Colorado theater workers try to creatively solve problems like harassment, abuse and inequity in Colorado’s theater scene

The Community Standards for Theatre offer a blueprint of best safety practices and a system of accountability for when things go wrong.
18 min. read
Rocky Mountain ASA founder Angela Astle, Amanda Rose Villarreal and Tamara Meneghini.
Bennet Forsyth.

As a theater educator, Amanda Rose Villarreal was dedicated to creating a safe environment for her K-12 students.

"You should never be like, 'You two have to kiss each other,' because they are minors," Villarreal said. "I would never force anything like that whatsoever. My personal philosophy was that we can creatively communicate care for one another and to intimacy in ways that don't involve kissing."

A few years back, she was directing a youth production of The Drowsy Chaperone, a show with a lot of scripted kissing, in Denver. She found ways to work around those scenes, to convey romantic feeling in a way that didn't make her students feel obligated to do anything they weren't comfortable with. She said some students told her they wished their other teachers took that approach.

"And these students were telling me these horror stories of being made to kiss people on stage, and being really uncomfortable and all of these things," she said. "I can't imagine a teacher forcing their students to actually hit each other on stage. So why are we forcing our students to do these other things that they're not comfortable with and that they feel unsafe doing?"

But as a professional actor, she was facing similar problems. In rehearsals for one show she was acting in, the director instructed Villarreal and her scene partner to go rehearse an intimacy scene on their own, and to plan what it would look like. They came to what Villarreal believed was an agreement. But when they came back to show the director, Villarreal's costar changed it at the last second.

"The actor did something different than what I thought we had agreed upon, and did something that I did not expect, and did something that made me feel physically unsafe," she said. "And the director was like, I love that. That's what we're doing. And I was like, actually, can we show you what we worked on in the other room? And the director was like, No, I love that."

She didn't want to risk her job by confronting the director, so she went to the stage manager, explaining she didn't feel safe with the new blocking, that she hadn't agreed to it.  The stage manager said they'd talk to the director, but that it was ultimately the director's choice.

"I was advocating for students and youth, but then just being quiet when I felt really not okay about the way things were going," she said.

That realization led her to become an intimacy coordinator. She completed training to help safely choreograph scenes of intimacy in theater setting and support actors through those scenes. Now, she's working as assistant faculty for theatrical intimacy education at CU Boulder.

That's how she came in contact with Tammy Meneghini, an Associate Professor in CU Boulder's theater department, and Angela Astle, executive producer and founder of Athena Project, which is devoted to empowering women in the arts. 

The three connected over issues that have come up in Colorado in recent years.

"We were aware of some things going on in the community where actors or company members were in situations where they were not feeling safe," Meneghini said. "It was a matter that was of great importance to me, because I work with young theater - mostly performance - students."

Traditionally, many theater groups don't have HR departments, and many are non-equity, meaning they employees aren't protected by a union. And if they are equity companies, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not protect everyone.

Astle says the way theater gets made often keeps concerns from being addressed.

"It always happens on such a shorter timeline limit," she said. "The fast turnaround and the 'the show must go on' mentality just sets up people for lots of sacrifice, and lots of insane hours to make it happen."

Theater also has additional risks most workplaces don't, including onstage depictions of sex and violence and challenging content.

"As adults, as actors, our job is to tell uncomfortable stories. There's no play out there that's written about a bunch of people sitting around being uncomfortable. That would be really boring," Villarreal said. "As professional actors, it's our job to live in and embody discomfort. And we can do that as long as we feel safe doing so."

And theater is a small community in Colorado, one where reputation follows you.

"It's a small closet," Astle said. "Directors talk, and producers talk because there's limited time, limited budget, and you want the best you can get as fast as possible. So it is a network of people that, once you're in it, you start seeing kind of the same names popping up. And the same people are getting roles, and the same people are not getting roles.

"The fear is, if you're the one who's speaking up about it and saying that this is not okay, then you get the retaliation, potentially, from your team members," Astle said. "But also the label as a troublemaker. And then nobody wants to work with you."

Villarreal, Meneghini and Astle agreed that there was a need for a system of accountability in the Colorado theater scene. They formed the Rocky Mountain Artists' Safety Alliance (ASA), a group dedicated to creating safer spaces in Colorado's theater community. They got to work creating a document that would provide guidelines to help prevent things like harassment, as well as provide solutions pathways should an issue arrive.

The document is based off of a similar one created by members of Chicago's theater scene as part of the #NotInOurHouse movement.

In 2015, a group of theater industry workers in Chicago gathered to address problems they recognized in Chicago's scene, and in particular to respond to reports of abuse and predatory behavior at the prominent storefront theater, Profiles. But Laura T. Fisher, one of the #NotInOurHouse founders, said those problems are symptoms of a larger systemic one in theater.

"We learn from day one that our value, our contribution, our reputation, is all developed by our sense of professionalism," she said. She said that's quantified by things like showing up on time, hitting your mark with precision. "But when it comes to how we treat each other, and how we should expect to be treated, it certainly becomes quite vague and inconsistent."

The #NotInOurHouse team wanted to outline a system of accountability, a document that would set clear standards for how people should behave and be treated in theater. They sat down with 10 companies over the course of a year to write the document that became the Chicago Theatre Standards. They piloted the draft for two years with 22 groups. Over time, it gained traction, and Fisher says that about a third of the 200 or so groups in Chicago have now adopted it. So have other groups outside of Chicago, in places as far as South Korea and Australia.

Fisher said the document is about addressing a systemic problem with a systemic solution. It's a tool for self governance, a way of addressing creative problems with creative solutions, rather than being a contract or a way to externally police a group.

"This is simply standard HR practice. It's not exotic," Fisher said. "It really mostly is a curation of the best practices that have already been in use. So we're not reinventing the wheel. It's saying, here's how it's done when it's done really well. And if you come and work at our theater, this is what we're going to ask of you."

The first half of the document addresses a hypothetical production, and how it should be run from beginning to end. It addresses the rights and responsibilities of everyone- actors, directors, interns, the audience, production- from audition until after the show wraps.

She said it's helpful, too, for parents to understand how to help their child navigate the world of theater.

The document also provides steps for when an issue arises. It outlines a "concern resolution path,"  ways that members of a company can communicate to help resolve an issue and hold individuals accountable, rather than the responsibility falling on victims to either speak out or continue to bear it.

While Fisher doesn't have concrete data to support the document's success, she does have lots of anecdotes about how the document working for companies. She said some companies that adopted it in Chicago realized they needed a change of leadership. She's seen actors take power into their hands, even walking out if a company wasn't following the safety standards set by the document. And she said hiring intimacy coordinators has become a common practice, when a few years ago it was a novel concept.

"Since we started this process in 2015, the document and its proliferation, if you will, I think, has raised the bar across schools, across companies all throughout the country, that are increasingly trying to talk about these ethical issues and make them more clear," Fisher said.

The Chicago group wrote the document to be adaptable to the specific challenges and needs of each company, in Chicago and beyond. 

The idea was not to make it so flexible that groups could misinterpret its meaning, but to still leave room for specific considerations and differences. That means that when the folks in Colorado started thinking of their own document, they could reuse most of the Chicago one, with considerations specific to Colorado's scene.

The Rocky Mountain ASA held a couple of kickoff meetings at CU Boulder. They invited Fisher to speak and share her experience with Chicago's document. And they invited the theater community to provide input about what they wanted to see in the document. After that, they met monthly, discussing the Chicago document page by page with theater groups like Phamaly, Curious Theatre and The Catamounts, which became some of the ASA's  producing partners.

The groups provided input about how to adapt the document to serve the Colorado scene's needs. For instance, Colorado doesn't have as many equity theater groups as Chicago does. It means there are fewer protections for local theater workers. It also means there was less language around equity built into the local theater culture.

The scene here is also less concentrated than in Chicago. Colorado's local scene is vast, spread out throughout the state. Often, folks work at companies in multiple counties. And the variety of companies you see within any city, let alone from Denver to a more rural area, is extensive.

"The theater landscape is huge," Astle said. "And given what we're trying to accomplish with the variety of theater makers, when you look at it from the lens of a designer, and an actor, and a director, and a dramaturg, they're all very different positions."

The result of those meetings was a 34-page running document called Rocky Mountain Artists' Safety Alliance Community Standards for Theatre.  They were getting ready to launch it around the time theaters shut down in the spring of 2020. It became an opportunity to navigate how, when theater did pick up again, it could do so safely. Rocky Mountain ASA partnered with the Colorado Theatre Guild, a network of theater workers, to hold discussions on safety, and to connect with companies across the state. The ASA says CTG has helped to organically get the document into the hands of theater workers, and has also opened up channels for communication and feedback to further tweak the document.

After two years of building the document, Rocky Mountain ASA recently released it, opening it up for groups to adopt, test and provide feedback. Astle says that there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of language around diversity, equity, inclusion and access. They designed it to be amended as groups try things out and discover other considerations.

"It's that work in progress as well as, let's get out what we have. Let's open the door for feedback and conversation," she said.

The document is not a contract. Organizations may opt into the document's practices free of charge, without outside enforcement.

Companies that adopt the document are committing to uphold its rules, and involved individuals can help enforce them.

The first part of the document outlines the baseline safety standards expected for any given production. For example, audition calls should be no longer than three hours and should not run later than 11 p.m., directors must hold a safety walkthrough at the start of production, and there should be no calls for undisclosed or not previously choreographed intimacy or violence at auditions.

A big part of the document is an expectation of clear disclosure at the time of audition or interview about what a role will look like, and what the demands will be, so that workers may make informed decisions about whether they want the job.

"If I accept a job thinking, I'm going to have to kiss somebody, and that's it, then I accept that job based on that perception," Villarreal explained. "But if the director is actually going to want my co-actor to reach up into my shirt, I should know that. I didn't agree to that when I accepted that job, reading the script, and seeing that 'they kiss' is in the script."

There's also a whole section defining harassment, and emphasizing the need to establish clear boundaries and that they can be reestablished or clarified over time.

The second part of the document outlines the concern resolution path. If a problem arises, it offers clear ways to make a complaint, work out a solution, hold parties accountable and provide mentorship for those who violate safety standards and boundaries. At the start of a production, a company is expected to provide a list of designated names and contacts for members to reach out to if an issue arises. People listed are expected to be provided with conflict resolution resources and training.

For each production, a company establishes a non-equity deputy, a confidential liaison or reporting channel between participants, the stage management team, and others on the resolution team. The non-equity deputy provides a safe line of confidential communication between parties. Because reports are anonymous, the selected deputy can help alleviate a participant's fear that reporting an issue might damage their career.

The process doesn't replace legal systems. When something illegal happens, it should still be reported and handled accordingly.

"Where the accountability happens, is empowering the person that it's happening to with the resources, the tools and the community support, to be able to then take the next step," Astle said. "We're not in the business of labeling theater companies as, 'you don't want to work there because it's not safe,' because it goes against how this whole thing started in the first place."

Instead of telling people to stay away from certain places, the emphasis is on making those places safer.

The Catamounts are a site-specific performance group that performs shows all over the Boulder and Denver area. They were one of the early adopters of the document last year.

Artistic Director Amanda Berg Wilson says the Community Standards for Theater document has helped them to take more risks, something the company is known for.

"We call it, 'theater for the adventurous palate.' And what that means is that we're often making work and spaces and kinds of work that don't necessarily have a lot of precedent, that are outside of the box," Berg Wilson said. "When you're flying without a net, you can't be as adventurous. You can't take as many risks, because you don't really have common understandings, because you're not relying on past experience."

The document is designed to be fluid, to be used in the face of unanticipated circumstances like, for instance, a global pandemic. It's a sort of blueprint for navigating new creative problems as they arise.

Last summer, The Catamounts did a show on a golf course, during a time were forest fires were causing smoke to flood the area.

"We had totally not anticipated that," Berg Wilson said. "We had talked a lot about, what if it rains, we'll do this and that. But we didn't talk at all about, what if the state is on fire and the air quality sucks?"

Berg Wilson says the concern resolution process helped them resolve the problem. Some performers anonymously voiced concerns to the non-equity deputy about performing outside when the air quality was unhealthy, and especially knowing that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. The deputy brought those concerns forward, and the company worked to determine a set of protocols for when AQI is high, like changing blocking and call times to reduce time spent outside.

"I cannot imagine what we would have done if we had not had it," Berg Wilson said. "I think it would have just felt much more like an adversarial situation between the producers and the performers."

She says that having the document means The Catamounts can make better art.

"I think there's a worry that like all of this kind of extra awareness around safety is gonna make it so that  we can't take risks," she said. "But I'm one of the more risk taking theater makers in the state. And I can tell you, it has the opposite effect. It makes me feel more confident in the risks that I take. Because I know I've taken care of my people."

It may take some time for the Colorado theater standards to take hold.

"It is difficult and painful for many people to acknowledge that what they've always done, and the practices they've inherited from the industry, might not be the most beneficial," Villarreal said.

Astle says larger companies might be particularly slow to adopt the document. Some of them already have their own set of standards. The DCPA, for instance, is an equity organization with an HR department. Still, Astle thinks people will come to see the value in having a shared language. She says there's a lot of peer pressure in the theater community.

Rather than focus on how to incentivize the entities to use the document, the ASA is looking at it from the bottom up. The hope is to get it into the hands of people in the community, and that if enough people want it, a company might adopt it.

"If there's enough actors that are like, Nope, I'm not going to work with you, because you're not following these protocols. That's where the change actually matters," Astle said. "That's where they go, Oh, well, maybe we need to start doing something different."

She also believes that because the document is designed to benefit everyone, it will take hold.

Now, the ASA is offering free coaching and support for groups beginning to adopt the document, helping companies interpret the document and understand how it can work for their company. Astle hopes the standards become a blueprint, not just for theater, but for other arts industries. 

"I hope that we can get this experience with the theater community enough off the ground, that then I can help translate it for the comedians of the world, and the visual artists of the world that we know are struggling with the same kind of power dynamics," she said.

Meanwhile, Villarreal is seeing signs that the document is paying off. She says CU Boulder's theater department has adopted the document.

"I know from talking to my students at CU Boulder, so many of them have voiced the fact that just using the document has helped them realize that they can stand up for themselves in other ways," Villarreal said.

She said that last summer, going into the 2020-21 school year, one of her students helped to draft an open letter to the faculty of CU's theater and dance department demanding they implement antiracist policies in the curriculum.

"I don't know a single person who would have done that in undergrad when I was an undergrad," Villarreal said. "And she looked at me and was like, 'If you guys hadn't started the document and doing intimacy choreography workshops, and teaching that it would be OK, I don't know if I would have put my name on it.' The fact that we are inspiring some people to take the work and move it further. That's the evidence for me."

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