I spent the first 17 years of my professional life as a public school teacher. The transition to full time actor/producer was gradual, but in the early 80s, I pulled the plug on my teaching career and plunged head first into a new work life. The time I spent in public schools was filled with stories and incidents of teacher-teacher, teacher-student, and teacher-parent relationships that were discussed quietly at poker games, in the faculty lounge, and at the Legion Club after a football game, but rarely trotted out into the bright light of public exposure. As a 21 year old English teacher fresh out of college, I was aggressively pursued by a couple of 18 year old senior girls at a rural Minnesota high school. I was a fairly dim recent graduate of a men’s college, but when I finally realized what they were doing I made it clear to them that it was inappropriate, wrong, and could get them—and me– into big trouble. I knew teachers who lost their jobs because they got involved with students whose care they were entrusted with by the community. It was a boundary I was well aware of and made sure I never crossed. Some of my colleagues crossed it. They paid the price.
When I started appearing at renaissance festivals as an Elizabethan rogue in tights with a sword and an attitude, and Joe and I wrote comedy sketches that included “romantic” interactions with audience members, we did it without thinking about any contemporary ramifications of the action and dialogue. We took refuge in the attitudes and mores of the 17th century. But we became quickly aware that there were fellow male performers who were using their positions to intimidate and harass younger women actors. We took it upon ourselves to act as protectors to a couple of these girls in the Royal Court, one of whom was the daughter of a friend of ours. We talked to two of the jerks who’d been making life uncomfortable for the girls, literally threatened them, and they backed off. We should have reported them to management and had them fired, because later we found out these creeps simply found other targets. Later, as I worked more and more stages in Twin Cities theater, stories of abuse and harassment of women AND children surfaced, and continue to this day. Some of the perps have been rooted out, some have left the country, some are still working. Boards of Directors have begun to keep a close eye on behavior they used to shrug off, liability is now the watchword. Good. A financial sword hanging over their heads is as good a motivation as any.
It’s hard to find any women anywhere who don’t have a story about sexual harassment, intimidation, coercion, and otherwise shitty behavior that forced them to choose between speaking up and likely losing their jobs, or keeping silent and finding a way to survive in that environment. 60% of women surveyed say it’s happened to them, and most of them say it happened in the workplace.
That’s a clear indictment. Of men. I’ve spent forty plus years acting and directing and I’ve never had to worry about anything other than learning my lines and not tripping over the furniture.
Things are finally changing. It’s big. Some of the men I know right now are spending time re-thinking the past and trying to recall when and where they may have been part of the problem. I’ve had my picture taken after the show with thousands of women over the years (just like Al), and the natural bawdiness of the period, the setting, the costumes, the tone, the alcohol, all contribute to a looseness and false intimacy that wouldn’t be tolerated in most work settings, but is just part of the “fun” at a renaissance festival. I wonder how many of those photos we took includes a woman who left feeling that we had crossed a line? Few, I can only hope.
This past October at the Maryland Festival, John and I were in the middle of a late afternoon show, doing the “Doctor” sketch, and I saw a well-dressed woman in the third row, alone, watching and slowly shaking her head at various jokes and pieces of dialogue. Most of the audience was laughing hard, she wasn’t. When I went back to my trailer, I grabbed the script for that show and went through the sketch with that woman in mind. By the time I read it through, I decided to scrap it. Yes, it had some great lines, some really funny bits, but it’s basic premise was John studying to be a doctor and proving he knew what he was doing by “examining” a woman in the front row. There were too many physical references that were just not really funny, especially to the many women in every audience who had faced similar “comedy” at work and had to find a way to laugh along with the guys or otherwise brush it off. It was like reading the script to an old vaudeville piece where a busty woman was the prop for all the big laughs. Guess I should have seen it a long time ago. Better late than never.
Today one of my heroes, Garrison Keillor, was fired for inappropriate behavior. No details yet, but that was a stunner. I have his books, I went to college and worked and taught in the heart of Lake Woebegon. Probably the last guy I would have thought would end up on this fast-growing list. Matt Lauer was no surprise, his treatment of Ann Curry was well known in the industry and his interview with Hillary Clinton last year during the election was classic male privilege run amok. Good riddance.
Awareness is where we start. Men have never really had to take a hard look at the casual humiliations they inflict and easy-to-abuse power dynamics they play with every day. There will be more revelations to come, and I can only hope this isn’t a prophecy that turns on the prophet. This will be a long, slow change, but a change long in coming and way overdue.