When the physical and sexual abuse at Chicago’s Profiles Theatre was brought to light, the theatre communities of America buzzed about. Here in DC, it shocked some , but for others, there was almost a sigh of relief. People were talking about it. Finally.
Hosted by Not In Our House DC
January 29th, 6:30pm
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St NW
Washington, DC 20004
Admission is free
Details on Facebook
The DC Theatre community had long kept its own secrets, told over drinks or in private Facebook groups. People secretly confessed, and found their claims believed, rebuked, or debated. Folks would carry on conversations, hesitant to name names for fear of repercussion. With more names being thrown out into the open (Weinstein, Ansari, Nassar, Trump), there appears to be a movement on the national level. Luckily, there are people who turned the gaze local, to the conditions in which so many theatre professionals faced the same unsafe conditions. While people in the community can do little to directly affect those on the national scope, they can at least strive to uphold the safety of those practicing within their sphere of influence.
And thus, Not In Our House DC was born, paralleling the Not In Our House movement started in Chicago.
When the Profiles story broke, I heard murmurs of people wanting to start something like Not In our House here. “How can we keep people in our community safe, and work to provide safe working conditions for working artists?” NIOH-DC is still in its earliest phases, there is not much to report on. But some of the most beloved and dedicated people in the Indie Theatre Scene banded together, among them Deb Sevigny, Emily Sucher, and Amy Kellett.
Recently, they gathered data via survey for theatre professionals (actors, designers, directors, administrative workers, board members, etc), surrounding harassment experienced or witnessed in our community. I had a chance to eavesdrop on one of the gatherings in my apartment. The Not In Our House Team agreed to share some of their progress and findings with you. I spoke with NIOH-DC folks Dane Figueroa Edidi, Jonelle Walker, Allyson Harkey, and Nate Collard.
What is “Not In Our House DC”?
Dane Figueroa Edidi: It is a community informed/formed document created to help empower Creatives and curate pathways to handle harassment in individual artistic spaces.
Nate Collard: NIOH-DC is a community driven effort to help uplift both the people who have typically been disadvantaged or taken advantage of, as well as the organizations that want to do better work and operate better in DC, motivated by the Chicago Standards that came around as a result of the Profiles Theatre fiasco in Chicago. The goal is to kind of empower ourselves as artists and freelancers and as members of this fairly tight knit community to be honest and comfortable with the way we’re treated, and to ask and demand for more when we’re not being treated equitably, and to help the arts organizations that we work with, for and through to be better and do better, and ultimately if needed to keep abusers who refuse to cease their abuse out of this industry.
I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what our rights and responsibilities are as professionals to each other ethically or morally, and how that’s enabled or restricted legally or economically. I think there’s a serious vacuum in this city of what consequences are for, broadly speaking, being a jerk to people, and I think there aren’t enough safety nets for people who are victims of very specific abuses to our industry.
What is the overall goal?
Dane: To be an instrument in helping to restore/uplift a culture of consent and safe creative space.
What is the importance of having such an organization?
Dane: So many of us are vulnerable in Artistic Spaces and often are left feeling powerless when harassment happens. An organization like this highlights the concept of community not simply as a philosophical idea but a manifestation of Solidarity. An organization like this demonstrates no artist has to deal with harassment alone.
NOHDC survey results: 72% of people said there are companies, producers, or artists who they avoid working with because of concerns about unsafe workplaces.
Is this all strictly volunteer?
Jonelle Walker: Not in Our House DC is an ongoing volunteer community project to facilitate a culture shift in the DC theatre industry, Equity and non-Equity. The goal of this project is to create working environments – from auditions to closing night – that are safe, respectful, and communicative enough to create the most ambitious, risk-taking art we can. I believe that this organization – really a loose confederation of people trying to represent a large community – is an essential branch of a nationwide movement shifting mainstream culture towards more equitable, caring practice. All of us are entangled with one another and, perhaps, never more so than when we make theatre. When we are so intimately entangled, it is our responsibility to ourselves and to the collective to be intentional in how we interact with one another and, when we fail to meet basic expectations, take on criticism with an open heart. Essentially, I think organizations like this are going to change the face of professional American theatre.
Nate: The work that has been done has all been volunteer work in a very Occupy sort of manner of “There is a need for something to be done” but also with that Occupy sense of not needing a leader but just leadership. We don’t want or need a CEO, but we’ve valued people taking initiative.
What organizations have you partnered with, or are looking to build relationships with?
Nate: I’m hoping that the Town Hall will give us an opportunity to start something that connects all the performing arts organizations whether it be someone who has a small theater or it’s organizations as massive as Arena Stage or theatreWashington. And not necessarily limited to just theatre. There’s a lot of professional overlap with musicians, with our technicians, with our dancers, with our singers who work in adjacent industries.
Jonelle: We’re lucky to have Amy Austin and Michael Kyrioglou from theatreWashington supporting this project, with a clear eye towards its real benefit for the whole ecosystem. In terms of other relationships, I would love to see NIOHDC get more involved with the local university training programs, which is an ambition that I think will come to fruition at some point.
Allyson Harkey: Not In Our House in Chicago has given us permission to use “Not In Our House” as a name, and theatreWashington has been incredibly supportive. Arena Stage hosted the first meeting last year, and we’re grateful that Shakespeare Theatre is hosting us Monday.
As far as the future, I personally am hoping we build relationships with every theatre, artist, administrator, designer, technician, playwright, educator, and practitioner in the area. I hope everyone sees a place for themselves in this work.
… we are in a time where harassment will be confronted in ways that it never has been allowed to before. People are celebrated now for standing with victims and survivors. This was not always the case. – Dane Figueroa Edidi
From your perspectives, what are some of the biggest issues that help build, foster, and reinforce the culture of harassment in DC?
Jonelle: We talked recently among the group about what distinguishes DC from Chicago, where this effort originated. The conclusion we came to was that rather than an ensemble-focused town spearheaded by artists like Chicago, DC takes a page from the local industry by focusing on the cult of institution and organizational home bases. Our needs assessment survey painted a clear portrait of DC-area theatre as a game of independent contractors who find a home … eventually. In the meantime, working as a contractor means relying on a whisper network to let you know who is safe to work with and who isn’t. When you’re first coming up in the industry, that whisper network isn’t necessarily available to you so at first you learn through trial and error. I think that particular culture makes systematic harassment easier to hide from the community at large. That’s one of the issues central to my investment in this project: no more whisper network, we’re about a crisply articulated network of aired grievances now.
Dane: Silence, and fear. I feel like we have seen these types of things in every industry and as someone who works in advocacy and is a Healer, I have observed that the lessons of fear and silence, for many of us, are taught and fostered in our families, and schools.
We tell people to come forward and then punish them for doing so. So many have lost so much when they have come forward. Literally, at this moment we have one of the biggest bigoted bullies in the White House, it is not lost the connection between his presence in politics and this being D.C.
How important is it for this organization to maintain a diverse lens? Especially with criticisms of the Women’s March, and how exclusionary it can be of women of color, trans women, and nb femmes, what steps has your organization taken to see women of color and trans women in leadership positions?
Allyson: It’s incredibly important. Beyond the basic human fairness of everyone needing to be at the table, this work cannot succeed without people of different genders, sexualities, races, and ethnicities. As a white cis-woman of considerable privilege, I haven’t had the same experiences as some of my colleagues. I don’t know how to protect against situations that I can’t imagine. It would be the ultimate arrogance to try.
We’re not perfect. A few months ago, we realized that we didn’t have any trans members — something we really should’ve thought about earlier — so we reached out to some people we thought might be interested. I’m deeply grateful that so many of them said yes.
Nate Collard: So, diversity is a fun buzzword that’s, I think, being used in a lot of great and a lot of terrible ways. The reality is that the people on stage, backstage, offstage, and in the offices creating these shows are diverse, and the people who want to fulfill those roles are also diverse in their gender identities, their physical and mental health, their sexual identities, their political beliefs, their racial and ethnic and religious identities, and so on. And historically a lot of these identities have been excluded from being allowed on stage, or backstage, or in any workplace. The reality is that the stories we’ve told are always diverse – the titular character of Othello is black and Muslim; Marvel’s Daredevil is blind; PTSD is terrifyingly more normal than I expected it to be when I first heard of it. So too should the people retelling these stories be diverse, and so too should the people who are advocating for improvements in our community. I can’t honestly expect myself to perfectly understand or represent or foresee the implications of how an institutional shift can affect the black community in our industry, and I can’t honestly expect someone else to understand the fear I have working as a trans woman and technician for some companies. I heard about a lot of the meetings going on and the NIOH movement loosely, but it really wasn’t until someone came to me and said “we don’t really have any diversity in terms of Trans representation, would you mind coming in and seeing if this is something you can help with?” that I started coming to these meetings.
Dane: My sister Erika Rose continued to reach out to me every now and again, and I felt bad because I wasn’t responding. Truth be told, I had to explain to her that I wasn’t just busy but I was also healing at the time from my own issues around abuse in movement spaces. Part of me was reluctant. But she was deeply intentional about having myself and people like me in the room. Our meetings feel safe to me, they feel affirming. And I always feel as if those who are rarely centered have a place at the center.
Most recently a survey was conducted – are there general statistics you’re interested in sharing with me?
Allyson: Sure! I want to thank the 479 people who shared their thoughts and stories with us. We put out the survey to find out whether our community even thought there was a problem or wanted a Code of Conduct. 83% of respondents said yes, we need a Code. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate that there are problems in the absence of one. So we asked about some behaviors that we thought would give us an idea without asking about specific abuses that might have occurred.
The result that sticks out to me the most is that 72% of people said there are companies, producers, or artists who they avoid working with because of concerns about unsafe workplaces. I expected that some people would say yes — after all, I know plenty of people who avoid working with certain people or companies — but I didn’t expect it to be so many. That’s more than 2/3 of respondents. We didn’t ask for specifics about who they avoid, but I don’t think we need to. Theatre people love to work, and we don’t like to turn work down from anywhere. I think it’s safe to say that we have a problem when people would rather not work than work with a certain person or group.
Another question we asked was whether people would know what to do if they experienced or witnessed harassment, abuse, or an unsafe work environment. Knowing that a lot of our colleagues work at different companies, I didn’t expect the answer to be clear-cut. But a full 31% said they generally did not know or never knew what to do when they experienced something directly, and that number went up to 38% when asked about witnessing something.
Dane: I simply say, if harassment is happening to one of us that is enough for us as a community to want to address it.
Allyson: The Code of Conduct we’re planning includes suggestions for how to help people know what to do, pathways for reporting. But would that help people feel safer? I’m honestly not sure. But over half of respondents said a company having formal policies and procedures in place to ensure a safe workplace would make them more likely to work with people and companies they might otherwise avoid. Another 40% said “maybe,” for 93% total.
What are some of the projects that are being worked on or planned at this time?
Jonelle: Primarily, we’re trying to get the Code of Conduct drafted and roughly agreed upon by as many members of the community as possible. Once that’s of the ground, the potential idea is to model ourselves after Chicago and have a season of piloting the code to work out any bugs. From there, we hope it will be formally or informally adopted as industry standard in the area. I know we have also discussed sponsoring workshops on intimacy design and education around harassment of various kinds. We’re really focused on providing educational resources in the future, as that was a big priority voiced in the needs assessment survey.
Dane: We have two community Town Halls coming up in which we can garner reflection from the larger artistic community.
Nate: I’m very invested in accessibility. I’ve worked with some amazing colleagues who are d/Deaf who are invested in making theater more accessible for them, and who I don’t think get enough recognition or who are taken seriously enough about the demand for Deaf accessible theater, or for the needs to make a show successfully accessible. I’m also interested in trying to make things like the town halls accessible through a livestream, or at least a recording of it that will feature decent sound and video.
What can people do to help?
Jonelle: Follow us on Facebook and Twitter! We’re going to start publicly announcing meetings there, but in the meantime you can email [email protected] to get on the listserv. Come to the Town Hall event and voice your thoughts on how we can make the Code of Conduct a document that would make you feel safe and supported. Encourage your colleagues and your friends in the industry to buy-in to, if not NIOH as an initiative, the notion that something has to give in terms of systematic harassment in professional theatre.
What do you hope to gain from the Town Hall, and what are some ideas for next steps after that?
Jonelle: We very specifically want to share the results of the needs assessment survey to demonstrate why we think a Code of Conduct is necessary and review a Declaration of Purpose we have drafted so that it reflects as much of the community opinion as possible. After that, we hold another Town Hall to continue refining the document until it is ready for piloting.
Nate: I want to hear how people are reacting to our initial statistics. I want to see what things are going to surprise people, or make people uncomfortable or defensive. I want to hear about the things people are worried about and afraid of if we manage to craft a DC equivalent to the Chicago Standards, and what things I hadn’t thought of will arise as much as what things will be conceded at first for the sake of getting enough influence and people to buy in on adopting the standards. There’s so much we don’t yet know and I think that’s brilliant.
Allyson: The Town Hall is an opportunity for us to tell the community about what we’ve done so far and find out what they think we should do moving forward. Specifically, we want to discuss our draft Declaration of Purpose.
Dane: Clarity. I want to know what people need. Our survey reflects a great deal of people but perhaps someone may not have taken it for whatever reason but wants to offer reflection. I think a well-rounded and affirming document is key to its success.
What sparked your interest and participation in Not in Our House DC?
Jonelle: When I first read the Chicago Reader story on Profiles Theatre, I was appalled but, again, not surprised. It was fascinating for me to think about how theatre makes sexual harassment a particularly breezy activity – we were rehearsing! It’s all for the show! We have to make it look real! It made me think about how breezily I played off being sexually objectified in every facet of my professional life, but especially in theatre. I have been sexually harassed by an auditioning actor when I was on the other side of the table casting the show – how’s that for a strange power dynamic! When I got word that a similar movement to the one in Chicago was starting here, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved as an activist and as an academic who studies feminist work in theatre. Personally, as a young femme working in professional theatre, this code would make my life and work quite a bit more secure.
Nate: I am a young trans woman who went to a very good university in DC, who didn’t expect to be in theater, and who has been kind of afraid of letting my light shine. Which is terrifically ironic because of how much joy lighting design brings me. I’ve seen and heard some really cruel attitudes towards trans men and women and non-binary folks that made me terrified when I was in the closet, and for some of those organizations I still am in the closet. The perception of physical violence, or economic violence is so intimidating and so terrifying. And at the same time, there isn’t really anyone that I know of in this industry to look up to as a designer or technician. So there’s a very selfish investment. I also believe that we technicians, designers, admins, crew, and performers are all in this together, and we should look out for each other, and a lot of us haven’t been either because we can’t or we won’t, and maybe NIOH-DC can help the people who want to.
Dane: For me, I feel like we are in a time where harassment will be confronted in ways that it never has been allowed to before. People are celebrated now for standing with victims and survivors. This was not always the case.
I am already doing a lot of arts advocacy work and have an org named The Inanna D Initiatives specifically designed to cultivate and curate space for TGNC Artist of Color in Artistic Spaces. Through my work I continued to hear stories of the way that TGNC Artist have been silenced, harassed, abused and how many feared that they would not work again if they spoke out.
I wanted to be apart of this to make sure we were cultivating a document that highlighted ways in which harassment shows up that may not be clear to cis people because of their perspective. The Trans Community is often erased, and shut out of so many places including artistic spaces. And I thought why not be apart of crafting a document that will be invested in my community and in fact recognizes us as vital members of the Artistic Community.
Allyson: It makes sense for me. I’m passionate about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault issues. I’m taking a mini-hiatus from theatre, so I have a lot of free time right now. And I care deeply about our community. Theatre is a fantastic art form, and it can be such a joy to be a part of. But only when everyone is safe.
– Next: Takeaways from the Town Hall Meeting and next steps.