“A Secretary is Not a Toy”: Normalizing Sexual Misconduct on Stage

The 1961 Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, follows an ambitious window washer’s ascent up the corporate ladder.  Along with “Coffee Break” and “It’s Been a Long Day,” another of the show’s memorable songs is “A Secretary is Not a Toy.”  In this scene, the company personnel manager gives a speech to the male employees; “Gentlemen. Gentlemen./ A secretary is not a toy/ No, my boy, not a toy/ To fondle and dandle and playfully handle/ In search of some puerile joy./ No, a secretary is not,/ Definitely not, a toy.”  The office men carefully agree to separate “work” from “play,” but their efforts are futile.  Sitting on the stairs of the office, three male workers sing the title lyric, “A secretary is not,” [two base drum beats hit as the female secretary, climbing the stairs, emphatically accents her hips right and left…at the exact height of the men’s eyes] “a toy!”  The tongue-in-cheek (or rather, derriere-in-face) number comments on—but also pokes fun at—the concept of sexual harassment in the workplace.  Many other shows like The Pajama Game, The Producers, All That Jazz, 42nd Street, Guys and Dolls, Legally Blonde, Flower Drum Song, South Pacific, The Music Man, and On the Town either humorize or even romanticize misogyny.  If we can agree that the arts are a reflection of human life, then by rhapsodizing sexual misconduct on the stage, I believe the performing arts are thereby normalizing the behavior.

Numerous other plays and musicals feature (what would in 2017 be considered) reprehensible sexism—and many, like How to Succeed…, use comedy.  And the audience laughs because we acknowledge its ridiculousness…but we’ve also seen it at play in real life.  But the truth is, sexual harassment isn’t funny at all; it’s a serious and potent issue in our national media and every day it seems like another high-profile allegation is on the front page of the paper.  The sudden outbreak of accusations has come from the corporate world, the federal government, television programs, Hollywood, and also the performing arts.

While the proverbial casting couch (where an employer demands sexual favors by a subordinate in exchange for career advancement) is sadly still present in nearly every industry, the term actually derives from show business—where sexual activity would take place on an office couch between high-up directors or producers and aspiring actresses.  The performing arts are ridden with these customs.  Dating back to the 19th century, young Parisian ballerinas would serve as mistresses and courtesans to wealthy patrons of the ballet.  Esteemed 20th-century choreographers like ballet’s George Balanchine and Broadway’s Bob Fosse notoriously fooled around with young women who would then suddenly rise in the ranks of the company.  The “casting couch” culture isn’t necessarily unspoken in the performing arts—in fact, I would argue that it’s pretty well-acknowledged.  But perhaps it’s that very recognition that perpetuates this history of bad behavior as just another part of show business.

Now, the difference between “right” and “wrong”—in any industry—seems like it should be “black and white.”  But many individual factors can be in effect, especially in the performing arts: age, industry, sexual orientation, ambition, and precedence can all complicate what exactly qualifies as misappropriate behavior.  The very definition of what constitutes “sexual harassment” is ambiguous.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission outlines sexual harassment as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment (Facts About Sexual Harassment).

And as if this definition weren’t vague enough, in the performing arts, classifying sexual harassment can be even more tricky.  I’ve been at a chorus call audition for a tap show where girls were asked to take off their black tights and dance only in a leotard “so the creative team could better see the dancers’ lines.”  I’ve been humiliated in dance class when, after the teacher described a movement as, “like you’re sitting on it,” I blushed and was called out as a prude in front of the entire room.  And I’ve been in a rehearsal studio where the musical director instructed the female ensemble to sing more “cunt-y.”  I’m not prudish nor naïve—but it’s no easy task trying to navigate one’s way as a showgirl in show business.  How can we condemn sexual misconduct when misogyny permeates our industry?  There will always be the idea that “sex sells”—especially in the entertainment world.  But where does one draw the line (if there even is one) between acting and actuality?

Sexual harassment is an abuse of power.  In the case of the performing arts, a casting director, choreographer, or producer can have a lot of industry influence over an aspiring actress.  After comedian, Louis C.K., was accused of inappropriate sexual conduct less than a month ago, he released a statement that said, “When you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question.  It’s a predicament for them” (C.K.).  Commenting on C.K.’s quote, an article in American Theatre notes,

That [power] imbalance is magnified in a small industry such as theatre, where the hierarchies make it clear who wields power (directors, playwrights, producers) and who doesn’t (actors, stagehands, interns).  When abuses occur, it’s not a simple matter of reporting on your boss; for many, it’s David against Goliath, except that Goliath has an institutional theatre behind him (Tran).

More than even Hollywood, the performing arts industry is remarkably small and localized—everybody knows everybody’s business.  Colleagues work together, attend each other’s shows, and may even be obligated to live together in the case of regional work and touring productions.

There are many other practices in performing arts culture that would never pass in the corporate world.  The performing arts is an industry often based on appearances, and actors and dancers can be cast for a role or rejected based solely on their looks (this includes ethnicity, physique, age, and sexual orientation).  Live theater is physical and whether in a dance performance or straight play, artists tell story through touch—they hug, kiss, caress, instruct, lift, and even hit each other as part of the blocking.  Actors strip backstage for quick changes and, in some cases, wear very revealing costumes on stage as well.  If there is a definitive line for what constitutes sexual harassment in the theater, the curtain certainly doesn’t symbolize it.

And performers aren’t the only potential victims of these offenses.  Stage managers, costume designers, carpenters, student interns, and other behind-the-scenes employees are also at risk in this nebulous industry.  On December 4th, of this year, The Public Theater held a town hall-type meeting entitled “(Mis)Conduct.”  Instead of hosting an organized panel of experts, the public event was an open mic forum for people to come forward and share their experiences and grievances surrounding sexual harassment in the theater community.

Mary, a stagehand, said she was one of four women working with 200 men. ‘They talk about what they want to do to their girlfriends.  There are microaggressions, like them telling me I’m not strong enough to move a box, then they tell me they like watching me push a box so they can watch my ass,’ Mary had complained. Her boss’ solution was to say she wouldn’t have to work with that person, or ‘I could walk away and find a job at Starbucks’ (Teeman).

What’s more, women are certainly not the only victims—especially because of the large LGBT population working in the performing arts.  In a 2015 New York Times article, journalist Patrick Healy researched sexual harassment specifically in the theater community.  He found, “women and gay men in their 20s and 30s describe being propositioned for sex by influential directors, casting directors and others who could help or hurt their careers.  Young gay men harassed one another, and groping was a problem for all genders and sexualities” (Healy).  Healy also took note of the generational divide within the business of Broadway; “Younger actors [in their 20s and 30s] seem to have less tolerance for flirtatious or licentious behavior than performers of earlier generations, particularly those who came of age in the 1970s when directors like Bob Fosse, a notorious womanizer, were Broadway giants” (Healy).  Still, Healy’s research revealed that victimized performers who did speak up weren’t taken seriously.  Others abstained from coming forward for fear of being labeled as troublemakers in such an intimate industry.  It appeared as if, even in the 21st century, not much had improved regarding sexism in the performing arts.  And maybe that’s just how things were meant to be in showbiz…

But the tides began to change this Fall.  The American media blew up on October 5th when the Times published a story describing allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.  Since then, over forty high-profile men in a number of industries have been fired, resigned, or experienced other repercussions from accusations of sexual misconduct.  In the entertainment industry, these men have included producers, casting directors, actors, writers, mentors, and agents.  In regard to actors such as Kevin Spacey, Andy Dick, and Ed Westwick, these men have been released from their contracts and their upcoming films and their TV series have been canceled.  Producers like Andrew Kreisberg, Louis C.K., Brett Ratner, and Harvey Weinstein have either been fired or resigned from their production companies.  Other distinguished men including Dustin Hoffman (Broadway’s Death of a Salesman), Justin Huff (casting director for Telsey & Co.), James Levine (conductor for The Metropolitan Opera), Roy Price (head of Amazon Studios), Chris Savino (creator and showrunner of “The Loud House”), James Toback (director and screenwriter), David Guillod (Co-chief executive of Primary Wave Entertainment agency), and Peter Martins (New York City Ballet) have all taken a leave of absence, retired early, or been fired as well (Almukhtar).

In response to the flood of these allegations in the theater community, Actors Equity Association (AEA) sent an email to 1,500 producers and theatres across the United States.  The statement proposed three recommendations to make the protocol for filing a sexual harassment complaint more clear and accessible:

1. We recommend that a clear statement be read at each professional production’s first company meeting outlining the procedure to file a complaint.  The procedures and related contact numbers should be prominently posted on theatre and union/guild websites.
2. We recommend that each union or guild designate a specific person to receive complaints.  This person should be thoroughly educated and knowledgeable about the procedures and be prepared to guide victims to them and to appropriate support services.
3. We recommend that, when appropriate, a mediation process overseen by a neutral professional be added to what the unions and guilds currently offer to parties in dispute       over a claim of abuse or harassment. (AEA).

While still important, these proposals are retroactive and only deal with the offense after it has been committed.  And while the union can provide resources, support, and investigation into any sexual harassment claims, it is up to institutional theaters, as employers, to enforce any actual reprimand.  “Now,” notes an article in American Theatre, “the million-dollar question seems to be: Who holds theatres accountable when they actively choose to look the other way?” (Tran).  Additionally, many performers are not members of a protective union like Actors Equity.  In The Public Theatre’s (Mis)Conduct meeting, a woman spoke out about being assaulted by her acting coach.  “His tactic,” she said, “was to prey on directly-out-of-college actors, not in the industry, not in the union, with no resources or institutional help” (Teeman).  Still, AEA believes that greater awareness and open dialogue about sexual harassment will reduce its incidence in the theater community.

Other performing arts organizations are following suit.  Dance/NYC also released a statement on December 5th following notice of sexual harassment allegations against NYCB’s Peter Martins;

Dance/NYC takes seriously harassment in all its forms.  It commends the brave individuals who are coming forward in the performing arts and across all sectors to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse.  Dance/NYC also recognizes this as a defining moment to publicly acknowledge long-existing issues in the dance field and to address them and create positive change for the art form and its workforce (Schrock).

“The organization is committed to taking concrete action to foster safer dance environments,” notes Dance Magazine (Schrock).  Proactive steps include hosting a town hall forum, forming a committee to address sexual misconduct in the dance community, and connecting survivors of sexual harassment to appropriate support services.  Dance Magazine also provides readers with a link to complete a survey about sexual harassment in an attempt to collect more current data on the topic.  The anonymous survey asks age, gender, rank (student, professional dancer, choreographer, other), and if/how you’ve experienced or witnessed instances of sexual harassment during your work as a dancer.

And significant change is happening at the local level, too.  This year, the Chicago theater community created #NotInOurHouse—a pilot project of theater standards “toward a cultural paradigm shift away from turning a blind eye to sexual harassment, discrimination, violence, intimidation, and bullying in our theaters and towards mentoring, prevention, and accountability” (#NotInOurHouse).  The Chicago Theater Standards (CTS)—which summarize best practices for backstage behavior, rehearsal language, and conflict resolution—are available online for free download.  CTS also includes sample downloadable agreements (outlining schedule, compensation, disclosures, etc.) for actors, designers, directors, stage managers, and technicians.  Additionally, #NotInOurHouse hosts a monthly support group and offers additional online resources.  Though it is a new organization, twenty-one theater companies are already members of the CTS Pilot Group.

Still, it appears as if many performing arts organizations are beginning to crumble apart faster than their administrations can scramble to pick up the pieces.  In his report from the (Mis)Conduct event, Tim Teeman wrote, “A staff member from Signature Theatre noted that when scandals break and organizations choose to fire people, those decisions are financial ones: The organizations worry that the scandal will adversely affect ticket sales” (Teeman).  This already seems to be the case for The Metropolitan Opera, whose ticket sales have already been on the decline in recent years (selling only 66% capacity for the 2015/2016 season) (Cooper).  While giving and income still seem to be keeping the Met up and running strong, “that has come and the price of concessions from unions, wage decreases, and cost-cutting across the board” (Bell).  But on December 2nd, the Met officially cut ties with conductor James Levine following numerous accusations of sexual abuse and child molestation.  For Salon Magazine, Gabriel Bell concluded,

Where the Met was once flirting with a manageable disaster, Levine may have pushed it to the precipice… the Met, for all its marbled glory, exists on a financial and popular margin.  Levine’s alleged actions and the public perception that the Met is possibly involved in keeping one or more accusation hidden may serve to shrink it (Bell).

Budget adjustments are already being made.  Last week dancers of the opera received an email notifying them that, effective in the new year, the Met would no longer provide complimentary daily ballet class to its dance company in order to be more cost-efficient.  Who gets penalized in the aftermath of Levine’s indiscretions?  The artists at the bottom of the totem pole, the integrity and aptitude of the art itself, and also the audience attending those inevitably reduced performances.

Even so, some argue for even stronger retribution for organizations associated with convicted offenders.  In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Alyssa Rosenberg put forward, “until sexual misconduct is not just a risk for companies to mitigate but a serious threat to their continued existence, some men will always be dangerously valuable” (Rosenberg).  A company should not merely be able to cut ties with its high-profile offender.  The cost of sexual harassment must be disastrous.  While Rosenberg’s argument would certainly up the ante, the strong stance would have some serious repercussions for the performing arts industry.  Going off of Rosenberg’s proposal, James Levine’s orchestrations should be silenced, The Weinstein Company ruined, Woody Allen’s plays banned, and Bob Fosse’s choreography forbidden.  But that seems like a lose-lose situation for everyone.  Not only is the artist and his company punished, but other artists experience consequent ramifications, audiences are deprived, and the art itself suffers too.

While listening to James Levine’s orchestrations on CD, New York Times chief classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini, conceded, “I couldn’t help thinking about Mr. Levine’s accusers…So, what do I do with [Levine’s] commemorative collections?” (Tommasini).  What is our responsibility as an audience to react to these crimes and effect any sort of change?  One can still appreciate art without knowing the backstory of the artist himself.  But at what point are we confusing our own ignorance with actually ignoring the corruption at hand?

I struggle to conclude this essay with any sort of solution nor even a potential recommendation.  I will not stop adoring Bob Fosse’s choreography because of his womanizing reputation.  Nor will I boycott New York City Ballet or The Metropolitan Opera because of their contemporary scandals.  But I do feel guilty.  And I’m sure that other audiences grapple with this conflict too—just like Tommasini’s uncertainty of how to experience James Levine’s music in the same way.  While I don’t believe resolving sexual harassment in the performing arts lies in rejecting criminal artists, I do acknowledge that my participation in an art by a misogynist—whether I am performing, viewing, or critiquing that work—is contaminated.  Every time I see Harvey Weinstein’s name roll on the credits of a film, I’ll get a sinking feeling in my stomach.  And when I attend a performance by the New York City Ballet, my mind will wander to think of how Peter Martins mistreated the dancers on stage.  I can still appreciate, enjoy, and evaluate the art itself, but it won’t be the same.  And that sentiment—that small change in how the audience digests the art—can have a significant impact.  By participating in sexual harassment, the artist thereby taints the legacy of how audiences will forever experience his work.  And I wonder if that is the most devastating effect of all.


Works Cited:

Almukhtar, Sarah, et al. “After Weinstein: The Fallout for 34 Men Accused of Sexual Misconduct, From Lewd Texts to Rape.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/10/us/men-accused-sexual-   misconduct-weinstein.html.

Bell, Gabriel. “Caught in a Wave of Sex-Abuse Allegations, James Levine Puts the Existence of the Met Opera at Risk.” Salon, 5 Dec. 2017, http://www.salon.com/2017/12/04/caught-in-a-        wave-of-sex-abuse-allegations-james-levine-puts-the-existence-of-the-met-opera-at-risk/.

C. K. Louis. “Louis C.K. Responds to Accusations: ‘These Stories Are True.’” The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/arts/television/louis-ck-          statement.html.

Cooper, Michael. “Metropolitan Opera Attendance: Slightly Better, Still Bad.” The New York Times, 15 May 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/15/arts/music/metropolitan-opera- attendance-slightly-better-still-bad.hmtl?_r=0.

“Dancers: Have You Been Sexually Harassed? Fill Out Our Survey.” Dance Magazine, 5 Dec. 2017, http://www.dancemagazine.com/dancers-sexual-harassment-2513896411.html.

“Facts About Sexual Harassment.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, USA.gov, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-sex.cfm.

Healy, Patrick. “Sex and Violence, Beyond the Script.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/sex-and-violence-beyond-the-            script.html.

Huston, Caitlin. “Actors’ Equity sends email to 1,500 employers on sexual harassment policies.” Broadway News, 7 Nov. 2017, https://broadway.news/2017/11/07/actors-equity-sends-1500-letters-employers-sexual-harassment/.

“#NotInOurHouse.” http://www.notinourhouse.org.

Rosenberg, Alyssa. “The price of sexual harassment should be ruin.” The Washington Post, 1 Dec. 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2017/12/01/the-price-of-sexual-   harassment-should-be-ruin/?utm_term=.f966b0f29b0b.

Schrock, Madeline. “How the Dance World Is Responding to Sexual Harassment Claims Against Peter Martins.” Dance Magazine, 5 Dec. 2017, http://www.dancemagazine.com/hot-dance-world-is-responding-to-sexual-harassment-claims-against-peter-martins-  02515053561.html.

Teeman, Tim.  “The sexual abuse and harassment scandals blowing up on Broadway.”  The Daily Beast, 5 Dec. 2017, https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-sexual-abuse-and-      harassment-scandals-blowing-up-on-broadway.

Tommasini, Anthony. “Should I put away my James Levine recordings?” The New York Times, 5 Dec. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/arts/music/james-levine-met-opera-critic.html.

Tran, Diep.  “Unmuffling a Culture of Silence.” American Theatre, 6 Dec. 2017.            http://www.americantheatre.org/2017/12/06/unmuffling-a-culture-of-silence/.

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