When Your Well has been Poisoned

by David J. McGraw
Cycle of Abuse, as developed by Lenore E. Walker
Cycle of Abuse, as developed by Lenore E. Walker

Like many theatre veterans, I was thoroughly sickened by the stories of abuse in the Chicago Reader article by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt about the Profiles Theatre in Chicago, but I was also saddened that I was not shocked that it happened.  While this was an extreme case, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that it was an isolated incident.

  I immediately felt for the stage managers who felt powerless and the countless stage managers who have been put into similar situations.  This kind of situation almost never starts as clear-cut abuse.  Our job is hard enough and situations such as what happened at Profiles put us in gut-wrenching binds.  As stage managers, we are often called to serve as unofficial Human Resources representatives, but what HR director would willingly walk into this perfect storm?

  • The subject material in our workplace explores the human condition, which can mean that we must repeatedly re-enact offensive viewpoints, inflammatory language, harassment, and violence as part of our daily duties.  In fact, we spend time exploring ways to heighten the conflict by making it more extreme.
  • The workplace can require provocative and objectifying uniforms, typically for the the newest and lowest-ranking employees.  The dress code is often not revealed until after employee begins work (first day of rehearsal or fittings).
  • Job Hires are made on a purely subjective basis – there is no quantifiable skill set that can be measured in all candidates.
  • The job market is flooded with potential workers and they know that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of equally qualified people who could take their place.
  • Our industry tolerates veteran supervisors starting relationships with those they are overseeing and determining future job contracts.  
  • Most employees are freelance and contracts are relatively quite short.
  • Even the HR Rep (the stage manager) is often freelance or lacks a permanent contract.  Yes, Equity has some protections, but it is still very hard to prove that a producer didn’t hire you again primarily because you stood up against harassment.

This is why we need to stick together.  I love that theatre people are not afraid to explore controversial topics and to be emotionally invested in their work.  But our willingness to be vulnerable for our art makes it very easy for someone to poison our well.  When our instinct tells us that something is not right, we need to talk to each other for a clear perspective.  But I know from experience how hard this simple step can be.

Early in my career, I walked into a very unhealthy production.  It was a dream gig and I was very lucky to have landed it.  But there were warning signs even on my first day, which I noticed but down-played because I wanted to prove I could ‘make it’ at this new level.  Of course, the problems didn’t magically go away and it took a good friend screaming at me to make me realize that the minor daily transgressions had built up.  Even when I accepted that the situation was wrong, I still didn’t know what I could do that would have any impact.  So I distanced myself and tried to protect others, some of whom did not want my assistance.  I was sick to my stomach on the way into work each day and counted myself fortunate to work in an industry where it is normal to switch jobs every couple of months.

Visit Not in My House.  If you are connected to a theatre company, try to get them to enact some of the code of conduct – the safeguards are commonsense and won’t cost the company to apply.  And if you are currently on a project that you know has abusive members, talk to others.  It will lighten your burden and the only way that we will clean our house is if we do it ourselves.