Theater Professionals Say Eliminating Sexual Harassment On Broadway Won’t Be Easy
“The lines are blurred and gray,” said actor Stacey Oristano. “They know they can get away with it because they have for so long.”
A few years before Stacey Oristano booked the role she’s probably best known for — Mindy Riggins on Friday Night Lights — she was performing in a musical off-Broadway. When the show’s costumer asked if she’d mind having her photo taken in her most provocative costume, Oristano agreed after being assured it was just for the costumer’s records. The next day, however, the show’s producer told her that he’d stolen a copy of the photo for himself.
When the same producer had told her days earlier that he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about a plaid skirt she’d worn, she thought he was “being really nice, because I was the young girl in the cast.” Now, with the photo she’d taken as part of her job repurposed for someone else’s personal collection, she was “incredibly uncomfortable.”
“The whole thing was me feeling guilty and me feeling like I had done something wrong,” Oristano said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have worn that skirt. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that picture. Maybe I did things I wasn’t supposed to do.”
In recent months, the #MeToo movement has sent shockwaves across industries, with major figures from restaurants to film to politics being accused of sexual harassment and assault. Theater has not been immune. Actor Anthony Rapp told BuzzFeed News that Kevin Spacey made a sexual advance on him in 1986, when they were actors on Broadway and Rapp was a minor. Among several claims of sexual harassment and assault against Dustin Hoffman is Kathryn Rossetter’s accusation that the actor harassed and inappropriately touched her while they were performing in the 1984 revival of Death of a Salesman. And casting director Justin Huff was fired from his job at Telsey + Company, Broadway’s most prominent casting agency, following accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior.
More recently, theater legend Ben Vereen was accused of sexual harassment and assault by several young actors he directed in a community theater production of Hair. In New York, performers at the immersive production Sleep No More spoke to BuzzFeed News about being sexually assaulted by audience members. Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical Productions and the recently elected chair of the Broadway League board, was accused of sexual harassment. From an outside perspective, it might seem as though the reckoning has arrived for sexual misconduct in theater; within the industry, however, there is a pervasive feeling of uncertainty that anything will change. Because theater is a unique industry where boundaries between the professional and personal are frequently blurry, it can be difficult to identify harassment — let alone stop it from happening.
To understand the challenges of eradicating sexual harassment and assault in theater, it’s essential to look at how theater has fostered a culture in which this kind of behavior can flourish. The theater professionals who spoke to BuzzFeed News — including actors, directors, writers, and casting directors — discussed theater’s long-standing tradition of intimate working relationships. This free-flowing atmosphere is a double-edged sword — on the one hand, it has allowed for open creative exploration and a familial environment that appeals to many in the industry; on the other, it makes it difficult to know what constitutes harassment, and how to deal with it when it happens. This problem isn’t limited to Broadway or the larger New York theater community, of course, but because Broadway itself is the most high-profile international stage, New York remains a focal point for many theater artists, and the stories included here are based in the city.
Broadway may have prominent international standing, but it doesn’t have an HR department: While individual theaters, both on Broadway and off, should have their own guidelines, there is no one governing body to deal with sexual misconduct allegations. There are methods for reporting misconduct, but the theater professionals BuzzFeed News spoke to either weren’t sure of the proper avenue for complaints, or were unconvinced that any of the existing venues had the authority or the ability to respond to their specific allegations.
At the time of the photo incident, Oristano didn’t even consider complaining; the producer’s behavior didn’t seem out of the ordinary at first. “It started out so small and minute that I didn't even notice it was happening,” she said. But it didn’t end with the creepy compliment and the purloined photo.
When the cast and creative team of her show were staying together at a resort during the musical's out-of-town tryout, she began receiving late-night phone calls from the producer that quickly turned sexual, including questions about whether she’d brought a vibrator.
“The lines are blurred and gray.”
“I would laugh at it and try and cutesy it away so that he would leave me alone,” she said, adding that he then said he was going to come by her hotel room.
To fend off his pursuit, she began having another woman cast member stay in her room every night — and made sure the producer knew she wasn’t alone whenever he threatened to show up at her door uninvited. Oristano didn’t tell any of the men in the cast about what was happening because she worried they would “think I was being stupid.”
The circumstances Oristano found herself in reflect the unusual intimacy of theater: For eight weeks, these actors and members of the creative team were all living in the same place. When they weren’t rehearsing, they were often spending time together socially, blurring the distinction between the professional and the personal.
Looking back, Oristano wishes she’d pushed back more against the producer’s behavior, although she’s not sure whom she could have reported it to. If she were in the same situation today, she’s still uncertain with whom she would file a complaint. Additionally, Oristano believes that, as a woman, she was conditioned to not speak up for fear of being branded “difficult.” “I don’t want anyone to ever say that about me to somebody else who’s considering me for a job,” she said.
Because there’s no one group who oversees all of theater, and because inappropriate conduct has traditionally been ill defined, Oristano has struggled to know — beyond her personal discomfort — when behavior crosses the line. “The lines are blurred and gray,” Oristano said. “They know they can get away with it because they have for so long.”
There is no one typical story of sexual misconduct in the theater community — as in every other industry, there are countless iterations of people in positions of power overstepping their bounds. In reflecting on the culture that fostered this misconduct, the theater professionals BuzzFeed News spoke to repeatedly returned to the particularly intimate, relationship-driven nature of the industry. For some, that’s what brought them to the profession in the first place.
When playwright Stephanie Swirsky was still new to New York, she was introduced to a director who said he was eager to work with her. He was a little further along in his career, and had contacts at theaters that could help in getting her work seen. The two embarked on a professional relationship but also became close friends, with the director occasionally pushing Swirsky out of her comfort zone with flirty advances.
One night, when she was drunk, the director invited Swirsky back to his apartment. She repeatedly told him that she did not want to have sex, and that she was on her period. He continued trying and she expressed discomfort; she allowed him to kiss her, but told him she didn’t want it to go further than that. At one point, however, they got naked. The director got on top of her, and when Swirsky felt him penetrate her, she decided to just let it happen, hoping it would end quickly.
A couple weeks later, the director invited Swirsky over late at night. She agreed to come over, but asked if it would be OK if they didn’t have sex, which he agreed to. BuzzFeed News reviewed this text message exchange. Once she arrived, she found that the director was drunk and “in a real state.” She tried comforting him and cuddled with him, but put a stop to things when he tried to kiss her and touch her breast. The director was almost in tears, asking Swirsky why she wasn’t attracted to him and why she was rejecting him. She told him that he could touch her vagina to see that she was aroused. “And then he just put his dick inside me,” she said. Again, she decided to go along with it and wait for it to be over.
At first, Swirsky didn’t consider these incidents rape, even though she said she had told the director she did not want to have sex, and had not consented to being penetrated. Two of the friends she described the experiences to were alarmed by what Swirsky shared with them, especially when she told one, “I said no, but with my legs open,” they told BuzzFeed News.
As Swirsky struggled to process her feelings about what had happened with the director, she still felt that she had to maintain a professional relationship with him because of his connections in the industry. She also tried to continue their friendship, even having consensual sex with him on two separate occasions, which she said was her attempt to gain control of the situation.
Swirsky realizes that it may be difficult to understand why she tried to work with the director after the alleged assault, but she thinks he also positioned himself as a “gatekeeper.” At one point, she believed her playwriting career was largely dependent on their relationship. She recalled the director telling her that his success would only help her. As he introduced her to the theater professionals who could produce her work, he assured her that he would bring her up. “In some ways,” she said, “I actually believed it.” But the play they were supposed to collaborate on never came together.
“I didn't know what was gonna happen to my playwriting career,” Swirsky continued. “I just wanted things to go back to normal. I wanted to work on my play.”
“He smartly made me feel like I was without power.”
After working with a therapist and coming to terms with what had happened to her, Swirsky determined that she had been raped. When she did eventually confront the director, telling him that she had not consented to two separate sexual encounters, he apologized and said that he had been drunk and didn’t remember. But even after their conversation, Swirsky still had a hard time going to shows and industry events where she’d see him, and eventually stopped attending most events altogether. She believes this hampered her career opportunities, noting that the directors, producers, and other theater professionals you see in person are more likely to remember you and work with you down the line.
As in Oristano’s experience, Swirsky wasn’t sure what to do next, feeling that the only option would be to go to the police, something that didn’t appeal to her given how much time had passed, and the fact that she had a friendly relationship with the director and had had consensual sex with him twice, which she thought would complicate things. In terms of the theater community, she believed that she had no recourse, noting that she felt uncertain about reporting the director’s behavior to the same theater professionals he had introduced her to. “He smartly made me feel like I was without power,” she said.
Swirsky now works mostly with women, because she thinks they have a much clearer sense of boundaries. That can be a challenging prospect in an industry where the majority of directors and producers are still men. With men, she explained, it’s difficult to know how to respond when they cross a line, particularly when you’re trying to maintain a professional relationship. “It's scary to backtrack because then you feel very vulnerable,” she said. “You're afraid to lose that relationship, especially if the person has more power than you.”
“You have to think about the type of people that are drawn to theater. It’s inherently a social business,” Swirsky said. “You’re in these intimate conversations and interactions when you're putting on a play. And that always will somehow mirror itself in your rehearsal and then it will move outside of it.”
This is partly why there’s doubt over how quickly the industry could change — intense personal relationships are forged during artistic collaborations. The boundaries of those bonds are often poorly defined, and that kind of murkiness can be easily exploited. Consider the allegations against Ben Vereen, in which his actors said that his sexual misconduct was conflated with his attempt as a director to push them out of their comfort zones.
“There’s such an intimacy that happens automatically with a cast in theater,” Oristano said. She noted that just by the nature of the smaller space and daily rehearsals, it’s inherently more tightly knit than film and TV. “Those lines are so gray, as far as intimacy and vulnerability, and if you’re gonna bare your soul as an actor, you bare your soul to these people, and what does that mean? What does that entail?”
That intimacy is also why speaking out is so difficult. In an industry where career advancement often hinges on who you know, preserving good relationships can be the difference between working or not. Swirsky felt it when she stopped attending events and networking and subsequently received fewer offers.
The same was true for a former actor, who withheld his name for fear of career retribution. “When you get in that situation, if you handle it wrong, your career is done,” he said.
Although he still works in theater, an early experience with a casting director soured him on acting. Early in his career, before he was openly gay, a casting director repeatedly came on to him, offering him auditions in exchange for dates. The actor always said no, but feared hurting his relationship with the powerful casting director.
“When the dream role is dangled in front of you in exchange for sex — I don’t want to be a part of that,” the former actor said. “I just couldn’t do it. And I think it really did hurt my career tremendously.”
People starting out in theater — as Swirsky and Oristano also were — are typically at the mercy of those who are more established to help them succeed. A misstep, which the former actor feared making, could seriously derail an actor’s future.
“I felt like a prop, like a piece of meat.”
Even as the phone calls from the casting director increased — including a more explicit quid pro quo offer of a starring role on Broadway for a date — the former actor struggled to stand his ground without upsetting his pursuer. The back and forth went on for months, until the actor finally got frustrated and threatened to take his story to the press.
The next time the casting director reached out to him, his tone was entirely different. With a newfound formality, he offered the former actor an audition. But the audition turned out to be another source of humiliation, he said, when the casting director acknowledged his talent, then commented on his body in front of several other individuals. “I felt like a prop, like a piece of meat,” he said. At that point, he decided he no longer wanted to be an actor.
What’s more, he wasn’t sure whom he could have reported the casting director’s behavior to at the time. Back then he was worried about what could happen if he made the casting director an enemy, and even now, with his acting ambitions years behind him, he’s still worried about the damage speaking out could inflict on his current career.
There are few easy answers when it comes to determining the best way forward. Of course, as with all instances of sexual misconduct, the onus is on the abusers — they are the ones whose behavior needs to change. But there is still a sense that the business as a whole can adapt and transform itself into a safer place. Because while theater is often thought of as a haven, particularly for outcasts and misfits, those who spoke to BuzzFeed News described a far more fraught and sometimes dangerous environment. “It should be this warm, welcoming place,” the former actor said, “but it’s never been a warm, welcoming place.”
Despite the challenges, there are movements toward progress: On Dec. 4, the Public Theater hosted a town hall to discuss sexual harassment and abuse in theater, and actor Marin Ireland and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel launched Human Resources for the Arts on Jan. 16. But while these are clearly steps in the right direction — this is the most public the discussion of sexual misconduct in theater has ever been — the theater professionals who spoke to BuzzFeed News remain uncertain about what real change will look like.
There is no official HR department on Broadway, and the chain of command can be unclear. One actor who spoke to BuzzFeed News and declined to share her name described a situation in which the stage manager on a show she was working on was sexually harassing actors. Because she believed she was supposed to report incidents of sexual misconduct to her stage manager, she was at a loss over whom to tell.
“It really is so different from film and TV,” Oristano said. “I would know the steps of people I could go to to talk about it on [a TV or film] set, and I know that something would be done.”
There are organizations designed to advocate for the rights of actors, which includes the ability to push back against sexual misconduct in the workplace: Actors’ Equity is the union that represents live theater actors. A representative for Actors’ Equity stressed that it is the responsibility of the employers — that is, the theaters — to provide a safe workplace, free from harassment and discrimination. They have reminded theaters to maintain clear harassment policies, and they advise actors to refer to those guidelines. Actors can also make a complaint to their Equity business representative, as long as they are on an Equity contract. In addition to outlining the options available, Equity may also refer them to the Actors Fund, an organization that offers a wide range of social services, including counseling, which could help someone navigate the decision to make a formal complaint. Unlike Equity, the Actors Fund is open to anyone in the theater industry, not just actors who are members of the union.
“People have been speaking up, it’s just that no one’s been listening.”
But while this protocol exists, there is still rampant confusion among many theater professionals about how to handle harassment. One actor told BuzzFeed News that she would first make a complaint to her stage manager and then, as a last resort, to her Equity deputy, a liaison between performers and the union voted in by members on the first day of rehearsal. But the representative for Equity said they would advise against that course of action, noting that neither the stage manager nor the Equity deputy has any legal responsibility in these situations, and that reporting harassment to the wrong person could complicate making a formal complaint down the line. This misinformation is part of why Equity is working to educate its members, while also making sure theaters are holding up their end of the bargain as employers.
There are other grassroots organizations that are working to combat the problem of sexual misconduct in theater, like Ireland and Siegel’s Human Resources for the Arts, which provides education, a list of available resources, and a mediation program designed to resolve issues of harassment. In Chicago, the organization Not in Our House has worked to encourage theaters to adopt clear sexual harassment guidelines. Director Rachel Dart has started a project called Let Us Work with similar aims: Currently, the group is circulating an anonymous survey about sexual harassment in indie theater. All of these organizations are focused not only on countering sexual misconduct as it happens, but also on promoting change that will ideally prevent future transgressions.
The focus on education and cultural change is an important one — beyond dealing with individual instances of harassment or assault, there’s the need for a change in attitude. When the former actor did his first professional show, he was told, “It’s part of the game that you have to become friendly with the director, that you have to think long-term. If this director is gonna then go do another show, you want him to take you because you’re fun and you’re friendly and you’re flirty.” He believes that’s still the way many people feel.
Oristano said that she’s grown tired of how the looseness and overfamiliarity of theater is treated as normal. “I’m questioning that now, this whole, ‘We’re not a workplace, we’re a family,’” she said. “Maybe we need to stop thinking that way. That is my job. You are my director. You are my boss. Or, I am in a position of power over you. I need to know boundaries.”
But there are larger attitude adjustments that need to take place — and they extend beyond theater. As painful as the reckoning has been for many people, it has been a startling wake-up call to those who were able to overlook the sexual misconduct that flourished under their noses for years. Those who work in theater need to take the same hard look at their own behavior and that of those around them, Swirsky said, beyond simply firing people who have stepped out of line. “If you’re not continuously vigilant and mindful of it, you’ll just slide back and it’ll continue to happen,” she noted.
Sexual misconduct is nothing new — not in theater or outside of it — but the way we as a culture handle it can be.
“People have been speaking up, it’s just that no one’s been listening,” Swirsky said. “I think now people are listening.” ●