The recent charging of Seattle “theater producer” Michael Gershowitz for sexually assaulting a teenage boy and then being found with a cache of (possibly self-produced) kiddie porn is the latest of several recent cases involving local theater workers. In 2008, Ben Kaylin, formerly the artistic director of Youth Theatre Northwest, was found guilty of having sex with two of his daughter’s underage friends (during the period he was director). And last year William Hoke, an IT guy at Seattle Children’s Theatre, was arrested and convicted for possessing a collection of child pornography.
I’d never met Gershowitz, though we know some of the same people, and the same goes for Hoke. I had worked with Kaylin one year at the Seattle Fringe Festival and had liked him—a smart marketing pro with a talent for cheap and effective ideas. As we delivered press packs in his car one afternoon, he told me about his recent bout of cancer and how the love and support of his daughter had been invaluable in beating it. The news of his charge left me depressed and mystified, and at his sentencing he sounded mystified too. But it didn’t surprise me that he worked in theatre. The truth is, anyone who works as an adult in this profession has a story about where and when sex and the stage got mixed up in their heads.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think our number of pedophiles is higher than any other profession. Certainly we don’t compare numerically to priests or Boy Scout troop leaders, and for all I know we’re the same as any other demographic, from truck drivers to insurance salesmen. But I also know I’m not alone in having had a profound sexual awakening connected to being on a stage, and also a strong sense, looking back, at how vulnerable to exploitation we were at that moment.
I was 13, playing Romeo’s servant Balthazar in a small-town community-theater production of Romeo and Juliet. As I stood backstage waiting for my cue, actresses around me changed their clothes in the semi-darkness. I remember the soft swish of their clothes coming off and going on, the talcum powder and perfume, the complete disregard for who was standing next to them, and suddenly I thought to myself: “This is the life for me!” Two years later, I had my first kiss on a stage in The Diary of Anne Frank, and hopelessly trailed poor “Anne” through the school halls for the next three years, hoping she’d want a real-life re-creation. (She didn’t.) For my gay friends, the relationship between sex and theater is often even more intense: the first time they could reveal an identity that everywhere else was concealed. An actor friend once said that being gay in high school was a lot easier once he joined “the local gay support group, otherwise known as the drama club.”
But I was certainly aware of creepy adults involved in theater too. There was a drama teacher at the summer arts camp I attended as a teenager who was infamous for “roughhousing” with his students a little too enthusiastically—and was invited back year after year despite this. Another male teacher had an affair with a male student my senior year, though it was apparently one of mutual consent, and the kid was, I believe, 18. I don’t know if the staff knew, but all the students sure did.
There’s also some inherent weirdness for kids who have to kiss or show affection in a “grown-up” role onstage before—or even worse, during—the hormonal/emotional explosion of adolescence. Not only can it be awkward to do this with a classmate, but your first audience is an adult director. While he or she is usually just thinking “How the hell do I get this kid to pretend he actually likes that girl?”, for the young actor, unaware or too much aware of sex, it’s not dissimilar to gratifying the demands of an older voyeur.
Then there are theater games based on “loosening up” actors physically and vocally. As a teenager, the sanctioned opportunity to touch each other was a heady experience—even if all we were doing was trust falls or rolling over each other on practice mats. Hormones occasionally boiled over into post-rehearsal make-out sessions, and the time-honored practice of offstage romance starts earlier than most parents would probably want to know. Of course, all of these behaviors in theater productions and classes are sanctioned by rehearsal and performance. But in retrospect, I think a lot of theater people get queasy when we think about how vulnerable we made ourselves, and how easy it would have been to be taken advantage of by the wrong adult at the wrong time.
Thankfully, most of the time that I’m working with kids, it never comes up as an issue. Common-sense guidelines like no private rehearsals and sensitivity to the comfort levels of actors are the rule, not the exception. But despite this, every once in a while it gets a little weird. A few years ago I was directing a 14/48 play with a cast that included two preadolescent girls—daughters of participating actors, both real troupers. One of them had a line something like “Given our natural curiosity and our budding sexuality, we should keep reading this book.” (It was a comedy, I should point out.) She kept saying “dubbing sexuality,” so I kept correcting her. Just before the show, I was standing around chatting with friends in the lobby, and she came walking right up to me, wearing the pajamas that she wore in the play. “Budding sexuality, budding sexuality, budding sexuality!” she repeated, and then walked away. I turned, speechless, to confront my friends’ horrified stares.
John Longenbaugh is a former writer for Seattle Weekly. He’s now the P.R. manager for the 5th Avenue Theater, but the views expressed here are strictly his own.