While working on a show as an actor, Woman 34 said, “a scene partner threw open the door that hit me in the face. First thing he said was, ‘Are they OK?’
He was referring to my breasts. Didn’t care about the rest of me.”
In its mildest form, sexual harassment can occur through off-hand comments. The person speaking may believe their language is playful, innocent, even simply a joke. But the insidious nature of these comments stems from the hyper-sexualization of women. It has been acceptable to comment on a woman’s body in regards to sexual attractiveness, it is even encouraged from time to time.
Language is a powerful instrument. For the stories in this essay, they concern how a woman is valued (in terms of body parts), the formidable binary of man and woman (how women should be relegated to certain spheres), and that women’s primary purpose is for man’s enjoyment. None of these are new.
I think this is particularly troublesome in theatre, even through something as simple as the construction of characters. Historically, more plays have been written by men, therefore the majority of characters have been created from a male perspective. This is how we have become used to certain “types” of characters. Often, female characters are defined by their “attractiveness”—from the ditzy blonde “bimbo” to the reassuring maternal (and nonsexual) figure, for example.
Through history, young ingénues are idealized representations of femininity, accentuated through costumes and romantic interactions with the leading male character. The casting process may include comments about the actor’s body with those thoughts in mind.
Woman 14 notes an experience about this with a now-defunct theatre, “Many years ago, an inexperienced director was considering whom to cast as the lead female role in a production. He looked at the headshots of actresses to choose from and asked ‘Is this one fuckable?’”
It’s not just the leading women who face these kinds of comments about their bodies. Woman 31 notes, “I was cast as the ‘fat lady’ in a production. In rehearsals, the director pulled me aside, put his arm around me and said, ‘You know, we didn’t cast you because you’re fat. We cast you because you have big tits.’”
Harassment through language can occur in many forms, and the harassers may not even interpret what they are saying as crossing a boundary. But these comments make an imprint, particularly when they are spoken by an authority figure. Woman 4 experienced harassment over something as mundane as her shirt.
“I was wearing a cat shirt and while I was standing and waiting to be given direction, our musical director [a middle-aged man] walked up to me, said ‘Those eyes are perfectly placed.’ He stared me directly in the eye while giving a coy smile, and then finally walked away. I was confused for a second, then looked down at my shirt and realized that the eyes of the cat on my shirt happened to hit me right at my breasts. When I made this realization I looked at this man in shock, unable to formulate any sort of response. I looked at a fellow cast member who was standing right next to me, and he just looked embarrassed and also at a loss for words. I immediately felt hot and uncomfortable and couldn’t wait to be away from this man’s gaze.”
I can imagine that some people reading this may not see this kind of a comment as a major event. But this happens to women regularly. And what are they supposed to do about it? A music director wouldn’t necessarily be fired for making a comment like this. Technically, the actor is still physically safe. But that comment has hindered her from doing her job, because now all she is thinking about is her music director staring at her breasts. Who does she report this to? How can she ensure that she will not have to receive comments like this from one of her supervisors?
With non-Equity productions, there are few avenues to make a complaint; you’re at the mercy of the producer or director—depending on who is actually in charge. So, an actor must first negotiate with themselves to determine whether it is worth the risk of speaking out and shaking the balance of their relationship with the producer.
Woman 4 continues, “I am so angry when men in positions of power feel comfortable saying things like this to women, especially young girls, who are trying to do their job…. Maybe I should have said something to him or a stage manager, but I was at a complete loss, and I think unfortunately that happens with a lot of women. No matter how prevalent the harassment and abuse is, it still shocks me every time that someone could be so brazen and positive that there will be no consequences.”
In fact, it seems like the music director was openly shaming her. He drew attention to her body in front of multiple people. He indicated that she must have made a choice to show off her body through this shirt. And yet, the person on the receiving end often feels embarrassed or violated—because what right does he have to comment on her body?
These kinds of comments are not seen as hostile from the person speaking them, but for the person on the receiving end, it can make a person feel exposed or violated. Because they have been reduced to parts. In other circumstances, these comments reiterate that women have historically been seen as “less than.” It puts them in a place to question, “Am I really capable of my job?” And this kind of language happens constantly, as throwaway comments.
Woman 38 recalls a situation from many years ago: “I was the managing director of a theatre in the area. My board president repeatedly minimalized my efforts and took credit for them, while calling me a pretty young thing. I wanted to punch him. I wanted to scream at the woman by his side that encouraged and added to this behavior. I quit instead.”
Woman 1 recounts her first experience with an owner of a theatre company. “Shortly after I moved to Dallas, I had the opportunity to direct and I was so excited to show the city what I had to offer. It was a collection of short plays, and all of the directors happened to be female. One of the owners of the company introduced all of us to the actors and designers, but after looking at us, he said ‘Oh, all of the directors are all women. Wow. I hope they can do the job. We’ll see.’ He was demeaning and dismissive to all of us. I haven’t worked at this company since. It put a sour taste in my mouth, to think that this must be how Dallas works.”
At times, these comments can be costumed as a compliment, and that’s the justification from the harasser. After deconstructing the power behind the language, these short comments are actually reminders that women should only fit within certain spheres. Woman 39 noted one administrator constantly said, “God that’s hot!” in response to women completing simple tasks like using a drill or spiking furniture.
She says, “When people are confused or question that response, he says that it’s just so sexy when a woman completes a task more suited for a man.” While the man claims to use that language as if a compliment, that is not what the Woman 39 experiences. It is a reminder that he believes a woman has limitations. It re-affirms misogynist beliefs, as this woman is no more than an aberration of the natural order of things. And, it makes Woman 39—who was just simply doing her job—uncomfortable that the director perceives them more for their reproductive parts than skills.
The personal and professional can blend at times in the theatre, but lines are crossed when authority figures take advantage of that. I received multiple stories about supervisors or directors making inappropriate comments on an actor or employee’s personal life. Again, this behavior can be swept under the rug particularly when these theatres do not have appropriate channels for reporting and because many people are hired show by show. The harassed persons do not wish to “cause a fuss.” So, they keep quiet, stop working at that theatre, or retaliate on their own terms.
Woman 2 received inappropriate comments by a full-time employee at a theatre, so much that she refused to work there for a full year. “This man would often corner me in the costume shop during shows to ask me questions about my sex life and if I’d slept with anyone in the theatre community.” Instead of reporting any incidents, she believed that her only option was to cross that theatre off the list. It’s extremely disheartening when one individual can be responsible for a theatre’s negative reputation.
Woman 38 experienced harassment for being a lesbian, as if that alone gave authority figures more fodder for commentary. She recalls a moment when a technical director made an offensive comment. “In front of friends, he asked why I didn't just give in and spread my legs for him already,” she says. “I told him that he'd need something to put there. He said that he could put his head in, just like my girlfriend did. So, I kneed him in the balls. That was the most empowered I'd ever felt. I still felt guilty.”
Woman 38’s worst experience was with another theatre, “I have lost count of how many things the owner has said about me and my wife that are over the line. I have lost count of how often I was asked to laugh them off. My wife and I would hug or kiss goodbye in the lobby, and he would ask to join. He told me I made him horny when I argued or was upfront about something. He would apologize jokingly after these comments, saying that it was my fault for making him feel like this.”
It’s your fault for making me feel like this.
What a completely twisted thing to say.
And these comments deflect responsibility from the harasser; it places all blame onto the harassed.
And I think that’s why so many men get away with it. They’re just words. They’re not documented on paper, it’s not a physical kind of harm. But psychologically, it puts the harassed in a place of fear. They walk on eggshells knowing that another comment is just around the corner. They think about what they are doing, what they are wearing, what the harasser knows about them, what will trigger them to make an inappropriate remark. “What will they say to me next?” You have to be on your guard, and you cannot fully trust your collaborators.
In an idealized situation, one could approach someone else in authority and tell them what is happening. A stage manager, an administrator or producer, a board member—someone. But the small-town community makes that kind of reporting a gamble. Women still feel like they are putting their reputation on the line. Is it really worth risking over a series of comments?
On a final note, summing up the perspective of misogyny, Woman 25 recalls a horrific comment the owner of a theatre made.
“A few years ago, an actress and friend that I had worked with at the theatre was shot and murdered. His response? ‘Such a shame. I hate to lose the pretty ones.’”
» There will be an Artist Town Hall presented by 12 Theatre Communications Group theaters, featuring guest Laura T. Fisher, Coordinator of the Chicago Theatre Standards and co-founder of #NotInOurHouse Chicago, at 8 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 11 at Arts Mission Oak Cliff. The town hall will be moderated by TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry. It is free, and first-come, first served. Read more about the event here.
» Read Mark Lowry's updated statement about The Whisper Network and why we felt it was the right time to explore this topic, why most of the women who shared their stories wanted to remain anonymous, and how our approach to the series has changed since it launched.
» Previously in The Whisper Network:
- Part 1: Introduction to the series — Monday, Nov. 27
» Next in The Whisper Network: Monday, Dec. 4 — Scene Partnering and Intimacy
» If you have a story to share, email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org