The Boston theatre community was rocked to its core this spring following a Facebook posting by a 26-year old actor.
In this post, the young man recounts in vivid and unsettling detail how, as a 20-year old college theatre major in 2012, he was on a late night bus back from a theatre trip to NYC with a trusted mentor – whom he looked up to as a second father – who then allegedly sexually assaulted him. He filed charges against the man, who was eventually arrested, but due to jurisdictional issues it never went to trial.
This older man was also a freelance blogger and theatre critic, as well as a judge for the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE), an organization that gives out annual theatre awards in the greater Boston area. He was a familiar face in the Boston theatre community for several years, known and trusted by many, and quotes from his reviews adorned many actors’ websites, including mine. He regularly attended and reviewed my theatre company’s productions, and he likely was a factor in our receiving multiple IRNE nominations and awards.
He attended a local show as a critic on a Saturday night, and then Sunday morning the Facebook post hit. It soon went viral, and the repercussions – though six years in coming – were virtually instantaneous. Within hours of the post, the critic promptly resigned from the IRNE committee (who promptly issued a statement of support for the victim), he unfriended every Boston theatre Facebook contact, every area theatre blackballed him, and he has all but disappeared.
And, as it happened, the following week was the IRNE Awards. Many of the assembled theatre artists wore black in solidarity with one another and the victim, and it was from all accounts, a night of celebration, unity and healing.
In the ensuing weeks, and in a May 31st Boston Globe article, troubling details emerged. The critic turned out to be a registered sex offender following a 1999 incident. He had been removed from multiple press invite lists in the weeks/months/years prior to the Facebook post due to behavior described as ‘questionable’ and ‘skeevy.’ Other young actors came forth describing anything from uncomfortably effusive physical contact to unwelcomed grabbing and fondling.
And then came the questions. Did the organizations that previously cut him from their press lists say anything to the greater theatre community about what they did and why? Did they inform the IRNE committee? If they had, would his behavior and predation been called out and stopped long before the young actor’s bombshell? How many people – not even counting his victims – were in a position to speak up about his behavior?
It went on for years. Until.
In November 2017, thirty miles north of Boston, Gloucester Stage Company cut all remaining ties with their emeritus Founding Artistic Director, the world-renowned playwright Israel Horovitz, after a New York Times article revealed numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and predatory behavior. (Disclosure: the theatre company I founded in Boston had a professional relationship with Horovitz, producing two of his plays in our first two seasons) The reaction was swift; even his son the former Beastie Boy distanced himself from his father and publicly stated his support for the women.
That said, as early as 1993, the Boston Phoenix published an article listing similar complaints from other women who worked at GSC. Horovitz denied all the allegations, no charges were filed nor did GSC take any action. So, another case where we all should’ve been aware, but at the time, the institution closed ranks around him. He was, after all, the face of the theatre company, had a global reputation, and as the writer of many of their plays their livelihoods were tied to him. Thus his predation was allowed to continue.
I spoke with a young actress who had worked with Horovitz on one of his most recent productions, she said she was aware of his reputation and knew not to put herself in a vulnerable situation with him. It reminded me of the “Mad Men” era when women first entered the workforce into previously male-dominated industries; female co-workers had to take matters into their own hands for lack of an alternative, warning the new girls not to be in the mail room or the elevator alone with Bob from Accounting. The emphasis was not eliminating predatory behavior or holding the predator accountable, but merely evading the predator while they continued to prey.
It was, at the time, the best they could do. Until.
Sometimes theatres get it right. In August 2017 another regional theatre, Reagle Music Theatre of Waltham MA, promptly dealt with a complaint against an 80’s TV star who was starring in their production of 42nd Street. A fellow cast member claimed he grabbed her buttocks during rehearsals, he was fired and arrested. I’d never worked with him, but his name came up in summer stock theatre gossip circles years before in a context where the Reagle incident didn’t come as a surprise to me, though this was apparently the first case in which his misbehavior was made public and bore legal consequences.
And of course, there was the bombshell 2016 article in the Chicago Reader about the abusive psychodrama going on at the Profiles Theatre, a critically acclaimed award winning non-Equity company. Within days of the article, their board voted to cease operations. But for nearly two decades, their reputation as one of the grittiest, edgiest theatre companies in the Windy City was untouched. But for every one of the growing number of actors who had endured horrible experiences, there were dozens more pounding down their door.
Reading the Chicago Reader article, I was reminded of one of my first shows in DC after grad school. I was drawn to this particular company’s gritty energy, and the dynamic charisma of the brother and sister team who ran it. However their forceful personalities evolved into badgering, taunting, yelling, and, basically, abuse. And as the lead role, I bore the brunt of it. Ultimately I must admit we put on a damn good show, and they pulled a better performance out of me than most directors could’ve. But who cares? By the time we opened I hated their guts, there was no joy in creating a performance and once it was over I never worked with them again. I soon learned I wasn’t alone. Many people worked with them once, hardly anyone twice.
But their eventual demise wasn’t the result of a newspaper exposé or an avalanche of complaints, it was more of a free market correction. They were about as cuddly with the local press as they were with their actors, and eventually burned all their bridges. Word got around, don’t audition for them. Within a few years they couldn’t get actors or press coverage, closed up shop, and left town. But still, it took a few years, and they were a mostly below the radar company. How long would this ‘free market correction’ take for a theatre company with a strong body of work and a history of critical praise and accolades?
In all these cases, a pattern emerges. A long period of misbehavior that is overlooked, covered up, compensated for, relegated to whispers and rumors, and the victims are pushed into silence.
With the #metoo and #timesup movements, we have reached critical mass, a societal paradigm shift in which people in positions of power who leverage said power for sexual gratification or abusive behavior will no longer be tolerated. And the impact, though years or decades in the making, has been occasionally brutal in its suddenness. We’ve had to swallow our shock and sadness as icons of the entertainment industry, people we’ve known and loved, whose work we’ve respected and admired, are exposed. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor, Louis CK, James Levine, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and many more have seen their careers end, while more still will carry taints of numerous allegations.
Once the dust settles, however, the real work begins. We can run the bad people out of town (or see that they get help), but once that happens, we are obliged to do some soul searching. How many times have we looked the other way, gleefully exchanged rumors, or otherwise been tacitly complicit in allowing this sociopathic behavior to continue? How many people have we given a pass to because they had an admirable body of work? How many actors would work with, say, Woody Allen or Roman Polanski (or their local equivalents), weighing their artistic legacy against their infamous reputations?
We have to do better.
Until we don’t have to.