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Sexual Harassment in the Theater: How Chicago Fought Back

Looking for the theater industry’s Harvey Weinstein moment? Look to Chicago.

Last year, a bombshell report in the Chicago Reader brought to light two decades of harassment and abuse by Darrell W. Cox, the artistic director of Profiles Theatre, an acclaimed company on the city’s bustling storefront theater scene. Cox fell into ignominy, and within days his company had shuttered.

As Broadway and the theater industry at large wrestle with addressing sexual harassment in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, the Chicago theater community’s response to its own revelations could serve as a roadmap for theater makers looking to move past soul-searching and on to next steps.

In a business where the personal and the professional regularly overlap — and where getting intimate with a co-worker, eight times a week, can be a part of the job — sexual harassment isn’t often a topic of discussion in the New York theater industry. Talk to some people along Broadway, and you might get the impression that harassment, although a focus of awareness, is an issue rarely raised in the theater.

Others tell a different story: anecdotal tales from the female playwright-actress posting a long, horrifying list of her experiences in the industry, or from the Broadway chorus boy approaching his dance captain about a situation that made him uncomfortable.

Legally, all employers (in this case, producers) are required to provide workplaces free of harassment, and Actor’s Equity Assn., the union for theater actors and stage managers, is most often cited as the organization to go to in cases of harassment. Last year Equity published a primer for its members on the subject and partnered with the Actors Fund, which has positioned itself as a place where anyone in the industry can address incidents with a qualified social worker. Meanwhile, theater owners and larger theater companies like the Roundabout Theatre Company and The Public Theater have official policies in place, as well as the human resources departments to handle such matters.

But in a decentralized industry with multiple positions of power — producer, agent, director, landlord — many point to uncertainties in the current framework. What happens, for instance, when an actor is harassed by a director, who is a member of a different union, or if an incident happens in a non-Equity company? Worries are also raised about the clarity of the various workplace policies, the proper paths of complaint and the potential consequences of them. “I think right now one of the big issues is people still don’t know where to speak out or who to speak out to,” says Marin Ireland, the Tony-nominated actress who came forward in a 2015 New York Times article about abuses she had experienced in the theater.

In Chicago, even before the Reader’s story broke, the open secret of the situation at Profiles had prompted local actors Lori Myers and Laura T. Fisher, among others, to create Not in Our House, a grassroots movement to address harassment and abuse. Over the past two years the organization has created and honed the Chicago Theatre Standards, adopted by 21 area theaters, which gives non-Equity companies in particular a framework for protection, prevention and accountability.

Not in Our House served as one of the inspirations for Rachel Dart, a young director in New York who created the Let Us Work Project to take on the same issues. She did so after a colleague unwittingly asked her to work with a person who had harassed her in the past — at the same theater where she had reported the initial incident. “I was really mad, having to turn down this job while this person was continuing to work,” Dart says.

No one thinks there’s a cure-all for harassment. But in the cultural shift marked by the fall of men like Weinstein and Roger Ailes, initiatives like the Chicago Theatre Standards might help further the conversation.

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