Community theatres stand in solidarity against sexual misconduct

Photograph by Kathryn Fraser

Inside the auditorium of Oshawa Little Theatre

Members of the performing arts community in Durham Region say there’s a heightened awareness of sexual misconduct following allegations at a Toronto-based theatre earlier this year.

Artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company, Albert Schultz, was forced to step down from his position in January after four women came forward alleging sexual assault.

Four actresses –  Hannah Miller, Kristen Booth, Patricia Fagan and Diana Bentley – filed lawsuits against Schultz in early January.

Months after the allegations, people in the local theatre community are speaking out against Schultz and condemning sexual assault in theatres.

The president of Ajax Community Theatre, Mark Salonius, said his initial thoughts were, “‘Oh no, not another one.'”

“We know [sexual misconduct] is out there but the fact that a Toronto-based company, which is a for-profit company, had its head have a sexual allegation problem was something that concerns us at Ajax Community Theatre,” said Salonius.

He said Ajax Community Theatre (ACT) prevents sexual misconduct in a volunteer environment through communication.

According to Salonius, show directors are hired by the board and all production ideas must be presented to the board for approval.

If a show is suggested that contains inappropriate and sexual behaviour, Salonius said the board would talk to its actors and creative team to make sure everyone feels comfortable when acting in and producing the show. If the cast and crew are against the idea, a new production is selected.

Salonius said “[ACT] is very upfront,” and wants to make sure everyone involved is comfortable.

“It has to be a discussion. It’s all about communication, that’s our message.”

Salonius said in the event of a relationship between actors, ACT would speak with those involved and present its Acceptable Use Policy. The Acceptable Use Policy is created by the company and lays out rules and guidelines that all volunteers must agree with to participate in productions.

“In Ajax Community Theatre as a volunteer actor, we expect you to bide by these rules,” said Salonius.  “If [actors] don’t, they would be kicked off the production. They would be replaced. It wouldn’t even be a slap-on the wrist ‘Do it again and you’re out,’ it would be a ‘Sorry, we don’t take these things lightly’ type of thing.

Geoff Coulter is a director and actor from the Durham Region. He has performed and directed at Oshawa Little Theatre, Herongate Barn Theatre and the Scarborough Village Theatre.

Coulter found the allegations against Schultz troubling and “career-devastating.”

“It was upsetting. Behind the Mirvishs, [Soulpepper is] the number one theatre company in Toronto and they do some really good work. It was a disaster both for him and the company,” he said.

Coulter said Schultz will have a difficult time clearing his name even if the lawsuits are unproven.

“You will never bounce back from that,” he said. “Someone’s going to look at you down the road and say ‘You were at the centre of a controversy. It doesn’t matter how it ended, you were at the centre of it’ and that’s a black mark on your career.”

Coulter said there has been a lot sexual misconduct over the years in both theatre and film but women and men are often reluctant to come forward because of possible backlash.

“You can’t say anything cause these people employ you. No one’s going to believe you, you’re potentially taking down someone who’s going to give you work,” said Coulter.

“Now there’s the ‘Me Too’ movement and the ‘Times Up’ movement. People feel empowered to stop [sexual assault] now.”

The most important takeaway moving forward? Actors need to feel safe.

“I think it’s important that people understand the intent and the reason that certain things might be asked of them as actors,” said Coulter.  “I think they should be given the opportunity to refuse if they feel uncomfortable, without having to worry about losing a part because of it.”

To move on, Coulter said community theatres are going to change how they operate.

“I think there’s got to be real rationale behind [a director’s choice]. I think proper protocols have to be in place to make sure that an actor feels comfortable with it, especially when it’s a male-female relationship.”