The Whisper Network, Part 4

Misconduct stories continue, and what happens next? After the Artist Town Hall in Dallas, Shelby-Allison Hibbs is hopeful that things will change.

published Friday, December 22, 2017



Where do we go now?

When I started writing this collection of essays, I knew that eventually something would come out about Lee Trull. I had been working with Katy Lemieux for five weeks investigating his history, and Katy had been gathering information for more than a year, but by the time the first essay was published we didn’t have enough information to move forward with a report.

Let’s just say things changed rapidly.

And it blew up this whole project.

I have received more emails than I know what to do with. They contain troubling and heartbreaking stories that had only previously been told to close friends or sometimes no one at all. Each one cracks a dense wall of silence.

I am grateful for all of the women and men who have stepped forward to share their stories. I am excited about the possibility that a Whisper Network will no longer have to be the operating procedure. I am hopeful that artists won’t have to give vague warnings about certain people or theatres when a newcomer moves to town. I am encouraged that targets of abuse are speaking up and diminishing the presumed power that others wielded.

I am encouraged by women like Lara McCall Whitley and Alison Sloan who have made public statements, via videos on their Facebook pages, about the harassment they have faced. I interviewed both women for this project prior to their videos. Stepping forward anonymously or through a public statement is so difficult, but their words have given courage to many other women here and elsewhere.

After the Dec. 11 Artist Town Hall with Laura T. Fisher, I now know that real change is possible within our community. It is invigorating to see that artists, technicians, and administrators from several theatres around the community want to establish standards for Dallas/Fort Worth. We have a moment to articulate the ethics and professional practices we want to achieve in our houses, and people are stepping up to make change happen.

But with this positive thinking, there is another consideration.

These actions cannot change the past.

Perhaps actions now can change the lens through which we view the past. Maybe even those that have crossed personal boundaries previously may attempt to make amends or apologize for their past behaviors. More long kept secrets may come out, but the trespasses remain in memories.

I think that’s why this moment or reckoning is still continuing, and it will remain a difficult process for the months ahead.

For this essay, I have some questions.


How can Dallas address misconduct occurring outside of the rehearsal/performance space?

A number of stories shared with me occurred outside of the theatre—at the bar, at an opening night party, through text messages.

Woman 2, recounts a time just out of college when she worked crew for a theatre.

“As a 22-year-old who really wanted to design for the company, I was eager to impress everyone I’d worked with as a technician. Prior to the incident, I had thought of the artistic director as a mentor or father figure. He was the person who gave me my first professional position, so I really looked up to and admired him.

I wanted this theatre to be a company where I could hone my skills and continually grow in position and opportunity. At an event, the artistic director drunkenly came over to me, said how sexy I was, and put his hands on me. I was too scared to say anything at the time, since I didn’t want to burn any bridges.

Several people warned me about him when he’s drunk — but only after the incident had occurred. I honestly felt a little betrayed because they didn’t warn me soon enough. I felt like I had been put in an incredibly vulnerable position without knowing I was there.”

Men also experience unwarranted sexual advances, from both men and women. Only two reached out to me to offer their stories.

Man 2: “I have experienced some seriously uncomfortable advances from men and women during parties on theatre property. I have learned over the last few years of working in DFW theatre that there is an ‘anything goes’ or ‘don't spoil our fun’ attitude that gently pressures individuals not to talk about what goes on. You'll be shamed for doing so in fact. At best I felt uncomfortable because of what people said to me. At worst I woke up to find a man from our production stroking my penis. I told him to stop and he did. He knew I had a girlfriend. Although he stopped when I told him to, he still violated me in my sleep. I was drunk and couldn't drive home so he took care of me for the night. I trusted him. Now I have confronted this man and have no fear of him.”

The Chicago Theater Standards do not strongly address actions outside of the workplace. How do you ensure that collaborators will not trespass personal boundaries when you have left the rehearsal room? You will see this person again in a few hours, how can you do your job without emotional or physical stress?

Particularly if a person in power harasses a collaborator, how can the target of abuse speak up without fear of retribution?

Going further than that, how can a person ensure that unwanted behavior will not occur again when they do not even feel comfortable telling a colleague about these trespasses? Do they put blinders on? Do they ignore that person? Do they quietly ask a fellow actor to watch their interactions at all times?

Fisher brought up this topic by referencing a story from New York a few years ago which briefly drew national attention. In March 2015, Marin Ireland came forward to address misconduct in New York theatres.

Ireland was in London when the incident occurred, working with The Wooster Group on a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company. While at their temporary housing in London, her then boyfriend Scott Shepherd (a company member of The Wooster Group for many years and also in this production) “slapped her with enough force that he knocked her to the floor.” She came to the next rehearsal with a black eye, but The Wooster Group did not have a set path for how to deal with the situation.

After this incident and two years of work, Ireland just announced the start of “Pilot Project” to address harassment in the New York theatre community. The fact that this project took three years to develop and that the #notinourhouse standards also took two years to develop demonstrates how difficult it is to build HR standards or processes for theatre communities—because so much has been dismissed. 


Should we just stop working at certain theatres?

Laura T. Fisher made a point in the town hall that if you don’t find appropriate action within a company, that you can say that you won’t give your work to that company. I understand the sense of empowerment in the act of saying “no,” but I think that answer is too simplistic—particularly in an area where directors and artistic directors seem to hold more power than actors in the community.

I also think that people are already doing that, refusing to work at certain theatres.  So people work at a company once, have a terrible experience, vow to never work there again, then find out from others that they have also had a terrible experience—but only after the fact. The negative behavior doesn’t change.

That just sets up a continuous loop (kind of like Profiles Theatre in Chicago).

In a most ideal situation, the Chicago Theatre Standards can establish accountability and teach best practices. However, people have to be willing to listen and in some cases change their behavior. I do wonder if in some cases, the poor behavior is too ingrained in certain institutions. So, what happens then? Are there any other paths to accountability in those situations?


How can we create a support system for individuals who need guidance or a supportive ear?

“I didn’t know who to talk to.”

“The producer was dismissive to me.”

“I was afraid to say anything.”

#notinourhouse offers multiple support platforms, some which should be adopted by DFW. By establishing certain individuals as “safe spaces” who will not only be confidential but can offer advice for next steps in addressing misconduct can have positive effects for our community. Support groups and online forums (for civilized dialogue) also allow individuals to know that they are not alone. While these kinds of groupings have occurred informally over the years as part of the Whisper Network, I anticipate that more individuals will want to participate.


How can the standards be used for educational institutions? Should training in the standards (ideally) start there?

Another complication arises when the unwarranted advances come from a teacher. The code of conduct should be led by educational institutions to communicate what one should expect in a professional environment and encourage best practices in the classroom.

It is particularly disturbing to hear of teachers—particularly in secondary or higher education—using their pool of young students as “play things.” These young people are required to be around their instructors constantly through classes and projects and may engage with adult content in the plays they produce. I think that this is why some predators hide in plain sight so easily—they choose the scripts produced, cast the shows, guide the temperature of the rehearsal or classroom. This free space of exploration (which is needed to an extent in the theatre) can potentially be abused.

Woman 11 recounts a time when one of her instructors took advantage of the power dynamic and trust in their relationship.

“I had just turned 21 when I started taking classes at a local studio. The instructor, a man, always requested that his ‘favorites’ (young women he found attractive) sit on either side of him in class. He also insisted that women wear heels to class and act ‘lady like.’ It wasn’t long before I was sitting next to him, wearing heels and joining him, and others, for drinks after class.

This man also started texting and flirting with me. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the attention. I was a young actress, in my first professional setting. I naively thought he admired me for my talent.

Class would often go on until 11 p.m., so we would go to a bar nearby to get late night food. About half the class would come along. We would stay out drinking, eating, chatting about the industry until 2 a.m. came around. At this point, most people went home, but the instructor occasionally invited people to his house, only a few minutes away.

One night, I had too much to drink, and didn’t feel good about driving 45 minutes home. The instructor graciously offered his couch. I rode in his car to his house. Once we were there, he was pleasant enough. He poured me a glass of wine and gave me a tour. I was pretty drunk, so I asked for a blanket so I could go to bed.

He started getting upset, asking why I would want to sleep on the couch. He eventually told me that I could only spend the night if I slept in his bed. I immediately refused and he told me I would have to call a taxi, because he wouldn’t drive me anywhere.

I ran out of his house, and began to call a taxi. He begged me to stop and tried to grab me. I screamed through tears for him to take me back to my car. He started asking why I was upset and, in my drunken honesty, I told him I had been raped by a man who offered me a ride home because I was drunk, but took me to his house instead. Of course, the instructor insisted he would never do that, and he agreed to take me to my car.

I have an email he sent me the day after, ‘Sorry I was so drunk and needy last night, and that you were so stern. See you soon!’

The most painful part of this story was that I still came to class the next week, and the week after that. I continued to text and email him as if nothing had happened. I don’t think I ever allowed myself to alone with him again, but I definitely did not cut him off or tell anyone. I still believed he would make me a success. But I was never the same in class. I stopped going after another month or so and haven’t seen him since.

Now, all I can think is, ‘What if I hadn’t been stern?’ and ‘What if someone younger and less experienced than me had been in the situation?’ I just hope me sharing my story, even years later, will help someone else realize they are not alone. Stay ‘stern’ and speak out.”

This goes back to the issue of what occurs outside of the rehearsal room. How can we protect students from potential predators? How can we help them find ways of speaking out or having the person in authority attempt to twist their actions?


How far should call-out culture go?

This is something that has been going back and forth in my mind. I know the topic elicits numerous responses:


“This is a witch hunt.”

“We need to name everyone.”

“I want him/her to pay for what they have done.”

“Where will this all end?”

“Will naming names cause more division?”

I think there are still some people that need to be named, held accountable for their actions, or dealt with in their own institutions.

The call-out culture makes several people nervous, but not every person who has made a single trespass deserves a public shaming.

The positive element of the CTS is that mediation is possible—as long as everyone in the institution buys into the standards and agrees to uphold them. It allows the potential of accountability for everyone from the artistic director to a board op to a board member. It provides a pathway for handling conflict, but it is by no means perfect.


What should Dallas/Fort Worth include in their standards?

#notinourhouse worked for two years to create their document. I do think it is important for artists and artistic leaders to create an extensive document that determines the ideals of our community. If we do not declare it, we risk assumptions. We risk the idea that everyone knows “Theatre 101.” We risk the notion that people will treat each other fairly and not abuse power that they temporarily hold.

It is vital for this moment to not be a flash. It’s another cornerstone of our booming community.

It is time for us to say what will be allowed in our house.

Our town.


» Previously in The Whisper Network:

» This essay concludes the Whisper Network series, although we will keep up with the topic, and the progress of DFW adopting its own code of standards, in 2018 and beyond.

» Denise Lee begins her 2018 Community Conversations with discussions about sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. We will have more info about these events later, but for now, we can give you the dates:

  • 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 22 at the Dallas Children's Theater (Facebook event here)
  • 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21 at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth

» Contact Ms. Hibbs at Thanks For Reading

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The Whisper Network, Part 4
Misconduct stories continue, and what happens next? After the Artist Town Hall in Dallas, Shelby-Allison Hibbs is hopeful that things will change.
by Shelby-Allison Hibbs

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