PerformInk is Chicago's entertainment industry trade publication.
Pictured: Writers Theatre in Glencoe, IL
By Jason Epperson and Abigail Trabue
Trigger Warnings: Sexual Harassment and Language
On November 2nd, Tom Robson, a theater historian and associate professor at Millikin University, posted to social media a revelation. “Literally never been more scared to post something in my life,” the first tweet read before he proceeded to relay the following:
“In 2003 I served as the assistant director and dramaturg for the world premiere of CRIME & PUNISHMENT at Writers Theatre. The director was Writers’ Artistic Director Michael Halberstam. He spent much of that rehearsal process sexually harassing me, verbally and physically. Through his comments, he regularly made me question whether the only reason I was in the room was because of my appearance. His hands often ended up on my leg or on my rear end. I did not know how to respond. I was a 23-year-old unpaid intern and he ran one of the most respected companies in the city.”
It’s an account of incidents that — according to various prominent industry professionals and former staffers — are anything but isolated. From off-hand sexual comments to egregious propositions, the environment at Writers is one that is often described as sexually-charged, led by the otherwise well-respected co-founder of the 25-year-old company.
Doug Peck, one of Chicago’s top musical directors, has worked with the company on three productions and recalls a multitude of incidents during his time there. “It’s not that I want to fuck him, it’s that I want to know that he wants to fuck me” was one quip he recounts Halberstam directing at an actor who was within earshot. Peck, remorseful for not speaking out sooner, feels that people need to know that what happened to Robson has happened to others. One incident he recounted involved Chicago actor and director Rob Lindley, Peck’s then-husband. Both were in a tech rehearsal when Halberstam said in front of the large group “Rob Lindley is the only guy in town who won’t return my sexual advances.”
Peck and others who wish to remain anonymous describe an environment where they are expected to flirt with Halberstam to work at Writers. Jokes about being “too old” or “too fat” to get cast abound. Educators caution their students about auditioning there due to too many stories of uncomfortable situations, and former employees describe unending sexual comments, and a general responsibility to be “on” in a sexual way when Halberstam is around.
“Sexually explicit and suggestive comments are the norm from Michael,” one anonymous artist said. “Most times met with an eye-roll and a ‘Geesh Michael!’ but even then there’s a pervasive sense of ‘eew’ or ‘yikes’ in the room. The confidence and humor with which Michael makes these comments is so pronounced that he often gets away with saying unbelievable things because he’s delivered it with such gusto, followed by a tiny grin that either suggests ‘I dare you to call me on this’ or sometimes he would actually say ‘well, I guess you’re going to have to call H.R.’ with a big laugh. It’s like the theatre-geek gay boy finally got a locker room of his own and now believes that (if served with laughs) he will be granted the same ‘boys will be boys’ allowances that straight men and our current President are given.”
“I don’t think Michael is a bad person,” the individual went on to say. “I think he has a warped sense of appropriateness. I think he enjoys being in power. I think he enjoys sex. The things he regularly says are done in a way that is SO confident and boisterous that you can’t imagine challenging him.” Power is a recurring theme.
Jokes about “calling HR” are commonplace. The company, which most say has long been well aware of the problem, has, in a sense, finally made that call. The Board of Directors has engaged a human resources consultant to investigate the Robson claim, and Halberstam has “agreed to fully cooperate with the investigation,” according to a statement. Yet production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, slated to begin previews on Wednesday, continues with Halberstam in the director’s chair. “He should not be in rehearsal,” says Peck, “there are plenty of people who could finish the process.”
Writers’ statement also said that “the Board of Directors took immediate action and is committed to ensuring a safe work environment, free of inappropriate conduct.” The board has asked Writers employees, including Halberstam, to allow the internal investigation to proceed and not publicly comment. Halberstam immediately shut down his social media accounts after Robson posted his accusations, and has made no statement. Halberstam himself sits on the board and is highly influential in the direction of the company, having founded it and presided as Artistic Director ever since.
Peck and others point out that there is often confusion inside theater companies surrounding the reporting of inappropriate incidents. Where does one turn when there is no internal HR department and the accused is at the top of the chain of command? The recent “Not In Our House” movement is aimed more at non-union theaters, but it is becoming increasingly obvious institutions of any size would benefit from having clear directives for support and protection.
Most of the individuals we spoke to still hold tremendous respect for Writers, and express a hope that these revelations are used as a tool for reform and change, instead of tearing the institution down.
As for Robson, he finished his statements on Twitter saying “for 14 years I have blamed myself for not stopping it. It wasn’t my fault. As a teacher I owe it to my students to try to send them into a better industry than I found. We must all do better. And we must look out for each other.” He closed quoting a lyric from the musical 9 TO 5 — “Tear the damn dam down. And change it.”