Three years ago, Tony-nominated actor Marin Ireland approached civil rights attorney Norman Siegel about ways to address the problem of sexual harassment in New York’s theatrical community. Ireland had experienced a personal issue of her own, and, after consulting with Actors’ Equity and the Actors Fund, was dismayed with how few options were available to her.
While the union can offer a legally binding grievance in response to a harassment claim, Ireland recognized that this route wasn’t always the most appropriate: What if she didn’t want to take the matter to court? What if making her complaint public threatened the future of a show whose success she was committed to? Or what if she wanted to work with the person in question again? There was also widespread confusion as to whose jurisdiction a sexual harassment claim came under—was it the responsibility of the union or the theatre company? What if both parties are represented by different unions? Things get even trickier if the incident happens outside of the theatre, such as at a post-show drink or in a writers’ group.
Ireland, and so many others, were searching for more information and a private mediation process—a way to resolve the matter without going public and under the guidance of trained professionals. So, she set out to make it happen.
Next month, Ireland and Siegel, with the support of the theatrical unions and guilds, will launch the Theatrical Community Sexual Harassment Education and Mediation Pilot Project (Pilot Project for short). The initiative, which will be tested for six months beginning January 16, 2018, is two-pronged, focusing on education and mediation.
Under the education component, the Pilot Project will set out to provide written material informing individuals of their rights regarding sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, sexual abuse, and criminal conduct. Through an affiliation with New York theares, the project encourages artistic directors to make a statement at every show’s first company meeting clearly explaining what constitutes as sexual harassment and the theatre’s zero-tolerance policy. Every person working on the production will be given the names of the theatre’s Human Resources department, Actor’s Equity (who has worked with the Pilot Project to train business reps to address sexual harassment complaints), as well as the correct point of contact at the Actor’s Fund—should such an incident occur. The cast and crew, as well as the staff at the theatre will also be given information on how to participate in the Pilot Project’s mediation process.
The mediation sector will give individuals in the theatre industry who are involved in incidents of non-criminal sexual harassment the option of engaging in a confidential mediation process overseen by a neutral certified mediator (volunteers will be working pro bono during the six-month test period). Possible resolutions as a result of mediation could include: an apology, a commitment to end unwanted behavior of a sexual nature—and in some instances, future counseling.
“We’re in a national health crisis,” says Ireland of the current climate of sexual harassment claims only recently coming to light in the entertainment industry. “This feels like a positive step forward. We’re hoping that some additional support will provide a little bit of relief for the community.”
The initiative's statement of principle echoes this sentiment: "The theater community has long whispered about, laughed about, and written about harassment in its ranks...It is past time we stopped encouraging or ignoring abusive behavior and publicly recognize the existence of sexual discrimination and harassment, and gender-based violence within our community."
While all of the theatrical unions and guilds are not yet committed in an official capacity, both Ireland and Siegel hope that the potential success of the Pilot Project will help these governing bodies make real changes to policy regarding sexual harassment in the industry.
For more information on the Pilot Project visit HRForTheArts.org.