A Cautionary Tale: How Not to Respond to Harassment Reports

Earlier this month, I posted an Open Letter to Unexpected Productions Improv regarding an incident on November 5, 2021 where I was sexually harassed onstage. After a month of silence from the staff despite specific requests, I no longer considered it a safe working environment. I intended the letter as an explanation of my departure with the hope that it would spark important conversations and prevent the same from happening to others.

On the bright side, the company did eventually (after the events described in this post) respond to the letter by issuing a public statement to Facebook, though never cross-promoted it to other channels like Twitter so many in the community are not aware that occurred. I’m grateful to the Board president for communicating with me openly and gracefully in the days after the letter, and to the Board for the long hours of discussions and stepping in where no action was taken previously. I’m also told secondhand via cast members that the company is hiring an outside consultant for a review of policies and to conduct staff training.

However, my letter triggered a series of events that necessitate a follow-up, as actions on behalf of two organizations actually worsened the situation and are an important learning opportunity.

As with my last post, this is not an attempt to cancel any one individual. If it were, I would name names. This is about how individually motivated responses often interfere with appropriate organizational response. However, silencing dialog in the interest in potentially protecting identity does more harm than good in this scenario, especially since all conversations were conducted on public mailing lists and have since been forwarded more widely.

  • In a series of reply-all responses the day I sent my letter, a staff member in a position of power at Unexpected Productions centered themselves, minimized my report, and deflected the valid organizational issues I was raising. They revealed that they did not see issues with the lurid lyrics from the beginning. My concerns were minimized, deconstructed, and at one point it was proposed they RE-post the video of the incident as a “learning opportunity”. The escalation of the emails caused other members of the company to resign.
  • A few days later, another regional improv company, Jet City Improv, addressed their community in an email entitled “We Stand with Cheryl Platz” without my consent or consultation. The email came off as inflammatory to many in the community, and some people even thought I’d asked for the mail. Furthermore, this mail supported another community’s member before JCI had followed up with their own community members harmed by previous sexual harassment that never received follow-up or restitution after sharing their own experiences in town halls, making the well-intentioned act hypocritical.

To be clear, this is about organizational responses and responses from prominent members of those organizations who are in power to respond to these reports of abuse. I received overwhelmingly positive support via private and public channels from individuals inside and outside the UP community, and I thank all who reached out to me to offer that support. I also acknowledge those present that night who extended thoughtful apologies, and hope that this will galvanize future responses.

Drawn from my lived experience these past 2 weeks, here are some important ways NOT to respond those who stand up against mistreatment and harassment in an organization.

Listen, Don’t Tell: A Reply-All Fiasco

First, let’s examine how the very public pushback on the Unexpected Productions company mailing list (which AFAIK includes nearly 100 players, staff, volunteers, alumni, etc.) magnified the harm caused by the original incident, and revealed some of the organizational issues I was trying to shine light on in my original letter.

It’s Not About You

  • DON’T center yourself.
  • DON’T avoid the topic of organizational accountability by focusing on individual involvement.

If a victim comes forward and your response on behalf of an organization is full of “I” statements, there’s a high likelihood you’re coming at the problem from the wrong perspective. The appropriate first level of engagement is organizational, not personal.

“I think why I’m confused and sad now is that you mentioned how it was less about the one person and you felt unsupported by the theater and cast. I can’t speak for the rest of the cast that was there, but could it have been something as simple as they didn’t fully catch what was said or what was going on other than an inappropriate song?

Where did things go wrong here?

  • I’m not addressing the individual here, so “confused and sad” has no bearing on the conversation and is inappropriate communication. This could be interpreted as a manipulative attempt to get me to feel bad about reporting, or an extremely self-centered response to a valid report. Either way, it’s extremely inappropriate.

Even if this individual was involved partially or present for the event, this is not the time to argue innocence if they are acting as a representative of the organization. If they were involved in the event, the most legally sound path is for you to recuse themselves from any discussions and ask a peer on staff to handle any communications about the event — NOT go on the defensive with the victim to change the narrative. If they were not, arguing about intent behind actions misses the point — the IMPACT was still harmful, regardless of what was intended.

It’s Not About Your Perspective

  • DON’T try to deconstruct the validity of a victim’s experience based on the perception of others, especially on public mailing lists or platforms.
  • DON’T gauge your response to a report solely on your own interpretation of the situation.

“While I was out there I saw the song that was sung. It seemed quick and then I saw it get stopped. The Twitch chatroom it said “well, that happened.” It seemed like everything moved forward. Then the next day we had a note forwarded to us about your incident. We saw your original note, then his apology. G wrote a note to you, and you sent a response. So I got on Twitch and rewatched that song moment. At first I thought I missed something due to it being a bit incoherent with smatterings of audience response. Then the next day I rewatched it again from our recording, with Z and we could see more clearly what upset you.”

Where did things go wrong here?

  • Audience response is not a gauge of harm to victims of harassment in public. My fans were shocked silent, as apparently was the cast. The lack of response was a signal, not a lack of signal. But it’s irrelevant, because the harm was clearly there.

But the BIG red flag in this statement was the words “a bit incoherent”. If you go back to the original post with the transcript of the lyrics, there is nothing incoherent about them. They are lucid and full of intent. This statement tells me that theater leadership does not believe lude sexual advances directed at individuals onstage are problematic, which in itself is extremely telling given the number of reports I’ve received privately about other issues the theater has experienced with abusers going unpunished.

This red flag was reinforced again later in the letter when the same staff member said:

“As far as the incident itself, cast and future cast please take this example of how a seemingly harmless roast-like tribute can be a harmful inappropriate form of harassment.”

The fact that this staff member calls this ‘seemingly harmless’ is EXACTLY why I am standing up for more transparency in the organization.

There is NOTHING harmless about the disrespectful language or behavior that was directed at me that night, and by doubling down and centering themselves in this conversation, this staff member has revealed a shocking lack of respect for women within the organization. The fact that this worldview may have influenced past decisions about other abuse reports speaks volumes as to why my past students are now coming to me and telling me they won’t audition at UP because of reports from the “whisper network”.

There are certainly situations that are more complicated; where the language is more nuanced or there is not a public recording of the incident. This is not one of those situations. It was a public, openly explicit incident of recorded and livestreamed to 70 of my family, friends, and fans on top of our live audience where I was personally subjected to false, unwelcome, degrading, and sexually explicit harassment. What is “seemingly harmless” about that?

Victims are often forced to mask their reactions; do not use that as an excuse for bad behavior.

  • DON’T blame the victim.

“Or, because you handled it like a pro, and didn’t show a reaction, maybe they felt like, as stated in the chat, “Well, that just happened” which is more of an acknowledgement of a weird moment to move on from.”

Professional actors in the context of a performance do not have the option of melting down onstage, especially when the abuser is larger and more dominant. There is no guarantee that creating a fuss will not backfire, especially when the cast has not shown support, and there is no guarantee the audience will not turn. The safest response for someone being targeted with public harassment is often “like a pro”, even when it is extremely emotionally painful. Adults should know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate conduct — every actor onstage heard the lyrics fraudulently implying marital infidelity and expressing his desire to have oral sex with me. There is no room for interpretation on appropriateness of those lyrics, especially when they are literally singing MY NAME and not a character’s name.

But to broaden this beyond the boundaries of a stage — just because a person who is receiving unwanted, potentially harassing attention in a professional context isn’t reacting in a big or negative way, that doesn’t mean the behavior isn’t harassment, especially when the perpetrator is in a position of power. In a professional context, the threat of retaliation and consequences are often even more severe than in the onstage example above. You cannot judge the severity or validity of a harassment report by the real-time reaction to the harassment.

Careful of the harm testimony and evidence can perpetuate to victims.

  • DON’T re-post offensive stimuli as a “learning opportunity.”

I replied to this problematic reply-all, reiterating that the centering of self was distracting from the larger organizational issues and reiterating the illegal nature of the behavior onstage, among other points. But the same staff member wasn’t done pursuing the issue, and replied AGAIN at 3 in the morning.

“I have the video clip of the entire song and moment. For context and full transparency I would like to post it. I’ve been getting many requests to see it and since the lyric transcripts were released we should probably put it in context and show the actual clip. It could be a good learning tool for those who have questions.”

Not only did this once again confirm that a staff member ‘didn’t hear’ the clearly offensive nature of the original subject matter, the staff member made a public proposal to re-post the moment of abuse as a “learning tool,” which would re-traumatize me and put my professional reputation at risk in the process. No consent was asked; it was presented as a statement. No acknowledgement was made of the potential harm to me. I was forced, once again, to engage, at 5AM to desperately interrupt any plans to use the video, and I had to reach out to other cast members to ascertain the status of the digital copies.

This suggestion was so inappropriate that it launched an angry response from the cast, and brought up discussions of previous sexual harassment investigations at UP that were mishandled where victims were forced to re-perform their trauma over and over again. It also prompted the resignations of the entire community management team I’d built in protest of the treatment of me.

In this situation, the desires of the community and/or a person in a position of power were placed above the safety, reputation, and needs of the victim. The lyrics were clearly enough for people to ascertain inappropriate content. ANY attempt to re-enact or recount the abuse should take into consideration the potential harm to the victim. There are MANY ways to educate without triggering the specific conditions in which the initial abuse occurred.

Worse yet, this may have come off as potential evidence of punishment to victims who come forward to those in the cast or crew who are coping with incidents themselves, silencing future reports.

This applies to any situation, inside or outside of theater. For example: if you’re building a training script, be sure to alter details to protect the victim’s identity or to avoid forcing them to re-live the abuse on a company-wide scale. Failing to consider the impact to the victim is a public punishment (and possibly retaliation) for coming forward, and will have a chilling effect on the willingness of future victims to come forward until situations have become blatantly illegal and your company is on the hook for damages.

Putting it all together

To summarize: what can we learn from the painful reply-all debacle I was dragged through when trying to resign with transparency at Unexpected Productions? If you find yourself at the receiving end of a survivor’s report of harassment or abuse, remember that you are acting on behalf of the organization, and avoid the temptation to insert your personal reactions or views into the situation. They will only worsen things.

  • DON’T center yourself.
  • DON’T avoid the topic of organizational accountability by focusing on individual involvement.
  • DON’T blame the victim.
  • DON’T try to deconstruct the validity of a victim’s experience based on the perception of others, especially on public mailing lists or platforms.
  • DON’T gauge your response to a report solely on your own interpretation of the situation.
  • DON’T re-share offensive stimuli as a “learning opportunity.”

Consent and community left behind: The Jet City Improv Email

Just as the emotional trauma from the reply-all disaster had started to calm, I was blindsided by yet more drama from the situation. After several days of intense discussions, the UP Board had moved forward with posting a public apology and short statement on their Facebook page. (They didn’t cross-promote it, which led to the lack of awareness.)

About a day later, I received a mailing list blast from the other large improv troupe in the Seattle area, Jet City Improv. I started my Seattle performing career there, performing in over 10 productions over a 3 year period. The title of the email? “Letter to Community: Solidarity with Cheryl Platz.” If you’ve never been through this before, you might think that’d be good news, but it’s far more nuanced than that.

  • DON’T invoke the name of victims without their consent and involvement.
  • DON’T back public causes without supporting and healing your own community first.

What went wrong?

  • No warning was provided for the timing of the mail. I’d just managed to get to a point of emotional stability and I’m in Week 5 of a new job, and then this came through and toppled the house of cards again.
  • No consent was obtained for the use of my name in association with the content in that mail. The content turned out to be inflammatory, and some people still seem to believe I asked JCI to send that mail. I did NOT.
  • UP had already posted their statement, and the JCI email blast implied there was no response.

But most problematic was the tone of the email. If you’re unfamiliar with the Seattle improv community, Jet City Improv is no stranger to sexual harassment problems. Years ago, things came to a head, leading to exits, leadership changes, and town hall meetings.

Ostensibly, the letter was to publicly decry this kind of behavior — which is good, fine, love to see it. But it goes on to scold UP directly and engage UP in a conversation about what JCI has done to get past their problematic past.

The problem with that tone is that JCI never stood by THEIR victims. I know several personally, and they were VERY upset by this mail. They did not receive personal outreach after the town halls and reorganizations, and they CERTAINLY didn’t get public emails of support. How would you feel if you were one of these people, seeing JCI stand by someone from a different theater troupe but not its own? Several community members have been waiting years for private follow-up from the Jet City town halls. They aren’t asking for public address like I did, but they DO want the organization to acknowledge the harm that was caused to them specifically, in many cases on a direct basis. (Ironically, many people don’t want things publicly addressed specifically for this sort of situation that JCI has created, where I’ve been placed in an awkward situation as the figurehead of pain I didn’t condone or sponsor. That, amongst a host of other reasons.)

I received a personal note from a friend on the JCI staff afterwards, apologizing that they didn’t check with me first but that it came from a “place of love” — which I do believe.

But if there’s anything that an organization that claims it’s moving on from harassment scandals should know, it’s not about intent. It’s about IMPACT.

And other firsthand reports I’ve heard and seen since the mail indicate JCI is falling into the same defensive patterns exhibited by UP when called out by its own community: centering the individual, deflecting requests for organizational change, blaming the victims, etc. Which is exactly why this post is so necessary.

What could have been done differently? Your mileage may vary, but:

  • If you want to show support in a public forum and are planning on using the victim’s name, it’s a good idea to check in with the victim first, especially when you are in the same community. Warn them it’s coming, as they will be barraged by others when it hits the wire and they may not be ready for that.
  • Avoid piling your personal message or agenda into a show of “support” — this is a form of centering yourself instead of the victims.
  • Any statement that bears a victim’s name and is more than just a simple “We support X, we believe X” should be reviewed by the person in question, as you are implying to some their message is your message, which is disingenuous. If you TRULY want to be supportive, you should avoid speaking for, on behalf of, or instead of victims without their explicit partnership.
  • Actions speak louder than words. If you want to offer supportive resources, you can do so without issuing public statements, and many victims would probably prefer you start there.

Moving Forward

Unexpected Productions made things much, much worse with the defensive, ill-informed reply-all responses to 90+ people to my open letter. They lost multiple community managers and cast members as a direct result of the fallout from the email thread, whereas the initial response was largely thankful and supportive of the upcoming change.

Jet City Improv unintentionally harmed me and the community with a well-intentioned action that didn’t consider who they were excluding — and ignored the importance of consent. I DO appreciate the SENTIMENT behind the mail, but it would be hypocritical of ME to call UP out on their behavior and not to address the same behind the JCI mail. Assuming the message of the mail is true — you want to do better for the community — hopefully you can take this as feedback to go back HUMBLY to those community members who were originally harmed and listen to them to figure out how to make them whole as a priority, just as I asked UP to do for me.

You can apologize after a car wreck. It doesn’t fix the car, or heal the whiplash. It is far better to drive with the awareness that our decisions impact other humans. The same applies to all of our life choices. Regardless of intent, some choices we make can cause lasting or permanent harm — and we owe it to each other to consider that harm and others in our daily lives.

And to the many folks who have come to me and shared their stories about abuse in the Seattle improv community: I believe you. I am sorry you experienced these things, and in as much as I might have failed to stand up in the past as well, I am sorry. I support you should you also choose to stand up. I cannot carry the torch for everyone, but I hope that this momentum may give you the energy you need to seek the change that’s overdue.

Image credit: aerogondo via Adobe Stock

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Designer, actress, teacher, speaker, writer, gamer. Author of Design Beyond Devices. Founder of Ideaplatz, LLC. Director of UX, Player Platform @ Riot Games.

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Cheryl Platz

Cheryl Platz

Designer, actress, teacher, speaker, writer, gamer. Author of Design Beyond Devices. Founder of Ideaplatz, LLC. Director of UX, Player Platform @ Riot Games.