AMERICAN THEATRE | Tales From the Palace: The Dark Side of the Theatre Fairy Tale
There is a cake in the center of the table, high and frosted white and studded with walnuts. Someone cuts it and passes slices down. The people around the table eat the cake and exclaim how fresh it is, how delicious. It was made that morning by someoneâs cook. The cake is so massive that even after everyone at the table polishes off their slice, more than half of it is left.
Ringing the table and pushed against filing cabinets is a second circle of folding chairs. We in this outer circle watch as the people around the table help themselves to more cake, saying, âI really shouldnât, butâ¦â When they lean back and rub their bellies, the backs of their chairs hit our knees.Â
The people around the table are a board of directors. We in the folding chairs are the staff. This sounds like a scene from a play, or a metaphor about the classism of theatre. But as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.
I worked in regional theatre for 25 years, primarily as a director of education, but also as an actor, playwright, director, and choreographer. Every day I was told how lucky I was to have a job. I smiled and nodded hundreds of times as people said, âIf you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.â One boss shook a fat folder in my face and said, âThese are the rÃ©sumÃ©s of everyone who wants to be sitting in your chair.â And I believed that I was lucky: Though I was blessed with neither beauty nor money nor connections, I was doing the impossible. I was making my living in the arts.
Those of us who go into theatre professionally do so for two reasons: It is the great passion of our lives, and we had formative experiences that led us to believe that we had found an accepting community in which people cheer each other on and differences are celebrated. If we come from childhood trauma, from a dysfunctional familyâand what artist hasnât?âtheatre is our lifeline. The most challenging aspect of the professional world is learning that the exact qualities we cultivate as artistsâvulnerability, openness, intellectualismâcan become liabilities.
Though I came from inner-city Pittsburgh, I always viewed myself as outrageously privileged. I grew up on Free to Be You and Me and I was a flag-waving believer in the meritocracy. I won scholarships and awards. I was a white person with a world-class education. I ate kale. Though I knew, vaguely, that many of my theatre colleagues had more money than I did, I assumed it was because they had made better choices. Iâd reached my mid-forties before I noticed that I still brought my lunch every day from home, while the interns ate out, bought new clothes, and went on weekend getaways.
I began to look at my experiences through a different lens. Though I knew that there were unspoken gender expectations in theatre, I had never related them to class. I repeatedly made the same mistake of believing Iâd been hired for my combination of artistic ability, educational leadership, and grit. But women in theatre are still expected to look and behave like department store salesgirls from 1950s movie musicals. We should pride ourselves on being peacemakers. On seeing it from both sides. On not making waves. On not rocking the boat. On not burning bridges. Good girls present ideas as questions. But Iâm neither a good girl nor a pretty one, and in theatre, thatâs two strikes against me. Recently, a production assistant took me aside and said, âThe tech staff finds you unfuckable, so theyâre not motivated to do a good job on your shows.â They explained it kindly; they were sure Iâd understand.Â
Once I made the class connection, I began to realize that though my colleagues and I appeared to speak the same language, I often had no real comprehension of what was happening around me. I had lived around the world but never been on a sailboat or to a beach house. Office politics baffled me. The culture that exists within theatresâthe closed-door discussions, the whispers, the exclusive late-night drinks in which the real decisions are made, the texting in meetings followed by meaningful eye contact, being summoned darkly into rooms without being allowed to know whyâmade me feel like I was on the outskirts of some secret society at an Ivy League school. Not only was I a lower-income person in a rich manâs world, but theatres, microcosms of America, were maintaining a grand illusion. Though they appeared to be glittering cultural hubs where the rich and poor met on equal terms, they were in fact hierarchical places with a servant class, run like medieval fiefdoms.
I love fairy tales: reading them, studying them, writing and directing plays based on them. But fairy tales, like kingdoms, have a dark and sinister side. Things are not as they seem. Flowers turn to poison, fairies to demons, castles to dust. And like palaces with their back staircases and dungeons, with their messengers and hidden codes, with their kings and maids, theatres conceal a culture steeped not only in secrecy and neglect, but in abuse. Wander freely, my love, says Bluebeard, but here is the key you must never use.Â
Women in theatre are still expected to look and behave like department store salesgirls from 1950s movie musicals. We should pride ourselves on being peacemakers. On seeing it from both sides. On not making waves. On not rocking the boat. On not burning bridges.
Happy theatres are all alike; every unhappy theatre is unhappy in its own way. It is possible, though difficult, to prosecute people for sexual abuse and harassment, for physical abuse, and for discrimination. The unions strive to protect performers and technical theatre artists from some abuses, though not all, and not always.
But cruelty is legal. Scapegoating is legal. Shunning is legal. Public humiliation is legal. Contacting employees on the weekends, late at night, and on holidays is legal. Asking exempt employees to work an unlimited amount of hours may not technically be legal, but itâs standard practice. I once worked 81 days in a row. There is no union for most administrative positions in theatre, and precious few theatres have human resources departments. Some theatres claim to have contracts with outside human resources companies, but the sole purpose of those companies is to protect employers from lawsuits. Speaking of lawsuits: That any of us might prove we worked in a âhostile work environmentâ is a myth.
Stories of abuse in the performing arts have been surfacing in recent years and months, but theyâve mostly been about Broadway and Hollywood. Iâve even heard people talk wistfully about the comparatively idyllic lives of those of us who work in regional theatre. It must be lovely, they say: rolling landscapes, small towns, summer festivals, low(er) costs of living, none of the pressures of the Big Time.
If only that were true. Wander freely, my love, but here is the key you must never use.
I always knew that if I spoke up about my experiences, I might pay the price with my career. The theatres I worked for owned my life. They impressed upon me that wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I was their public representative, and if I put a toe out of line, I would lose not only my job, but my livelihood. If I had complaints, a thousand other people would be happy to take my place. And then what? I was single and I had no savings account, no resources, and no skills other than theatre.
But when my fears finally came to passâwhen I was fired during the pandemic and lost my financial stability and health insurance overnight, I found that I could not sign the non-disclosure agreement that was presented to me. The price of my silence had already been too high.
The following events move back and forth through 25 years and countless theatres.
âI hope you donât mind that I sat at your desk.â
âNot at all,â I say.
âWell,â he says with a smile, âI just went swimming in the lake.â He stands up in his bathing trunks and T-shirt. Water is running down his face, his chest, his legs. The seat of my desk chair, the vinyl already torn, is swollen with water and dark with mud.
Laughing, he pushes past me.
Heâs a board member.
Iâm walking through the rain under my umbrella. My boss says, âI need that!â They grab it from me and walk off.
Many theatres hire corporate coaches. Mostly, they drive in for a day, lead earnest discussions, then vanish forever in a cloud of neon post-it notes. Sometimes they show up multiple times as âconsultants.â Occasionally, they appear as recurring characters who ask us to participate in activities, such as reciting the same text aloud at the beginning of each session, reading aloud a letter to a person in our life we have wronged, or using specifically created vocabulary when we speak. We are told that there is no such thing as truth: Everything is perception. An example presented to us by one coach is that the idea that a person does something that ends anotherâs life is âmurderâ is a social concept, not a fact: âMurderâ does not exist, except in our consensus. This is the logic that was used in Nazi Germany and appears in todayâs âfake news,â and when I question the moral ambiguity, the manufactured rhetoric, and the concrete purpose of these sessions, I become a target. It takes me years to understand that the language and goals of corporate coaching are often kept vague because its true purpose is not to develop the company, but to bully employees into believing that they are inadequate.
Iâve lost weight. Iâm helping break down a set after tech, struggling to hold a heavy flat, and my jeans slip down. I canât grab them because if I let go of the flat, it will fall. The stage manager, chuckling, snaps a photo.Â
I give a presentation to the board. I show charts, graphs, and statistics that demonstrate financial growth. I sit down and a board member leans over. She says, âThere are some refreshments in the other room. Can you make me a little plate of nibbles? Theyâre just for the board, not the staff.âÂ
Onstage, my boss grabs my breast so hard that when I wake up in the morning, thereâs a ghostly handprint on my body. I report it to the director. He tells me if I donât want to be known as a troublemaker, I better keep my mouth shut.
Iâm in the theatre conference room and a production manager is yelling at me, his face crimson and veins popping on his neck. Iâm asking why I canât have a key to the theatre: I keep getting stuck outside when Iâm trying to prep for my programs. âYou canât have a key,â he shouts, âbecause I donât want you to have one!â
My sister dies of a heart attack and I call to tell my boss, who says, âBefore you leave, you need to finish this grant proposal.â
Iâm in a cubicle. From behind, a senior manager puts his hands on my chair and says into my ear, âI wish I could take two stakes and drive them into the sides of your neck.â
Itâs opening night and Iâve arrived in a dress and heels. Iâm ordered to clean the bathrooms.
I leave the office at midnight. A man associated with the theatre suddenly appears in his truck and switches lanes so heâs facing my car. He drives forward until our bumpers are touching, and he pushes my car so Iâm going backwards down the street, into an alley. Thereâs no cell service. My windows are locked; will he break them? No: he just wanted to scare me. He drives away laughing.
The next morning, Iâm in the theatre rehearsing on my own. A movement catches my eye: a pipe shaking above my head. I walk slowly to the wings. The safeties have all been removed from the ropes. I walk down the line and replace them, one after another.
In the company management office, an executive assistant is walking towards me, and ends up sticking his face in my face. Iâm trying to get around him, trying to talk loudly, but weâre alone in the building and no one can hear me. He backs me up against a wall until heâs an inch away, laughing, his spit on my face.
I come back from the gym in the morning and park my car in the street. Iâm in the shower when I hear the explosion. My windshield has been shot.Â
I try to report some of these incidents, but there are two problems. The first is that thereâs no one to tell. The second is that no one believes me. Or, they say they believe me, sure they doâthey absolutely believe that these were my lived experiences, and that Iâm standing in my truthâ¦.but there are two sides to every story, right? Did that person really say that? Okay, maybe they said those words, but did they say it in that tone? Have I thought about it from their side? What did I do to irritate them? What part did I play in the dynamic?
After all, Iâm slower than the people around me. Was I held back in school?Â
I have a bad attitude.
Iâm a spinster.Â
I have a strong personality.
Iâm too direct.Â
Iâm too vocal.
Iâm a cyclone.Â
I donât read social cues.
I talk back.
They have to control me by slapping me down.
Theyâre doing me a favor by telling me this.Â
Theyâre just trying to help.
Men are never described as being too direct or too vocal. Men donât have âstrong personalities.â Men are dynamic. Men are charismatic. Men are passionate. When I point out this disparity, my boss lunges at me and screams, âStop it! Just stop it!â
I never stop believing that if I just do good enough work, if I just raise enough money, if I just bring enough glory to the theatre, if I make everyone cupcakes, life will get better. I move across the ocean, across theatres, across states. I teach 15,000 students. I create programs, hire artists, initiate collaborations, and write, direct, and choreograph more than two hundred shows. Again and again, Iâm asked to raise money by speaking on TV and onstage about the importance of the arts. We reach 100 people. We reach 1,000 people. We reach 10,000 people. We win an award. We win a grant. We make a million dollars.
I have panic attacks every day. I beg to be excused from public speaking. But Iâm like a wind-up toy: Once they push me out onstage or in front of the camera, something switches on. Itâs only when a boss says, âYouâve been a failureâ that I begin to understand, dimly, that Iâve fallen into a trap. The trap has many names: imposter syndrome. Self-doubt. Insecurity. Whatever itâs called, it attracts predators and the siblings of predators, silence and complicity.
The theatres that survived the pandemic are going to have to rebuild from ashes. Iâm watching the same places that issued heartfelt statements about equity offer salaries for leadership positions that are barely above poverty level. Iâm watching people who laughed when I insisted on diverse casting talk earnestly about the importance of it. Iâm watching people who laid off their staff pretend that they quit.
Still, I hope for a renaissance. I am, despite everything, a cockeyed optimist. I believe that the prevailing culture of emotional and psychological violence can be broken, for artists are not only dreamers of dreams, but people of action. We walk into an empty space and make worlds rise into being. We turn the stage from night to day. And we have always been at the forefront of cultural and social transformation, for we trade not only in beauty, but in courage, in imagination, in the firm belief of infinite possibilities. Those of us who went into theatre for love, for human connection, for transcendence, are rising up and speaking out. And we will not shut up until every single person in the room gets their slice of cake.
I know, I knowâIâll never work in this town again.
But I plan to build a new one.
Hester Kamin (she/her) is a director, choreographer, writer, actor, and arts educator who has lived and worked around the world. Since September 2020, she has held 17 jobs, including hostess at a French restaurant, dance aerobics instructor, and roadside sign spinner. Honors: National Endowment for the Arts, Academy of American Poets, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Graduate, Carnegie Mellon University and Ecole Jacques Lecoq. Member, SDC and Dramatists Guild.
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