P.E.I. theatres take close look at sexual harassment policies

Amid sexual harassment allegations roiling the theatre community in Canada, P.E.I. theatres are adopting new policies to prevent toxic workplace cultures.

National campaign offers guidance, support to theatres to combat sexual harassment in industry

Island theatres say they are implementing stronger sexual harassment policies and awareness at their theatres. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Amid sexual harassment allegations roiling the theatre community in Canada, P.E.I. theatres are adopting new policies to prevent toxic workplace cultures.

The renewed attention to policies and working environments comes after four female actors allege in a lawsuit that they were sexually harassed by Albert Schultz, the former artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre in Ontario, over a 13-year period.

Soulpepper is investigating the allegations saying it had a priority to create a workplace where "all its employees feel safe." Schultz vowed to "vigorously defend" himself against the allegations.

The heads of theatre programming on the Island said they are working on implementing better policies and offering more support for actors and management in dealing with complaints.

Not in Our Space

Dean Constable, the general manager of theatre at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, said the theatre began a review of its policies last fall and will be implementing the Not in Our Space initiative from the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres.

"It certainly is a really important time within our industry to look at what is happening and behaviour," Constable said. "It reinforces some of the work that is being done trying to stamp out this behaviour within the industry."

The Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, P.E.I., will also be implementing the Not in Our Space campaign, said general manager Andrea Surich.

Dean Constable, the general manager at the Confederation Centre, says they will be implementing the Not in Our Space campaign initiative at their first rehearsals in the spring. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"The first thing I did was go back to our policies, because we're just a little theatre, so I'm HR," Surich said. "And it made me go back to the package I give on the first day of anyone working at Watermark, and realize it's pretty vague. It talks about respect, it talks about, 'if you have trouble, come to me.' But it needs to be more robust, so that's what I immediately started thinking about."

She said the support coming from a national campaign will help her small theatre, which lacks the staffing support of a larger theatre.

"They are producing a ton of materials and information and training, so that will be a boon for someone like me who is from a theatre, to be able to roll that kind of information out," Surich said.

Policies sometimes not enough

Actor Alicia Toner, a regular in the Charlottetown Festival, said the allegations highlight what's long been an issue in the industry.

"Any place I've worked, policies are there. But they're not talked about," Toner said. "And I think this has been a very eye opening experience for everyone."

Watermark Theatre general manager Andrea Surich says the new national initiative to combat sexual harassment will help provide support to small theatres. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

The Confederation Centre's general manager acknowledged this reality and said they can go further than they have in making policies clear to everyone.

"A really great lesson to learn is we can always do better," Constable said. "We have our policies posted for our employees, but we can go much further in letting people know what the procedure is and what's there. And that is part of the 'Not in our Space' program. So the first day of rehearsal, there'll be time taken to explain what the policies are and the ways they can report."

Charlottetown Festival performer Alicia Toner believes there's been a shift in the conversation around sexual harassment in the theatre industry. (aliciatonermusic.com)

Both Constable and Surich said the focus will be on creating a safe work culture and ensuring people trust the organization to come forward with complaints without fear of retaliation.

"We want to ensure it's not just a policy on paper, but that people know what that policy is and how people can access help when they see something making them uncomfortable in the workplace," Constable said.

Students receive training

Performing arts students at Holland College also get training on how to identify and deal with sexual harassment in the industry as part of their curriculum.

"The most important thing we can do for our students is give them a strong sense of confidence in their ability and help them learn good judgment," said Peggy Reddin, the director of arts education at the Confederation Centre.

Brielle Ansems, a first-year student in the theatre performance program at Holland College, says she hears a lot about sexual harassment problems from her friends in the industry. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

The training and national conversation about behaviour in the industry is welcome for Brielle Ansems, a first-year student in the theatre performance program.

"One of the problems there is right now is a lot of companies and individuals don't realize when it's happening, particularly with something like sexual harassment from higher ups in a company," she said.

Ansems said she hears a lot about that problem, from friends in the entertainment industry and through the growing number of actors coming forward with accusations against people in power.

"It's so prevalent, that so many of us in the industry are made to feel intimidated, and it's sort of excused for a person's talent," Ansems said. "The product they produce, if it's something really meaningful, they look more at that than examining the process."

Toner said she thinks there's been a shift in the theatre world and people will be more willing to come forward now.

"I think there has been a very palpable shift, and that women especially aren't going to go quietly," Toner said. "We're going to have more confidence speaking up."

With files from Steve Bruce

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