• Abigail Hall

OU drama students address need to change following multiple sexual harassment allegations...

Originally published at OU Daily with co-writer Jana Allen, Oct. 28, 2018

Ashtonn Thompson sat on a bench outside Old Science Hall — staring into the distance, he said he was shocked when he heard the allegations of sexual harassment within the same halls he calls home.

Thompson, an acting senior, said he has been active in the OU School of Drama since his freshman year in 2015. When he discovered sexual harassment allegations had been brought against a professor he knew — Tom Orr, the former School of Drama director who stepped down from the position but remained a professor after the allegations came out — Thompson said he was forced to face the reality he’s seen in the media and across the nation.

“I was surprised because ... this is my home, and how did I miss that?” Thompson said. “What could I have been doing? What could I have done to talk to someone?”

Like Thompson, many others across the nation have expressed shock in the wake of such serious allegations surfacing against people they know.

On Oct. 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted to invite individuals to share personal stories of assault after several Hollywood actresses accused producer Harvey Weinstein of years of sexual abuse. Milano’s tweet went viral and countless individuals responded using the hashtag #MeToo to share their stories.

If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.

Since 2017 and the breakthrough of the #MeToo movement, an explosion of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations have been brought to light against CEOs, producers, politicians and others, causing a shift in the national culture whose effects are still being seen today.

In the #MeToo era, these shifts have been evident at OU, with sexual harassment allegations against two influential individuals coming out in the last six months — Orr and John Scamehorn, a former School of Drama donor and OU professor. Since then, there have been discussions in the School of Drama on how to address these issues, but students, faculty and staff have had varying reactions.

‘We have created a culture where we have excused behavior.’

Delaney Lovejoy's acting professors in the School of Drama told her professionals in the industry will desire her and sexualize her.

Since professors weren’t explaining what is and is not appropriate, the acting junior said this was a conversation that didn’t feel helpful, especially to the young women who already have an understanding that they will likely be sexualized wherever they are, she said.

“I think the only conversation that needs to be had is what is appropriate for a professional director or coworker to say to you and what isn't, so that when those situations arise you can appropriately deal with them,” Lovejoy said. “But that's not the conversation that was had with us.”

Lovejoy said she believes there has been a pattern of excusing inappropriate behavior in the School of Drama. Students have typically brushed things off with the excuse that the professor is from another time, or that’s just how it is in the industry, she said.

“Almost every time that I meet up in large groups of my friends, instances (of inappropriate behavior) are brought up and we all express how disappointing it is that it is that way, but we haven't historically done anything about it,” Lovejoy said. “We just say, ‘That sucks,’ and we move on with our day, and we try not to internalize as much of that negative feeling that you can get from a conversation like that.”

Costume design junior Ciara Smith said another example of an issue that needs to be addressed is students having close relationships with their professors. She said the school considers itself a family due to its small size, but sometimes this can blur the line between professor and friend.

“You can't be like a family or like a friend to a student when you control their grade,” Smith said. “And I think that line has been blurred, I believe, unintentionally. I think that's the line that needs to be drawn.”

Drama junior Lydia Brinkmann said it is required in fine arts schools for students and professors to discuss things that classes in other departments would not be able to — for example, talking about sex and different sexual themes when it has to do with a production.

But Brinkmann said there is still a line that needs to be drawn, with careful steps taken to ensure things don’t go the wrong way.

“You have to be careful that we're not looked at only for our sexuality and evaluated only because of our sex and looked at only as a sexual (item),” Brinkmann said. “If that's the problem ... that is something we need to address.”

Hannah Grillot, a dramaturgy senior who is currently studying abroad in Israel, used the allegations against Orr as an example of faculty members knowing students have concerns but not directly dealing with them.

“I know that they kind of turn a blind eye to it, whether because they believe at the end of the day he’s helping (students), or because they believe he’s a good person, he means well, or because they just don’t want to deal with it,” Grillot said. “I don’t know, but either way, I don’t think it’s right, and I think that’s not the correct thing for them to be doing as people who are obligated to help us for the four years of our life that we’re in college.”

In the aftermath of The Daily’s story highlighting the allegations against Orr, the interim director of the School of Drama Judith Pender sent out an email to faculty saying The Daily’s story was a “smear campaign” and that it contained “outright lies.”

OU Provost Kyle Harper responded by sending an email saying there was no reason to believe anything in the story was inaccurate and students should be free to share their stories of difficult situations.

This divide was also represented in the student body, with some students unable to reconcile their positive experiences with the negative reports from others, said dramaturgy and journalism junior Ryan Gaylor. Gaylor said it was disappointing some students were upset about The Daily’s decision to report the allegations.

“And that’s one of the things that was so distressing ... everyone being divided was so unusual for us,” Gaylor said. “It’s so extremely unlike us to be fractured this way.”

Gaylor said the school is a very close-knit environment which comes with a distrust of outsiders and the desire to keep things “in-house.”

“But I don't think that serves us as a school, as a university,” Gaylor said. “That might make us feel better, that might be so much less contentious and easier, but I don't know how much that would actually serve us.”

Lovejoy said one of the most important things is for students to call out both inappropriate behavior and things that make them uncomfortable as soon as they happen.

“It's easier for lines to become blurred or crossed in the classroom setting because there are things that we know to be not appropriate for a work setting or not appropriate to an educational setting, which other people have done again and again out in the professional world,” Lovejoy said. “I think we have created a sort of culture for ourselves where we have excused behavior of students and faculty members alike.”

‘A lot of people thought this kind of day would never come — and now it’s OK to talk about it.’

Professionals in the performing arts communities said the #MeToo movement highlighted a cycle of continual abuse by those in power within these communities.

“The #MeToo movement has really brought that into public eye and made people much more aware of what their rights are and that’s to the good of the industry,” said Kathryn McGill, Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park executive and artistic director.

McGill said Shakespeare in the Park implemented a sexual assault and harassment policy in 2015 to hold its staff accountable, and no issues have been reported since. Every year the company re-evaluates necessary changes to the policy to better protect its staff, she said.

“When those things happen, I think it’s really important that the administration takes a look at, ‘Do they have a policy?’ and ‘Did a different policy work for them?’ You have to take care of the people who work for you,” McGill said. “I think the #MeToo movement has been to the good of the theater industry.”

Amy Oestreicher, a New York-based theater actress, playwright, and sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder expert, said #MeToo has had a direct impact on the theater industry, which has resulted in an open dialogue about secrecy and abuse at the hands of those in positions of power.

“A lot of people thought this kind of day would never come — and now it’s OK to talk about it,” Oestreicher said. “I just see a general movement where people are feeling more comfortable talking about these things.”

Oestreicher said abuse from people in power can happen in any community, but because of the vulnerable nature of the arts community, such as using the body, voice and identity to tell stories, authority figures can create cultures of secrecy and manipulation.

Oestreicher said an example is when young, impressionable individuals enter the professional field and are taken advantage of by those they trust in the industry, such as producers and directors. Often, these individuals are convinced to keep quiet because of threats against their job and reputation, or they have been convinced that sexual relationships between young actors and older, powerful individuals are OK, she said.

Oestreicher said it’s important to educate individuals about the abuse and how it is allowed to happen, as well as symptoms of abuse and PTSD.

“Understanding from the community is going to make it so much easier for that person to come forward,” Oestreicher said. “It’s the secrets that keep us sick.”

Smith said the #MeToo movement should cause change and impact every institution teaching performance arts.

“In the wake of the #MeToo movement ... we looked at ourselves and we found areas that we needed to improve, and we have been working toward them really aggressively,” Smith said.

‘Creating a more safe and inclusive environment’

According to Thompson, the School of Drama has realized changes are needed after the many sexual harassment allegations brought to light this past summer.

Efforts have been made within the school. College of Fine Arts faculty and staff have been required to take extra and in-depth Title IX training, and faculty members are making an effort to be more open with students about what makes them uncomfortable, Smith said.

Thompson said though he has never experienced inappropriate behavior, he has noticed a change in the School of Drama since the allegations surfaced about Scamehorn and Orr. There is a sense of “camaraderie” among the students, he said.

Students look out for each other more than they did before, ensuring everyone is able to feel comfortable in the spaces where they spend so much of their time, Thompson said.

“It’d be like being like, ‘Hey, were you comfortable in that scene? I wasn’t sure about that. Do you want to talk?’ Or just things like that,” Thompson said. “It’s much more looking out for your neighbor and making sure that nothing has to get to the extremes that it has gotten to in the past.”

According to Thompson, since the allegations were reported and the investigations into Orr and Scamehorn were completed, the School of Drama faculty have opened “the doors for communication, much wider than they’ve been in the past.” He said this shift in faculty conduct came because they could not mention details from the investigations for legal reasons.

However, Grillot said the faculty still have room to improve.

“I think our faculty should be a lot more transparent about things that happen in the department. There’s a lot of secrecy and misinformation that arises in the School of Drama,” Grillot said. “(We) need to not be so afraid of being transparent and being called out on our mistakes and making transparent changes for the better.”

Acting senior Caleb Hennigan said he has seen those same changes and thinks it’s a vast improvement from before.

“I see us all just working together toward the goal of creating a more safe and inclusive environment for everybody,” Hennigan said. “Instead of just professor and student, it's a teamwork of ‘How can we create art that is good and ... also art that we feel safe doing?’”

Brinkmann said she believes the stories of those who felt like they were victims of harassment in the school and students being uncomfortable has been commonplace over the years, but she thinks professors have done a better job about bringing those issues up and addressing them.

Grillot said she has heard from her peers that positive changes have been made since the Scamehorn and Orr stories surfaced, but she doesn’t believe any change in the school will be adequate if Orr is still involved.

“I still think there’s a distinct line between what is right or wrong, what is appropriate and what is not appropriate,” Grillot said. “I definitely think he is aware of that line and is aware that he crosses it. I think maybe he was trying to help us in some way by crossing this line, making us stronger people, but ... I think it has hurt people more than it is helpful, and I think he needs to answer to that with consequences against him.”

Hennigan said he has seen Orr make changes to his teaching style over time in order to work better with more students. He said for the show Orr is directing, “The Christmas Carol,” Orr started the rehearsal process by encouraging the students to let him know if they ever feel uncomfortable.

“Communication-wise, he's making changes so that his intentions are better understood and better thought-out,” Hennigan said.

Dean Mary Margaret Holt of the Weitzenhoffer College of Fine Arts is leading the School of Drama as it searches for a new director following Pender’s stepping down, which was one day after she sent the email to faculty about The Daily’s story on Orr.

Holt now holds open office hours where students can come talk to her about their concerns, experiences and goals for the future, Brinkmann said.

Brinkmann said her professors have encouraged students to stand up for themselves and speak out about the issues they see in the world of fine arts.

“I watched some of my professors describe some of the horrible things that they had to go through,” Brinkmann said. “They said ... ‘We didn't have the power to (say it wasn’t okay) then, and you do — so go out and do it.’ It's like we're having that turnover of ‘No, you can't say that anymore. We're not going to take it.’”

‘If we don’t change now, we’re not going to change later.’

Grillot said the changes that #MeToo has implemented within the industry should be reflected in training at the School of Drama prior to entering the professional world.

“We don’t have to just be susceptible to sexual harassment anymore. We don’t have to allow ourselves to be emotionally manipulated and abused anymore,” Grillot said. “The industry is changing, and we need to be encouraged to be at the forefront of that.”

Grillot said instead of continuing to educate students to accept assault and harassment as a standard of the industry, the School of Drama administration and professors should educate them on how to change that culture.

“The way to prepare us for sexual harassment in the industry is to give us the tools to allow us to change the industry,” Grillot said.

Gaylor echoed that sentiment, saying there needs to be immediate change, especially at the collegiate level, for graduates to succeed in the industry.

“The issues that are prevalent in the industry aren’t going to be changed by the people who have been in the industry while it’s been happening. It’ll be the new blood — which is us,” Gaylor said. “And if we put up with that now, we’re being conditioned to put up with it professionally.”

Gaylor said he would like to see the School of Drama become a safer environment for training artists. He said the school needs to be open to a conversation between faculty and students about what is acceptable moving forward in the era of #MeToo.

“If we don’t change now,” Gaylor said, “we’re not going to change later.”

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