For local actor Erika Rose, the #NotInOurHouseDC movement could not come soon enough.
Last spring, the Helen Hayes Award-winning actor—best known for starring in hit shows like An Octoroon and Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company—was mulling whether or not to take a role at a theater she had vowed to never work at again. A theater where, several years before, she had watched a fellow cast member face sexual harassment.
The situation had made Rose—and other women involved with the production—extremely uncomfortable. So Rose played the part of whistleblower; she took her concerns to the director and artistic director.
What she expected was an investigation and a reprieve from having to hang around the perpetrator while the theater looked into the situation. That’s not what happened.
The alleged harasser was told to “stay out of the green room,” Rose says. He was also told it was Rose who complained.
“I was damned if I said something and damned if I didn’t,” she recalls. “It was just a mess.”
So when she heard last spring that her fellow Woolly Mammoth company member Naomi Jacobson had invited the founder of a Chicago initiative to make theaters safer to come speak at Arena Stage, Rose was relieved. And impressed with the gumption of Laura T. Fisher, an actor who took the lead after an abuse scandal at Chicago’s now-shuttered Profiles Theatre.
As initially reported by the Chicago Reader, Profiles actor and director Darrell W. Cox spent years hand-picking violent and misogynistic roles to star in at the theater, which employed individuals who weren’t members of Actors Equity, the union that represents live theatrical performers and stage managers. Over a two-decade period, he allegedly physically and psychologically abused dozens of young women.
By March 2015, Fisher and her colleagues had formed the Not In Our House support group and had begun developing formal standards that theaters should adopt for ensuring workplace safety. Twenty Windy City theaters agreed to adopt the standards, which were revised and galvanized in the wake of the 2017 #MeToo movement.
However, Jacobson’s plan to discuss #NotInOurHouse in Washington predates revelations related to Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, and other badly behaving and sometimes criminal celebrities. After months of networking, Jacobson brought Fisher to speak at Actors Arena—a monthly continuing education gathering—on June 12, 2017. The reaction was mixed.
“Some people said, ‘We’re not Chicago. Nothing happens here,’” Jacobson recounts. And then she laughed, ruefully. “No. Yeah, it is happening here. I have been in dressing rooms where every single woman has told me that a guy has stuck his tongue down her throat.”
Prior to Fisher’s talk at the Actors Arena in June of last year, Jacobson created a Gmail account and asked members of the area’s theater community to send in sexual harassment stories. She then recruited actors to read those anonymous accounts.
“There were some pretty horrifying things,” Jacobson says. She declined to share specifics beyond her example that Washington has multiple male actors who enjoy forcibly French-kissing scene partners.
After the readings and Fisher’s Q&A, Jacobson asked if anyone wanted to join an ad hoc #NotInOurHouseDC committee. Rose had left two young children home so she could come hear Fisher speak, and although the recent star of Queens Girl in Africa does not exactly have oodles of spare time on her hands, she was one of 25 people who signed up.
“I got involved because this was something I desperately needed, and because I was feeling isolated,” Rose says.
Jacobson was thrilled that the event had gone so well, but she didn’t have the bandwidth to run Actors Arena, the nascent #NotInOurHouseDC movement, and prepare to play Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love at Baltimore Center Stage. (Jacobson is now starring as Dr. Ruth Westheimer at Theater J.) So she passed the effort on to Amy Austin, president of theatreWashington, an umbrella organization that supports Washington-area theaters and puts on the annual Helen Hayes Awards. (Austin is publisher emeritus of City Paper.) Now Austin is working with the committee to adapt the list of standards created in Chicago, but for D.C. theaters.
“This is a holistic effort,” Austin says. “It is a way to build a culture so that if the artists have a problem, they have a way to approach it.”
The 33-page Chicago Theater Standards document is akin to a college syllabus. Ideally, on the first day of rehearsal, everyone involved in a production would review the standards, putting a particular emphasis on the “concern resolution path” should a problem arise.
By the end of the first week of rehearsal, the cast would select a “non-Equity deputy” to serve as liaison between the theater and whoever comes to the deputy with a concern. (Union theaters would follow this process too; the term simply means that the standards are internal, not a mechanism for reporting issues to unions. )
For example, if there were a non-Equity deputy working on the show where Rose witnessed sexual harassment, she wouldn’t have had to go to the director herself, and she wouldn’t have been singled out as the whistleblower.
The standards deal with much more than just sexual harassment, however.
Deb Sivigny, a freelance set and costume designer, voluntarily employed the standards when Rorschach Theatre remounted the Neil Gaiman fantasy Neverwhere last fall. Sivigny looks back at the original 2013 production with some chagrin. She knows many features of the dystopian set that would not be allowed in an Equity production, like unsteady catwalks, for example.
But for the second go-round, she wanted the performers to feel safer. She installed more railings, and says there were “actors wearing sneakers when the character called for heels.”
Sivigny knows that adopting the standards will be challenging for some of D.C.’s smaller, scrappier theaters, but still feels that everyone needs to raise their standards. For example, if a rehearsal venue isn’t going to have a bathroom, or air conditioning, or a fight choreographer or some other baseline amenity, everyone involved should know that before they sign a contract.
Even some of the area’s largest theaters were rather bare bones initially, Sivigny notes, citing the early days of Studio and Sources theaters, as well as the infamous Signature Theatre garage where Eric Schaeffer formerly put on Sondheim musicals.
“I have enjoyed that scrappiness,” Sivigny says. “I am not [lobbying for change] from an elitist point of view, I’m doing this because I’ve been through it. I just want everyone to play nicer.”
What it means to “play nicer” is still a matter for discussion among committee members. Even some of the highest-profile artistic directors in D.C. have been known to lash out at their actors and designers in verbally abusive tirades, and that may or may not change if theaters adopt the standards. “The document does not address assholes,” Sivigny says. “It addresses potential asshole behavior.”
Austin puts it this way: “I would hope [the standards] might prompt people who feel losing their temper is part of their artistry to be a bit more reflective about their behavior.”
Theaters have not been immune to #MeToo allegations. In Houston, the Alley Theatre’s artistic director abruptly retired after several actors came forward alleging sexual harassment, including Jacobson’s Center Stage costar Emily Trask, who accused him of calling her a “stupid cunt” and grabbing her ass in rehearsal.
In Toronto, the former artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre is facing civil suits from actresses alleging that he is “a serial sexual predator” who was enabled by his wife, the theater’s former executive director. In Minneapolis, a pair of backstage Guthrie Theater employees publicly resigned and accused the theater of promoting a misogynistic tyrant to run the scene shop.
D.C. hasn’t been rocked by any comparable scandal, and hopefully none are buried under rocks. Last month, the #NotInOurHouseDC committee held a townhall meeting at Sidney Harman Hall’s Forum space to unveil results of a community-wide survey which actress Allyson Harkey collated into a PowerPoint presentation. Of the 479 respondents, 71 percent said there is someone in the theater community who they do not work with because they are “afraid of what might happen” if they do.
That’s alarming. That shows D.C. has work to do.
As it stands now, Sivigny, Harkey, and other committee members are revising the Chicago document and mulling over how they can best require theaters to implement the standards. At Rorschach, Sivigny had it easy: She’s married to co-artistic director Randy Baker. But when Rose took the standards to a theater recently, she was met with false assurances.
“They did none of the things I asked them to do,” she said. “I’m not going back.”
She declined to share that theater’s name on the record, because calling people out is “not in the spirit of #NotInOurHouse,” she says.
Still, she is going to keep making every effort to see the standards adopted.
“I want every single actor in our area to know that they deserve to be treated well,” she says. “I have got to be sure that the people who come after me know that they are going to be alright.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, we mistakenly inferred that in its early days, Signature Theatre had no place for patrons to pee. That is not true. While the Signature garage wasn’t fancy they always had a bathroom.