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THE WHISPER NETWORK

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The Whisper Network, Part 1

Allison Hibbs' first essay in a multi-week series exploring sexual misconduct in the DFW theatre scene.



published Monday, November 27, 2017
1 comment


Photo: AdobeStock/Focus Pocus LTD
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“Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil'd name, the austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i' the state,
Will so your accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny…
Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true.”

— Angelo from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure 

 

 

The theatre culture in Dallas-Fort Worth feels like a small town. Everyone knows a story about everyone—or thinks that they do. Everybody talks. Artists warn each other about “womanizers” or “shady men” through a “whisper network.”

The warnings occur behind closed doors, at the bar, or on a break in rehearsal.  That’s how people learn to stay away from certain individuals—never being alone with a certain person, maintaining a safe distance, or withdrawing from opportunities. It seems to be the operating procedure, or less costly than taking a bold stand.

Even speaking out on this, with a series of essays in the coming weeks, I do wonder how some people may perceive me differently. That’s fine with me. I think now is the time to speak out on misuse of power and inappropriate behavior, because it’s not just Hollywood, or Capitol Hill, or Chicago. It’s here in our own theatres. It’s our collaborators, directors, actors, designers, and technicians—our people. I know many of these people who have shared their stories with me.

That makes it all the more difficult to have an open conversation. I know them.

It’s a small town.

 

We know that harassment and assault exist in other industries, and these problems are prevalent throughout the creative world. But it is a particularly tricky issue to discuss in theatre. One issue that I will discuss in a subsequent essay is the multi-faceted definition of harassment and policy, as official company policies are created to protect the company and the employee and offer paths for mediation to solve personnel problems (In many situations in DFW, theatre makers are not “employees” but “independent contractors,” which is a whole other issue I will get into later).

In a more traditional employee situation, you have an HR person to approach and watch some badly acted videos on harassment in the workplace. Sure, policies don’t solve everything and those videos from 1992 are not quite realistic, but they at least address the expectation of a work environment free from harassment, present examples of what harassment is, and identify the point person to contact in case a situation arises.

Without membership in Actors’ Equity Association, there’s no governing body above the theatre company that artists can report to—and we know that AEA work in this town is limited, with just over a dozen organizations with an AEA status of Small Professional Theatre or higher, and a handful of others regularly offering Equity contracts. But even after perusing the AEA handbook and documents, they contain limited information on harassment or assault. And, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cannot necessarily step in these situations, because artists working on these temporary projects technically do not qualify as a “worker,” based on the hours and compensation involved with each production. A majority of theatres do not have human resource departments…so where do you go?

When was the last time you had HR training when you were a board op for three weekends? Did you get a talk about harassment at your last acting gig? Did the stage manager let you know about the company’s ombudsman? Do you know the procedures the company has in place to make a complaint? What should be your first step when you believe a line has been crossed?

Theatre as an industry is decentralized, particularly with small-budget and emerging groups. Each company seems to be a singular organism. Theatre 1 is very professional, Theatre 2 is known for wild after-parties, Theatre 5 is family-oriented, etc. What constitutes crossing a line in each company—should that even be different from organization to organization? Is it an unwarranted touch backstage that lasts a few seconds? Is it a person who makes casting decisions sexting an actor? Is it a director making comments on an actor’s breasts, telling her that’s the reason she was cast?

How does a person speak out about this? I believe this issue is particularly tricky in DFW as the power balance between directors/producers and actors slants significantly towards the director/producer. From the stories sent to me, the actors speaking their memories continuously say things like, “I didn’t know who to talk to,” “I was worried about backlash,” “I was afraid it would ruin my reputation,” “I was afraid I would become known as ‘difficult’,” “I was concerned that I wouldn’t be cast again.” So, many of these people forced a grin on their face and pushed through until the end of the production.

The show must go on. Isn’t that how we justify it?

Theatre demands much from a person. It demands a person’s physical presence. It demands our voices to speak another person’s words, and only their words. It demands that we subject our bodies to the director’s blocking and a choreographer’s or fight choreographer’s movement, to the character, and to actions in a performance. It demands trust in our collaborators, that we may be vulnerable emotionally and physically. It demands our full self through long hours working in dark rooms, with sometimes little compensation.

I don’t want to sound like a masochist, but isn’t that why they say, “If you could be happier doing anything else, go do that?”

 

Our loyalty to a show or company has swept inappropriate—and at times dangerous—behavior under the rug time and time again. I think it’s because we see the light at the end of the tunnel; theatre in DFW has a “sell by” date.

I can make it through the end of rehearsals, then the director will go away. I can make it to closing night, after that I’ll never have to see that creep off stage again. I can make it through two weekends because this is an important credit for my résumé. Then, I can block him on social media. I’m a professional, that’s what I’m supposed to do.

So we sweep, and sweep, and sweep. So much that the rug becomes lumpy. A gross, filthy mound of secrets and inappropriate behavior that goes ignored. We hope that one day it will just disappear.

Or that person won’t work in theatre anymore.

People talk. It’s a small town. You don’t want to give a negative impression. So smile, nervously laugh, slyly slip away, block the person on social media, quit auditioning at that particular theatre, stop responding to that person’s emails about a new show, or refuse to work in certain venues.

And in a way, you hinder your career…because that seems to be the better option than retaliation for speaking out.

After soliciting for stories through social media in the past month, I’ve received stories from over 40 members of our community, offering their own experiences and comments on the subject. Their names are not given, only identified with a number, and the theatres, productions, and accused are anonymous as well.

I think it is no coincidence that most of the stories shared happened to women in their early 20s, those at the beginning of their career and more susceptible targets to this kind of harassment. They may be wide-eyed, eager to make connections. Any attention is positive attention, and they are excited to start getting professional credits and working with seasoned artists.

I think it is no coincidence that these women are targeted because historically, theatre has encouraged the objectification of young women. Their sexual attractiveness can be a part of the casting decision for the character, but at times those casting decisions are made less for the fictional world and more for the real one.

I think it is also no coincidence that the accused harassers are men. One email from Woman 15 with decades of experience in this community made this comment, “There have been times, as a young actor, and in college, where I was preyed upon. And who do you speak to when you're young and powerless, and the perpetrator is the man in charge?”

I think it is no coincidence that most of these women have been silent about these experiences. Theatre is perceived as “play time,” where the normal boundaries of personal space are blurred. So the effect of grabbing an ass, groping a scene partner, or making an inappropriate comment is played down. In fact, it only seems to become a problem if the person on the receiving end makes it one—putting the harassed person in a predicament.

I don’t want to make this a problem, do I? Is it really worth it?

Harassment is a pervasive social phenomenon. It won’t be solved through a hashtag or a two-hour training or even one cultural moment.  As Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox, notes: “in order for people to understand and ultimately work together to prevent it, it is first necessary for [men] to engage in a great deal of personal and collective introspection. This introspection can be especially threatening to men, because as perpetrators and bystanders, they are responsible for the bulk of the problem.”

While the majority of men in DFW are not found in these stories, a sexist culture still exists. To say that these stories occurred from a few “bad apples” simplifies the harm experienced. If these men simply suffer from some psychological issue, we can just throw these bad ones out. But as I’ve been sent story after story from across the Metroplex, it’s not just about a few men but an entire attitude towards blending the personal and professional in theatre—primarily in regards to female collaborators. And, it’s about men asserting themselves verbally and physically over women.

While the behaviors described are disturbing on their own, it is more heartbreaking how disturbingly normal these occurrences can be. 

I believe this is why we are also seeing concern about backlash against Hollywood producers and actors; are all the people we have looked up to sexual predators? Is this becoming a “witch hunt”? I actually love that reference because of the layered irony. I’m not in a pursuit to crucify all men. But I do want to make a stand to show how common this problem is in our small town.

Some people have waited to share their stories until now because they have been pessimistic about the idea that meaningful change is actually possible. However, we appear to be at a watershed cultural moment in which real consequences are happening. People are finally speaking out, and realizing that there’s no shame in declaring “this happened to me.”

There is serious business that has to be unpacked. And a lot of people may get hurt in the process. Because people have been hurt. Half the population has been hurt, pressured, threatened, propositioned, groped, insulted, and objectified. And it’s time for the other half to finally deal with it.

This is a collection of stories. Memories that should never have happened. These accounts reflect the dicey nature of power and the many forms it manifests:

 

  • A person in power who propositions a young woman for sex to advance her career.
  • A scene partner who takes advantage of a romantic scene.
  • A director who makes inappropriate comments in rehearsal.
  • A director who tells women that they’d like to see her screw another girl in front of him.
  • A teacher that gives a student drinks and encourages her to sleep in his bed.
  • An actor who gropes another actor right before the performance begins.
  • A woman who is afraid of her potential career if she says “no” to the administrator’s advances.
  • A woman who feels belittled by a producer when she speaks out against her scene partner.
  • A woman who nervously laughs when the inappropriate comments won’t stop.
  • A woman who blocks a director on social media, because he won’t stop contacting her.
  • A woman who cannot see her teacher in the same way. Ever.
  • A woman who cannot do her job, because all she can think about is how she has been violated. She is afraid no one will listen. Or believe her.
  • A woman who is afraid.
  • A woman who is worried.
  • A woman who feels.

 

And what is this woman supposed to do? Quietly warn other women about who they should be “cautious” around? Create a list of theatres that she won’t work at because someone there has harassed her? Why should she limit the heights of her career when people in power are not put in check for actions that are out of line? It’s another glass ceiling. You can gaze right through it, but cannot break it open.

Woman 30 notes, “In a world where so little is under our control, the theatre—where literally every moved is planned—should not be an unsafe space. We must implore cast members to respect boundaries, stage managers to be vigilant, and directors/companies to keep lines of communication open. So please, if you see this sort of behavior happen, speak up. Recognizing that people are saying #metoo means nothing if we have to keep saying it. We are trying to be artists, not victims.”

Here’s the usual response on the topic.

 

“We know _______ is a creep."

"We know ______ says offensive things sometimes."

"We know _______ gets a little handsy when drunk."

"But that’s ______."

What can you do?”

But that is ______ and what can you do?

 

Speaking out is a start.

Woman 8 comments on how sexual harassment is handled from her perspective, “It feels like here in DFW, abusers face little consequences due to the belief that there isn’t enough male local talent. Therefore, the women here are expected to warn others, or simply put up with the abuse. It is frustrating to watch abusive performers move up in the local arts scene, knowing they routinely harass other artists. The abuse seems to be an open secret in the community.”

That open secret causes numerous problems. Women start doubting their own experiences, diminishing or excusing behaviors that should not be overlooked.

Woman 25 comments after her harassment story, “But the worst part of it all to me is that I didn't fight it. I didn't speak up.

Sure, I didn't feel safe alone in a room with him. Yes, I made sure to politely refute his advances. But it didn't change the fact that they kept coming. A friend of mine made me realize that this wasn't a one-off instance. It had happened to many women in the community and is likely still happening now.

I turned down a chance to direct my dream show with this theatre because I realized, even if I couldn't change the place, I could at least stop giving them my work. I still feel guilty. His version of these stories is likely far different than mine. I have to still work at reminding myself that my experiences are valid and true in the face of people that are screaming otherwise.”

These are not stories from across the country. They’re from right here.

Dallas/Fort Worth. Our town.

 

 

» Next in The Whisper Network: Thursday, Nov. 30 — Inappropriate Comments

» UPDATEAlso read Mark Lowry's new statement about The Whisper Network and why we felt it was the right time to explore this topic. We are continuing the series but rethinking the strategy.

» If you have a story to share, email the author at allisonhibbs86@gmail.com Thanks For Reading




Comments:

van writes:
Monday, November 27 at 5:29PM

Do abusers get a free pass this time around?


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The Whisper Network, Part 1
Allison Hibbs' first essay in a multi-week series exploring sexual misconduct in the DFW theatre scene.
by Shelby-Allison Hibbs

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