I recently found an article written in March of last year by Patrick Healy called Sex and Violence, Beyond the Script. It covers a scenario in which an offstage incident between Marin Ireland and Scott Shepherd in a production of “Troilus and Cressida” was brought into the rehearsal room when Ireland walked in one day with a black eye caused by Shepherd. The article the continues to discuss how the Actor’s Equity union has harassment policies in place, but they are “largely toothless,” so actors like Ireland have been fighting to press “unions and others to create clear-cut protocols for registering and handling grievances about harassment in the theater.”
I begin to think about the nature of training we are currently receiving at Boston University’s School of Theatre, and the nature of the work in general. It’s an incredibly revealing, vulnerable, and emotionally raw craft. The things sometimes required of us to do in order to create art are sometimes incredibly revealing and intimate. As Healy states, we work in an environment “that asks [artists] to flirt and kiss, argue and fight, strip naked and simulate sex eight times a week for what can be months on end.” Therefore, the studio classroom and rehearsal room should always feel like a safe space for artists to freely explore and comfortably do the emotionally demanding work.
Luckily, under Title 9, Boston University is required to protect victims of sexual assault and discrimination and, from personal experience can say, has done an excellent job at enforcing it. Title 9 requires BU to have an established procedure in handling reports of discrimination, harassment. It also requires the school to give a victim the freedom of not having to share a space (including dorms, classes, work, or rehearsal room) with their assailant if they choose to do so.
However, Title 9 can only do so much. Yes, it is creating a safe space for us, but theatre-making makes it a little tricky. In such personal, close-knit spaces, some lines begin to be blurred. Working ensembles become very close. Off-stage, it’s only natural that romantic and sexual relationships begin to form. Voices can be silenced in fear of disturbing the art, ruining friendships, or creating drama. Real life and stage life begin to blend. But we are told that we can’t put condoms on our hearts and whatever happens between two actors outside of rehearsal stays out of the room. Well what if there’s no possible way for what happened to stay out of the room? What if it was traumatizing? And now we must get to the private, emotionally unravelling work. Ah, that safe space isn’t feeling so safe anymore.
I cannot speak for others, but I will say that I personally do not always feel safe. And I know I have staff who are looking after me, I know I am protected, and I know my rights. But I don’t always feel safe. And I think that is rooted in the fact that we are so focused on the “safe space” aspect (which is excellent), but forgetting about the part where we tell our students that assault is inappropriate and unacceptable and that, no, I don’t care if our characters sleep together in the play, you may not do that with your scene partner in real life to “get into character.”
Similar to how Marin Ireland is fighting for some change in the way off stage incidents are handled in the professional world, I want to be more proactive in fighting for a “clear-cut protocol” of our own for BU SOT so that, say, an an actor that is put into the same casting with their assailant, feels comfortable and experiences as little PTSD as possible.
I propose that on the first day of rehearsal, our rights under Title 9 are read to the cast and crew, as well as how to navigate a formal system of filing complaints about inappropriate behavior. As Ireland suggests, we could also create a “confidential mediation process where complainants and the accused can talk through instances of harassment, misconduct and abuse with a mediator and without fear of penalties.”
I also propose that, even before entering the casting pool, in the freshman year Performance Core training, students are taught that there is a zero tolerance policy (and then enforce that) and they will not be rewarded with a continuation of “good casting” (and then enforce that too) and high praise. We are a community. The CFA is small and The SOT is even smaller. There is no room for us to be causing harm to one another. We are creating the next generation of artists. Not the next generation of rapists. So let’s cut the bullshit, and stop luring people into bed that don’t give consent.
SARP is the most amazing resource on campus and I especially, strongly encourage members of our community to reach out to them about anything regarding assault or general anxiety and other mental health issues as well. I have received the upmost respect, therapy, and information here by the kindest, empathetic staff. They are located at 930 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215 and can be reached by phone at 617-353-SARP (7277) or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does anyone else have any suggestions, thoughts, or ideas? I would love to open up this discussion more and hear about what everyone else has to say.