The Wall of Silence, Racism and Sexual Harassment

Years ago, I used to write about theater for a publication. In 2012, I wrote about sexual assaults that took place backstage – one that I experienced and another I witnessed. These were not small matters. After it got published, there was a wall of silence. No one said anything to me. It was as if I spoke into the wind. The lack of support was jarring, and I even tried to contact another journalist who wrote about sexual assault just so I could have someone to speak with. Anyone. Because I was desperate and raw from both writing about it and the total silence around me about what I wrote.

I never want anyone to feel that kind of loneliness again. Which is why I am linking to this story about PlayPenn. It’s a well-respected theater organization, and it has significant problems. There are allegations of racism and sexual harassment. The only reason I found out about it is because I know someone who resigned from the staff in solidarity with those who have come forward. It’s amazing to me how theater folks can lip sync all the right words on social media, but still want other people to do the work. American mainstream nonprofit theater has long been a bastion of white supremacy and patriarchy. And you – who are better connected than I – could make a big difference by speaking out. Beyond the black square. Beyond the lip syncing. 

People in theater love the abstract because the personal is dangerous and messy. But this is where art and change reside. And you will continue to work in a cesspool unless you get off your asses and speak out. Break the wall of silence. For real. No lip syncing.

Interview with a Man Selling Political Buttons

I’ll get to the Coronavirus Pandemic in a hot minute but I wanted to post my research from the 2020 South Carolina Primary. This work is for my upcoming book series. On YouTube you will find footage of Joe Biden’s rally, along with moments from a Bernie Sanders event. 

However, I’m proudest of the interview I did with a man outside the Sanders rally in Myrtle Beach. He sold t-shirts, buttons and flags to the attendees. As I explain in the Gasp podcast, I’ve wondered about these vendors ever since I attended the Trump rally in Franklin, Tennessee back in 2015 – which was also for my book project. During that event, a vendor became a great resource for background information. I vowed that I would talk to a vendor during this election cycle. 

It’s hard to believe that the world has changed so much since these rallies took place. The South Carolina Primary took place during the last week in February. Even then, I was keenly aware of the disease, and I wondered what would happen in the coming weeks. During the Biden rally, we were all so close to the candidate when he came out to the stage. Indeed, I even touched his arm as he passed. (I wasn’t being inappropriate. We all reached out to him as he walked down the short aisle, and he put his hand out to us as well.) 

My mind drifted as he gave his speech. How would they keep the candidates safe from getting sick? Were either of these candidates worried about catching the disease? I have to admit, I was glad when they stopped campaigning in public. Though it also freaked me out a bit as well. It was a confirmation of the seriousness of it all. 

Anyway, I plan on uploading more Gasp Podcasts on YouTube in the future. Hope you enjoy this episode.

The Story of Project 1968 and an Announcement

Project 1968 by Laura Axelrod

I am finally getting around to updating my site. On the Media page, you will now find a full interview with me about Project 1968, a blog docu-novel I wrote some years back. Even though I took the site down, people still mention this story every now and then.

Like much of the writing I’ve done, Project 1968 started as a full-length play. I spent a year at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, researching 1968 – specifically the Democratic Convention. I also traveled to Chicago and researched it at the Chicago Historical Society and the National Archives at Chicago. My work was quite extensive. I must’ve photographed tens of thousands of documents and collected numerous out-of-print books.

The play, which was then called “War is Kind: The 1968 Democratic Convention,” followed three young women as they experienced 1968. It got one reading at Austin Script Works in 2005. I kept sending it out after that. Several agents looked at it. One was quite impressed but basically told me that I wasn’t in the pipeline so there wasn’t much she could do.

It was all very, very depressing back then. I definitely had the feeling I was writing something special and that it didn’t matter. Looking back, I think three young women experiencing 1968, written by a female playwright, was a bit of hard sell for gatekeepers in theater. But it was also capped by the deep sense that if only I were someone else, then those gatekeepers would be more open to my work. So there was an element of shame as well.

Knowing how theater was a dead-end, in 2008 I moved the story out of that form and created something new. I called it a blog docu-novel. Basically, it was a daily blog written in the voices of two of the three characters. They talked about what they saw, how they felt and things they learned. It was a challenge. One of the characters, Janine, traveled with the McCarthy campaign, so I included details about the places she went, TV shows she watched and the weather. Those details came from newspapers published in 1968.

On the site, I included interviews with people and news summaries. I also tried to review some books published in that era about the topics I was tackling: racism, sexism, poverty and the peace movement. As I worked out the story publicly in this new form, the characters and stories grew. So in a way, it all worked out. I wanted the opportunity to develop this story in theater. That couldn’t happen. So moving it to another form became a new way for me to work.

One of the strangest things about Project 1968 was the reaction once I moved it out of theater. We wrote press releases for it, but everyone knows press releases are often ignored. In this case, people were genuinely interested in what I was doing and how I was doing it. It was such a visceral shift. I was so invisible in theater but once I moved my work out of that world, people saw me. They read my writing and took it seriously.

So I’m pleased to tell you that for my book series, I’m going to expand Project 1968. As I told the interviewer, we are going to follow these characters and their families throughout history, all the way to the present time. I’ve been planning this series since 2010. It’s an expansive, sometimes overwhelming project. But since it includes most of what I’ve written for theater from 1992 to the present, much of my work is already done.

A few other notes: The title, War is Kind, came from the poem by Stephen Crane. The submission draft of the play I wrote was a bit unwieldy and complicated, which is why I needed readings so I could develop, simplify and sharpen it. Lastly, if you ever run into a roadblock like I did, remember you’re a creative being. Use your creativity to turn your perceived weaknesses into strengths.

More on Sexual Harassment in Theater

Back in 2017, I casually mentioned on Facebook that I experienced sexual harassment in theater. In response, someone asked me if I ever wrote about it. 

Yes, I responded. I wrote an essay for publication addressing the topic years earlier.

I thought I wrote it in 2014 but it was 2012. A few days ago, I reposted the essay to this site. You can find it in the journalism section.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this subject. Since this blog serves as documentation for my work, as well as insight into the decisions I make, it’s important to acknowledge these experiences and how they’ve affected my writing. 

I had a lot of chances to think about sexism and sexual harassment in theater after writing the last entry. I love theater. I always have and always will. Playwriting is the form of writing I’m most comfortable with. I see stories on the stage. It’s how my mind works, and it’s been that way since I was a kid.

But at this late date, I’ve also reconciled that sexism and sexual harassment have taken a toll. I haven’t disclosed all of my experiences, and I can’t imagine I ever will. 

I haven’t felt safe in theater for a very, very long time. I’ve had panic attacks, intense shame, and a desire to make myself smaller and smaller and smaller so I could feel safe. I’ve spent years trying to figure this out. It’s one of the reasons I kept going to acting classes, even though they were so far away. I thought I could heal this thing and it hasn’t budged.

One of the other reasons I kept going back to theater is that I continuously thought they’d change. It makes sense, right? They talk about social justice. They’ve branded themselves as being some kind of moral consciousness for society. They write impressive essays about social justice in industry publications. They are evolved, aware people, but not really. They’re just like everybody else and maybe it was my fault for thinking differently.

After posting the last entry, my mind drifted back in time. I was about 20 or 21 years old when I was newly hired to work stage crew and saw my trainer get sexually assaulted backstage. In the published essay, I focused on my experience. I, too, was assaulted but not by the same person. 

Although we complained, the production stage manager didn’t fire the men who did it to us. She – yes, the stage manager was a woman – didn’t believe me. And my trainer? The man who forcefully groped her backstage in front of everyone got off with a warning. The next show, he came back and frightened us. 

It seemed like the stage manager’s main goal was to preserve the status quo, even if it was dangerous to the younger and least powerful in the crew.

I’m not going to provide more details because it involves another woman and what happened to her. The last entry I wrote, watching other women get hurt, kicked the memory and feelings up again. And if I were totally honest and authentic within myself, I’d admit that each time I experienced denigrating, demeaning comments and behavior in theater, this stuff percolated up.

Can I really do my best work in this kind of environment? I’ve asked myself that for years and the answer is no. There’s a part of myself that will always be on guard, always waiting for the next shoe to drop when dealing with theater. And, to be honest, I haven’t done my best work. 

As I am now getting ready for a milestone birthday this year, it’s time for me to do my best work.

It will be strange for me not to worry about sexism and sexual harassment in theater. But I can’t fix it – I never could, though I tried. I wrote a lot about it in various forums and ways. I don’t think it was a waste of time. It’s taught me compassion for other people. And, once again, I don’t think you can see other people’s pain until you acknowledge your own. 

One last thing. Whenever I’ve written in authenticity and honesty, there’s always a theater bro out there to characterize it as “painful.” No, my dude. This is not painful. The pain is in the past. As I turn my head to look forward, all I see is freedom.

Sending Plays and Sexism

Part of being authentic is being honest. That’s tough for me because I’m used to ignoring issues under the guise of “What’s the point? If I bring it up, no one is going to do anything anyway.” This has largely been my thought process regarding most aspects of theater, including sending plays to them.

It’s not fair to have those expectations, even if they are based on previous experiences. We live in different times. Behavior that was tolerated only a few years ago is no longer acceptable. I’m grateful for that.

The Issue

I’ll be honest here, as well as deliberately vague. The reason for that is I don’t want to start a thing. The thing happened years ago – seven to be exact – and I don’t feel like resurrecting it. But I want you to know what I learned from it.

The last time I sent out a full-length play was back in 2012 or so. The play was about Alabama, a topic I was well-acquainted with since I already had six years under my belt as an Alabamian. It was about my experiences here. It took some courage to send it out since I thought I had quit theater. The topics I addressed in the play were dicey and topical.

A member of an internet group posted a submission opportunity that he had organized himself. I emailed the play to him, with my standard cover letter. The accompanying letter summarized the story, and explained why I wrote it. Within minutes, I got a response from him saying that my facts were wrong. The email was snide, condescending and rude. 

As I read his email, I thought perhaps he misunderstood my cover letter. So I wrote him back, gently explaining it further. His response was abusive. It was as if he were deliberately misunderstanding what I wrote. He said he could correct my history because of what he read in a book. I wrote him back that I am married to the president of the local historical society who fact-checked my work. 

That didn’t seem to matter because he hadn’t read my work. His onslaught had to do with one sentence in my cover letter. That’s it. 

I withdrew the play and thought that was the end of it. Shaken, I commiserated with a group of women playwrights who were supportive and sympathetic. They helped me through the group admin’s gaslighting.

Let’s face it. Sending your play to a submission opportunity is not an open invitation to be abused.

The next day, I was stunned to see this man posted a note mocking me in the group. I knew why he did it. He wanted to start an Internet mob. Rather than reacting emotionally, I copied and pasted our email exchanges to the group so they could see what happened. Then I asked him why he took it to a group level. What purpose did it serve? 

Some people responded to me off-list to be supportive. Others tried to continue his line of abuse. The group admin responded publicly by chastising both of us: Him for being abusive and me for posting the email exchange in question. Futhermore, the admin also wrote me personally to say that I shouldn’t have responded because the man didn’t use my last name. Nobody would’ve known it was me.

But I would’ve known. It was a matter of self-respect. Why would I not defend myself publicly if someone were lying and bullying me publicly? I’ve done that before and it has diminished my self-esteem every single time. 

Finally, the group admin also reminded me that the group was supposed to be safe for everyone. Even at the time, I thought that was ironic. Clearly it wasn’t safe for me. I paused the group right away and kept it paused for the next seven years.

Defending Myself

My own life experiences have taught me that authorities don’t often come to my aid when it involves sexism. Theater has not been any different than real life. I’ve written about it before

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve remained in the periphery of playwriting. Sending plays out is a matter of trust and when that trust gets broken so dramatically, it can make someone pause. It’s the reason why I’ve got stories that are only now willing to share. I promised myself I would be authentic this time. Real. Honest. So here it is.

Back then, I made peace with the admin. Then I put my group membership on pause because this man’s bullying was treated the same way as me defending myself. I knew inside that I couldn’t depend on the admin. I knew that and it was proven. 

Again, it has been seven years now. I dove back into the group last fall and lurked a bit. I saw that man was still an active member, and it was a reminder of everything that happened. After a short time, I unfollowed the group. Or so I thought.

Trouble Today

A week ago, I had a group notification, which is weird since I had paused it. I viewed a few threads and saw that this man had once again started bullying women. This time, his conflict involved Black Women. And again, people got hurt. I followed what happened, as an observer this time. I was happy to see the admin come down on him, but I also saw people attempt to excuse his behavior. Again.

What was really interesting to me is how people were concerned about his feelings. Yes, HIS feelings even though he was deliberately being hurtful. It makes me wonder how many people like me left because he attacked them. I’m also curious why the group admin allows this guy to use the group as a weapon to shame and humiliate women in theater.  

My Own Admission

What these experiences taught me in the past is that I had to put up with bad behavior. It was the price of being in theater. There were very few times I saw instigators corrected. Very, very few.

A couple of years ago, I took a hard look at all this. If I had to put up with inappropriate or hurtful behavior, then I wasn’t willing to “do theater.” It simply wasn’t worth it. Nothing is worth my self-respect. 

From what I’ve seen, these days people aren’t as tolerant as they used to be. Maybe. I’m still not sure. But I’m willing to take a risk again. We’ll see how it goes.

The Bottom Line

If they hadn’t given him a pass on his bullying seven years ago, then he wouldn’t have hurt people now. You might think excusing someone’s behavior is compassionate, but you’re wrong. Dealing with trouble today will prevent further and possibly bigger troubles down the road. The people who get bullied are the ones who leave. The bullies who get a pass end up staying. Then the toxic behavior continues.