmed myself thinking, “this is what we do for art.” This is what I’d been taught—not by my teachers necessarily, but by movies, books, and sensational stories of actors who go to the extreme for the work. We sacrifice ourselves, we lay ourselves bare. We are not embarrassed. We are actors, we can and should be able to do anything. Right?
I showed up to my final in this round of callbacks the next day, for The Homecoming. The callback was in one of our smallest classrooms. I was nervous, as only a young person can be that knows that Pinter is important and different but not clear on what that meant exactly. What was the deal with the pauses? Also, the director was a person everyone talked about as being a real artist, and very cool. There was no way he could have known that I was also paired that day again with James, who I still never had said a word to outside of an audition room, and yet had just gotten well acquainted with his mouth. We read the scene. I found myself so nervous I was shaking, (and I wasn’t a nervous auditioner, so this was odd). The director sensed something and wanted to break us out of our shell. He had us play a game called “I want to f**k you/I want to kill you.” The premise of this game is that for 60 seconds one person has one of those lines, the other the other, and you play the intention, and then you switch. Over 20 years later, I get the intention of the game, but to play it with this stranger who I already felt boundary issues with, was just horrible, and it was two extremely intense minutes of trying to throw myself in a game while being simultaneously terrified. The director seemed pleased with the exercise, and had us read the Pinter again. I don’t remember how it went, all I could think of the entire time is how I was going to get out of there.
I went back to my dorm and cried. I felt things I couldn’t articulate. My boundaries had been crossed, I felt powerless and used. I was also angry with myself for feeling this way. “This is what I have to do if I want to be an actress,” I thought. I needed to get a thicker skin, I thought. I needed to be more bold and open, I thought. I clearly wasn’t going to be cut out for this if I couldn’t get it together. What was wrong with me?
Turns out, nothing. But I also don’t blame the young men involved in those two days either. We didn’t have language for this then, or if we did, it wasn’t part of our everyday vocabulary and consciousness. Sure, it’s easy to look back and think: the actor should have asked before kissing me, the director should have set up boundaries and at the very least checked in with both of us about our comfort doing these auditions, and neither kissing nor these extreme acting exercises had no place in an audition room. But I think they had learned the same lessons I had, and to them we were just being fearless artists.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is the reason I became a director, but when things happened that started to shift my artistic life in that direction, I also wouldn’t say situations like this weren’t a contributing factor. As time went on, and I continued acting, I had incidents where I was misused by directors by sexual harassment, bullying, and other abuses of power. It took a few more years before I started to identify these things as not okay, and even battled with some directors over them. In one of the last plays I was in as an actor, the director had been keeping our non-Equity cast far past the rehearsal end time—repeatedly—so the Romeo and myself (Juliet) decided to stand up for the entire cast and approach her about it. She stopped talking to us for the rest of the rehearsal process, calling us divas, and only giving us typed up notes. But rehearsals ended on time.
I thought about my freshman “lesson” a lot after the article in the Chicago Reader about what happened at Profiles Theatre. What happened there was the most extreme perversion of this idea that an actor should be fearless, open, ready to do anything. There are truths to that, truths I deeply believe. But for those truths to exist, the boundaries must be clear. Consent must be given. Communication must occur. And that’s precisely the language we didn’t have when I was a freshman in college. It’s language that we’ve been developing. Consciousness that we’ve been raising.
I think of us, right now, as being the transition team. A team with a difficult job, in an incredibly important moment. There were things that happened before that weren’t okay, but as a larger culture we didn’t realize completely that they weren’t okay. We thought we had to laugh at the sexual comments and references to our bodies because we have to be open and use our bodies in the art. We traffic in presenting dramatic, intimate, violent, sexual situations onstage, so we thought we had to be open to the same offstage. And onstage, we thought we’d better be ready to go full out, and if someone goes too far, it’s because they’re really “into it.” And we thought we should always listen to our directors, and accept all their “eccentricities” even if they cross boundaries. And that if we tell people in positions of power that they’ve overstepped that we will “never work in this town again.” Those things were all true for a very long time. I’ve watched my actor friends grapple and agonize over situations in from extreme to subtle and all sorts of gray area in between for years. I’ve watched them walk a tightrope between what they could shrug off and “handle” and when they’d have to draw a hard line and risk being uncooperative, difficult, humorless, rigid, prudish, closed off, and perhaps un-castable. I’ve talked things out with them when they have to figure out how to manage these situations, how to set boundaries subtly, when to speak up, and when to quit—without putting into question their artistic viability. We as a culture weren’t ready to name it as a problem, let alone change it. But now we’re shedding light in the dark places and saying out loud that none of these things are okay.
Transitions aren’t easy. They can be very painful. This transition team has a difficult job, to bridge our culture into a new way of thinking.
People will need to re-live what has hurt them. They might need to declare their painful experiences publicly. Why would anyone want to do that? It’s not fun for the victim, to tell everyone the painful thing that happened to them. To worry and hurt their loved ones by telling them this happened to them. To be questioned and shamed by strangers and friends. To fear for their futures by speaking out. But they also have the opportunity to heal themselves by no longer living in the fear that these situations create, and to help others heal or be protected from future abuse by speaking out.
Other people will need to grapple with what they’ve done wrong. How they’ve transgressed, hurt others. They will need to own up to what they’ve done, which will be hard on them, their colleagues, their loved ones, and their futures as well. But they, too, will also have the opportunity to change through the growth that can only come from reckoning.
Some others will need to listen to those who have been hurt, and grapple with people they respect, work with, and love, being accused. This, too, is a painful place to be in this transitional moment.
I know what we are going through as a culture and as a community is difficult, but I feel very hopeful in right now. I feel hopeful that so many people are being brave and speaking up, and that they are being heard. I feel hopeful that there are dedicated people who are leading the way towards change. I feel hopeful that people not much older than I was when I learned the wrong lesson in college, aren’t internalizing that story anymore. They are setting boundaries for themselves and speaking up with things aren’t okay. I feel hopeful that we are going to meet as a community and start working towards creating standards that our theatre community will articulate and commit to. I feel hopeful that we are calling this what it is now. That we are seeing that it’s not OK.
» An Artistic Director Prepares runs on the last Friday of the month in TheaterJones.
- January 2017: Where I'm From
- February 2017: Where I'm Going
- March 2017: What Is a Theatre, Anyway?
- April 2017: Our Theatrical Family Tree
- May 2017: Connecting the Dreams
- June 2017: Six Months In
- August 2017: When the Artistic Director is a Director
- September 2017: Happy New Year!
- October 2017: A User's Guide to Previews