I was a working actress in the 90s. I wasn’t famous, but I made rent. I was up for a minor role–a scarcely-written character with fun songs–in an international production of a contemporary American hit. There was just one catch: the Tony-award-winning producer had a temper of legendary proportions.
Over the course of a few weeks, I met with numerous people involved with the production, including Mr. Producer. Or more accurately, I met his temper.
Its reputation failed to fully encapsulate the fury–and spit–it held. I disapproved of his actions and knew I didn’t want to take the part if offered. This was not a man I wanted to sweat, laugh, breathe, and dream around for eight months or longer.
I called my agent, advising her of my decision. She told me I couldn’t walk away like this. “Either make the call, or I will,” I directed. Begrudgingly, she consented, cautioning, “you’ll never work again. He’ll end your career.” I laughed. How could anyone except me end my career?
Two days later, on a Sunday morning that had yet to find the sun, my phone rang. Mr. Producer was furious I had walked away from HIS production. “Who do you think you are?” He demanded. I hung up the phone, cutting him off as he declared my career over. The phone rang again almost immediately. Mr. Producer had more to say; I was in no mood to listen and again hung up the phone. When it rang for the third time, I declined to answer. As I crawled back into bed, I wondered if I had just excommunicated myself from the theatre world.
A few weeks went by before my agent called. “You have an audition; I suggest you go.” No pleasantries, no banter. She gave me the details then hung up. I realized I’d need a new agent but suddenly wondered if I would get one.
Asking AEA to declare someone unsuitable for work feels to me like giving your power away. If we want to change our industry, we have to start saying “No” to bad behavior BEFORE they rise to a position of authority.
The audition was for a comparable large-scale dramatic production. I had not been submitted for the part; the producers reached out to my agent about bringing me in. “We heard about your situation with Mr. Producer, and we wanted you for the show.”
In leaving Mr. Producer, I had unknowingly declared my value. I was willing to wait until the right buyer came forward. It happened to work out in my favor, and I found myself on casting director request lists with increased frequency.
I recently received an invitation to participate in the recent “March on Broadway” asking labor union Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) to put Scott Rudin on the “Do Not Work List,” because of industry comments on his “abusive behavior.” To me, it seems very much like closing the barn door after the horses have fled.
A mass gathering to pressure an organization to deny someone’s employment for past social behavior is just a different type of bullying. ‘Do what we want, or we’ll harm you.’ I believe those who attend these events – generally sensitive, well-meaning, and supportive people as we artists generally tend to be – are diminished by such an event and feel it, despite what they are telling themselves. These marches are not empowering; they are a sham.
The past is a hazy landscape that gets hazier as time progresses forward. It doesn’t matter if you think of the clever retort to an insult when you wake up the following morning; the moment of value has passed. In reality, you don’t get to call the person up and restart the fight. You lost. Move forward. Don’t lose the next one.
Mr. Producer presented himself as he actually was: an asshole, a bully. If you choose to play in that sandbox, you know what you’re getting into from the get-go. What am I worth? What is my choice worth? You make your decision and take the consequences.
Ideally, saying “No” to bad behavior BEFORE they rise to a higher position of authority has the best chance to make things better. Most of these blowhard bullies are not behaving this way for the sake of ego pumping, even if they don’t realize it themselves. Most of the time, they have their eyes on a prize that hasn’t much to do with you. You’re just one of the cogs which aren’t turning the right way. Bullying is the fallback tool that gets what they want because it has worked well enough in the past.
No one can directly control someone else’s actions or behaviors–ask anyone who’s ever tried to get a 2-year-old to do something they don’t want to do. And if no one can regulate a 2-year-old, who is dependent upon us for food, shelter, and nurturing, someone we can literally pick up and remove from a situation, how can anyone expect to control the actions of another human? This is true for the one vying for the job and especially true for a human with influence, power, fame, and decades of behaviors allowed to go unchecked.
Honoring or sticking up for your value may not change the bully’s behavior in general, but they might change it towards you. That’s up to them. If you give in, that’s up to you. Ultimately, the only person we can control is ourselves. And if enough of us do that, to take responsibility for our self-worth in the moment when the challenge presents itself, then the real change can happen.
When Mahatma Gandhi encouraged boycotts of British goods and organized mass protests that drove the British out of India, he demonstrated how we could be the change we wanted to see. Through his non-violent acts he sent a clear message that inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated, even if carried out by a ruling sovereign. In comparison, shouldn’t castigating a single individual require considerably less effort?
I didn’t blame Mr. Producer for my leaving the show then, and time has not altered my perspective, even though the line of what is culturally appropriate has moved. The choice was mine to make; the value mine to decide. Would I accept the behavior and stay or reject the behavior and walk away? I chose the latter because my well-being was worth more than what the show offered.
Know what you want. Get a good idea of who you are and what you’re capable of doing. And never, ever sell yourself short.
Brooke Taylor is a freelance writer, and former actress. She writes about media and entertainment for select publications.