'It's terrifying': Acting students preparing to face sexual harassment in theatre

Several acting students at the University of Windsor say they have taken self-defence classes and intimacy workshops in preparation for unwanted advances they expect to encounter once they enter the industry.

Sexual harassment 'common' in acting industry, say students

Second year acting student Katy Chapman said she's scared to enter the industry because cases of sexual harassment seem so common. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Several acting students at the University of Windsor say they have taken self-defence classes and intimacy workshops in preparation for unwanted advances they expect to encounter once they enter the industry.

"It's terrifying honestly, being in this industry as a woman is terrifying," said second year student Sarah Hagarty. "Knowing that these things are tolerated and in certain scenarios are encouraged is absolutely terrifying."

Allegations of sexual misconduct against Canadian actor Albert Schultz have left the theatre community reeling.

Sarah Hagarty said becoming an actor today is "terrifying." 0:25

Four actresses have filed civil lawsuits against Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company and Schultz, its artistic director.

The women have alleged in separate lawsuits against Schultz and the company that they experienced unwanted groping, harassment and sexual remarks in the workplace from 2000 to 2013.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. Schultz resigned from the theatre company Thursday after issuing a statement saying he plans to defend himself against the allegations.

The accusations against Schultz follow months of sexual harassment allegations against high-profile American figures in sports, media and the entertainment industry.

The avalanche of allegations began after dozens of women accused disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment.

Accusations not a surprise

The acting students said they weren't surprised by the accusations levelled at Schultz — it's something they've come to expect.

"I'm not fazed by it anymore just because it's becoming such a common thing," explained Katy Chapman. "It's just something I've learned I'll have to deal with … whether it's myself or people I know. It's just part of my world."

You can't do the Libertine without playing a character that's a sexual predator, and so things get murky.- Lezlie  Wade, guest director at the University of Windsor

Chapman said she's scared to enter the industry, but is not willing to give up on her career before it even begins.

Instead, she and other members of the program have begun preparing themselves.

For Lauren Watson that means taking a self defence course. The second year student said she has already been in situations that have made her uncomfortable and been the subject of backhanded comments, but she wants to be ready if something more aggressive happens — a possibility she describes as "pretty likely."

Acting student Lauren Watson shares her fears about sexual harassment in the theatre industry. 0:20

"I don't want to think about it, but I have to," she explained. "It's mostly about teaching myself what to do and how to act in everyday life to protect myself."

Hagarty said the university has been supportive of students and hosted an intimacy workshop at the end of the fall semester aimed at teaching students what's OK and not OK during scenes.

Lezlie Wade, guest director at the University of Windsor, has worked at Soulpepper and knows Schultz. 

Wade said she experienced sexual misconduct first as a drama student, and later in her theatre career. She recounted one experience as a student where, after expressing concern over a professor and student dating, she was pulled from her roles in a production.

Lezlie Wade, guest director at the University of Windsor advises students to put themselves before their careers. (Jason Viau/CBC)

The director said there are elements of the entertainment industry that can make actors more vulnerable.

 "We are constantly doing plays about characters that are reprehensible," said Wade. "You can't do the Libertine without playing a character that's a sexual predator, and so things get murky."

Wade added it's important to have open communication during a production. 

"Right off the bat, I make it very clear that this is a room that if there are issues or complications or problems or people are uncomfortable, conversations can be had, she said"

Put yourself before your career

Wade is currently working with an all-female cast of a production of Les Belles Soeurs and planned to speak with her performers about the Schultz story before rehearsal Thursday.

As a director, she tries to be sensitive to someone's comfort level with a scene. "Maybe there's another way of doing things that doesn't have to make an actor or an actress uncomfortable," said Wade. "Sometimes peeling off a glove from someone's hand can be far more sensual than something far more elaborate."

One piece of advice Wade gives to her students is that they don't have to do everything they are asked to do to have a career. "Your career will happen. You just need to take your time."

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