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Scenes from the shadows

PEARL CAO/THE VARSITY

Scenes from the shadows

Four stories of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse from members of U of T campus theatre

Content warning: descriptions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship abuse.

“The theatre community… helped me get through a lot of difficult things in my life. There’s a lot of people there I will love forever,” Janet* says. “But there’s also people there who, if I never see them again, I’ll be happy. That’s not just because they did anything to me [or to someone else]… but because they stood by and let things happen.”

Janet was involved in campus theatre during her time at U of T, and her ambivalence about the experience resonates with others. While many students consider theatre a wonderfully welcoming place, the stories of others reveal a darker side of the picture.

It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement skyrocketed to fame, and it’s well worth considering what lessons it has to bear for theatre at U of T. With that goal in mind, I spoke to students within campus theatre at the university who experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse from fellow cast or crew members.

Women in power, men in control

A unifying thread in #MeToo cases was that men in powerful positions within the industry exploited their ranks to dominate women. On a smaller scale, gendered attitudes still play a role in many university interactions, and campus theatre is no exception.

Sabrina* held an executive leadership role in campus theatre in 2017–2018. An interesting thing about the U of T theatre community, Sabrina explains, is that unlike in Hollywood or other male-dominated environments, many of those in positions of power are women. But sexism doesn’t disappear when women have power; it just takes on a different form. As Sabrina puts it, “It’s almost like [men] are trying to get power in a female-driven community.”

Sabrina and fellow female executives have had numerous negative experiences working with men who didn’t respect their authority. Male directors would often scrutinize their leadership decisions or devalue their opinions in ways that Sabrina felt were unfair; some of this was accompanied by sexist remarks. Other men mocked the capabilities of female set designers, reflecting the common stereotype that women somehow aren’t suited for technical work.

During Janet’s time in theatre, while some theatre executives enforced “zero tolerance” policies for harassment, in many cases she saw men push boundaries and then get off the hook. Sometimes this would happen during productions scripted to include romantic scenes. In one audition Janet witnessed, one actor suddenly pulled their scene partner into a kiss without consulting them first. Incidents like these, Janet tells me, are often brushed off as “trying to make the scene better,” though she feels that some actors use intimacy scenes as excuses to be inappropriately physical.

Female representation in U of T theatre may also come with unintended consequences. Janet was frustrated to see men whom executives and cast knew as harassers continually get cast in plays, simply because there were too few men available for the part. Gender-blind casting could have avoided that problem altogether: her response was always, “Cast a girl.”

There’s no real way to quantify sexism, let alone to determine how pervasive it is within certain campus environments. But testimonies like these are significant, particularly coming from women in relatively senior positions. Repeated microaggressions, disrespect for women’s authority, and lack of accountability can lay the groundwork.

A similar toxic cocktail underlies the allegations against the now over 200 powerful people engulfed by #MeToo, most of them powerful men — from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching to full-fledged sexual assault.

Even when nefarious motives aren’t in the picture, theatre is an environment of intense closeness. The enormous amount of time cast and crew spend together can blur personal and professional boundaries, particularly in the campus context, where students are mostly young and often friends as well as colleagues.

Sabrina recounts multiple instances of male colleagues who seemed to get the wrong idea about the nature of their relationships with the women they worked with. One female crew member was repeatedly badgered by a male colleague until Sabrina and the executive delivered a pointed reminder about professionalism to the entire cast.

In another case, Sabrina and a female friend went to a cast party. Both of them held management roles and presumably deserved to celebrate their work on the production. An intoxicated male colleague’s aggressive advances made them so uncomfortable that they decided to just leave.

PEARL CAO/THE VARSITY

No typical abuser

#MeToo shone a light mainly on powerful men within the industry. But an inclusive perspective on the movement demands accountability for all perpetrators, even if they aren’t who we might expect.

When Melanie*, an assistant stage manager, became intoxicated at a cast party, a female theatre executive insisted on accompanying her home to her residence. Exhausted and ill, Melanie got into bed, but the woman refused to leave her alone. Taking advantage of Melanie’s condition, she forced herself on her and then stayed the night.

“The next thing I know, she’s in my bed and kissing me, and then she just didn’t stop,” Melanie says. “It took me a while to figure out that it was rape.”

In previous weeks, Melanie had noticed executives making inappropriate sexual comments and being overly touchy with the cast. She considered this inappropriate, but it wasn’t until her sexual assault that the significance of those incidents started to resonate. Melanie confided in a female cast member, and she found common ground — her friend confessed that a female director had also pestered her with uncomfortable comments like, “I only cast you so I could stare at you all day,” or “I only cast you because I wanted to fuck you at the cast party.”

But until it happened, Melanie didn’t feel unsafe around the woman who assaulted her. The theatre executive was a queer woman who advocated for equity and sex positivity, widely respected by her peers. The woman’s gender and the position she occupied within the community made it all the more difficult to process that she was capable of what she had done. It was only afterward, when Melanie was already traumatized and wracked with anxiety and guilt, that she found out the woman who sexually assaulted her had also raped two others.

While marginalized people have benefited from generally ‘safe spaces’ like theatre, Melanie is now concerned that myopic approaches to progressivism can isolate certain people from scrutiny. “They’re women and they’re gay and they promote female empowerment and self-love and hate the straight white male,” Melanie says. “They couldn’t possibly be dangerous — right?”

People who occupy powerful or privileged positions can be guilty of misusing them for their own gain. In big industry or professional entertainment circles, it’s often men who occupy those positions. Given the survivors I spoke with, that’s not necessarily true.

During their involvement in various campus productions, Lake* was thrust into an abusive relationship with Nate*. Nate leveraged their management position to exercise increasing control over Lake’s life, creating intense anxiety and splintering Lake’s existing relationship in the process. Though Lake has now broken off the relationship and reunited with their former partner, it still haunts them that Nate was able to abuse their position and get away unscathed.

Nate’s responsibilities included scheduling the cast, which, given the intensive hours associated with theatre, effectively allowed them to control Lake’s whereabouts. “It became very clear that they enjoyed being a stage manager not because, you know, theatre is fun, but because they enjoy power and they enjoy control,” Lake says.

On top of this, Nate was an experienced sex educator; offering to answer Lake’s questions about sex, Nate adopted a twisted sort of ‘mentorship’ role and thereby pulled Lake into a toxic sexual dynamic. In public, Nate brought elements of their sexual relationship onto the set without Lake’s consent, in one instance pulling their hair during a rehearsal. In private, Nate disregarded Lake’s boundaries and pressured them to use kinks as a method of conflict resolution, resulting in repeated physical and sexual abuse.

It’s difficult to come forward as a survivor in the first place, and it’s even harder when the person who hurt you is someone in power. Underlying both Melanie’s and Lake’s testimonies is a common dilemma. Keep quiet about your trauma, and you have to live with it alone. Come forward, and you may be judged, and you may not be believed.

Certainly, in an industry environment, it’s a bad thing to get a reputation, but that extends to smaller semi-professional and extracurricular spaces, too. “You’re so unsure about your position in the community, you don’t want to be known as difficult or causing a problem,” Janet says.

Then there’s the concern that even if you talk, no one will listen. When Lake told others about the abuse, a few were shocked, despite Lake feeling that the signs were obvious. Disturbingly, others revealed they were aware of Lake’s situation but were unsure whether to interfere — and ultimately decided it was none of their business.

“[Nate] not facing consequences is one thing,” Lake explains. “But the fact that there is this community that I feel in a lot of ways enabled this to happen, through not paying attention to what was going on, [that] says a lot.”

Change through conversation

Janet, Sabrina, Melanie, and Lake tell four different but related stories. Their stories don’t represent everyone’s experiences with campus theatre — but they’re also likely not the only ones.

We have to encourage survivors to come forward, and one approach is through policy. Many student-led theatre groups don’t have specific anti-harassment policies, but complainants can seek redress through standard U of T reporting procedures, through the policies of student society offices that oversee certain campus groups, or alternatively, through informal practices.

According to co-executive producers Marie Song and Sonny Nightingale, the Victoria College Drama Society requires its executives members to attend equity training, and it consults with the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council’s Equity Commissioner when they put on shows with sensitive content. The St. Michael’s College Troubadours’ production manager, Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong, says that the group seeks to ensure members’ safety by holding actors and crew accountable to the university’s general anti-harassment policies. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) and the University College (UC) Follies did not respond to requests for comment.

Michelle Brownrigg, Senior Director of Co-Curricular Education and Chief Program Officer at Hart House, oversees Hart House Theatre. Brownrigg’s team is cognizant that its productions involve a mix of student volunteers, recent graduates, and professional and semi-professional designers, which cuts across age and experience. Hart House requires all of its members to conform to guidelines within an “artists’ handbook,” which provides clear expectations for cast and crew no matter who they are. The handbook also contains information about the university’s anti-harassment policies and procedures for filing complaints.

Hart House has also supported the U of T Drama Coalition by funding the launch of  “intimacy direction” workshops in 2017. Originating with Tonia Sina, Alicia Rodis, and Siobhan Richardson, co-founders of Intimacy Directors International, intimacy direction focuses on challenging power dynamics that could give rise to harassment. Inspired, Coco Lee, then the coalition’s alumni advisor, brought the practice to U of T.

“A lot of what intimacy directors do is be proactive about building a culture of consent in the rehearsal room,” Lee explains. As trained professionals, intimacy directors guide cast through choreography of intimacy scenes, from romance to physical fights; they also facilitate exercises that safely build emotional chemistry between cast members.

A challenge with programs like intimacy direction, however, lies in showing theatre groups the merit they have to offer. Although Lee received positive feedback from those who participated, uptake was limited, and Lee hopes that this will change. She acknowledges that it can be challenging to fit additional sessions within already-packed rehearsal schedules, but she is also disappointed that “people often don’t think they can spare the time to create that safety.”

It’s also important to convince directors that they can adopt these measures without losing control. “It wasn’t until the end of the year when we clued into the feedback from people that there was a fear that their agency in the process would be taken away,” Lee says. She notes a bit of irony in that: the purpose of intimacy direction is to give actors agency, and presumably, that will result in better productions and working environments.

Beyond institutionalized changes, a more positive environment will come with small, proactive steps from members of theatre groups themselves. Janet tells me that she made it her mission throughout her time at U of T to raise concerns whenever she saw something going wrong. She looked out for younger students at cast parties and made seemingly small gestures, like asking audition partners if they were comfortable with physical touch. Over time, a number of her colleagues had started to do the same, so Janet tried to keep people talking. Sometimes they listened, and sometimes they didn’t.

The beautiful thing about theatre, though, is that it can force people to pay attention. The medium itself is a vessel for conversation, and campus productions like What She Said by the UC Follies in 2016 or TCDS’ How I Learned to Drive in 2018 have critically engaged with stories of sexism and harassment and elevated the stories of survivors.

Like a hashtag, pieces like these can spark dialogue. And coupled with policies and proactive moves, the ideas behind them can help ensure that theatre remains the safe space that it’s meant to be.

“Bad behaviour like sexual harassment lives in the shadows where we feel we can’t talk about it,” Lee says.

It’s time to switch on the spotlight.

*Names have been changed.