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Valley theater leaders call for action

Stronger policies sought to protect actors from abuse

In 2017, Selena Phillips appeared in Youngstown Playhouse’s production of “August: Osage County,” playing a teenager who is sexually assaulted by her aunt’s fiance.

Two months later, during a production of “Young Frankenstein,” Phillips, a Youngstown native who now lives in Pittsburgh, claims she was groped repeatedly in the wings of that same stage by another cast member three times her age.

Phillips, 20, and other women shared stories over the past week of the abuse they say they suffered — ranging from groping to statutory rape — while participating in community theater in the Mahoning Valley. Efforts now are underway to try to stop those incidents from happening in the future.

Several women involved in the theater community met Tuesday and plan to meet again later this week to address the problems that have been raised on social media and in the press. And the Youngstown Playhouse already has announced changes to its existing policies.

Kim Akins, a Youngstown attorney and founder of the Mahoning Valley Players, said, “A number of people have gathered to try to craft a policy statement that will be offered to all of the local community theaters with the hope that they will all sign on to have a zero-tolerance policy about predation against children in their theaters.”

Candace DiLullo, who has acted and directed at several area theaters, said she had some of these same experiences when she was a teenager and was afraid she wouldn’t be allowed to continue doing theater if she spoke out.

“I want this to be something that can be changed and eradicated, not something that anyone is going to be bullied or alienated for,” DiLullo said. “I want to be an organization or a group that can foster that and continue to support these young ladies … We support you and we’re going to take action because of you.”

The next step will be to organize a theater roundtable where representatives from the different organizations can find common ground about how to deal with these issues.

Among the steps Akins would like to see taken is to stop casting men who have multiple harassment and assault allegations against them and to check whether anyone working in the cast, crew or pit orchestra is a registered sex offender.

“It’s not a job, it’s not a thing where you’re entitled to due process,” Akins said. “Directors make decisions about people being in shows all the time based on less than what we have in these cases.”

The Playhouse board issued a statement Wednesday afternoon announcing several changes, including providing a liaison for children in all shows, both Playhouse Youth Theatre and main stage / Moyer Room offerings; and having a Playhouse representative at the first rehearsal for all productions to go over policies and identify lines of communication to report any problems.

The theater will revisit existing policies to see if adjustments need to be made, and it will continue to run background checks on all adults working with children, both cast and crew.

It also will look at age-appropriate casting for shows. In an interview that appeared in Wednesday’s newspaper, several young women criticized the common practice of casting teenage girls as love interests for adult males.

“Apologies mean nothing if there is no action,” according to the Playhouse statement. “We regret that anyone has felt unsafe, ever. It will not be tolerated at The Youngstown Playhouse.”

Akins said she believes other theaters will be willing to make changes once a plan is in place.

“I think any theater company that doesn’t sign onto a policy that we’re going to protect children in our care really needs to rethink their position in the community,” she said. “I can’t see any theater saying they won’t commit to do better toward women and juveniles … Theater is supposed to be a safe space, a creative space. We’re not meeting our commitment to our audience if we don’t guarantee that theater is one institution that stands against predatory behavior.”

agray@tribtoday.com

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