In the two years since the secret Not in Our House Facebook group was formed, a number of things have changed. Chief among them is that Profiles Theatre no longer exists. Profiles was the group’s initial inspiration to organize and support people who have been harassed and abused at non-Equity theaters; it closed last June following an investigation by the Reader into more than 20 years of verbal abuse and physical attacks on actors and crew members. The investigation helped spark a conversation about how to prevent such abuse, and seemingly lowered the theater community’s collective tolerance for it—most recently, Dead Writers Collective shut its doors after one of its members posted abusive comments from the company’s artistic director on Facebook.
More significantly though, Not in Our House has nearly finalized its code of conduct for non-Equity theaters, now known as the Chicago Theatre Standards. An early draft of the standards was unveiled at a community meeting last April, and 20 theaters in the city volunteered to be part of a pilot program to test them out. Many smaller theaters aren’t part of Actors’ Equity, the actors’ union, which has its own extensive codes of conduct and, crucially, a governing body to which actors who claim to have been mistreated can bring their complaints. The standards are an attempt to provide the same sort of clear, written documentation of the rights and responsibilities of non-Equity theaters and actors—that is, theaters and actors that aren’t part of the union. Some Equity theaters have also joined the pilot program because they feel the code provides extra reinforcement or fills gaps in the official Equity policy.
These 20 companies have put on 30 shows in the past year, and have used the standards at least five times to resolve various conflicts and misunderstandings, says actress and activist Laura T. Fisher, who cofounded Not in Our House and has been supervising the pilot program.
“What used to be most comfortable was sweeping stuff under the rug,” Fisher says. But now, “if we see it, we have to deal with it. . . . Little problems that could have festered and corroded the happiness and success of a production were addressed without drama.”
The standards operate under the assumption that many problems in non-Equity theaters begin because it’s never been made explicitly clear what constitutes inappropriate behavior, and they fester because actors and crew members aren’t sure whom they should go to with their complaints. Under the standards, a volunteer non-Equity deputy, or NED, serves as the point person and go-between for the cast and crew and management.
Steep Theatre in Edgewater has been working with the standards for its five productions over the past year. During that time there were two instances of unauthorized changes in choreography, says its executive director, Kate Piatt-Eckert. In both cases, the standards made it clear that, should problems crop up, the cast members should talk to the NED, who would take the complaint to the stage manager, whose job it is to keep track of the choreography. Both problems were resolved this way, before they escalated to the point where Piatt-Eckert had to handle them.
“In both cases, everyone was glad to have the documentation in place,” she says. “People felt like they knew what to do. Things got addressed more quickly. People knew who to talk to, and the complaints were taken seriously.”
At the beginning of every production at Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park, the entire cast and crew read the standards together, then have a conversation about safety and respecting members of their community.
“It boils down to, we treat you with safety and respect and you can count on us for certain things,” says Lifeline artistic director Dorothy Milne.
Fisher has been visiting the various theaters participating in the pilot program and talking to them about what’s worked and what hasn’t. There are still some bugs to work out, she says.
One, she says, is how to handle sexual choreography, which is still enforced less strictly than fight choreography.
“If it’s fight choreography, companies don’t talk about gray areas,” she says. “But if you take out the ‘fight’ and put in ‘sex,’ it’s different. When there’s closing-night tongue [in a kiss], there are no consequences. Behavior thrives when there’s a presumption that nobody’s going to do anything.”
Another uncertainty is over how to handle allegations of sexual assault or abuse among workers should they arise—although no cases have come up yet—and over whether to make these accusations known just to other company members or to the general public.
“For a lot of folks,” Fisher says, “their concern is for the offender or the accused more than for the accuser. It’s something very deep in our culture that that’s reflective of, though I’m not sure I can say with authority what that is. No one likes to see anyone hurt.”
The standards aren’t meant to police people’s behavior, Fisher says. Nor are they meant to impose limits on content or discourage theater companies from performing plays that contain rape scenes or nudity, profanity or racially-charged content. Instead they’re meant to serve as a tool to encourage communication between cast, crew, and management, and help them work out for themselves and the production how everyone should be treated. And to make sure that when theater directors do include difficult subject matter in their productions, they think about the impact on the people who will be performing them.
While some theaters in the pilot program, including Steep and Lifeline, had experience with the sort of conflict resolution recommended by the standards, other theaters had some trouble adjusting to using it in practice. There was one instance, says Lori Myers, the other cofounder of NIOH, where a theater encountered a problem interpreting the standards: Oracle Productions in Uptown was already having what Myers describes as personnel issues when it adopted the standards, and the problems with the standards caused more problems.
“There was a misinterpretation of the complaint path,” she says. “They didn’t really do it correctly, and it brought up some issues. Laura had a coaching session with them to make sure they weren’t using the code as a weapon [to get people fired].” (Oracle has since closed, and former executive director Brad Jayhan-Little declined to comment for this story.)
The incident, say Myers and Fisher, taught NIOH that there needed to be practical instructions on how to introduce the code—possibly a bullet-point script or, if it can raise some money in the future, instructional videos.
They hope to have a final draft of the standards by this summer, and to begin introducing them in more companies by the end of the year. Each company that participated in the pilot year will serve as a resource for at least two other theaters, for a total of 60 participating. But the standards document will continue to live online, where it will be accessible to anyone who wants to see or adopt it.
Fisher says that NIOH and the standards will remain a grassroots project. There will be no regulatory board, like the one Equity has. Rather, the goal is to help theaters govern themselves.
“The regulatory board is awareness,” Fisher says. “We want to make things better without controlling or forcing.”
She wonders, however, what would happen if she decided to step away from the project—if it would have enough momentum to continue on its own, or if someone else would step up.
“Will everyone say, ‘That was cool, but now we’re done?'” she asks. “I can’t predict that. I’m not sure if it’s up to me to do decide. But no one elected me, and I find strength in that.”
Christopher Piatt contributed reporting to this story.