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.

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.