(Deadline asked three-time Tony nominated actress and writer Sherie Rene Scott, currently appearing off-Broadway opposite Jason Alexander in The Portuguese Kid, about her experience in dealing with sexual harassment and assault in the industry over the last two decades. It’s a subject that partly inspired Whorl Inside A Loop, the remarkable 2015 play she co-wrote and starred in. This is her response. – Jeremy Gerard)
Sexual harassment, abuse and bullying have been such a long-term work/life issue for me that’s it’s passed through pain, absurdity, perseverance and back again, numerous times. I divide the issues into three categories;
Behind Door #1: The unfortunately standard behaviors many women experience in working and everyday life: Comments about one’s appearance wrapped as compliments, putting us in our place, reminding us that our appearance is our power as women. Imagine if every time I saw a TV, film or Broadway producer I told them how hot they looked? It would seem creepy of me to do because it is creepy. Then there are comments or jokes through the years about body/body parts, weight and the ever-surprising sexual advances and inappropriate touching. This was so common I invented the word ‘flee-dom’ to describe the feeling of knowing when I had to get out of a situation. I’ve found myself in a state of flee-dom far too many times in my working life. And I was lucky to always get out. Many friends, male and female, younger or older, were not.
Another way I’ve experienced this kind of humiliation is through press and interviews. No matter what role I played, I was often described as having given “a Titular performance.” I’m no genius but how many “titular performances” can one girl give? I got the joke and it was me.
One of the problems with Door #1 is that it’s the nature of our work and the intimacy it requires. Combine that with wacky working conditions; costume fittings with photographers and many people milling about, constant clothes-changing as people come in and out of your room, fast changes with no time for discretion or privacy, beyond-cramped spaces in Broadway houses, and shared dressing rooms with men off-Broadway. Throw in the sometimes explicit subject matter of our work and it adds up to being extremely vulnerable eight times a week.
And then, we’re asked to do weird stuff in theater. The relentless repetition of doing weird stuff can dull the weirdness, and so when someone in power takes something a couple steps further, into a place that feels icky or wrong, it can be confusing and take a bit longer to register. In late 2015 I arrived for a meeting with a director in a hotel lobby which was switched at the last second to his hotel room, and I was 48 years old! It was ridiculous, but my disbelief that it was happening, even as it was happening, was as surprising to me as the experience itself. I hope the outing of these creeps will help us stop questioning or, worse, blaming ourselves, whether we’re men or women, boys or girls. This will be an ongoing difficult conversation in all communities but the brave folks coming forward created a space for honest dialogue and that’s the only way real healing can begin.
Behind Door #2: Experiences that dear friends have shared over the years are much worse than anything I went through. Horrible stuff. Many don’t come out because people don’t want others to know, or they have children so they don’t want it coming out, or any number of the understandable reasons people keep traumas private. These are not my stories to tell. Even in our beloved “magical” community of theater there’s a system of enabling a “boys will be boys” culture. It’s allowed predators to do real long-term damage. Theater people are among the most vulnerable. Abusers have no regard for gender, race or age. So the victims are many, over many, many years.
What happened to my friend Anthony Rapp was not sexual harassment. In my opinion it was attempted sexual molestation of a child at the very least and should be put in context as such. Unfortunately, personal stories shared through the years make it clear that this style of abuse wasn’t uncommon. Several times through the years victimized friends would say, “If only iPhones had been invented I could’ve started filming or recording or texted and he wouldn’t have been able to …” fill in the blank with some horrible, life-changing, private trauma. But it’s still happening and I know it did happen to Anthony. He struggled with the pain of it for decades. I know other boys and girls were victimized in similar and worse ways, by similar and worse predators.
Behind Door #3: The shock of finding out that people I knew, loved and worked with had habitually harassed and abused others sexually, and got away with it for many years. I ended these relationships as soon as I learned about this, while making it clear I would be there if treatment was sought and followed through. Guess what, though? No one ever really got treatment because no one was ever really held accountable for their actions. Knowing they hurt co-workers, friends, loved ones, destroyed families, didn’t really effect change in the lives of these predators.
It seems the only accountability these types of men respond to are public exposure and losing money. Even then they somehow truly believe they are the victims. I’ve stood with many friends who have gone into recovery from addictions and made amends. But sexual abusers never really seem to be truly committed to healing and seeking forgiveness from their victims. (I’ve never been sexually harassed by women, nor heard testimony of abuse by women.)
Having been on both sides of the rehearsal table, I can say it’s clearly incumbent on the people in charge to fix this. Given the old-school power dynamics still at work in the theater environment it’s even more important to make sure those in lesser positions physically, financially or otherwise are never blamed in any way for the abuses they endure.
For several years I’ve been vocal about the only way I see this getting any better; in fact Whorl Inside A Loop, to a large extent, is about addictions, about the differences between addicts and predators, and the damage both cause to so many people’s lives. The enabling of predators in the theater community must stop. Our fear of predators will end only when victims can be confident they’ll be heard, not ostracized, or at least can chose to come forward anonymously and have their voices count.
It may get worse before it gets better, but our community can lead the way by how we live our lives, how we heal as individuals and how we share our art with the world. Victims can’t be the only teachers and healers any longer. Victimizers and perpetrators must be held accountable, admit guilt and get treatment.