I recently heard an interview on Studio 360 with playwright, Julie Jordan, who spoke on the realities of the age-old cliche of the "casting couch" (originating with the idea that one must sleep with someone to land a role, although now the phrase is used more generally, for anyone performing sexual favors to advance in a career). She is calling for Actors Equity to tighten its policies and procedures on harassment, and further, bring more awareness to this issue that is often glossed over in theatre.
Theatre has always had looser boundaries than other fields of employment. It's not a typical office environment. As Jordan points out, "We’re constantly taking off our clothes and kissing each other and acting out love scenes and acting out violence." What other employment requires a job description like this? And the close-knit vibe starts early. When I was in college, we referred to each instructor with the appropriate title of "Professor"--that is, except in the Theatre Department. No one questioned this, and while it would feel awkward to call my Calculus Professor "Lloyd," calling my Directing Professor "Jacques" seemed entirely natural. In fact, calling him "Professor Levy" would have seemed the odd thing to do.
This casual nature, leaving lines fuzzy between student and professor, leaving intimacies open between actor and director, the transient nature of putting on a production, the subjective nature of landing that job--it all leads to the potential for misuse of power and harassment. I can recall numerous examples from my own experience where industry professional attempted to cross those lines. Of course, I can recall many many more entirely professional, or appropriately friendly/professional relationships that have developed from my work in theatre. And of course, "some of my best friends" are in theatre. :)
It's definitely something to be aware of, and if Actors Equity can make a clearer line of communication for people to report their harassment, that is a good thing. But we all know it goes beyond this. I can't say it's the culture of theatre, because I don't believe it has to be. It's more the culture of people taking advantage of those who either want things from them, are intimidated by them, or feel powerless to speak up. And that is a culture we need to change in every field of work.
Share your thoughts! Have you experienced or witnessed harassment in theatre? Was there a clear place to report it? Did you feel comfortable reporting it? How has it affected your view on theatre? Do you think it's more prevalent in theatre than in other fields? What can we do to foster a more appropriate environment for the youth of theatre?