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Broadway Gets Serious About Sexual Harassment

The sexual harassment headlines have touched Broadway, and Broadway is on high alert.

In the cascade of public figures to face accusations in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, one name, Kevin Spacey, had a high-profile link to the New York theater industry. He hasn’t appeared on Broadway for a decade, but he was the left-field choice to host the 2017 Tony Awards. The reverberations from the Spacey news were even stronger in the London theater community, where the actor had been the artistic director of the Old Vic Theater for 11 years.

As new Broadway productions enter rehearsal periods in this heightened atmosphere — “Farinelli and the King,” “Escape to Margaritaville,” “The Children,” among others — there are signs that all of the industry is on guard. Last week the stage actors union, Actors’ Equity Assn., sent an email to some 1,500 employers of Equity actors, emphasizing the expectation that harassment policies be addressed on the first day of work and vowing to keep tabs on the policies that are out there: “In the coming days, Equity staff will be reaching out to request your policy on harassment so that Equity knows what your policy states,” AEA exec director Mary McColl said in the email.

At the same time, Broadway’s general managers speak privately of gearing up for new productions with a greater sensitivity to what’s appropriate in a professional environment that often necessitates intimacies that would blur lines of professionalism in any other context. “We can all be so lackadaisical sometimes,” notes one manager. “That’s something everyone is very aware of now.”

In London, the theater community has responded to the news about Spacey — and to recent harassment allegations that forced longtime Out of Joint artistic director Max Stafford-Clark out of his post — by drawing up a code of conduct to prevent harassment and abuse in the city’s theaters. Spearheaded by Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone, big industry names such as producer Sonia Friedman (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) and National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris have put their weight behind the movement too.

It’s an initiative that calls to mind the code of conduct that the Chicago theater community drew up in response to the 2016 sexual harassment scandal at the city’s Profiles Theater. To those on Broadway, that agreement might serve as a helpful starting point for a discussion, but since it’s a code specifically targeted to Chicago’s non-Equity companies, the movement doesn’t quite translate in New York.

On this side of the Pond, the Actors’ Fund and a handful of industry unions are gearing up to launch new communication campaigns directed at union members and other workers in the business, calling attention to resources of which workers may be unaware — not only in terms of policies and procedures in place but also, for instance, of counseling offered by the Fund to anyone in the entertainment industry.

Meanwhile, one outspoken actor-activist on the issue, Marin Ireland, is enlisting her connections in the industry to encourage artistic directors, unions and other parts of the business to get the word out. She and attorney Norman Siegel are also working to organize pro bono, third-party mediation that might be tapped when issues arise — especially situations that aren’t as extreme as the Weinstein case.

“Harassment and abuse are systemic issues that operate on a wider, more nuanced spectrum than some of the coverage we’ve seen in the news, and I don’t think we’re addressing that right now,” Ireland says. She and Siegel hope to have a pilot mediation program in place by the end of the year.

From a legal perspective, the buck stops with the producers, notes Ronald Shechtman, a labor attorney who often works with the theater industry. “In the end, it’s the employing entity that has the responsibility to provide a safe and secure workplace,” he says.

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