An Open Letter to Unexpected Productions Improv
I was sexually harassed onstage publicly during a performance and the company prefers to keep their response quiet — but organizations that prioritize comfort over change and ameliorating harm will never achieve a safe, inclusive culture.
On November 5, 2021 I was sexually harassed onstage in front of a live and virtual audience of over 100 people at Unexpected Productions when another cast member sang a sexually explicit song about me personally — outside the scope of a scene — during my goodbye performance without my consent. (I have a video record and transcript of the incident, along with those witnesses.) The theater’s response was merely some private discipline for the offender. UP did not denounce the incident publicly or to the cast, or make a public statement in support of me.
I deserved better after 13.5 years of service to the theater, but that is not the point. ANYONE deserves better than that. No one should be disrespected, objectified, and humiliated in that way, regardless of their tenure with the theater. I had to discuss that experience with my mother, my husband, my brother, my friends. The fact that it happened to me, a veteran of over 13 years, shows how deep the cultural issues go. If respect isn’t being shown to me, a white woman with a named position, how will new cast members be treated, several of whom are or are likely to be in marginalized groups?
I know that UP aspires to be an inclusive environment, but they have failed me significantly here. After considerable thought, I have decided my only recourse is to resign my position as Associate Artistic Director of Online Productions effective immediately, and to share my story publicly to clear the air for my friends and fans since UP failed to address the situation. It is very important to me that everyone present for that show understand how that experience harmed me, and how strongly I denounce that behavior. This is not about cancelling an individual, which is why I’m not naming the individual. This is about addressing structural and organizational issues that allowed this to unfold, and doing so in a way that can serve as a lesson to other organizations.
Those who know me know that I value inclusive environments that are safe for creative expression for a variety of people. I am sharing my story and my thoughts about the experience despite the ongoing hurt because I have the privilege to speak out, a combination of being a white woman and having moved out of the scene where I might experience retaliation for doing so. And I still fear retaliation from other companies in other cities I attempt to perform in. But as my husband pointed out, if those are the values those companies hold I’d probably end up right back here.
I could walk away silently, but I had previously committed to stay through May so I needed to say something, as I take my commitments seriously. I could have just lobbed a “I experienced harassment and I’m mad about it” at the company, which would be entirely fair, but as my late friend and mentor Randy Pausch said:
“You may not want to hear it, but your critics are often the ones telling you they still love you and care about you, and want to make you better.”
UP hurt me deeply this year, but I know there are many individuals there trying to do the right thing and I still care about them. I hope the organization can continue to work their way out of the challenging period we’ve been fighting through. But make no mistake: there’s work to be done. Unfortunately, due to the harm and pain caused to me, I can’t stay, but perhaps my departure can make a difference.
I am a professional improv performer, teacher, and director and I developed many of those skills at Unexpected Productions in Seattle, a theater performing from the historic Pike Place Market. I am also a white, cisgender woman. I joined the cast in 2008, and I am profoundly grateful for the creative growth, friendships, and experiences I’ve had along the way. In 2013 I joined the teaching staff and went on to teach 5 different levels of improv in our program, from 100 through 500.
When the pandemic started, our theater closed its doors and moved to Twitch broadcasts to stay connected to their audiences. I am an experienced Twitch streamer and performer, and I stepped up to help the theater navigate the specifics of this new world, in addition to collaborating with some peers on digital fundraisers. This included technical counseling, chat moderation, guidance to cast members, and beyond.
In September 2020 I stepped up to become Associate Artistic Director of Online Productions in order to take our online presence to the next level. I taught workshops on online performance and prepared performer guides. I developed a 2-year strategic plan for the company’s online growth. I established a community manager program to improve the online experience on Twitch, and began to start the process of planning online seasons as opposed to one-off productions. I developed a model for monetizing Twitch performances and created and directed a successful show to demonstrate the concept, Cupid on Mute.
All of my work in 2020/21 was volunteer, except for potentially a very small stipend for Cupid since we earned money for the theater. And I did this work despite working my full time job at a major global health nonprofit compounded with an incredibly difficult personal time where I was diagnosed with a disability and endured 4 major surgeries in 10 months. It would have been FAR easier to step away, as many other cast members did. But the organization mattered to me and I knew I was one of the few folks who could help with the online program.
In Fall 2021, I accepted a new job that required me to relocate to Los Angeles. As a result of this move, November 5 would be my last day performing live at the theater. I did still plan to remain on as Associate Artistic Director of Online Productions, however, as that did not require physical proximity and I was still excited about the possibilities.
I shared the link to watch the show online widely, and my likeness was used in advertising for the performance on the UP Facebook and Instagram page. That night, most of the people in attendance were there to see me.
During the second act of our performance, the MC called me onstage and began to say some kind things about me and my departure. Before he could finish, another performer burst onto the stage, upstaged both of us, and proceeded to sexually harass me by singing a sexually explicit song about me without my consent in front of a live audience of 40 and a digital audience of 70, including my family, friends, and new co-workers. This is not a he-said she-said. As administrator of the theater’s Twitch account, I was able to download the entire performance as evidence and have a recording of the entire song.
<X cuts off the MC> “Cheryl, We’ve done a lot of great scenes together. We’ve made out on stage regularly. AND offstage. I just wanted to say this one thing: <musician starts playing, unclear if this was planned> Cheryl don’t leave me. Cheryl don’t go away from my lips. My lips are hungry baby. For some of that Platz. I wanna kiss you from head to toe. Or in the middle, if you get what I mean…”
He continued singing and some words are unintelligible to me on the recording before another cast member came onstage yelling over the music and song to forcefully end the incident. The audience raucously laughed along at my expense as X dragged my reputation through the dirt for the sake of comedy. I will not link a video as it’s already caused me enough harm, but as painful as it is to reiterate the content I feel it is important to make clear how unequivocally inappropriate this incident was.
I had been called onstage and kept thinking this might be a horrible, misfired joke and the rest of the cast would burst out, but as the song went on that turned to deep mortification and shock. I couldn’t figure out how to shut down the over-6-foot man performing in front of me without making it worse, especially with music playing and the cast laughing along, until the lone Black man performing that night stepped out to cut him off. It is not lost on me that the cast member that came to my aid was himself marginalized and had perhaps more to lose than any of us if that backfired. I have expressed my deep gratitude to him. (He shut this performer down again in notes when the offender became defensive when the song was discussed.)
I had a sleepless night that night which culminated in a lengthy email to the offending performer and the staff. While the performer apologized, I will never get that night back, and an apology doesn’t fix the very public harm that was caused me. I expected the company to take public steps to denounce the behavior and support me — after all, the entire incident was on video — but all that occurred was “private discipline”.
“X’s behavior caused you pain and it is being addressed directly with X. If the identified behavior is not remedied, further corrective action will be taken. We are continuing to gather information that can help us realize our goal of a safe space provided to all for spontaneous entertainment.”
I replied to that message expressing my belief that this response was insufficient:
My issue is it isn’t just X’s behavior... It’s also the fact that it was allowed to go on for so long; the MC did not stop it even though I was dragged out without explanation, and nothing was done or said to condemn the behavior during the show, or to resume the nice thoughts to at least cleanse the palate so the audience didn’t leave thinking that was my brand and my contribution. I feel abandoned by the theater and the cast (except Y, who I have reached out to personally with my thanks.)
I am having real trouble reconciling continued involvement with the online program after that heartbreaking and scarring experience. Continuing on with the theater <when it> hasn’t clearly taken a public stance against that behavior makes it look like I condone it…
I at least hope UP will come down strongly and publicly against this behavior so that it will NOT happen again. There is NO excuse for making sexually suggestive comedy at a personal level outside the confines of a scene. That’s the least that can be done.
I received no reply to this message. A month later, they reached out asking for a Zoom call. I asked for an agenda for the Zoom call in writing and reiterated my insistence that action be taken, and they rescinded the invitation for the call.
So what’s the problem with this response?
The problem is that this approach:
- Prioritizes the comfort of the offender and the organization
- Does nothing to repair the harm done to the victim
- Does not establish clearly to performers who were present that this behavior was not acceptable
- Does not establish clearly to AUDIENCE members who were present that this behavior is not acceptable
- Does not establish clearly to audience members who were present that X was literally lying about my actions and damaging my reputation
But perhaps most of all, it frames the experience as “pain” and not genuine harm and illegal behavior. The signs posted backstage (as a workplace, we are 1099 contractors when not volunteering) are clear about state workplace policies and sexual harassment.
I am not a lawyer. But from the Washington State Office of the Attorney General, one of the definitions of sexual harassment (bolding my own):
Hostile Work Environment
Harassment that is frequent or severe enough to interfere with your ability to perform your job. The behavior must be directed at you because of your gender, and can include unwelcome, sexually suggestive or gender based comments or jokes; unwelcome and repeated requests for dates; offensive gestures; inappropriate touching; or display of pornographic materials.
In this case, the behavior was:
- Directed at me. This was OUTSIDE the scope of a scene, and the performer was singing about me directly.
- Because of my gender. X is a (married) heterosexual man, and was singing a song about engaging in sexual acts with me.
- Unwelcome, sexually suggestive comments or jokes. The entire song.
- Unwelcome and repeated requests for dates. While not as cut and dry: to me, implying falsely that we’ve had relations outside the theater and the stated desire to engage in sexual relations with me constitutes an unwelcome request for a date and implies future intent for the same.
Given that I have video of the entire sequence, this seems pretty cut and dry. It would be one thing if the offensive language were inside the scope of a scene, but this was directed at me as an individual and specifically references me by name multiple times, which was completely uncalled for.
What are UP’s responsibilities? From the Requirements for Employers:
Employers may be liable for sexual harassment if they do not adopt and enforce policies to:
- Provide procedures for employees who have experienced sexual harassment to report complaints;
- Thoroughly and promptly investigate complaints of sexual harassment; and
- Take prompt and effective action to eliminate further sexual harassment in the workplace.
To me, the issue is “effective action”. Privately addressing a public event is not effective action at eliminating future sexual harassment. This line is not written from the perspective of “from the perpetrator” — it is written in the general sense.
The Cultural Issue
UP seems to be taking cover behind the performance clause in their harassment policy:
Special Note On Performance Harassment
Given the nature of performances at the Theater and in classes of material that, in some cases, could be considered offensive to some, it is not the policy of the theater to punish individuals or to stifle the creative abilities of performers whose artistic expression may be considered offensive to others. However, if it is determined that the offensive content of the performance was done in an effort to harass a particular individual from the stage or to express the Performer’s hatred and/or intolerance to a protected individual or group, then appropriate disciplinary action may and will occur. Additionally, it is determined that an individual performers or group of performers is pervasively offensive or harassing in their performances, disciplinary or corrective action may and will occur. Furthermore, if it is determined that behavior that was done without intent to harass but has nevertheless caused discomfort, fear, or other feelings of harassment in members of the community or audience, this behavior (at the time it is identified to leadership of the Theater) will be pointed out to the performer or performers responsible. If the identified behavior is not remedied, corrective action will occur.
By my observation this was by no means X’s first incident of offensive conduct, although I don’t have record of whether he ever directed it personally at someone live onstage before. But it was always waved away under the umbrella of artistic expression and “that’s just X”, creating the environment that allowed this to occur. I was certainly party to this too, as part of the larger culture. Were I still in the cast, I might need the open communication about the event, and a strong stance from UP, to disengage my complacency from the groupthink and ensure that I’d act the next time that happened.
And none of this policy addresses the impact of the behavior or what will be done to support and protect victims — it focuses more on intent. That doesn’t align with the Washington State law, which is rightly centered on the victim’s perspective (“unwelcome” and “offensive” being the key words).
I’m no lawyer, but it feels like UP’s policy isn’t doing enough to address root cause at an organizational level and prevent future issues, which is a legal risk. I appreciate Kim Crayton’s Profit Without Oppression Guiding Principles, two of which are:
- Lack of Inclusion is a Risk/Crisis Management Issue, and
- Prioritize the Most Vulnerable
At minimum, after this experience I believe UP needs to:
- Update the behavioral policies to explicitly disallow onstage harassment directed at another individual outside the scope of a scene. This should not be covered by creative freedom under any circumstances: it is a legal risk to the company, a risk to marginalized performers, and should be dealt with harshly.
- Work with their internal diversity council to see how the policies can be addressed to prioritize impact over intent. Just because you didn’t mean harm doesn’t mean it didn’t cause harm, and either way that behavior should be dealt with in the same manner.
- Find ways to address and ameliorate impact for victims. Make a policy of transparent communication to company and staff, and audience for public events. If it is not possible to name the individuals, name the behavior, denounce the behavior, and list the actions being taken to prevent the issue in the future.
I know individuals in the cast (who know that this happened — many do not, because it’s been shoved under the rug) have told me how sorry or shocked they are, or how valued my work is, but organizations are different than individuals. The organization has sent a clear message with its actions that the harm caused to me as the subject of this harassment is not prioritized or worth addressing, and that as an extension I’m not so much valued as a person as I am for my labor. Whether that was the intent or not, that is the unfortunate impact, especially when only one cast member stepped in to help and only after far too long.
I am brokenhearted that the harm caused was great enough that I can’t focus on continuing with my ideas for the online program, but after a month of painful reflection it is the clear conclusion. I am now a senior leader at a major entertainment and tech company; I can’t afford to remain affiliated with a company where I’m publicly treated with such disrespect.
Addressing these things won’t bring me back; I can’t erase that feeling of being trapped after being called onto on that stage with the cast looking on from my mind. But UP has new cast members coming in. They owe it to those cast members to do better. I hope they try.