Sexual Harassment Scandals in Theater Community Prompt Organizational Changes

The theater offers actors, directors, producers, and others countless opportunities for artistic expression. Unfortunately, what might seem like bold artistic expression to a few people often looks like harassment to others. Even more unfortunately, the theater is prone to the same power dynamics and imbalances that New York City sexual harassment lawyers see in almost every type of workplace. For more than a year, the country’s attention has been focused on abuses of power in film, television, and other media—mostly but not exclusively men—resulting in sexual harassment and assault. The theater business is no different, but many theaters are now acknowledging the problem. In addition to removing individuals accused repeatedly of harassment, some theaters are working to change their cultures. A theater near New York City recently fired its longtime artistic director after multiple allegations sexual harassment, and then announced changes to its “big personality workplace culture.”

Laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination on the basis of numerous factors, including sex. Sexual harassment in the workplace constitutes unlawful employment discrimination when sexual activity is made a condition of employment, or when it creates a hostile work environment that prevents an individual from doing their job. These laws give aggrieved employees recourse in the court system, allowing them to recover monetary damages and other relief. These laws are not very effective, however, at changing the workplace cultures that allow sexual harassment to occur, or even flourish.

Discrimination lawsuits brought by agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) occasionally lead to changes in workplace culture. A settlement or judgment might require an employer to adopt policies and provide training regarding sexual harassment. The EEOC has the authority, and ostensibly has the resources, to monitor compliance with such provisions. The extent to which they are successful in changing workplace culture is a matter of debate. Real change, as the saying goes, must come from within.

In January 2018, the New York Times reported on allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct against the artistic director of a prominent theater in New Haven, Connecticut. The allegations sound familiar to those who follow such stories: unwanted touching, sexual overtures and demands, inappropriate remarks, and so forth. Four women spoke to the Times on the record, and six more, both female and male, described their observations of the individual in the theater. No lawsuits resulted from the allegations, but the theater placed the individual on leave before the story broke. The theater’s board of directors voted unanimously to fire the individual shortly after the Times published its story.

An internal investigation conducted by the theater reportedly “found no fault with management or the board of directors,” in the sense that the problem of sexual harassment seemed to be limited to one person. The investigation drew on the term “too big to fail,” made famous during the 2008 financial crisis, describing the former artistic director as “too big to be held accountable.” In a workplace culture where one person has outsize influence, it can be very difficult for management to respond to concerns. Similar investigations, and reassessments of workplace culture, have occurred in theaters around the country.

Phillips & Associates’ team of knowledgeable and experienced employment lawyers advocates for the rights of New York City employees and job seekers. We help our clients assert claims for sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and other unlawful workplace practices. Please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

New York City Theater Workers Speak Out About Sexual Harassment and Assault, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 11, 2018

Comedy Scenes in Major U.S. Cities, Including New York, Take a Stand Against Sexual Harassment, New York Employment Attorney Blog, November 30, 2016

Actors Fight Against Sexual Harassment in New York City Theater, New York Employment Attorney Blog, January 29, 2016

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