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Pia Catton: Theatre boards need to involve artists to help battle harassment

Long Wharf Theatre
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From London to Texas, non-profit theatres are cleaning up the fallout from sexual misconduct allegations. After the revelations and resignations, leadership searches are underway at some organisations, while others are still regrouping.

Meanwhile, one long-term issue affects the field: how can theatres create environments where harassment is not tolerated?

For non-profits, misconduct can pose a real threat to funding. Foundations don’t want molesters and predators operating with those they fund. Why should individual donors give to theatres turning a blind eye?

If people act that way, a new level of board involvement in hiring and oversight is needed. One path to that is more direct input from artists about what’s happening in the company and during the hiring process.

“[Boards] have to be more connected to the full environment,” says Jennifer Wright Cook, executive director of the Field, a New York service organisation for arts groups. “Most boards are deeply separate.”

It’s understandable that lawyer-banker-entrepreneur types are less integrated into backstage scuttlebutt than artists. Yet there is no shortage of knowledge among artists and their peers about who’s handsy, manipulative or abusive.

“People on the ground — whether they are actors or costume designers or tech people — everyone knows stuff that administrative people and the board do not know,” said Cook.

That distance is proving to be dangerous.

When Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut fired its artistic director of some 16 years, the New York Times interviewed board chair Laura Pappano, who said: “All of this reporting has brought to our attention things that we did not know about, and we feel strongly that going forward we want to know.”

If we take that comment at face value, the board was ignorant of a direct liability.

There is no shortage of knowledge among artists about who’s handsy, manipulative or abusive

Maybe the Old Vic’s board, too, was shocked to hear of Kevin Spacey’s alleged improprieties during an 11-year tenure that included 20 alleged incidents.

Old Vic chief executive Sally Greene: ‘I was unaware of any Kevin Spacey allegations’

Likewise, maybe it’s true that from 1989 until 2018, the board of the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, heard nothing about now-retired artistic director Gregory Boyd’s alleged harassment.

If they didn’t know, it’s a problem. If they did know and turned a blind eye, it’s even worse. Either way, it is a failure to protect the theatre.

And let’s not assume artists are the only ones abusing power. What’s to stop high-level donors from seeing bad behaviour going on and feel entitled?

To prevent abuses all around, Cook suggests organisations look broadly and create formal communication pathways. If artists are involved on a regular basis, asking them for input on matters of hiring will not feel like a one-off, or that they’re spying.

Several New York City non-profit boards do include artists, but their active involvement can vary. And it may be that artists don’t really like engaging with patrons.

But it’s time to bridge some gaps. Ultimately, change will come through action, not policy. As Cook says: “It’s not enough just to say on your website, ‘We don’t harass people!'”