Tatha Swann: Theatre companies say Soulpepper sex assault scandal is a wake-up call
TORONTO — The sexual misconduct lawsuits filed this week against Soulpepper Theatre Company and its founding artistic director are serving as a wake-up call to similar organizations throughout Canada’s arts scene, industry members said Friday.
Companies said efforts to tackle sexual harassment in the field were under way long before four actresses levelled explosive allegations against Albert Schultz and Soulpepper earlier this week.
Diana Bentley, Hannah Miller, Patricia Fagan and Kristin Booth alleged in their statements of claim that Schultz groped them, exposed himself, pressed against them, or otherwise behaved inappropriately.
Schultz, who resigned from Soulpepper on Thursday, said he will “vigorously defend” himself against the allegations, which have not been tested in court.
While concerns about harassment were already on the industry radar, the Soulpepper situation will likely ensure they receive more attention in the coming months, said Mark Aikman, director of development and communications at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
“Certainly it’s a wake-up call and a reminder that no place, no industry, is immune from that kind of thing,” he said.
Aikman, who said his organization is still reeling from the shock of the Soulpepper news, did not speculate on whether concrete changes were coming at the company. But he said Buddies in Bad Times will continue with a months-long initiative to provide resources to performers who have concerns or anxieties about sexual harassment on the job.
Those resources are provided as part of a campaign launched by the Canadian Actors Equity Association, working in conjunction with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres. The anti-harassment effort, dubbed Not in Our Space, came about after a survey of live performers across the country.
Equity said in a statement that the results clearly indicated action was needed. Half of all participants reported experiencing some form of inappropriate behaviour in their workplace, with women twice as likely as men to report they’d been sexually harassed.
Not in Our Space promotes a zero tolerance approach, with participating theatres adopting a statement to that effect on the first day of rehearsal for any new production. Theatres in the program must also prominently display brochures and posters that let performers know what help is available. Equity said the number of people coming forward has increased since the campaign began, but did not provide specific figures.
Equity also said a meeting of people involved in the live performance sector will take place later this month to discuss an industry-wide response.
Numerous theatre companies, including Toronto-based Factory Theatre, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Company and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre have all signed up for Not in Our Space program.
Some, however, felt the need for further action.
The NAC said it launched a review of its sexual harassment policy this week in response to the Schultz case.
Communications director Carl Martin said issues around harassment are high priorities for the company, citing English theatre artistic director Jillian Keiley’s decision to hire an intimacy coach while working on past productions for other organizations.
Intimacy coaches, Martin said, carefully choreograph scenes involving physical contact to ensure no boundaries are crossed. While no such coach has been hired for NAC productions, Martin said it would not be surprising to see such a move in the future.
“The artistic leadership here is quite attuned to these issues and very forward-thinking about these issues,” he said.
Keiley hired the intimacy coach while working at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. The move was one of several measures spokeswoman Ann Swerdfager pointed to as part of that company’s effort to maintain a safe workplace.
Other moves included establishing a discussion group for women in the theatre, she said.
In 2018, Stratford plans to implement more staff training and tighten reporting protocols.
“One of the things we are learning from recent events is the vital importance of ensuring that there are safe, sure and clear ways to report harassment, should it occur,” Swerdfager said in a statement. “As a result, not only are we working to strengthen the policy but also to find effective communications measures to ensure everyone who works at the festival is aware of it and of how to raise a concern if the policy is not being followed.”
Halifax-based Neptune Theatre said it, too, is reviewing its long-standing sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures.
Spokesman Michael Browne said the company’s artistic director Jeremy Webb is committed to making the theatre a more respectful space for all, starting with the performer audition process.
“He has requested agents/artists stop the practice of listing an actor’s height, weight and other measurements on resumes,” Browne said.
The Cultch in Vancouver has long offered anonymity to anyone wanting to report issues of harassment.
Executive director Heather Redfern said the predominately female-run theatre organization gives staff a number of avenues to report problems, including speaking to the board of directors, so they can find someone they trust.
Redfern said the recent allegations of sexual harassment in the industry also points to the lack of women in positions of power.
“You don’t fix things until you actually start to see that shifting and you start to see some equality there,” she said. “I’m an optimist. It feels like real change is finally happening.”