Fellow AGMA members:
If you read nothing else in this post, please read the following 6 points:
1. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are pandemic in the fields of opera and dance in America.
2. A Voice for All slate members have first-hand knowledge of what it means to be a victim of harassment and abuse.
3. AGMA’s response to harassment and abuse in the field has been purely reactive, disappointing in its lack of urgency, and unevenly executed.
4. Advocating for those who have been harassed or assaulted isn’t enough. We need to change workplace culture so that abuse doesn’t happen in the first place.
6. The V4A slate is ready to implement a specific and comprehensive anti-sexual harassment campaign.
Things Are Bad.
Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are pandemic in the fields of opera and dance in America. It is a collective nightmare, and as a community we are having a very hard time waking from it.
Many of the predators in our fields hold positions of power, putting us in fear of career-ending reprisal should we speak out. To compound the problem, many victims develop coping mechanisms that impair their ability to support abused colleagues. Over time the cognitive dissonance created by those mechanisms can turn the abused into enablers – or abusers themselves.
Opera and dance are in the throes of a kind of Stockholm Syndrome response: We make peace with continuing to work in the same field – sometimes even in the same house – where we were mistreated. People who have survived abuse may reflexively resist reforms because it would force them to more completely confront their own trauma if they admit that the things that happened to them shouldn’t happen to anyone else.
Recovering from this collective nightmare will require us all to do some serious soul-searching and consciousness-raising.
Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are workplace safety issues. If we remain at significant risk of being harassed, our workplaces are not safe. This doesn’t solely impact our physical and psychological well-being – it pollutes our performances as well, impairing our ability to remain vulnerable and connect with our audiences, further threatening our livelihood. Less honest art is less interesting art.
You Are Not Alone.
When I was fresh out of my master’s program, I landed a gig I was excited about – fun role, great venue, etc. It was all going well until one day, as I was watching my colleagues from the house in a stage rehearsal, the director sat in the seat right behind me and whispered, “May I play with your hair for a little bit?”
I froze. I had no idea how to respond and, for what seemed like minutes, he twirled my hair in his fingers. The moment passed and I did my best to put it out of my head.
The next day, I was a bit out of sorts and didn’t give myself much time to eat, so, on the way to rehearsal I dashed into a convenience store and grabbed a box of ginger snaps, which I ate during rehearsal. From that moment until the end of the production, the director called me “My little Ginger Snap”, his words each time tinged with both excitement and an undercurrent that revealed that he knew his behavior was wrong but couldn’t inhibit himself. After the production, he sent me a card and a gift that were both far too intimate.
I have never told this story before this writing, though the incident happened over a decade ago.
The most disturbing aspect for me is that I continued to seek out this director’s approval in the years that followed. I remember going to his apartment for a coaching. I remember, years later, accepting a ride home from him and helping him add air to a tire after a low-pressure warning light came on. Why didn’t I blow this man off immediately after that first gig was over? Why did his opinion matter to me at all?
The after effects of one man’s inappropriate behavior reverberate in my life to this day. It’s just one of a small handful of stories I could tell about inappropriate behavior I’ve been subjected to by people in positions of authority over me, where a power imbalance turned an unwelcome advance into confusion and trauma.
And if I’m still thinking about this interaction more than a decade later, how difficult must it be for someone who has suffered much worse abuse? Because compared to many, I’ve had it easy. We’ve all heard far worse stories than mine.
Thanks to their courage and willingness to come forward…
We know Berneche.
We know Kempson.
But there are countless more. Their stories are theirs to tell, not mine.
And they all deserve to be heard – by their fellow artists and by the union of which we are all a part.
But the union isn’t hearing the full story.
AGMA’s Ignoring the Bigger Picture.
It’s a sickening pattern: Something horrible happens in our industry. AGMA reiterates that it is against sexual harassment. AGMA fails to take concrete steps to address the issue.
Here’s a quick review of just some of AGMA’s inadequate responses:
- AGMA committed to sharing best practices with other entertainment unions. One of the things we committed to share was our Code of Conduct. But we still don’t HAVE a code of conduct.
- The only substantive, board-adopted policy in the wake of the #MeToo movement was the change in the Guest Artist Agreement I authored, which was derided by leadership as a worthless pet project not worthy of any press release. But they happily pointed to it as an example of progress once they were criticized for their tepid response to #MeToo.
- A current member of governance running for reelection explained to me that because something her husband said to a woman recently was misconstrued, she had all the proof she needed to know that #MeToo is overblown.
- I worked for months to advance a motion that would launch a proactive anti-sexual harassment campaign. When the proposal finished winding its way through various committees and reached the full board, it was immediately scuttled in favor of the formation of a subcommittee to further study the matter.
- In one disturbing report, AGMA referred a victim to an attorney who reflexively assumed the victim was seeking a cash settlement with a non-disclosure agreement, even though they did not want money. They wanted justice. A referral to the appropriate Commission on Human Rights was not even contemplated.
AGMA’s response to the #MeToo movement has been entirely reactive. A union that merely responds to individual reports of harassment and abuse is only contending with a symptom of the larger problem.
We Need Cultural Change.
Over the last year, I’ve heard enough first-hand anecdotal reports to state, with absolute confidence, that having an anti-harassment policy and reporting procedure in place in a signatory house is not enough. The mechanisms that are in place to protect the abused become valuable only after abuse has occurred. The real impact comes when we set time aside to TALK about the policies, and discuss the kind of environment we all wish to create and work in. The correlation is clear:
Talk about the problem and predators get uncomfortable.
Talk about the problem and colleagues find it easier to speak out against inappropriate behavior.
Talk about the problem and the camaraderie and sense of safety allows artists to become more vulnerable, to dig deeper and bring the best of themselves to the stage.**
Almost all the stage unions in the English-speaking world have come to understand this and have launched campaigns aimed at ensuring these crucial conversations take place. Equity UK’s “Agenda for Change” is particularly inspiring.
We need to follow their example. We need to change the culture of our industries and hold predators accountable. Advocating for those who have been harassed or assaulted after the fact isn’t enough. We need to stop it from happening in the first place.
The Voice For All slate is committed to making AGMA into an instrument of cultural change, not just through our leadership but by helping us all to become supportive bystanders, to take inventory of our own past actions, and to heal within a culture that has damaged so many of us.
I have spent the last 18 months trying to make the case for this approach with AGMA’s elected leadership, but I have been completely unable to pull them out of the myopic paradigms of the past.
We Have a Plan.
To this day, AGMA’s leadership has either 1) failed to understand that a strong response to sexual harassment and abuse is not just about protecting victims, it’s about PREVENTING people from becoming victims; or 2) failed to act on that understanding.
A change in workplace culture requires a change in AGMA’s leadership.
The V4A slate will immediately re-introduce a motion to launch a comprehensive anti-sexual harassment campaign. Here’s what that motion entails:
- Taking as our primary inspiration the “Safe Spaces” campaign crafted by Equity UK, the drafting, distribution and promotion of a statement to be read at the commencement of rehearsals aimed at effecting a “culture shift” in our workplace.
- Taking as our primary inspiration the “Code of Conduct” adopted by Actors’ Equity, the creation of a similar Code of Conduct that will apply to all AGMA activities, events and meetings, a portion of which will be read before any gathering of AGMA members.
- The creation of a subsection of AGMA’s website devoted to anti-sexual harassment programs, campaign documents, reporting procedures and third-party resources as appropriate.
- Bystander training for AGMA rank and file members.
- Enhanced anti-sexual harassment training for staff members.
- Enhanced anti-sexual harassment training for AGMA Delegates.
V4A is also committed to improving AGMA’s response to member-on-member harassment. In these instances the union has the responsibility to provide support to both accuser and accused, but it cannot hope to achieve this without more resources for victim support and a commitment to complete independence of those support structures.
As president, I will move swiftly to improve our responsiveness to incidents when they are reported, aggressively advocate for the cultural shift our industries desperately need, and work to hold predators accountable for their actions, wherever in our industries they may be.
Moreover, I am eager to talk to you.
Any AGMA member who would like to hear more about this approach, or would like to share their stories, or their ideas, can contact me to set up a discussion.
I will do my best to put your thoughts into action.
David Salsbery Fry
I received two reports almost simultaneously that illuminated this effect for me:
In the first instance, a company provided, in advance of the first day of rehearsals, a comprehensive anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, anti-bullying, and anti-violence policy, along with a form acknowledging both receipt of this policy and agreeing to abide by it. On day one of rehearsals, the cast and crew turned in their forms, and held a brief group discussion where everyone (including administration) was invited to speak about the policy and the kind of culture they wanted to create for this production.
The second company had no established policy and held no orientation.
This was the experience of my friend who worked for the first company:
“I didn’t think the policy would make much of a difference. But I was very wrong! My rehearsal experience under the policy was more comfortable than any rehearsal experience I’ve ever had before. I felt the focus could be on making a great show in a professional, positive environment. There was no cussing, no dirty jokes, no unnecessary sexual innuendos. I didn’t really think these things bothered me before, but apparently, they did, and I just didn’t realize it, because I was so used to it. I’ve never known a rehearsal environment not to have this. I can now say, I hope every company follows suit. We still have fun, still laughed, still joked. Sometimes we even yelled ‘policy’ if we or a colleague was about to say something they shouldn’t. And that in itself created a comradery.”
The second company? There was a horrible incident of sexual harassment.