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.
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.
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.
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 women of color. 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.