Workplace Violence in the Theatre – Setting a Standard of Safety


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I first met Rebecca in 2008. She was the charge painter for an event for which I was the house electrician. When she moved to town a couple of years later, it was a terrific addition to the Twin Cities community. Rebecca is now an Industrial Hygienist for 3M, but she’s remained close to the Performing Arts community, and her powerful and informed interest in safety on the job ought to be an inspiration for us all. A brilliant person with that rare intellect that cuts right to the heart of any matter while still remaining very cognizant of pragmatic concerns, Rebecca is the kind of person we should all have been paying more attention to long ago. —Wu Chen


One day early in my undergraduate career, I was working in the scene shop with some graduate technical direction students, all of whom happened to be men in their early twenties.  I was doing some very basic scenic construction for build crew, and they were doing more advanced, complicated scenic engineering and construction and, nominally, supervising the shop.  And they were talking, laughing, and joking around with each other in the way that fellow-students do.

Their conversation was disgusting.  

I will not relate the gory details, but suffice it to say that it was about activities of a highly explicitly sexual nature, and incredibly demeaning toward women.  I want to be clear: they weren't talking to me, about me, or at me. I'm not sure they even remembered I was in the room. I certainly wasn't calling attention to myself.  Since most of my "theatrical colleagues" prior to that had included mainly parents, fellow high school girls, and our recently "out" boy bffs, this was the first time I had been privy to a discussion on these themes that was quite so graphic.  

And at the time, I didn't recognize it as harassment, or aggression, or even inappropriate.  I knew they were "being gross," and that I was probably a "prude" to be icked-out by it instead of thinking it was funny, and I figured if I dared utter any objection I would be laughed off the face of the planet and ostracized for the rest of college (it's possible I was a little overly dramatic in my predictions).  So it didn't even occur to me to say anything. But it turned out I was not the only one who heard. After a little while, our professor (their advisor) came out of his office, where he'd apparently been listening as well. He gently asked me to take a break out on the porch, and after I left he let them HAVE IT (I don't think he or they realized I could still hear the confrontation).   He gave them one of the most cutting and poignant lectures I've ever heard on appropriate conduct in the workplace and the duty and respect they owed the institution, their fellow students, and themselves, and to this day I look up to that professor as a model of integrity and respect.

This is one minor example of the ways our behaviors in the workplace can negatively affect our colleagues without our intention, or even awareness.  After this incident I felt a little shy and uncomfortable around those graduate students, worried they resented or scorned me for being the nominal reason they got chewed out (although it probably would have happened if any undergrad had been present).  Later, this discomfort and lack of trust discouraged me from asking for help when I was doing a metal construction project for one of them, and felt unsure and inadequately trained performing the tasks required of me.  As a result, I set my jeans on fire with a welding torch and dislocated my jaw with a drill.

The fact is that discrimination, harassment, bullying—all these behaviors that erode trust and confidence in the workplace, are examples of what is termed workplace violence. These behaviors can impair a not only a worker's mental and emotional health, but also their physical health and safety. Fear of ridicule and retaliation for speaking out, as well as discomfort from the violence itself, have the run-off effect of discouraging employees from voicing other health and safety concerns, thus exposing them and others who work with them to greater risk of injury and illness.  And while many of us entered the theatre profession as a haven of camaraderie and creativity, where you could be yourself and be accepted and valued, this profession is not immune from the effects of workplace violence.

Research has shown that not only do workers who face workplace violence have higher rates of seemingly non-occupationally related health problems than their peers who do not, they are also more likely to have directly work-related injuries and illnesses as well (Brown et al., 2011; Okechukwu, Souza, Davis, & de Castro, 2014; Rospenda, Richman, Ehmke, & Zlatoper, 2005).  This is likely exacerbated by theatre's atmosphere of casual acceptance, which tends to be much more permissive of behaviors that would be frowned upon in other professions.  It's a problem.  Really. I'm not making this stuff up.  This problem of workplace violence in theatre is likely also compounded by what proponents call the "gig economy," and academics like me call "insecure employment status."  The uncertainty of one's future employment has a big enough impact on one's willingness to speak out against a physically unsafe environment; a culture of aggression further eroding trust in the employer is one more nail in the coffin of workers’ well-being.

While OSHA does not yet have any standards explicitly referring to violence in the workplace, these topics are covered by the general duty clause, and there are letters of interpretation that state the employer's responsibility to provide a workplace free of harassment, aggression, discrimination, and other forms of violence. You have the right to a workplace free of these behaviors, and employers need to be better at enforcing this right.

In four years of college/summer stock theatre and ten years of professional theatre, here is a non-exhaustive list of groups of people I have heard and seen to be openly harassed, ridiculed, hazed, and insulted, either directly (to their faces) or indirectly (behind their backs) on the basis of the respective categories:

  • Women
  • African Americans
  • Interns / Apprentices
  • High school students
  • Undergraduate Students
  • Graduate Students
  • Latino/as
  • Mothers (as distinct from "women")
  • Non-English speakers
  • Americans
  • Homosexuals and others on the LGBTQX spectra
  • Physically and mentally disabled persons
  • Asians
  • "Independent contractors"
  • Union members
  • Yale alumni
  • Alumni of places that are not Yale
  • Senior citizens
  • Non-union employees
  • Performers
  • Non-performers

Do you see a theme here?  I know in this sort of article it seems like cis-hetero white men typically get stuck holding the "privilege bag," but I've witnessed plenty of hazing or other kinds of abuse directed at them as soon as they fall into one of the categories like "students," "interns," or "non-union members."  Pretty much every person has at some time, in some way, because of some trait they don't really have control over, been bullied, hazed, or otherwise exposed to workplace violence.  And that violence, either directly or indirectly, makes us all less safe, and less focused on the mission of our work.

I wish I could say I have never participated in anything resembling aggression towards anyone else in my workplace, but it would be a lie.  And I think that's true for everyone, at some point. We're young, inexperienced, self-absorbed, thoughtless, or simply unobservant. But we grow up.  We learn about the world, and our art, we get hurt, we realize ways we hurt others. We might have children, or our own interns, apprentices, students, or subordinate employees.  We can start to notice the ways people might behave toward them that would make them less safe. And that's the time when it's really, really important for us, as relative "adults" in the industry, to set the standard of behavior that will guarantee everyone a safe workplace, in every sense of the word.  And it's important that this is not just lip service.  We have to really try to live it. The incoming generation will internalize and adopt the practices we demonstrate, regardless of what is officially said.

The graduate students who got chewed out that day in the scene shop all graduated and went on to be credits to their training and profession.  I know from social media that at least some of them are devoted husbands and fathers, teachers, bosses, and otherwise loving, compassionate human beings that don't want to make anyone feel less-than.  They would be the first to defend anyone they witnessed receiving violence in their workplaces.

A former classmate of mine recently shared an experience from the children’s theatre workshop she teaches, in which a child with selective mutism became so comfortable, supported, and safe in the workshop environment that during the final performance she was able to speak aloud (1).  I think most of us read the account of the Children’s Theatre’s performance of Harold and the Purple Crayon that drew an autistic student out of his world and made him so safe that it allowed him to temporarily connect with his teacher and classmates for the first time (2).  This is the power of theatre.  This is the power of art. It’s completely possible to make it an environment that’s safe for all of us as well as our audience, and it’s our responsibility to do it.  


Peer-reviewed sources:

Brown, L. P., Rospenda, K. M., Sokas, R. K., Conroy, L., Freels, S., & Swanson, N. G. (2011). Evaluating the Association of Workplace Psychosocial Stressors with Occupational Injury, Illness, and Assault. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 8(1), 31-37. doi:10.1080/15459624.2011.537985

Okechukwu, C. A., Souza, K., Davis, K. D., & de Castro, A. B. (2014). Discrimination, harassment, abuse, and bullying in the workplace: Contribution of workplace injustice to occupational health disparities. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 57(5), 573-586. doi:doi:10.1002/ajim.22221

Rospenda, K., Richman, J., Ehmke, J., & Zlatoper, K. (2005). Is Workplace Harassment Hazardous to Your Health? Journal of Business & Psychology, 20(1), 95-110. doi:10.1007/s10869-005-6992-y