It has been pushed from the front pages by other matters, but the Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck is still picking up passengers and crushing powerful and famous men. It has hardly been a shock that a plurality of the figures exposed have come from the world of show business, with prominent directors taking a heavy hit. Another one became rail kill this week, when the board of trustees of the famed Long Wharf Theater fired its longtime artistic director Gordon Edelstein over accusations of sexual misconduct, one day after The New York Times published an article detailing the allegations by multiple women, four of whom accused Edelstein of groping or worse.
Like Weinstein himself, Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and many other men on the list, Edelstein is a less than stunning male who may have never learned normal ways to interact with women, because he entered the warped and unique culture of the performing arts before he was an adult, and never learned the manners of civilized society. Directors are especially at risk for this effect: expect many more to be accused and fired.
This is one way to increase the ranks of female directors, I guess.
Here is the typical progression. A young heterosexual man whose talents and interests do not run to sports and who is not particularly successful socially joins a theatrical group or club in high school. It is a revelation. Females vastly outnumber males, and many of the males that are involved are gay. He finds it far easier to form relationships with girls in this environment, particularly during the hyper-intense, exciting period approaching production and the performances themselves. All the classic features of a crisis-sparked romance are present, and they are especially enthralling the first time around in a theater setting. The girls are similarly stimulated. Flirting is epidemic, easy, and successful. If you have never experienced it, the environment is hard to imagine, but it is addictive, and it is sexy.
The young man follows a similar path in college. If he begins directing or producing shows, he learns that power and position are aphrodisiacs, and he is sorely temped to abuse his authority by accepting one or more the many sexual overtures he receives from female members of his cast and production staff. Nobody looks at this as a conflict of interest in college, or later in community theater, because literally everybody does it. It is expected. It is a perk of being a director. So the young man, who was and is too scrawny, short or fat to be an athlete, too ordinary-looking to be a player, too shy to be the sexual aggressor, finds that his attentions to young women are almost never unwelcome. The competition in college theater is fierce, and unless the young man is literally a troll, plenty of actresses will find a way to regard him as attractive for their own ends.
After college, community theater offers the same benefits. Talented—hell, competent— directors are rare, and those who exist are treated like sultans by the organizations and grateful performers. There are more performances, more parties, more booze, and the single women are more desperate, as are the actresses and singers with high and often unreasonable aspirations.
Starting in college with my first directing gig, I developed a personal ethic that it was wrong to have relationships within a show I was directing. Nevertheless, I have yielded to opportunity and temptation a few times over the decades, though I was and am so reticent that in every case, I was the courtee or the propositionee rather than the courter or propositioner.
If a director moves up to professional theater, the culture and sexual culture is no different, and neither is the typical behavior. Yet it is different, and materially so. The theater is a workplace now, and what was unethical abuse of power in amateur theater—amateur means “for love”—is unprofessional and potential sexual harassment once paychecks and careers are involved.
Yet after a lifetime of enjoying the weird culture of the theater and the magical way it converts nerds, geeks and dorks into objects of desire, how are directors supposed to learn this? Why would they want to? The rules should have changed, but they haven’t. There are no ethics codes for directors. Nobody teaches seminars in directing ethics. Moreover, the directors’ sexual attentions have always been welcomed because of their power and position, and because performer crave attention.Why would a director assume that actresses would suddenly find the moves they’ve used since the 9th grade “unwelcome,” and thus sexual harassment? Most directors don’t assume that, or comprehend the rish they are facing by acting like it was the Yale Drama School all over again, but for money They are living by high school and college rules in a professional world. It always worked before. Suddenly directors like Edelstein are being fired for the ingrained habits that have been reinforced by positive results since their teens.
Most of them don’t know what hit them.