Trigger warning: This article mentions allegations of sexual harassment and assault
Triad Stage, one of the Southeast’s largest regional theater operations, has enjoyed an influx of publicity in recent weeks as various news outlets report the theater’s upcoming reopening after more than two years of closed doors. And while the notable arts organization is looking forward to their fall opening, this time last year, staff weren’t sure that they were going to reopen at all.
“The board closed down the company in 2020,” Artistic Director Sarah Hankins told Triad City Beat. “We were asking hard questions about whether Triad Stage should continue or in what way we should continue. We were also hit hard because of the pandemic.”
Almost two years ago, Triad Stage’s artist director at the time, Preston Lane, was accused by several individuals of sexual abuse as first reported by TCB, leading to a huge rift within the organization. Reporting by former Senior Editor Jordan Green uncovered a toxic and harmful pattern of abuse by Lane, who targeted young actors in the industry, many of them university students from UNCG. In the aftermath of the allegations, Lane resigned and Triad Stage was left without its once-lauded leader.
Then came the staff cuts. The organization had already made reductions to staff in March 2020 due to the pandemic, but once the Preston Lane controversy came to a head, Triad Stage’s board slashed staffing to just three full-time employees in December 2020. Hankins, who was working as an associate artistic director at the time, was one of the lucky ones who remained.
“It was a really difficult time,” she said.
Now, as the organization prepares to finally reopen more than two years later, Hankins shares an in-depth look at the changes Triad Stage has made in the last 20 months in the hopes of rebuilding trust with the community.
“It gave us a chance as an organization to step back and look at what our role had been and think about what we would like our role to be,” Hankins said.
‘Dear White American Theater’ and reckoning with race
When the Preston Lane allegations came to light in November 2020, the rest of the world was dealing with the traumatic aftermath of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders that sparked an international reckoning with race. While much of the immediate conversations taking place dealt with police violence and accountability within the criminal justice system, arts organizations, too, were forced to take a closer look at the hand they played in maintaining white supremacy within their own walls.
“I feel like the reckoning of 2020 in our social world with the protests also made a reckoning in the theater world,” Hankins said. “There was a letter that circulated in the theater world titled, ‘Dear White American Theater’ that was addressing problems that theater had been ignoring for years.”
And so, in the midst of dealing with fallout from Preston Lane, Triad Stage staff realized that there was a lot more to change than just cutting out one cancer from their organization. The problem was, really, in the root.
Towards the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, the remaining staff and board members at Triad Stage began looking for a consultancy program, one that would help guide them through the tumultuous and often uncomfortable process of breaking down and recreating their organization’s culture.
“It was not an easy process,” Hankins said. “We had to take a hard look at the decisions we had made in the past.”
As part of the process, a planning committee composed of artists, staff, patrons and board members was created to start conversations. The organization also interviewed 75 community members as part of a listening group and brought on an additional 25 community members as key informants. Like hundreds of other organizations across the country, it was the first time the arts entity had engaged in deep exploration about matters of race, consent and accountability. Soon, staff had developed a diversity and anti-racism statement, a list of community standards as well as more robust reporting avenues for sexual harassment and policies that would more heavily enforce them.
“A lot of cast members come into our space for just a short time,” Hankins said. “We have to be very intentional with bringing people into our space and providing them with resources. As an industry and as a company, we weren’t great at that. This forced us to stop and ask, ‘What should that process look like? What does that first rehearsal look like? How can we create a space that supports and protects them?’”
As a predominantly white organization (Hankins is white, as are the two other staff members), Triad Stage’s new anti-racism policy admits that fact up front and includes steps the organization will take to dismantle white supremacy.
“Our industry is rife with unsustainable and harmful practices and we commit to creating a brave space where we can come together with patience, humility and clarity,” the statement reads. “A brave space is one that people feel empowered to explore racism and is used as an alternative to ‘safe’ because as a predominantly white institution we recognize that we cannot promise a safe space for people of color but we are committed to engaging in brave conversation and actions.”
A few of the action steps listed in their new policy include providing training, creating a land acknowledgement statement, amplifying the works of BIPOC artists and changing internal procedures including hiring practices, professional development and organizational leadership.
“It was more than just community standards about sexual harassment,” Hankins said. “It’s new community standards that encourage all of us to flourish and wanting to look at things through a lens of diversity, equity, access and inclusion.”
Part of that is making sure to ask who has had access to theater in the first place, Hankins said.
“We’re looking at what skillsets people can bring and really opening up that conversation,” she said.
Recently, Triad Stage brought Mitchel Sommers, former executive director of the Community Theatre of Greensboro, as the interim executive director for the organization. But they’re still looking to hire a permanent executive director, and to fill other roles such as director of production, technical director and director of marketing and sales according to their website.
“We’re in the midst of a huge hiring process,” Hankins said. “I’m sort of exhausted, I’m not going to lie, but I’m really hopeful for the future.”
‘Risk does not require harm’
When it comes to issues of sexual harassment, the organization’s new community standards set the tone: “We recognize that art-making requires vulnerability and risk on the part of all involved. Risk does not require harm, whether physically or emotionally. To this end, we commit to respecting boundaries, issuing content warnings and supporting diverse identities,” the introduction reads.
One of the biggest changes the organization has made is the introduction of intimacy coordinators for specific shows. One of the buzziest roles in the entertainment industry, an intimacy coordinator works with actors, directors and other creatives to ensure safety and transparency when acting out intimate scenes that involve simulated sex, nudity or intimate physical contact. Encouraged by the #MeToo movement, intimacy coordinators have become more common on both TV and movie sets, most notably as major networks like HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Starz and Amazon have hired their own coordinators. There’s even a national organization dedicated to the training process.
“It creates discussions from Day One with the production team about boundaries,” Hankins said. “They’re leading the charge as far as asking questions about standard behaviors and expanding those questions.”
One example of when an intimacy coordinator might be used in a production is during costume changes.
“Like if we have an actor who is doing a quick change, yes, we’ve typically had a quick change booth, but let’s talk about the dynamics of where that quick booth is and who is assisting that person,” Hankins said. “Those are the questions they’re taking on.”
For one of the shows for the upcoming fall season, there’s a scene in which an actor wears frosting that covers some of their body parts. They hired an intimacy coordinator to navigate that scene.
“A lot of these conversations revolve around consent,” Hankins said.
And that’s particularly important for an organization that has a lot of work to do in terms of making people feel physically safe. In reporting the Preston Lane allegations, TCB found that Lane had preyed on young male actors, often coercing them to strip during one-one-one rehearsals and, in the worst cases, assaulting them through oral sex and handjobs. Additional reporting by TCB found that Denise Gabriel, an associate professor at the UNCG School of Theatre, was also accused of sexual harassment and assault by former students. In addition to working for UNCG, Gabriel served as a contract movement coach for Triad Stage.
“I think as an industry, we haven’t done a good job in terms of consent,” said Hankins, who started at Triad Stage in 2014 as a UNCG graduate student. “Now we’re being mindful of physical touch and asking if you can take a photograph. It’s about physical boundaries and emotional boundaries.”
As someone who has been with the organization for eight years, Hankins said that the last two years were a chaotic and heavy time.
“It was a heartbreaking time,” she said. “I questioned whether I wanted to continue on in the industry. I questioned whether we should reopen.”
The thing that gives her hope as they look to reopen this fall, is the amount of work that the organization has gone through in the last two years, Hankins said.
“I’m so proud of the work that we’ve done and the commitments that we’ve made,” she said. “And we have a heavy burden that we bear to repair the relationships and regain the trust of our community.”
‘I hope that folks will give us a chance’
In addition to internal changes, Triad Stage has been working on diversifying their repertoire in terms of shows and content, too.
“Our productions will center a variety of communities like women, the LGBTQ community, the Black community,” Hankins said. “We also have one play set in Greensboro and another set in Winston-Salem. That’s something that came out of the consultancy program was that people wanted to see themselves on stage.”
To kick off the 20th season, Triad Stage opens with Rebellious, a play written by Black playwright Mike Wiley. The show opens Oct. 7 and tells the story of four Bennett College students during the Civil Rights Movement in Greensboro.
“It explores a history that a lot of folks don’t know,” Hankins said. “Many people don’t know that the Bennett Belles were instrumental to the Sit-In Movement.”
As part of a partnership with NC A&T State University, Triad Stage is bringing in students from the university to work on the set, and the play is being directed by Donna Bradby, an adjunct professor and director of marketing and publicity for the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at NCA&T.
In the spring, Revolutionists will hit the stage in a comedic retelling of the Reign of Terror from the perspective of various female characters including Marie Antoinette herself. Finishing out the season is The Cake, by Winston-Salem native Bekah Brunstetter about a gay wedding in the South.
“It handles in a very honest and loving way, the relationship of a queer young woman and her close family friend who she loves so much,” Hankins said of the show. “It forces everybody to look at what their predisposed biases are and ask hard questions of themselves, and I think that’s where we are as a community and as a world.”
In an effort to repair relations with the community, Triad Stage will also be hosting a community reading group in which the public will be able to make suggestions about which productions should grace the stage.
“As we move forward, we’re here listening and responding and we’re excited to have folks back in the space again,” Hankins said. “These last two years have been hard work. We’ve really dismantled a lot of things and asked a lot of questions. I hope that folks will give us a chance and will call us in when we make a mistake and also recognize that we’re humbly making steps to create a more accessible, brave and thriving space.”
Learn more about Triad Stage and its future productions on its website at triadstage.org.
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