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Meeting of Minds: RI Theater Coalition hosts its first meeting to address sexual impropriety

Leaders of Rhode Island’s theaters and theater community gathered in person and on Zoom for more than two hours on July 26 to address weaknesses in their internal processes and policies that have allowed incidents of sexual harassment and abuse to occur in the community. The meeting included a panel discussion and loose roundtable discussion with the directors, actors, managers, crew and others present.

The local theater scene has seen a number of high profile assault accusations over the last few years, the latest being against Epic Theatre Company’s (and former Motif contributor) Kevin Broccoli. According to a statement shared by the Academy Players of RI, “victims of abuse have lost faith in their ability to report, and policy/procedure varies from place to place, creating an unsafe working environment for many performers, designers and crew members as well as permanent staff.” 

The event was organized by the Rhode Island Theater Coalition, a group recently created by members of the theater community. It has no official membership, no formal body and the name was chosen on the spot for the purposes of the meeting. Forty-four people attended online via Zoom, with an additional 28 attending in person. Panelists included presenters from Day One, Tina Christy from the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, Colleen Donnelly, an HR professional from Johnson and Wales, and consultant Judith Kay.

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“I think this was a moderate first step, but the momentum needs to continue and we need more help from the community on this,” said Terry Shea, one of the organizers of the event (and former Motif contributor). “Complaining on social media is simply not going to cut it.”

The coalition wants to create an online repository for procedures, policies and other documents pertaining to issues of abuse within the theater community. The Not in Our House campaign in the Chicago theater community was highlighted as a model for this repository. Another action item announced was the intent to draft a single code of ethics with a baseline set of principles for all Rhode Island area theaters to sign off on. 

“The best procedure doesn’t work if people don’t use it,” Kay told the crowd. She continued, “You can have as many written policies and procedures as the biggest corporations and companies — doesn’t matter how big or small, you can have these policies — if people don’t live by them and breathe by them [they don’t do anything].” 

According to 2018 survey data of theater companies provided by Day One, one-third of the respondents said they experienced sexual harassment or abuse in some way, with verbal abuse being the most common type; 80% of respondents said they had at least heard of incidents of sexual harassment or assault and 45% said they witnessed it. Additionally, 81% of incidents of sexual harassment go unreported.

“Victims are the only ones suffering the consequences of sexual harassment,” said Angela Kemp, a presenter from Day One.

Speakers at the event stressed the need for a cultural change within theaters. Codes of ethics and conduct have to be laid down, and everyone must be held accountable to them whether they are ushers, actors, artistic directors or even big-name donors or board members. 

Speakers suggested theaters choose a point person, someone who is not the artistic director or in a similar position of power, and have that person deal with sexual abuse allegations or similar complaints. Some theaters expressed the need for mandatory reporting and the need of a good board to be able to lean on, with one attendee stating, “If I hear it, I report and we talk about it.”

Some attendees were more direct. One said, “If my daughter comes home and says something happened, I’m not calling the organization. I’m calling the cops.”

But not all theater members present in the room were comfortable with going to law enforcement, pointing out that in many cases its not their story to tell.

“If someone calls the Commission for Human Rights and says they’ve been sexually harassed physically, we definitely recommend they call the police,” said Christy. She continued, “It’s hard to talk somebody into coming forward when they don’t want to, I understand that’s very difficult and it takes a lot of courage to do that … with the Commission, the victim has to come forward and file the charge. All you can do is support and encourage them.”

No timeline has been formalized yet, but future meetings to further address these issues and the specific needs of the theater community as it navigates these vital issues are in the planning stage.

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