Setting the Standards

209ae16c 4abb 455e 9b74 d0f1a1ad9d5bThis weekend is the annual Cloris Awards ceremony, spotlighting the best of community theatre in Central Iowa. While it’s a great time to gather and celebrate the amazing productions and talent that have graced local stages over the past year, it’s also a time to join together, reflect, and plan for the future. There’s one project in particular that all theatre organizations in the area will hopefully address, to make certain that our quality and growth continues.

Earlier this year at an event noting the #metoo movement, the Iowa Stage organization announced their adoption the Chicago Theatre Standards Code of Conduct (CTS). Developed by the Chicago theatre community, it is a process to address many issues of working in the theatre industry. It covers everything from unsafe working conditions and practices, to sexual harassment and abuse, to structure and methodology for reporting issues that would interfere with the creative environment. It is hoped that other area theatre organizations will adopt these standards as well, and that conversations will take place concerning how to safely and securely grow the local theatre scene.

In This Together

“We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” says Kim Haymes. She’s a Cloris nominee for her performance in The Christians for Iowa Stage earlier this year. Most recently, she was in the production of Intimate Apparel for the Pyramid Theatre Company. “Yes, it will take some extra work, but if we want to grow the community and become a larger presence in the theatre world, we need to take steps to protect our artists.”

Stephanie Schneider was motivated to help. “I attended the #metoo event put on by Iowa Stage this last spring. After the discussion I knew I had to do something about this. I had experienced these things too, and knew that by informing the local theaters, we could make a huge difference and create a community focused on keeping the theatre a safe, creative space for everyone.”

While Equity (union) theatres in Chicago have their own processes for dealing with issues, many smaller non-equity operations in the city didn’t have any way to deal with potential problems or abuses. This was extremely apparent at the Profiles Theatre organization there, and the resultant investigation led to the CTS being developed.

“In the extreme case of Profiles Theatre, there was sexual harassment and abuse running rampant,” Haymes explains, “along with unsafe fight choreography, bait-and-switch type casting announcements, unsafe working conditions, rehearsals taking place every day with no break, and rehearsals taking place one-on-one with no stage manager or at the house of the artistic director. The largest issue that the CST addresses is they introduce a reporting structure that has several different outlets. Without this in place, many people were afraid to report these issues because the person who they needed to report them to was the person committing the acts.”

Schneider has heard of similar problems. “I know multiple members from the theatre community, across multiple groups, that have story after story, with next to nothing done about the issue. Most did not feel like they had a trustworthy person to talk to, or felt like it was "too small" an incident, or that person was good friends with someone in the production team. I have surveyed a lot of people in the theatre community and all of them said these two things: First, that they were not happy with the current protocol in place. They felt that no one knew how to handle those situations and did not feel protected. Second, they suggested a pre-show discussion and a list of contacts inside and outside of the production team with whom to discuss these issues. The CTS does this and more to help aid the process and keep everyone as informed and safe as possible.”

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The Road Ahead

Adopting the CTS is not always the most comfortable thing in the world for a theatre organization. Some groups think it is an admission of current problems in the first place, or that there isn’t any significant situation to require this kind of response. But that’s exactly how situations some people “politely” just ignore become problems that you simply can’t dismiss any longer. The CTS protects people that otherwise might remain silent and victimized instead of jeopardizing their chances of working at theatre they love, and deals with issues instead of letting them grow out of hand.

Haymes feels the hard work is worth it, and definitely necessary. “I know firsthand how it is to be an actor trying my hardest to make it in the community, afraid of reporting something. Thinking that ‘maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal’ because I don’t want to cause drama, and blacklist myself for being ‘difficult to work with.’ THIS IS THE ATTITUDE THAT NEEDS TO CHANGE! In the days after the #metoo movement, our theatre community needs a safe and clear way to report issues like this when they come up. I believe that the CST accomplishes that goal.”

Schneider agrees. “So far, the people I have talked to in each organization have agreed that this is a problem and have been open to adopting similar standards. I think it will take some work to change but it will always be worth it if it protects or helps just one person. It would be ideal if we could create a group of people from all the theatres to meet and discuss these things on a regular basis. Hopefully, as we get more organizations on board, we can do more to create some form of accountability.”

Specific Situations

Good theatre productions, by their nature, challenge audiences with material that is often provocative and occasionally disturbing. Sometimes, portrayal of the very behaviors the Standards are trying to prevent are important to the overall telling of the story. The nature of quality drama is to shine a light on such dark and hidden ideas, so the CST specifically addresses those kinds of situations as well.

“Each show is different and requires a separate approach,” notes Schneider. “The CTS has a part for each kind of stage experience, and breaks down everything to achieve the intimacy and accuracy of the moment but with rules that keep the actors comfortable, safe, and honest in those key moments. Actors should feel freedom to portray a character and make strong choices, but within the confines of rehearsal to safely include other actors.”

“I think it is important for the actors to sometimes feel uncomfortable in order to push themselves to achieve truly honest moments connecting on stage,” agrees Haymes, “but they should never feel UNSAFE. That’s the distinction that the Standards make. When Artistic Director Darrell Cox at Profiles started ignoring the original fight choreography during a run of Killer Joe, the actress opposite him was close to blacking out because she was actually being choked. The only person at the time in their reporting structure to report that to was… Darrell Cox, the AD.”

Moving Forward

So the idea of the Chicago Theatre Standards is a sound one, and potentially life-saving in some situations. So that raises the question of why groups haven’t already adopted them, or established similar standards for their organizations? And how does the theatre community make them “real” and not just lip service to the concept?

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“This is honestly an issue that I’m struggling with at the moment,” laments Haymes. “It is a good deal of work to adopt the standards. They lay everything out for the company and even give sample documents like audition notifications, first rehearsal language, etc. The problem I’ve come across is theatres are used to doing things the way they have always done them. Change is hard, and this change requires a decent amount of paperwork and check-ins. I’m actually hoping that getting more theatres in the community on board will help keep us all accountable to adhering to the Standards.”

“I have heard again and again from my theatre family how much things need to change,” says Schneider. “They want something to be done, but no one knows where to start. After the #metoo event, I saw the CTS had a lot of guidelines to start from. I thought to myself, if I don't do it, who will? This is such an important topic that should never be overlooked and we can do better. I want everyone to feel safe and find peace and creativity in the theatre. I hope that what Kim and I are working on now will spark others to help and encourage the theatre community to take action.”

Haymes looks forward to the possibilities for the future. “I truly believe this is vital to progressing our theatre community. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Yes, it will take some extra work, but if we want to grow the community and become a larger presence in the theatre world, we need to take steps to help protect our artists.”

As the Central Iowa theatre community celebrates their achievements this weekend with the Cloris Awards on Sunday night, it’s also a good time to realize how much greater we all can be. I’m very proud of the work all our area organizations do, and with things like the CTS being adopted, we all can feel safe as we shine even brighter.


Cloris Awards #MeToo Chicago Theatre Standards Kim Haymes Stephanie Schneider