Guest Editorial: Kansas City Should Be a Safe Place to Work for all Theatre Professionals Guest Editorial: Kansas City Should Be a Safe Place to Work for all Theatre Professionals
I think we all agree there is a problem. To fix the problem, it is going to take a culture shift and accountability, as... Guest Editorial: Kansas City Should Be a Safe Place to Work for all Theatre Professionals

by Jessie Salsbury

Kansas City Theatre is at a cracking point. With the November 2018 article in the Pitch by Liz Cook, more actors and professionals in KC Theatre are discussing sexual harassment and similar abuses. The biggest gap, as confirmed in Cook’s article, is there is no one to go to when something happens. The distance from other major theater hubs and the large number of non-equity and non-profit houses in KC contribute to a sense of isolation and lack of proper recourse.

In most workplaces, the rules are steadfast and clear as to the chain of command when there is a sexual harassment allegation. You proceed with your supervisor or Human Resources. You can file complaints with EEOC. If you work in theater, regardless of equity status, the path is usually non-linear and unclear.

Actors Equity can be a solid organization for bringing matters of harassment and mistreatment, though actors have voiced concerns as to lack of support in the Kansas City market. An article in American Theatre Magazine from September 2018 by Kate Shindle laid out information on what Equity is doing to address harassment. They’ve updated language in their materials, held meetings and training, and made it clear that there is zero tolerance for harassment within the workplace.

If reporting an issue to equity is not an option, an actor or a professional may only be able to address the issue with the offending organization and have nowhere to escalate it if there is not a satisfactory result.  In preliminary research with other theater professionals around the country, most of my network of playwrights and professionals couldn’t name a city with a set theater advisory board or escalating organization.

One market that has taken drastic changes to address the issue is the Chicago market. They have been steadfast in pursuit of Not In Our House – demanding change from within their organizations and creating a rallying cry that sexual harassment and other intimidating behavior will not be tolerated. In their creation of the Chicago Theatre Standards, they have laid out the common ground in which theater professionals should behave and act, providing a cultural benchmark, rather than a legal one. A description from their Pilot Project page:

“Theatres that choose to adopt these Chicago Theatre Standards seek to strengthen the safety net in their theatres, and provide a process for response without reprisal when conditions are unsafe. This document never would have been written without the courage of a small group of women who came forward and shared their stories of survival. They are heroes. We are in their debt. This document seeks to honor their courage, live by their example, and seek a community that [is] dedicated to the credo NOT IN OUR HOUSE.”

Kansas City theatre does not have a similar city-wide dedication or unifying set of standards to address harassment and abuse. Instead, there are secret Facebook messaging systems that alert actors about the producers, theaters, and acting coaches to avoid due to their history of sexual harassment and abuse. There are rumors about what acting teachers are legitimate and whom to avoid. There are discussions behind closed doors about which directors are unsafe to work with. It appears that we are in the place Chicago was a few years ago. We are forcing (mostly) women to tell their stories in the dark, to whisper to one another about whom to avoid. These abusers are not held accountable no matter how much evidence is amassed against them.

Addressing which accusations are legitimate and which ones are not can get quite polarizing and slanderous. One individual, producer Timothy John, is well-known to be avoided by many actors in the Kansas City theater community. John has harassed countless men and women over the years, and rather than anyone taking action, he is allowed to harass other individuals under new usernames, emails, and Facebook groups. He avoids being removed completely from casting websites due to his ability to re-create his persona. Actors will block him from one email address or social media account only to have him email them from a new one.

I am confident I can name him based on the years of evidence of harassment and abuse that actors have collected and saved. He is a predator, sending actors sexually suggestive emails and text messages, and degrading people who are unwilling to work without pay.

[Editor’s note: PerformInk editors have spoken with multiple sources claiming harassment from Timothy John and have been shown screenshots of messages confirming the above, including multiple attempts to dispariage actors who decline a role over the lack of pay and to ask out women while in conversations over potential jobs. Other alleged victims of John’s hararssment have posted their stories and evidence to the public Artist Community of Kansas City Facebook Group]

Ideally, John should not be allowed to work in the market based on the detailed history of abuse and harassment of multiple individuals, and he should not have access to any sites to be able to solicit any actors for any projects, but due to lack of oversight and accountability he is able to continue working and harassing actors.

Intimacy coaching is another topic that is of concern in classrooms and in rehearsals, we must not allow intimacy acting to be a gateway to harassment or grooming for sexual assault. There are standards that can be developed to keep actors, educators, and students safe. Intimacy rehearsals should be conducted with intimacy coaches, and this coaching should never be one on one with actor and coach or actor and director. In Cook’s article, this was part of the concern with the environment at Metropolitan Ensemble Theater. Intimate moments were rehearsed one-on-one and actors were asked to strip clothing when it was not needed for the rehearsal. Regardless of intent, intimacy moments in theatrical productions can be a incubator for problematic behavior. The Theatrical Intimacy Education organization addresses how educators, directors, actors, and professionals can both advocate for themselves and keep the spaces safe for all. Guidelines are simple, straightforward and relatively easy to implement, and should be considered by each organization and theater professional.

I think we all agree there is a problem. To fix the problem, it is going to take a culture shift and accountability, as well as an organization willing to oversee the change. Chicago’s model is still in its infancy, but the process has been transparent, and they should be commended for sharing their work. In kind, Kansas City should develop a set of standards to which all theatres, professionals, teachers, universities, and producers would agree. Additionally, we must find a way to track complaints and hold harassers accountable. To protect performers, it would be beneficial for the Kansas City market to have at least one trained intimacy director. This would help ensure any training or coaching of intimacy moments is being done safely, with consent, and with supportive individuals in the room that can ensure the intimacy is being done for art’s sake and not for potential abuse.

Kansas City should be a safe place to work for all theatre professionals, regardless of Equity status, or if it is one’s primary or second career. Every organization in the market has to be willing to participate. We need to develop our own set of standards for Kansas City to remove abusers and harassers and hold them accountable. Not in Our House Kansas City. It’s time.

Jessie Salsbury Guest Contributor

Jessie Salsbury is a Kansas City playwright and a Human Resources professional. She holds her SHRM-CP designation and has earned a Master’s Degree in Human Resources from Ottawa University. Her writing can be found on the New Play Exchange.

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