Let’s say that you were put in charge of a large comedy theater that has recently had significant issues with sexual harassment. What might you do? Well you might take a look at your policies. You probably would open up channels so that people could have a way to confidentially share their experiences. You might arrange some training for your staff. And you might have to fire some people–get rid of the “bad apples” as they say. But if you don’t address the power structure of your organization, it will never really get fixed.
Even before the recent public accusations of rape, unwanted sexual advances, and hostile environments, it should have been obvious that there was a problem. The gender imbalance at certain theaters is obvious and persistent. In a way, harassment is the ugly symptom of a disease that goes much deeper.
Perhaps you can make progress by addressing the many different ways that sexual harassment manifests itself in an organization. If you police the worst aspects of it, perhaps more women will stick around to become veteran performers, teachers, etc. And eventually, the power imbalance will take care of itself. I don’t believe it’s enough though. Imbalances in power tend to maintain themselves. And if you don’t address the power structure at the outset, eventually there will more problems. To put it bluntly, if you give all the power to men in your theater, sexual harassment issues will always plague you.
So here are my recommendations to you, hypothetical person in charge of a hypothetical theater with these problems.
1 – Separate casting from teaching
The inherent power difference between teachers and students is big enough. It’s not a good idea for students to feel like teachers maintain a power over them long after they have left class. So recruit people to cast your performers who are separate from the people who teach your classes.
2 – Make sure the people who are casting are diverse
Many theaters like to set up a committee to cast teams. If that committee is all white dudes, you shouldn’t be surprised if the outcome is mostly white dudes. Even well meaning white dudes who are trying to expand diversity and address gender parity have inherent biases that they don’t fully appreciate.
3 – Fracture your casting authority
First, have multiple gateways to get on your stage. No one person should have too much say about who performs. If you have teams, perhaps let different people choose the line up for each team. Have directors for different shows that are free to cast people as they see fit. And if you have a committee to cast teams, be weary of any process that allows any one member of the committee to derail someone’s chances. Make it so that if one person on your committee really believes in someone, they could get a shot.
4 – Committee members don’t date performers, ever
If you have a small standing committee choosing performers for your stage, then you must have a rule that they cannot have intimate relationships with the performers or potential performers at the theater. If it’s so important for you to ask someone out, then you should resign from the committee beforehand. This applies to coaches too. If you want to date someone you coach, resign, wait a little while and then ask them out. Human relationships should be taken seriously enough that they are more important than your authority to cast them or coach improv teams.
5 – Committee members should rotate
The same people should not be in charge of casting for years and years. Term limits should be short enough that a persistent performer can last long enough for a new set of committee members to give them a chance.
6 – Follow the numbers
Keep track of gender parity and diversity. Find out if women and minorities tend to drop out of the system more frequently than men. Set real targets to expand the diversity among your faculty and to retain your students as they move through the system.
There was a time when I was in a position to do things like this and I failed to do them. I was in charge of the classes at the UCB Theater in New York at a time when the system was rapidly expanding. We did pay attention to gender parity in the staff. I do remember making a point of recruiting women to be teachers, but that is where my efforts ended. I wish I could send this post back in time to me, so I could benefit from what I’ve learned in the last 15 years. I was much less woke back then.
My successors did better. In 2011, the people in charge of the school at UCBT-NY, did a statistical analysis of how they were doing and were a little shocked at the results. By some measures, they were doing very poorly when it came to gender parity. But they responded with the Colby Initiative. They made progress, but perhaps not enough. It’s an interesting read, and an example of how well meaning people who know that there is a problem, can still be blind to their own biases.
The kinds of stories that have been swirling around the improv community these days can inspire outrage at the people who are victimizing others, and it should. But when seeking better outcomes, we must address more than just the bad apples in our community. We must do more than put in place policies that address harassment. The problems are systemic and rooted in power. It is this power structure that turned a blind eye for so long, and it is this power structure that made the victims of harassment feel like it was pointless to come forward and report what was happening.
Change the power structure first, if you want a different outcome.
Photo by Alan Levine on flickr.