Change must start with area theaters
Changes in policy must come swiftly in local theater groups in light of public accusations by then-minor actors of sexual harassment and abuse involving adults affiliated with Mahoning Valley community theater.
The allegations from four young female actors in recent days shared on social media and reported in this newspaper have serious potential to tarnish the good reputation and hard work of those upstanding members of local community theater. Appropriately, several of the theater groups, including Youngstown Playhouse, are not delaying the call to quick action to set new policies and guidelines to prevent any future incidents from happening. We encourage all to do the same — whether or not their theater was part of the allegations.
The young women making the allegations include Selena Phillips, 20, a Youngstown native now living in Pittsburgh; Grace Offerdahl, 21, of Youngstown and Pittsburgh; D’Ella Heschmeyer, 20, of Liberty; and Miranda Canacci, 20, of Youngstown. Last week the four outlined, some in explicit detail, their experiences with adult men they say abused or attempted to abuse them when they were teenagers working at Mahoning Valley theaters. The allegations have included claims of sexual assault, groping and even statutory rape. Local attorney Kim Akins, founder of the Mahoning Valley Players, also is participating in these conversations.
How far-reaching the allegations go still remains to be seen.
Now, Candace DiLullo, who has acted and directed at several area theaters, also has spoken out. Last week she said she had some of the same experiences when she was a teenager and feared she wouldn’t be allowed to continue doing theater if she spoke out.
We salute these women for their courage in coming forward, and we hope outside investigations and, if warranted, criminal prosecution follow with great urgency.
Simultaneous to these investigations, community theaters must take responsibility for these incidents and act swiftly to ensure their organizations are not a home for sexual predators.
Representatives of some local theaters already have begun that process, meeting last week to discuss the issue.
In response, DiLullo said this: “I want to be an organization or a group that can foster (change) and continue to support these young ladies … We support you and we’re going to take action because of you.”
Youngstown Playhouse, in fact, already adopted a policy within the last two years spelling out appropriate and inappropriate behavior, according to John Cox, president of Youngstown Playhouse board.
Good! We also applaud the decision to involve an attorney in these discussions to add credibility and raise necessary legal points. Akins wants to see directors held personally responsible for protecting younger members of productions.
Phillips said she believes policies are needed to protect young actors. People in power must change their approach and listen to victims or replace the people in people with others who will listen.
It’s unfortunate it has taken so many years for this dark side of our community theater to come to light. But now, so far, it seems, many involved in local community theater are intent on stepping up.
The Playhouse board issued a statement last week announcing several changes, including providing a liaison for children in all shows and having a Playhouse representative at the first rehearsal for all productions to go over policies and identify lines of communication to report problems. The theater also plans to revisit existing policies. It will continue to run background checks on all adults working with children, and it will look at age-appropriate casting for shows.
“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.”
These all appear to be steps in the right direction.
Still, more needs to be done. We would like to see commitments from all theater organizations not to cast adults with previous validated harassment or assault allegations. No registered sex offenders should be working there in any capacity. We encourage and expect zero-tolerance guidelines at every local theater organization.
This is community theater, after all — with emphasis on “community.” Each organization has a responsibility to the community, and each must be ready and willing to ensure safety and maintain an upstanding role.