There's a campaign underway to get the sexual harassment out of showbiz

Studio 360
Broadway in New York City

On and off Broadway, sexual harassment is pervasive in American show business.

Alex Proimos/Wikimedia Commons

The idea that powerful directors demand sex in return for roles — the “casting couch” — is one of the enduring punchlines in showbiz. But it’s no joke, according to a recent article in The New York Times, both on and off Broadway.

Playwright Julia Jordan, who was quoted in the article, is leading a campaign to change the culture of sexual harassment in the theater. She and her colleagues have petitioned Actor’s Equity, the stage actors’ union, to clarify and strengthen its sexual harassment policies. 

“What we’re asking Equity to do is make a place where you can get some guidance, where there are some rules, where there is someone who has some kind of authority to step in and make things right," she says.

Her proposals include having a statement against harassment read to the cast and crew at the beginning of each production, designating a union official who can hear reports of abuse, and offering professional mediation to help resolve disputes.

The culture of theater contributes to the problem, says Jordan. “We’re constantly taking off our clothes and kissing each other and acting out love scenes and acting out violence,” she says, contributing to a sense that “the lines are already blurry.”

Actors are often reluctant to speak up, given the fickle nature of theater employment. “These are eight-week stints if you get a job, and then you’re unemployed for a while until you get the next one,” she says. “It’s the scarcity that prevents people from speaking up and laying down boundaries.” And the world of the theater is a small one. “We all know each other, we all socialize — and word gets around.”

Jordan is reluctant to burden the theater industry with a lot of unnecessary restrictions. She recognizes that sexually explicit material has a place in plays, but she worries when lines are crossed. She, herself, experienced a career-altering incident of sexual harassment when she was a young playwriting student at the Juilliard School.

She was offered a job with a prominent director, “then he asked me out, and I explained that I had a boyfriend and I wasn’t up for that. I was promptly replaced,” Jordan says. “Those things shouldn’t happen. I didn’t even think at the time that I should tell anyone.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.

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