How Theatre and the Law Collide to Protect Predators, Silence Survivors
By Kaiya Lyons
Emboldened by unceasing outings of numerous high-profile sexual abusers in the entertainment industry, women all over the country have come forward with their experiences of sexual misconduct on social media, particularly through the encouragement of the #MeToo movement. Founded by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the hashtag has become the rallying cry of what many are calling the “reckoning” of sexual harassers and abusers, especially in the workplace, beginning in October 2017.
In the new year, the hashtag has continued to have considerable cultural and political relevance, especially in the aftermath of the 75th Golden Globe Awards. In a rare moment of solidarity, on Sunday, January 7, members of the Hollywood elite in attendance transformed into a sea of black gowns and suits at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California. Worn in support of survivors, the black dress code also heralded the newly formed TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, which provides financial support to assist victims litigating workplace sexual harassment and sexual harassment-related retaliation claims and connections to pro bono attorneys through the help of the National Women’s Law Center’s Legal Network for Gender Equity.
Throughout the historic night, female award recipients and announcers addressed the need for workplace sexual harassment reform and encouraged survivors throughout America to come forward with their own stories of sexual assault, abuse, and discrimination. Now, in what seems like a radical and historic occurrence, countless stories of women and men coming forward with accusations of sexual misconduct against high-profile artists, producers, and directors have saturated the current news cycle.
But this movement has also had serious implications in the lives of average Americans, influencing women and men across the country, including those in the TCTP group, to come forward with their own experiences—and the names of their abusers. Unfortunately, these courageous actions may also open survivors up to substantial societal, financial, and emotional costs. For actors, directors, and designers outside of Hollywood, this is a heavy burden to bear, as regional and local theatres across the country often lack the resources and training to properly handle such accusations within their communities, leading many victims to remain silent or leave the field altogether.
By calling for private individuals to name their abusers publicly, this historic movement may be inadvertently opening up survivors to legal liability for defamation. Litigating sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination within the civil, criminal, or even academic contexts is an immensely difficult task. But for the alleged abusers who are the subject of those claims, bringing a defamation claim against their accusers is a generally uncomplicated and painless legal procedure. By filing these claims, predators and abusers are able, with relative ease, to retraumatize their victims and perpetuate a cycle of silence that discourages survivors from naming their abusers in order to avoid seemingly inevitable and insurmountable emotional and financial costs that may follow.
At the height of #MeToo social media surge last fall, questions surrounding these real world implications of naming predators played out in real time in the “Twin Cities theater people” Facebook group on Monday, October 23, 2017. That evening, local actor and performer Ally Rae posted on the group’s wall, warning that a man accused of sexual misconduct in the Los Angeles comedy scene was reportedly auditioning for Twin Cities theaters and planning to move into the area. But the post had been deleted by the group’s administrators and Ally wanted to know why.
In a post to the administrators on the group’s page, Ally explained the original warning was “meant to inform our community about a nationally-known rapist.” Ally assured the administrators that they would be happy to post it again, this time with a trigger or content warning, if that was why the post was deleted. Ally even revealed that they had already received feedback from people who felt “off” about the man they named and that the post helped “confirm that their suspicions were valid.”
Ally had assumed that posting their warning to a group of thousands of artists, directors, producers, and audience members would increase awareness of the danger this man posed throughout a potentially at-risk population. So what reason did the group’s administrators have for deleting a post that tried to keep their community safe from a sexual predator?
The reason, they soon learned, was that they had given the predator a name.
Founded in 2009, the “Twin Cities theater people” Facebook group (TCTP) served as the primary online hub for the region’s theatre non-professionals for eight years. During that time, the group grew to include over 5,000 members who came to TCTP for open discussion, news, and advertisements for upcoming productions in the Twin Cities area.
Beginning as a private page for a small group of friends, TCTP was eventually opened to the public and its membership increased exponentially over time to include actors, designers, theatre administrators, educators, and even middle and high school students. By 2014, its membership had grown so large that seven co-administrators were regularly assisting the group’s founder in the management of the page, including monitoring discussions and deleting hundreds of comments and users to ensure that members’ posts and comments were on topic and respectful.
Of these co-administrators, only two had the ability to approve or remove members—powers they used fairly regularly to prevent and penalize hostile or discriminatory behavior. Reportedly, these co-administrators deleted hundreds of comments, blocked members, and denied users membership to ensure that group discussions remained on-topic and, above all, respectful. According to one TCTP moderator, after a particularly severe string of homophobic and misogynistic comments threatened to turn the group into what one co-administrator characterized as a “bad comments section,” the group’s leadership instituted a formal civility code. This code reiterated their policy against non-theatrical posts and solicitation, but also advised that “when posting and replying to messages,” members should “feel free to be frank, yet please remember to be respectful of others.” Posts that were blatantly disrespectful, including “name-calling” or “insulting” other members or telling other members that their opinions were “wrong,” would be deleted.
As one co-administrator explained, their active role in managing the group’s membership and discourse was not motivated by a desire to censor members or promote exclusivity. Instead, they wanted to keep the group a safe and inclusive space for all its members. In fact, the co-administrator claimed their proactive moderating style was precisely how TCTP was able to provide a safe space for the community’s most controversial conversations.
On the night of October 23, TCTP leadership was presented with one such controversial conversation, this time regarding an accusation that a member of the Minnesota improv and theatre communities was a dangerous sexual predator. As moderator Sheila Regan recalls, after seeing Ally Rae’s original post, the TCTP co-administrators discussed as a group whether to delete the post. Some expressed feeling uncomfortable about the post because it did not include a link to a news article corroborating the accusation. To make matters worse, any links they found after Googling the accused were either posted anonymously or did not refer to him by name. According to co-administrator Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, while they were “certainly concerned about issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the theatre community,” they felt that any allegations posted to the group “should be from a reliable source,” such as a newspaper or a victim with first-hand knowledge of his misconduct.
After some discussion, the group’s founder ultimately deleted the post at Regan’s encouragement. Both Regan and the group’s founder explained to the original poster that their warning had been deleted for fear of legal liability for libel without some kind of verification. Without the proper fact-checkers, vetters, or “legal counsel to determine whether or to what extent a claim is sufficiently substantiated,” they were not equipped to handle such accusations. They were resolute that the member should contact other, more appropriate organizations with their concern. They also feared that the accused would target the group or its members for associating his name with sexual misconduct. However, this action only motivated the supporters of the original poster to speak out even louder.
Shocked and angered by the fact that the group’s leadership would delete a post warning members of an alleged sexual predator, some members sprung into action, posting their personal stories of assault, dissatisfaction with the administrators, and support for Ally Rae and the original warning. Within an instant, TCTP had become a battleground, as members and moderators clashed over how to properly support victims and protect their community.
In some ways, the events that night served as a proxy for the region’s theatre industry conversation over the right response to sexual misconduct allegations. Members continued to voice their dissent, either to disagree with the co-administrators’ analysis of defamation law or to argue that the exigency of preventing sexual assault should outweigh any concerns of legal liability. Likewise, many of the arguments that ensued between TCTP members and leadership centered around a core point of contention: Did members’ continued posts using the man’s name open the group (and the posters) up to legal liability? And should it matter?
TCTP members also continued to post the accused man’s name to spread awareness of someone they viewed as a potential threat to community members’ safety. However, these posts were instantly deleted and many of the posters were consequently removed from the group for their continued use of his name.
Similarly, a co-administrator began blocking users and deleting posts for breaking the group’s civility code by using profanity, being “unduly mean-spirited,” and naming the accused. In one case, a poster had been blocked because she “used a curse word to harshly discredit another member’s post,” an offense they said amounted to a personal attack in violation of the group’s civility policy.
While this co-administrator concedes that TCTP members “of course” had a “right to get angry,” they maintain that the group was not a public page and did not belong to the members. In their view, the Twin Cities theatre community did not own the Facebook group or have the right to set the rules for moderating discussion:
It was not theirs, it was ours. We wanted to be the place where people could ideally come from different perspectives and somehow learn from one another and raise awareness of these issues and even fight prejudice by having people meet and discuss. . . . It’s not a place to vent your anger.
However, in the eyes of the some of the members, the co-administrators had “reacted in one of the worst possible ways.” According to several former TCTP members, kicking multiple people out of the group after they mentioned the accused man’s name or voiced their support for the original poster seemed like an overreaction at best, and victim silencing at worst. Andi Cheney, who was eventually reinstated after being blocked from the group, believed the “knee-jerk reaction to delete and ban immediately crushed any hope the group had of holding each other accountable like a community.”
Brandon Caviness, who was removed from the TCTP group, also disagreed with the administrators’ response. In his view, the administrators had a responsibility to shine a light on injustices like sexual assault and prevent new abuse cases from happening in their community. Instead, Caviness explained, the administrators’ fear of liability created a significant barrier for victims like him, who had been encouraged to come forward with their sexual assault and harassment stories in the wake of the #MeToo campaign. “For so many victims the greatest pain is being discredited or dismissed,” Caviness said, “and the actions of Twin Cities Theater People administrators ultimately treated them exactly the way they feared.”
Likewise, another member posted on the group’s wall to denounce the administrators for using the outing of the alleged sexual predator “as an opportunity to divide an already divided community.” She asked the administrators to “[s]top and take some time to think” about whether they wanted to be on the side of silencing women’s voices, of perpetuating systemic oppression by hiding behind “excuses.” “[T]hat’s not what artists do. That is not who we are,” she commented. “We are professional dreamers, but this is a nightmare.”
The incident had turned into a nightmare for the group’s leadership as well. Although they had vocal supporters, according to co-administrator Daniel Pinkerton, some of the moderators faced a “mind-boggling” amount of “vile, personal attacks” from members who disagreed with their response. It felt “like a handful of us trying to hold our ground against a battalion,” he explained.
One co-administrator in particular quickly became the subject of much of the members’ anger. As TCTP member Angela Walberg recalled, the administrator faced “cyberbullying in its truest form” that night. Although Walberg understood the impetus behind the original post, as she witnessed the events of that night, she became concerned about the devastation some members’ personal attacks caused the co-administrators. Member Kim Hines similarly supported the co-administrators and believed that many members who posted such inflammatory statements did not understand that the TCTP leadership had not signed up for the consequences and responsibilities that were being thrust upon them when they formed the group.
After several tumultuous hours of responding to complaints and insults, removing users, and deleting posts, at 12:53 a.m., a co-administrator closed the group to the public as a “fair solution to what has been a challenging problem” until the administrators could “be certain of the legal issues.” But by 5:32 a.m., after a full and exhausting night of moderating the heated discussion, the co-administrator archived the group altogether and posted this official statement:
I have archived Twin Cities Theater People as the page is no longer manageable from a legal point of view and because it seems to have outlived the purpose for which it was founded. TCTP’s administration was made up of volunteers. We don’t have the staff or resources to monitor the exchange of claims of criminal activity by unconvicted persons, some of which could potentially prove libelous. I understand the wish by many members that we could provide this service. I understand the need to protect our community against predators and perpetrators of sexual harassment. Perhaps someone will create a group that can serve that purpose. We’re simply not set up for that challenge.
Groups evolve with their membership. We have tried to keep up with the wishes and desires of our members. I have the option of unarchiving the group at some point in the future if it seems like a good idea. For now it is time for people to move on and to create groups that will reflect their own needs and the needs of the community. I hope we can find away [sic] to protect the safety of the theatre community and I hope you will all continue to discuss issues of safety, of inclusion and of diversity. In the meantime, I recommend posting on Twin Cities Theater Community or Minnesota Playlist or Women in Performance. For now the page is closed.
Although the reflexive actions of some TCTP co-administrators were intended to forestall any defamation liability on behalf of themselves or their members, ultimately, they only increased awareness of the accused man’s name. But while questions remain about whether they were correct in their methods, it is becoming increasingly clear that they may have been justified in their legal concerns.
In general, “defamation” refers to a false statement, communicated to a third party, that tends to harm the subject’s reputation, and which are not merely opinions. However, the specific elements to be proven in an individual defamation lawsuit may vary from state to state.
In Minnesota, a private plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit must show that the defendant published a defamatory statement to third parties that they knew or should have known was false. Normally, this requires the plaintiff to provide evidence that the statement “tends to injure the plaintiff’s reputation and expose the plaintiff to public hatred, contempt, ridicule, or degradation.” In effect, this means that Minnesotan plaintiffs cannot bring a lawsuit for defamation unless they can prove they have incurred some quantifiable damage to their reputation, mental or emotional state, or finances (such as a loss in employment).
However, there are some circumstances where a plaintiff can succeed without showing the defamatory statement caused them any injury at all. In many jurisdictions, including Minnesota, when the statement falsely accuses the plaintiff of criminal or sexual misconduct, the statement is defamation per se. In these cases, the law assumes the plaintiff was injured by the accusation. This is because such false accusations are so inherently damaging—and carry such universally recognized social stigmas—that society is willing to accept that they are defamatory on their face. In Minnesota, this also means that a plaintiff alleging defamation per se may be able to recover additional damages to penalize and make an example of their accuser, without showing any actual harm.
Eric Rosenberg, an Ohio-based attorney who represents college students who claim they have been falsely accused of sexual misconduct, has brought several defamation per se lawsuits against his client’s accusers. According to Rosenberg, “There is no bigger stain on a person in this culture than being labeled as a sexual assailant.” In the face of damage to their reputation, lost job prospects, and fewer educational opportunities, he says, “[a] lawsuit’s their only way out.”
But a lawsuit against whom?
In the example of the “Twin Cities theater people” Facebook group, many of the administrators acted out of fear of legal liability not only for the original poster, but for the group itself. And their concerns were not unfounded. Indeed, under the common law of most states, third parties can be held liable for the defamatory statements of others if they had significant control over the means of communicating such libel.
Although a smart plaintiff will certainly want to go after the wealthiest liable third party they can, not all categories of third parties are treated equally. For instance, publishers, such as newspapers or TV stations, who print the defamatory statements of third parties can be just as legally accountable for the libel as if they were its original authors. This is because they exert substantial editorial control over their content and dedicate a considerable amount of time and resources to vetting the stories they publish. In contrast, distributors, such as bookstores or newsstands, are viewed by courts as “passive conduits” of information, and will not be liable for defamation unless it is shown that they continued to disseminate the information even after they knew or had reason to know that it contained defamatory content.
But this traditional framework is difficult to apply to the Internet. Many forms of online communication fail to fall neatly into the print media definitions of the past, which could result in both over-censorship or under-self-regulation of Internet content. For example, if The New York Times were held directly liable for every libelous statement posted in the comments sections of its online articles, the newspaper could be obligated to indemnify each and every plaintiff who sued it for defamation. As a result, online newspapers might stop providing a forum for public discourse on their websites in an attempt to protect themselves from liability as publishers. Alternatively, they might choose to keep their comments sections, but end all oversight of the features, which would give individual users carte blanche to post even the most offensive, bigoted, or obscene statements.
Realizing these risks and in an effort to preserve the Internet as a marketplace of ideas, Congress passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in 1996 (47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1)), which mandated that
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider
(emphasis added). Numerous federal courts have interpreted this provision in the twenty years since it was enacted, parsing its language and defining its terms to determine exactly who falls under its protections—sometimes to very different conclusions. But in general, a majority of federal circuit courts agree that Section 230 establishes a “broad federal immunity to any cause of action that would make website hosts liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service.” The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, along with several other courts, has extended this immunity to cover “operators of websites where users can post comments.”
Applying this interpretation to the incident that occurred on the TCTP Facebook group in October, if the original poster had instead posted the allegation of sexual misconduct in the comments section of the Star Tribune’s website, the newspaper would not be liable for any false accusations the comment may have included. However, the law is murkier when applied to the potential liability of the TCTP Facebook group. Although Facebook would surely be immune from liability as an interactive computer service provider, the co-administrator of a Facebook group conceivably could be both the user of an interactive computer service and an information content provider.
While it is unlikely that the creator of a Facebook group would be found directly liable for the defamatory statements made by their members, administrators should be vigilant about maintaining clear standards for participation in the group. After all, if they actively participate in disseminating information they know or have reason to know is libelous, group leadership could still be held liable for those statements in court as distributors.
Still, to find a defendant liable for defamation, a court must find that the statement was false. Regardless of how much reputational and occupational damage an accusation may cause, if it is essentially true, it cannot be suppressed as libel or slander.
In Minnesota, the burden of proving falsity lies squarely with the accused plaintiff. But the state is an outlier in this respect. In the majority of state courts, truth is an affirmative defense that must be proved by the defendant-accuser. Even if the exact wording of their accusation was not perfectly accurate, a court can still find in favor of a defamation defendant if they can show that those imprecisions did not materially change the substance or the impact of the accusation. Thus, to defeat a claim of defamation in the context of sexual misconduct, an alleged victim must provide the court with evidence that proves their statement was at least substantially true.
The standard of proof is even lower for women and men who accuse some celebrities or politicians of sexual misconduct. Although the Supreme Court has generally held that false speech has no social value, it carved out an exception to that rule to protect potentially defamatory speech that relates to issues of public concern, such as the conduct of public officials, in the seminal case New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964. In this sphere, the Court has recognized that fear of defamation liability may prevent some people from entering public debate on political issues, in turn limiting the overall quantity of speech—a concern that outweighs any potential reputational harm to the allegedly falsely accused.
To prevent this self-censorship in certain areas of public concern, the Court has held that, even where an accusation is proven false, defamation plaintiffs who are public figures or officials must show that their accuser acted with “actual malice.” In other words, they have the burden to prove that their accuser published the statement with the knowledge that it was a lie, or with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.
Still, most women and men do not experience sexual harassment and assault at the hands of celebrities or public officials. Instead, the majority of sexual misconduct victims who decide to publicly name their abusers will need to provide some evidence to prove the truth of their accusation to defend themselves against a libel suit in court.
In the face of obstacles posed by the criminal justice system, societal stigma, and a potential lack of hard evidence, what does it take for a victim of sexual misconduct prove the truth of a claim that they were assaulted, harassed, or targeted? Is a survivor’s memory evidence enough? Or do their words need to be corroborated by countless other victims? Do they have to bring formal civil suits or criminal charges against their abusers in order to say their abusers’ names in public? Or is an accusation on Facebook adequate? Is direct, hard evidence of their assault absolutely necessary? Or will circumstantial evidence suffice?
Many of these questions are difficult to answer conclusively and universally. But it is important to note a few generally applicable principles. First, contrary to some common misconceptions, direct and circumstantial evidence are generally given equal weight in a court of law. Second, unlike in criminal proceedings, parties to a civil action like defamation do not need to prove their claim beyond a reasonable doubt. Courts reserve this incredibly high standard of proof for instances where the government is threatening to take away a defendant’s life or liberty. In contrast, reputational harm and monetary damages do not pose the same risk of deprivation of constitutional rights and are subject to a lower standard of proof: preponderance of the evidence. Therefore, a defamation defendant in most states will only need to show that it is more likely than not that their accusation was true.
Nevertheless, the type and amount of evidence sufficient necessary to prove the truth of an accusation of sexual assault or harassment will often vary case by case—an uncertainty that may cause confusion and contention among individuals attempting to avoid defamation liability in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
In the case of the “Twin Cities theater people” Facebook group, the type and amount of evidence necessary to prove the truth of the sexual misconduct allegations became the crux of the administrators’ discomfort with members publicly naming the accused man. However, although many of the TCTP members may not have had direct evidence such as first-hand experience of the man’s misconduct, they did purport to have a few important pieces of circumstantial evidence on their side. In addition to anonymous posts on forums, this evidence included a purported confession by the man and an article by Buzzfeed News reporter Katie J.M. Baker detailing a very similar incident in a Los Angeles-based Facebook group. Despite the fact that the reporter made no mention of the man’s name in her piece, several TCTP members insisted he was the subject of the article’s interview, under the alias “The Actor.”
In the summer of 2015, the Los Angeles comedy scene turned upside down in the wake of unfiltered sexual misconduct revelations posted to a private Facebook group for women involved in the esteemed improv training center the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). The women described encounters with several men that left them feeling uncomfortable, creeped out, harassed, assaulted, or (in some instances) raped.
As Baker explained in her article detailing the members’ actions, “[s]ince theaters had no clear systems in place for women to report harassment without fear of retaliation, the Facebook group was the only venue they felt they had.” In the “Women of UCB” Facebook group, members felt as if the only truth that mattered was their own. There, the women “were in control, and they could decide that their perspectives were evidence enough.” Other members believed these women based solely on their words—an act that seemed virtually rebellious in an environment that routinely views women’s perceptions with doubt, suspicion, and distrust.
By naming names, the members of the “Women of UCB” Facebook group were able to share vital information and warnings with their peers, whose own experiences with or feelings about the men were confirmed. For one woman, sharing her story prompted other victims to come forward with corroborating evidence that alerted her to the existence of a police report against the man, to which she was able to contribute her voice. Yet the L.A. posters, like those in the Twin Cities, insisted they were not out for revenge. “This is a strength in numbers situation,” the first L.A. poster told Buzzfeed News, “I just want to protect women in this community.”
Many women of UCB also described turning down professional opportunities to avoid coming into contact with their harassers, some of whom held positions of power in the improv community. In an industry that already suffered from a gender imbalance, sexual harassment was keeping funny women out of the talent pool, the women also hoped their stories would be enough to change business practices.
The Actor was one such man in power. According to Buzzfeed’s account, he was a mildly successful comedian, who had several short speaking roles in commercials and TV shows, such as How I Met Your Mother. He was also heavily involved in the L.A. improv scenes as a member of the “prestigious Harold house team” at UCB and a performer, coach, and co-administrator of a beginner-level sketch comedy course at the L.A. branch of Chicago’s iO West.
During the swell of allegations in the “Women of UCB” group of July 2015, dozens of women brought up The Actor’s name, describing him as an “unprofessional creep” and recounting upsetting experiences they had had with him. According to Baker’s research, this was not the first time The Actor had been confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct. In 2014, iO West held an intervention of sorts “to warn The Actor about his behavior and encourage him to get help.”
As a result of the accusations against him, in the summer of 2015, The Actor was dropped by his agent and banned from iO West, UCB, and a non-profit theatre group. In fact, his “reputation was so thoroughly destroyed” by posts accusing him of being a “relentless sexual harasser” that “he had to move back to his Midwestern hometown” that August.
Almost one year later, in the spring of 2016, the L.A. improv community sent a warning to FairPlay MN, an advocacy group aimed at creating equitable spaces for women-trans-femme improvisers in the Twin Cities. A man named Blake Hogue*, who “had been asked to leave the communities he was part of in Los Angeles because of a series of allegations made against him from women in the performance community,” had moved back to his hometown of Rochester, Minnesota, and the L.A. community was worried.
FairPlay MN came into existence as a direct response to reports of harassment the in Chicago and L.A. comedy scenes, so it was an appropriate forum to address the existence of this particular potential threat to the safety of Minnesota actors. That April, FairPlay MN community members contacted the theaters where the Hogue had been cast in shows, including the Rochester Repertory Theatre (The Rep) and Yellow Tree Theater, to alert their leadership of the allegations against him. In the case of The Rep, Hogue had even been hired to teach an introductory improv course, a position he had enjoyed and allegedly abused back in L.A.
But according to FairPlay MN, “[w]hen women in Minnesota contacted these theaters about their concerns, they were either shut down or completely ignored.” For instance, Minneapolis improviser Samantha** contacted The Rep as a member of FairPlay and reported finally receiving a response from the theater’s leadership nearly two weeks after she sent her first of three emails. To assuage her concerns, a member of The Rep’s board assured her the members of Hogue’s improv class were aware of the allegations against him and that they had taken steps to ensure the safety of the participants. During their phone call, he also insisted that Hogue realized his mistakes and was seeking therapy.
Indeed, by the time Samantha emailed The Rep, the theater’s leadership was likely very aware of Hogue’s history of sexual misconduct accusations. In fact, earlier that month, the New York-based comedy podcast Pod Awful had galvanized its online fan-base to troll the Rochester theater into canceling an improv course taught by Hogue. The attempts were chronicled in an episode posted to the podcast’s YouTube channel on April 4, 2016.
Pod Awful host Jesse P-S was no stranger to Hogue. In fact, several episodes of the podcaster’s show had been dedicated to investigating allegations against Hogue in Los Angeles and exposing his less-than-tasteful conversations with a comedian’s catfishing OKCupid account. In fact, the episode was, in many ways, a follow-up to the podcast’s scathing and certainly-not-politically-correct 2015 episode purportedly exposing Hogue as a sexual predator.
During the April 2016 episode, host Jesse P-S detailed his efforts to flood The Rep’s Facebook event for the long-form improv workshop with posts and comments detailing the allegations against Hogue. The event was canceled on Facebook one hour after the trolling campaign began. But although the crude and often offensive host proudly declared he had “won the battle,” the show eventually went on. In fact, the workshop held its most recent class performance on October 7, 2017.
Perhaps more importantly, Jesse P-S revealed in the same episode that Hogue had addressed the allegations against him in a statement on his now-defunct personal website, titled “Ownership,” as early as March 30, 2016. In it, Hogue admitted to recklessly crossing personal boundaries with women in the LA area over the “last several years.” Hogue went on to confess that:
In July and August of 2015, there was private comedy women in LA Facebook group that brought my name forward as someone who had been pursuing aggressively, harassing, and being insensitive and careless with several women in the community. I was recklessly damaging women’s feelings, sense of self, and crossing personal boundaries. I have finally realized the way I treated women like interchangeable playthings to be discarded when I wasn’t interested anymore; and at the same time, carelessly hit on their friends and our colleagues with a lack of respect for anyone’s feelings above my own wasn’t right. Several women stated they felt harassed by my aggressive and forward approach and/or felt intimidated to say something to me because of my visible involvement in the community as a performer, coach and eventually, a teacher. It’s awful, not just for me, but for everyone involved, that it took a group of women deciding privately they needed to air this publicly for me to really learn this and see a reason to change. But that’s what they felt was the right thing to do. It’s taken therapy, serious soul searching, and self-education to accept my punishment. Which I do. I lost almost everything I worked for and everyone in the last decade of my life. No matter how I feel about that loss, how everything was handled, or what was said, it wouldn’t have started in the first place if it wasn’t for me. I have to take my responsibility as the person who destroyed my own career and life with my choices and actions. And I do. I wasn’t a healthy person making the best choices for me or those around me. I was trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it with sexual conquests. I punished other people with my own issues I wasn’t dealing with in a healthy way. (emphasis added.)
The issue of Hogue’s presence in Minnesotan theatre and improv communities had all but stopped until late October 2017, when whispers began to spread that Hogue would be moving from Rochester to the regional theatre hub of the Twin Cities. According to community members, Hogue was going on auditions and had been seen on Tinder, OKCupid, and Bumble in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Moreover, multiple people had come forward with stories alleging that Hogue had behaved in inappropriate and “creepy” ways after these auditions.
For Samantha, this information confirmed everything she had learned about Hogue the previous year. After receiving frustrating responses from Rochester theaters in April 2016, Samantha had taken to Facebook as a “last-ditch effort” to warn her community of Hogue’s history and presence in Minnesota. The post got a few shares, but never really gained traction.
But now that Hogue was planning to move into the Twin Cities, Samantha decided to try again. This time, she framed her post “as a woman warning other women about a known sexual harasser on OKCupid” in her town, instead of focusing on his alleged history of sexual harassment in the improv community. She wagered that “[p]eople get really defensive when they think you are going after someone’s dream career.” And her instincts might have been right.
Samantha’s October 23 warning instantly hit a chord with the improv and theatre communities in the Twin Cities. People quickly began sharing screenshots and portions of the post to their own walls and news of Hogue’s move to the Twin Cities began to spread.
Meanwhile, actor and performer Ally Rae took to community Facebook groups to warn members of Hogue’s presence in the region, including the “Twin Cities Queer Exchange” and “Twin Cities theater people.” Ally had been aware of the allegations against Hogue since they first emerged on the FairPlay MN Facebook group in April 2016. But they had also been a victim of and witness to sexual harassment within the Twin Cities theatre community, which motivated them to post the information they had on Hogue to the very population that they believed he would put at risk.
Because they knew “how compliant the Twin Cities theatre community can be towards sexual harassment and violence,” Ally began by posting to the “Twin Cities Queer Exchange” Facebook group, feeling its members would be receptive to the warning. According to Ally, the post included a link to information about Hogue’s background of accusations, a warning that he had been seen at auditions and had been called back by several theatre groups in the area, and a call to action for theaters not to cast Hogue “if you stand against sexual violence and predators.”
Ally then posted the same message to the “Twin Cities theatre people,” where it would soon be deleted by the group’s administrators, provoking an intense response and eventually leading to the group’s implosion. Although they initially wanted to delete the original post themself, Ally says the response they received from TCTP members moved them to keep it up. “Almost immediately after I posted,” they recalled, “ actors were coming forward, saying that they’d seen him at auditions, and messaging me to thank me because he’d been striking up conversations with women-identifying actors at auditions.” According to Ally, one woman even thanked them for the warning and explained that she had been planning to go out for drinks with Hogue later that week, but that “something about him made her feel uneasy.”
However, less than half an hour later, Ally received a message that their post had disappeared. As Ally recalls, any doubt they had disappeared as well. “There was no debate in my head at this point,” they remembered. “People had already been approached by him, my initial post and my concerns had already been validated, . . . people in that group needed to see and know about this creep who was trying to infiltrate their theater spaces with rampant, unrepentant toxicity.”
They were resolute not to let the issue go. In their opinion, the TCTP leadership had given Hogue a pardon out of fear of legal liability and “somehow that was more important than protecting actors and theatre spaces from an incredibly dangerous and manipulative person.”
But it was not Ally Rae’s intention to shut down the TCTP Facebook group when they posted Blake Hogue’s name. Instead, Ally maintains that “the posting came from a place of fear on behalf of others.” “It had nothing to do with anything I wanted,” they explained. “I didn’t know if it was ‘the best thing to do’ or ‘the best way to go about it.’ I acted on impulse. Stupid, flawed, human impulse.” Indeed, Ally concedes that the group was “an incredible resource for auditions, jobs, and networking opportunities” and that “people were right to be upset that it was no longer available.”
In response to the incident on October 23, the FairPlay MN leadership team released an official statement titled “An Open Letter to the Theater Community Regarding Blake Hogue.” Detailing their knowledge of Hogue’s history of sexual assault and harassment allegations, the board wrote the following:
Blake Hogue is not welcome in our improv community, and we will actively vocalize our objections to his presence there. We urge the greater theater community to do the same. We urge those in power at these theaters to refrain from granting him positions of power when his track record demonstrates that he has used those positions of authority as a way to manipulate and hurt others.
This is not a witch hunt. A witch hunt is when women were falsely accused of impossible fallacies and then burned at the stake without a chance for redemption. Blake Hogue has been accused of harassment that he himself admitted to, and we no longer welcome him to be in the very same spaces where he committed those acts.
Something we have been asked in the past is “when is a person able to move past their mistakes?” or “when is someone considered forgiven for harassment?” And frankly, we don’t have an answer to that. There is a precedent in this country of harassers offering quick and insincere written apology statements as a way to remedy years of poor behavior, and then continuing to act the way they always have. There is no precedent for what it looks like to actually make radical change and repair the damages you have caused in your own community. If Blake wants to be the person to set this precedent, he is welcome to do so, but as it stands we are not convinced.
Every step we take as an organization is to better our improv community and change the way we understand our relationships with one another. Part of bettering our community is protecting it from those who have the ability to damage its members. Blake Hogue not only has the ability to harm, he has the track record to prove it.
Many of the members of the TCTP Facebook shared the Buzzfeed interview with “The Actor” as proof of Hogue’s history of sexual misconduct. But because the article did not name him, it was not enough proof for the administrators. Others shared Hogue’s “ownership” of his actions in L.A. to corroborate the original poster’s allegations. But Hogue’s personal website has been deleted and the only evidence of the statement is on an archival website, so that link was not very persuasive either. Some members shared online forums filled with women documenting their encounters with Hogue. But those were all anonymous stories, so the administrators did not believe they carried much weight.
According to the group’s leadership, only a newspaper article naming Hogue as a sexual predator would suffice to prove the truth of the original poster’s statement. This was especially true considering that several members’ posts included language accusing Hogue of much more violent and egregious criminal conduct than the actions he has previously been alleged to have committed or addressed personally. If they allowed potentially false accusations of criminal activity to remain on the page, it could be libel and the risk of costly litigation for the TCTP administrators or their members outweighed the benefit of naming him in the group.
This was not a new policy. TCTP leadership had previously approved posts and supported discussion about sexual harassment claims against former Rochester Civic Theatre Executive Director Gregory Stavrou and the controversy surrounding Sean Neely’s pedophilia-themed Fringe show after MPR and the Star Tribune reported on both stories in the summer of 2017. Moreover, this policy was not necessarily misguided. Indeed, advocate and executive director of the non-profit SurvJustice Laura Dunn advises sexual violence victims to “avoid naming their attacker outside the formal complaint process.”
But even a legally prudent choice can be destructive in its effect.
In a culture predisposed to disbelieving sexual assault victims, numerous examples of defamation lawsuits against accusers are easy to find. In 2014, Bright Eyes musician Conor Oberst sued a woman for $1 million in damages because she posted comments online alleging he raped her. That same year, Carrie May-Lucas published a memoir detailing her experience defending against her rapist’s defamation claim in small claims court. In 2015, Bill Cosby sued model Beverly Johnson for claiming he drugged and attempted to sexually assault her. And in the higher education context, far too many libel lawsuits exist to list individually.
Even where a formal defamation complaint has not been filed, people who come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct are often portrayed as liars. For example, during the 1991 Senate nomination hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, attorney Anita Hill was subjected to intense public scrutiny for her account of workplace sexual harassment he committed nearly ten years prior. Hill even took a polygraph test to bolster her credibility in the face of Thomas’s denial, skepticism from the press, and outright attacks on her character from politicians such as stalwart Republican Orrin Hatch. President Bill Clinton perjured himself in 1998 when he testified that he did not engage in sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. The current White House has officially denounced President Trump’s sixteen accusers as liars. Finally, during his campaign, Roy Moore’s supporters alleged that the women who accused the former U.S. Senate candidate of sexual assault of minors were not only lying, but were also paid to come forward with their false allegations.
As these examples (and countless others) demonstrate, the silencing of sexual violence victims is a systemic issue in American law, politics, and society. Although defamation lawsuits play a fundamental role in deterring false claims that can cause serious damage to the careers, reputations, and relationships of accused individuals, they can also deter real victims from coming forward with valuable information about serial predators. The risks of defamation lawsuits, the secrecy of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), the implicit bias of binding arbitration clauses, the incompetence of local police departments, and the stigmatization of survivors are issues that permeate our legal system and society in dangerous and surreptitious ways. Additionally, none of these factors exists in a vacuum. Instead, they compound on one another, resulting in a social, political, and legal environment that pressures victims and advocates into silence and protects abusers from repercussions.
The propensity for self-censorship, or “chilling effect,” that these factors create is harmful not only to victims, but also to society as a whole. Commentators have suggested that defamation lawsuits limit the “quality of public debate” by deterring publication of important matters of public interest and safety due to fears of “lengthy, complex, and expensive” litigation.
And yet, notably, this litigation is rarely successful. As of 1987, only 13% of defamation lawsuits resulted in a favorable outcome for the accused plaintiff. But the low rate of success is not a deterrent for plaintiffs, as contingency fee arrangements make filing a libel complaint a cheap recourse against their accusers. For these plaintiffs, the outcome is a non-issue—by simply filing a defamation lawsuit, they have already won. According to one study, 75% of libel plaintiffs file their lawsuits for reasons that have nothing to do with money damages. Instead, the majority of plaintiffs sue their accusers to correct the record, get even, or simply feel victorious.
Donald Trump’s recent statements regarding incendiary claims made about the president and his administration made in the bestselling book Fire and Fury further illustrate these motivations. Attacking the credibility author Michael Wolff and largely reading from a prepared statement, President Trump told reporters on January 10 that his administration is “going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws” to make it easier for public figures and officials, including himself, to sue private individuals and news organizations for potentially defamatory statements—a proposal that directly contradicts decades of Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence and significant public policy concerns. The President went on to explain
Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness. So we’re going to take a strong look at that. We want fairness. You can’t say things that are false, knowingly false and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account. We’re going to take a very, very strong look at that. And I think what the American people want to see is fairness.
Contrary to the President’s statements and beliefs, for defendants on the other side of defamation lawsuits, the risks are astronomical. And for defendants who are the victims of sexual misconduct, the rewards are non-existent. Even websites who are by law immune from liability for defamatory statements published by their users often give into baseless and frivolous lawsuits against them rather than carry out a protracted legal fight. Furthermore, by placing the burden of proving truth on the victim in sexual misconduct cases, existing libel law already presents defendants especially onerous demands in light of myriad barriers to evidentiary discovery that exist in this context. As former defendant Yee Xiong can attest, forcing defendants to bear the burden of proof in these cases “further perpetuates our rape culture that continues to excuse rapists for their heinous actions.”
Defamation lawsuits are easy to bring, but costly to defend, and many sexual assault and harassment victims simply do not have the resources to fight them. Private individual defendants are often caught in a catch-22: they lack the resources to settle quickly, but they also cannot afford to hire an attorney who will raise an immunity, truth, or opinion defense in court. In this way, the very environment that makes it possible for the famous actors and actresses to come forward with accusations against powerful men can unwittingly make women with less clout, assets, and influence vulnerable to legal action. Fortunately, some survivors who face defamation lawsuits for coming forward with their stories, organizations like Right to Speak Out are able to help mitigate this resource disparity by providing the necessary funds for victims of sexual violence to defend against these legal attacks by their abusers.
However, defamation lawsuits are ultimately just one part of the system that consistently chills survivors from naming their accusers. For many women, the compounding failures of the criminal justice system and human resources departments make it so that filing a formal complaint against their abuser is an ineffective and burdensome option. As a result, warning others through word of mouth is often the only realistic recourse.
In fact, filing a formal complaint can often eliminate a survivor’s ability to warn other potential victims. As Minnesotan and former FOX News correspondent Gretchen Carlson has made clear, settling out of court after filing a formal complaint often proactively silences victims of sexual harassment and assault. Making the news-media rounds in the past few months, Carlson has revealed the deleterious effects NDAs can have on a female employee’s capacity to warn other women of dangerous sexual predators in the workplace. Speaking on the NPR podcast On Point in October, she explained how these one-sided agreements buy victims’ silence, inoculate offenders, and often push hard-working women out of their chosen careers in favor of their predatory male counterparts. Carlson is currently working with bipartisan lawmakers in an effort to end this practice legislatively through the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act.
The risk of women abandoning their theatrical aspirations to avoid sexual abuse is a serious issue, especially considering the industry’s inherent sexism. Simply put, theatre cannot afford to lose more women. On and off stage, men dominate the majority of positions of power and women in the theatre industry experience both casual and explicit sexism every day. Women continue to be underrepresented in the production teams and outnumbered in the casting rooms of American theaters. For example, a 2015 study published by the League of Professional Theater Women found that just 33 percent of New York City theatre directors were women. The same study showed that “only between 22 and 36 percent of set designers and between eight and 16 percent of lighting designers were women.” This problem even affects the material these theatres produce on stage: as of June 2017, 71 of the 86 Pulitzer Prize–winning dramatic plays were written solely by men.
This current lack of gender parity can have lasting consequences for women who choose to publicly name their abusers within the theatre community. For women in the theatre community who have experienced sexual harassment or abuse at the hands of their peers or superiors, the systemic sexism of their industry, combined with the severe risks posed by the legal system to their financial and reputational well-being, make it nearly impossible to safely, privately, and confidently report misconduct.
Ultimately, the chilling effect these factors create for victims of sexual harassment and assault is antithetical to the purpose of the First Amendment and the arts. As the Supreme Court has recognized, a healthy marketplace of ideas, fueled by a search for truth, is a necessary component of our democracy. Expensive defamation lawsuits run contrary to this value, creating the very real risk that legitimate, truthful speech may be chilled for fear of liability for libel and posing a serious problem for the nation as a whole in the post-#MeToo era.
As celebrities continue to encourage all people to share their stories of sexual misconduct, smaller theatre companies are quickly realizing that more needs to be done on the front end to protect victims’ safety and speech before they face professional, social, emotional, or legal consequences for coming forward and naming their abusers. This is especially true considering the theatre industry’s unique culture, which values tolerance over all else.
Of course, the inclusive nature of the theatre community is exactly what makes it a vibrant, welcoming, and safe space for marginalized populations. But just as an overbroad interpretation of free speech allows for the proliferation of hateful rhetoric, an overly tolerant theatre community has the potential to provide shelter to those who choose to exploit those safe spaces.
Unfortunately, recent examples of theatre administrators who have taken advantage of this culture of tolerance are easy to find. In Minnesota, several high-ranking regional theatre administrators have been accused of sexual abuse and harassment within the last few years, including former Rochester Civic Theatre Executive Director Gregory Stavrou and several former staff members of the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC). In fact, on November 6, 2017, a Hennepin County judge entered a default judgment of $2.5 million against a former CTC instructor for sexual abuse he committed against child actors in 1983.
In nearby Chicago, an exposé of the mistreatment and abuse suffered by Profiles Theatre actors led to its closing and the creation of Not in Our House, a set of prescribed standards to prevent and address sexual harassment in the city’s theatre community. Expanding this work, theatre leaders in Washington, D.C., have adopted the Chicago model as a “community project” to create a “code of conduct, educational workshops,” and events to address sexual harassment and other abuse in the region.
Even in New York City, theatre industry members continue to struggle with how to process and address the wave of sexual misconduct allegations that have surfaced in the last few months. In response, New York City’s Public Theater held a town hall event on December 5, 2017, to discuss and share stories of sexual assault and harassment in the wake of several recent outings of Broadway abusers, including the Metropolitan Opera’s James Levine, the New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins, and Telsey + Co casting director Justin Huff.
The next day, American Theatre issued a feature article that revealed the publication had communicated with “more than 100 people who have suffered harassment without redress in theatre workplaces.” In addition to detailing the power structures within the theatre industry that allow predators to prey on their fellow artists, the article explained how the “epidemic of institutional inaction” in response to sexual misconduct allegations has perpetuated the industry’s “culture of silence.”
But hope is not lost for the future of safe spaces in the theatre community. Across the nation and the world, artists and administrators, like those in Chicago and D.C., are working together to draft community standards of conduct and reporting systems to combat institutional sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.
Long before the rise of #MeToo, the uprising in the “Women of UCB” group led to uprisings in Chicago and New York the following year and prompted improv institutions in L.A. to change their policies and banish the accused harassers from their theaters. These reforms included creating new positions for independent licensed therapists and human resources professionals to implement the groups’ sexual harassment and discrimination policies. Similarly, in response to allegations of sexual harassment against its longtime artistic director, the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, recently announced it would hire an independent agency to conduct “a review of the theater’s procedures for reporting misconduct.”
More affordable solutions and support also exist for theaters with less resources, including several model guidelines that can be instituted effectively to prevent and report sexual misconduct. For instance, “Not in Our House” chapters in Chicago and Washington, D.C., have outlined potential guidelines for theatre industry members’ conduct in their respective regions to curb incidences of sexual misconduct, support victims, and discipline abusers. Across the pond, the Royal Court Theatre has published a “Code of Behaviour” for the entire industry as “an offering, a provocation, a hope for culture change” in response to abuse allegations, including requiring an active sexual harassment policy, prohibiting the concealment of proven harassment claims, permitting freelance artists to use the same reporting structures as company staff, and raising awareness of policies banning misconduct through education, training, and discourse.
Likewise, in Minnesota, FairPlay MN has come up with a variety of accessible and affordable solutions for theatres and improv groups to make combating sexual harassment and assault a priority in their administration and productions. These include posting anti-harassment policies in highly visible locations in theaters and rehearsal spaces, providing a set of “performer expectations” to casts, believing survivors when they report sexual misconduct, creating a formal complaint process that allows victims to report misconduct anonymously, and documenting incidents to track serial offenders. By prioritizing a safe space that draws a line at unprofessional and harassing behavior, FairPlay MN hopes theatres who follow these procedures can more easily and affordably promote gender parity and victim’s rights.
Elsewhere in the theatre industry, a new directing style could help protect actors from unsafe environments by encouraging active consent from actors throughout the staging of sexual violence and intimacy. Tonia Sina’s Intimacy For The Stage method aims to stage erotic, romantic, or sexually violent scenes “in a professional manner that adheres to the highest standards of artistry and safety.” Through her non-profit Intimacy Directors International (IDI), Sina trains and provides “Intimacy Directors” to theaters across the country to “create safe places for dangerous work.” The organization also offers acting and pedagogy workshops to theatre professionals, recommends certified Intimacy Directors to individual productions, and provides theatre companies and departments with specialized programs to educate administrators. By placing an emphasis on consent in the staging process, Intimacy Directors and Sina’s method present an opportunity for the theatre industry to shift its culture toward a dedication to a more true and effective concept of safety and inclusivity.
For former TCTP member Brandon Caviness, disrupting the safe spaces the theatre’s creative process creates is “unforgivable.” As he emphasized, “auditions, scene work, scenes with varying degrees of romance or nudity,” that comprise the theatrical process, “all catch people at their most vulnerable physically, mentally and emotionally.” Because a breach of these intimate environments is particularly contrary to the purpose and values of the theatre, Caviness believes those “who have taken advantage of these situations” should be known to the larger community.
There is such a thing as a mistake, and we all make them, but someone who is known to take advantage of performers should be discussed openly. It is a matter of protecting people. It does no good to pity a victim if you’re not doing anything to prevent new ones.
This principle eventually guided Caviness to take an affirmative step to dismantle the cycle of silence in his own community. On the night of October 23, he joined the conversation in the TCTP group by posting the following comment:
As a man who was abused by someone outside of the community, I cannot imagine the sacred feeling I have towards theatre being tainted in this manner, ESPECIALLY when it could have been prevented. Shame on anyone who would ban someone for protecting the people of this community.
A few minutes later, a TCTP co-administrator responded and advised him to create a group precisely for that purpose. Caviness was blocked from the group shortly thereafter. But those words echoed in Caviness’s head throughout that night. In the early morning hours of the next day, he acted on them and created a new Facebook group to replace TCTP: Twin Cities Performing Arts Allies.
Caviness recognized that “predators have no qualms using social media to find new victims,” and that it was important that victims be able to “use their own weapon against them.” His new group fills the hole left behind by the Twin Cities Theater People with the hope of providing a safe space for members to come forward with the names of sexual abusers. As of February 9, the group has 696 members.
As for Ally Rae, over three months after the implosion of the TCTP group, they have no regrets. In fact, although the events of October 23 were stressful, even traumatic, to experience, Ally asserts that they also seriously renewed their faith in community and people. As a survivor, Ally says that night changed their mentality toward the capacity of people, and the Twin Cities theatre community at large, to address issues of sexual assault. “[F]or so many years,” Ally described, “I never came forward about what was happening to me because I never thought that strangers would automatically understand the nature of what was going on as problematic, scary, and important, unless I had countless stacks and sources of evidence to prove why fighting against it is important.” Still, “as much as this is a powerful example of MN actors and artists coming together,” Ally contends, “honestly, the Twin Cities still has a very gross, still-unspoken backstory of sexual violence towards actors and members of its community, and it’s time we started talking about it.”
As Ally sees it, a “clear-cut system of victim advocacy” in theatre is “not something that can be born overnight, and this conversation, as well as the #MeToo movement, is just beginning.” But going forward, Ally believes addressing the issues of sexual misconduct in the theatre industry comes down to a mantra shared by Mr. Rogers and comedian Sarah Silverman: “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” “If we spoke about the violence, the undertones of bodies being at risk, shamed, humiliated, judged, and exploited based on the BS notions that this violence can properly wear the mask of “art,” and stopped letting the perpetrators get away with it,” Ally explained, “the undertones would rise to the surface and the risk or endangerment of our community would cease to be a terrifying issue.”
Even if their actions were correctly motivated, the TCTP administrators’ response to sexual assault allegations against Hogue may have resulted in silencing his victims, and many others like them. This is because, fundamentally, the system of social, political, and legal motivations that silences victims of sexual misconduct is perpetuated by all of society. And we all share the fault for preventing victims from coming forward and protecting predators from punishment. Fortunately, this also means that we all have the opportunity to dismantle this cycle in our lives—especially in the theatre and arts communities, where a culture of tolerance and acceptance has served to shield, even embrace, sexual predators. In the words of Ally Rae, “None of us know what the hell we’re doing yet, and we remain human as we try, gathering our best intentions to move forward and beyond this hellish acceptable-perpetrator culture.”
As social media influencers, non-profits, and the #MeToo movement continue to urge survivors to come forward with their stories of sexual misconduct, it is imperative that the theatre industry has an honest and critical discussion about the social, economic, and legal costs its members may face. In addition to the impediments in the criminal justice system already make it difficult for sexual assault and harassment victims to name their abusers, the risk of liability for libel has the very real potential to chill the speech of survivors in the theatre community. Without the enthusiastic and proactive involvement of industry leaders, consequential decisions about how to deal with such allegations will fall on the shoulders of private individuals, including administrators of Facebook groups.
Although the movement has initiated an age of reckoning for Hollywood big shots, the post-#MeToo environment has also demonstrated that when victims come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, they are often vulnerable to reliving their trauma and becoming public spectacles, subject to victim blaming and slut shaming. As former TCTP member and Minneapolis artist Lyssa Sparrow explains, “This only reiterates the notion there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to be a victim of sexual assault, and if your experience doesn’t fit that very misinformed narrative than you better keep your mouth quiet.”
By instituting reforms and policies that take seriously allegations of sexual misconduct and affirm that sexually inappropriate or predatory behavior will not be condoned, theatres may be able to chip away at this status quo and work to ensure that there is no wrong way to be a victim within their industry. Without these protections, women who experience sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination from their castmates, colleagues, or directors, may have no choice but to turn to public platforms like social media to share their stories, thereby opening themselves up to myriad, significant burdens.
It is time for leaders in the theatre industry to take affirmative steps to increase the safety of its members and protect survivors from the legal, societal, and political pressures that prevent them from coming forward and prevent future abuse. If principles of tolerance and acceptance are allowed to shield predators from the consequences of their actions, theatre companies may not only silence survivors, but will likely continue to foster an environment that makes it possible for serial abusers to find new victims.
*The author has reached out to Blake Hogue for comment and has not yet received a response.
**Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee for confidentiality purposes.