After the recent Dallas Morning News profile of a sexual abuser in the DFW theater community, I spent a week writing and re-writing this letter and hesitating to share it, all the while growing increasingly disgusted by the irony: Here I am afraid to speak up while a serial abuser of power and people clamors to be heard and is given an inappropriate, ill-timed, and unwarranted platform to “tell his side of the story.”
I was asked repeatedly for my story, and for fear of public shame and scrutiny, I did not feel at liberty to share it. I’m done being afraid and I’m done being silent. Because here’s the thing: I see silence as one of the most serious casualties of Lee Trull’s behavior. Among the myriad things for which he has to apologize, silence looms large. I’ll explain, but first, I need to go back.
I was a junior in college when I became an artistic intern at Dallas Theater Center in 2009. As a 20-year-old theater student, it’s safe to say that my experiences at DTC were formative ones. They set the stage, so to speak, for my understanding of professional theater and of myself as a theater professional. Many of these experiences were wonderful. However, throughout my one-and-a-half-year tenure as an intern, I reported directly to Lee Trull, who dealt with me inappropriately in ways I was too young and inexperienced to fully understand at the time.
New to the professional world, I did not understand how not OK it was that my boss would regularly follow me into my office (a tiny closet with a desk), shut the door behind us, and ask in detail about my romantic life. Or how not OK it was that he sent me on a professional errand and told the person I was meeting to “just look for the girl in the sexy dress.” Or how not OK it was that he once walked up behind me while I was bent over a copier preparing sides for an upcoming audition, placed his hands on my hips and pressed himself into me. Or how not OK it was that he explicitly discussed the attractiveness of my figure and the size of my breasts with a visiting colleague. Or how not OK it was when—despite all evidence and feedback to the contrary—he derided my work performance at the end of my tenure, saying of a handful of theater professionals I had worked with for those years, “Those people don’t care about you enough to tell you. I’m the only one who cares about you,” and then comforted me as I cried tears of shame and embarrassment, alone with him in the basement of the theater.
It has taken me years to recognize how inappropriate and damaging experiences like this were. It has taken me years to realize that experiences like this, while quite possibly rampant in the professional theater, do not (or should not) define it. It has taken me years to learn that I don’t need to be quiet or acquiescent or ashamed. It has taken years and it has taken a few brave young women giving voice to a silence that was aching in me. I am deeply grateful to these women for speaking out about their experiences with Lee, and I am deeply sorry that I was not brave enough to be one of them. I’m sorry I stayed silent. I’ll take responsibility for my own silence. But, as I said before, Lee Trull needs to take responsibility for a bigger, more pervasive one.
Neither Lee’s “apology” nor the larger narrative around his behavior have adequately addressed how such behavior contributes to the poverty of female voices in the theater. Here’s the thing: Making theater is hard. Getting to make professional theater as a woman or a minority is really hard. There are numerous barriers to entry even in the best of circumstances. Women are already underrepresented in positions of artistic leadership, as playwrights, as directors, and even as characters in plays. We don’t need extra reasons to believe that the theater is an unwelcoming place for us as professionals, and we certainly don’t need the added concern that it is inherently unsafe for our bodies or that our success somehow hinges upon the favor of men in positions of power who explicitly sexualize us.
Without minimizing the experiences or the subsequent needs of the women who have come forward, I argue that we let Lee off far too easily if the only apology we think he owes is to those women or to the public for his “unawareness” of how his behavior was perceived. I argue that if we are ever going to understand “what’s next,” then we first have to understand what’s happened. We have to reckon with the ripples of loss created by Lee’s allegedly inadvertent predatory behavior. When people like Lee Trull do what people like Lee Trull do, they intercept, exploit, and ultimately demoralize women attempting to pass through the gates of an already exclusive industry. They capitalize on the existing problem of scarcity and expand the voids where female voices would be in the creation, performance, and leadership of theater.
My goal isn’t to heap responsibility on Lee Trull for the state of my theater career. It is my goal to speak plainly about the effects his behavior had on my pursuit of it. I learned from working under Lee that my value as a theater professional rested in my sexual attractiveness, my willingness to be sexualized, and my ability to keep quiet about or diplomatically de-escalate inappropriate behavior. I learned that if I wasn’t happy doing these things, then perhaps theater wasn’t the place for me.
I did not learn that my value as a theater professional was in my professionalism, competence, intellect, and creativity. Having since excelled in other career endeavors that drew heavily upon this skill set, I’ve begun to recognize that perhaps theater was a place for me. Perhaps I had a misguided understanding of what I could (and should) bring to the table. I can only speak to my own story. I can’t speak directly to the stories of other young women who have been affected in this way. But I would venture to guess that in many cases the effects aren’t all that different.
I’m thinking of Katy Tye leaving the bar. I’m thinking of Claire Moore leaving the city. I’m thinking of all the other women leaving their names unspoken or their stories untold. I’m thinking of the insidiousness of fear and the shame that behavior like Lee’s breeds. I’m thinking of how fear and shame drive absence and silence.
So, what’s next for Lee Trull? What’s next is a reckoning with the hard truth that it’s not time for what’s next. What’s next is a prolonged period of humble reflection and atonement. What’s next is actually volunteering, actually making amends. What’s next is doing these things quietly instead of talking about them loudly. What’s next is recognizing that while, yes, we may be lacking a social script for exactly how to move forward in the wake of #MeToo, it might not be up to Lee to publicly write that script. At least not before a great deal more reflection and investigation. And certainly not in a way that overwrites the stories of the affected women with a self-involved pity narrative.
Frankly, I don’t need help finding compassion in my heart for Lee. I know that he is in a dark place. We do have a social script for that. We know the process of coming to grips with one’s wrongdoing and ultimately redeeming oneself is painful and slow. We know that what’s next is letting it be painful. We know that what’s next, if there is any hope of real public atonement, is a willingness to sit in that quiet, painful place for quite some time.
To all the affected women who have been sitting in a quiet, painful place for far too long: I hope you know how not alone you are. I hope you locate your value as an artist within your professionalism, competence, intellect, and creativity. I hope that you will reach out to one another and to me. I hope we can talk about how to carry these stories with us and use them to inform the kind of theater we want to see or create in Dallas or wherever we are.
As far as what’s next for Dallas theater, I hope the community is not quick to accept Lee Trull’s “apology.” I hope the community holds him to the high standard of leadership that the arts in such a vibrant and wonderful city deserve. I hope the community recognizes and mourns the silence Lee created and makes a point of filling that silence with female voices. Most of all, I hope the community surrounds and supports the growth of young women artists by striving to make its professional theater an environment that not only welcomes, but also cultivates and celebrates their professionalism, competence, intellect, and creativity.
» Laura Hix lives in North Carolina where she works as a research professional specializing in undergraduate student well-being. She holds graduate degrees in psychology and drama therapy, and received her BFA in theatre from Southern Methodist University.