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Supervision, information are keys to theater safety

No local theater works with more children and teens than Easy Street Productions.

Dozens of minors fill the stage for its annual “Miracle on Easy Street” and many of its larger musicals.

As area theater groups evaluate their policies after several young women claimed they experienced everything from unwanted groping to statutory rape while performing at area theaters, Easy Street co-founder Todd Hancock said adult and parental supervision is key.

“People looking to take advantage of anyone, adults or young people, they like the dark,” Hancock said. “They like to do that when no one’s looking, thinking they can get away with it. That’s why we always try to be completely transparent. We have parents watch rehearsals. We have adults help us in the rehearsal process and when the show is running.”

Until the final week or so before show opening when everything is put together, children rehearse with children, dancers rehearse with dancers and adults generally rehearse with adults. Age-appropriate casting is practiced, and when older teens are cast with adult dancers for some numbers, Hancock said he will consult with the parents to make sure they are comfortable with the costumes their children will be wearing.

“They don’t even try it on until the parent looks at it,” he said.

The policies weren’t put in place in the mid ’90s to protect minors from sexual predators. Many were designed primarily to make rehearsals and performances run smoothly.

“But over the years, it’s proven to be the safest way to do things,” he said.

Grace Offerdahl is one of the women who shared her story online and with this newspaper, alleging she was sexually abused by an adult she met in theater when she was between the ages of 13 and 16. One theater where she never had a problem was Youngstown’s Rust Belt Theater Company, which she referred to as her “safe space.”

Rust Belt founder Robert Dennick Joki said it always has an organizational meeting before the first rehearsal, explaining what is expected of everyone involved.

“One of the things we talk about is having a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of predatory behavior,” he said. “I want to make sure everyone is comfortable coming to me with any kind of concern. At the earliest inkling, we can squash it. And if it’s just a misunderstanding, we can take care of that, too.”

Rust Belt is known for doing some risque material. Generally, the company doesn’t cast minors in those shows. If Joki is approached by a parent whose child wants to appear in “Living Dead: The Musical” or one of its other original shows, “I make sure they know what to expect, and we take extra precautions with the dressing room. … You have to have an open line of communication.”

Since the personal tales started appearing earlier this month, some theaters already have implemented changes.

John Cox, president of the Youngstown Playhouse board, said Tuesday, “Whatever needs to be done to break the cycle, we should do,” and the following day the Playhouse announced several additions to existing policies.

Youngstown’s Hopewell Theatre did not respond to a request for an interview, but the theater posted on its Facebook page a statement that included, “We at Hopewell have failed to address the wrongly permissive culture that puts young people, particularly but not exclusively girls and young women, in uncomfortable and potentially damaging situations, on stage and off. We acknowledge and regret that people have been hurt at Hopewell Theatre because of that laxness. That is completely unacceptable, and it will change starting now.”

Hopewell said it plans to adopt policies guided by the Chicago Theatre Standards Project, a 33-page document that addresses such issues as harassment, discrimination and bullying.

Lisa Bennett, treasurer of the Trumbull New Theatre board and a frequent director at the Niles theater, said it will address the issue at Monday’s board meeting.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever had a problem on that level (reported elsewhere),” she said. “When things have come up, we jumped on them right away and dealt with them. … I expect us to police our own. In my heart, that’s truly what I expect from the theater. I grew up in theater. I expect it to be a safe space.”

One thing Bennett and others would like to see come from this is that the different community theaters share information with each other.

“If someone screws up at one theater, they shouldn’t be able to come to TNT and audition,” Bennett said. “If there are problems, I need to know.”

Right now that information isn’t shared.

“Easy Street is kind of in a bubble,” Hancock said. “So often we’ve worked with the same leading people. Don’t always assume rumors about one person are floating to other theater companies. … I’ve seen people say guys keep getting cast even though they have a reputation. I hope that isn’t true. Speaking as director at Easy Street, no one is that talented. I don’t need anyone that bad. Bottom line, the most important thing is the safety of the cast.”

agray@tribtoday.com

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