Fixture of Winnipeg improv scene opens up about Fringe Fest sex assault

Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival season brings mixed emotions for RobYn Slade. The fixture in the local improv scene was sexually assaulted by an older colleague she met at the Fringe, and it's indicative of a larger problem faced by young women performers, she says.

RobYn Slade details inappropriate advances from 'a ton of men' over years performing at Fringe

RobYn Slade is a Winnipeg-based improv theatre performer and frequent Fringe Festival contributor. (Supplied by RobYn Slade)

She has theatre in her bones, but this time of year brings mixed emotions for RobYn Slade. 

Slade is a fixture in the Winnipeg improv scene and grew up writing and performing at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, heading up on stage for the first time at 10 and penning her first play at 16.

She grew up loving the creative magic — "14 of the most fun days of the year" — and the sense of camaraderie with her fellow entertainers.

But when Slade was 18, she was sexually assaulted by a man she met at the Fringe, she says.

Slade, now 30, says the assault was part of a larger problem of lecherous older men making advances and inappropriate sexual comments to young women.

She detailed her experiences in a Facebook post last week.

The festival responded Monday saying it supports victims of sexual violence and harassment, and encourages victims to come forward (full statement below).

Slade shared her story with CBC News in the lead up to the 2016 Fringe Festival.

The following exchange has been edited for clarity and length

CBC News: What made you decide to share your story online in the days before Fringe?

RobYn Slade: "I teach improv as well as performance, and I've been teaching a drop-in class on Sunday afternoons. It was geared toward anybody of all skill levels. Over the past year, I've met so many awesome, bright, amazing young women who were taking the class, and then leading up to this particular summer, it just all kind of hit me that these young women are going to be performing and spending a lot of time doing the exact same thing that I was doing. I felt a responsibility to say something, to put it out there that we all know this is pervasive, and why don't we talk about it?"

When you go back and say "Young women in my class are going to be going through the same thing I did," what do you mean? What was the Fringe like as an up-and-coming 18-year-old female performer?

All of the positives are there. It's the place where artists of all ages and levels of experience come together. At 16, 17, 18, it was this accessible way to produce theatre that I wanted to create, which was amazing. But unfortunately I guess that is a very attractive thing to take advantage of, this young person who is at the forefront of their own creative endeavours.

Rolling up to the summer, having met these amazing young women, I thought, "There's a reason we don't talk about it, and I'm not entirely sure what that is." I received a lot of private messages from people who said that was also their experience, but more so, that they knew. "Oh, I've seen that behaviour for years. Oh, I know, it's disgusting. It's terrible. It's specifically these older male performers, who aren't hitting on women their own age. They're not hitting on women 10 years younger than them. They're hitting on women 30 and 40 years younger than them."

If it's this thing we all see, why don't we say something? Why doesn't anyone say anything?

You were 18 when you were first sexually assaulted. What happened?

It was a fellow performer that I met that summer. As I said in the post, it's exciting when, as a young producer, somebody says, 'I like your work!' I took that at face value and thought, "That's amazing. That's an incredible compliment." And they said, "Oh, you're so funny!" And I took that as an amazing compliment. And then it was, "Oh, you're so pretty!"

It unfortunately led to this event that at this point I've worked through, I have dealt with. But it just makes me sick to think we're all just watching it happen. All it would take is that when you see that inappropriate conversation happening across the bar and you go, "That makes me feel uncomfortable" — think about what that young person must feel.

These things are happening out in the open then?

Oh yeah. Not to sound flippant about it. It's hard in this arts community. We're all solo; there's no HR you can turn to and say, "My boss is making me uncomfortable. My co-worker is making me feel uncomfortable." We're all self-employed artists looking out for ourselves. It can get very confusing as a young person in a room full of people, for all intents and purposes, you see as your peers.

So it's not your "regular workplace." Those lines are too blurred?

Absolutely. There's this weird disconnect. As I said, in those messages I received after making that post, they said, "I've seen this behaviour." If you can see it, why don't we put the words to walking over there and saying, "Hey! What are you guys talking about?" and inserting yourself in the moment. Maybe we think it's more complicated than that, that we have to hold up a sign and say, "No! What you're doing is wrong!" and it has to be this huge personal sacrifice. I don't think that's the case.

Do you think people worry, based on the unconventional workplace setting, about getting involved because of it not always clearly being a case of an older man taking advantage of an underage girl?

I was 18; I was an adult. I had told people in my peer circle at that time and some of the responses I would get were, "You looked like you were having fun." But I didn't have the wherewithal or the vocabulary to say at the time, "No, this makes me uncomfortable." It was very confusing. In the time I've spent processing these thoughts and feelings, I would love to say that if someone had come up to me and said, is this guy making me feel uncomfortable, I would've been able to say, "Yes." But I don't know that I would have.

I think I might've said, "Yeah, it's fine." If your biggest concern is that you're going to embarrass your friend or your colleague or, heaven forbid, you embarrass the predator who was talking to them, if that's the worst thing that happens? I think that's the least of our worries.

We stand with victims: Fringe

The Winnipeg Fringe Festival provided the following statement after this story was published Monday morning:

"We were saddened by CBC's story this morning about a past incident of sexual assault, harassment and inappropriate behaviour towards an artist at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. We stand in solidarity with any victims, and want the Fringe to be a supportive environment that respects all participants. We encourage any Fringers who experience threatening or upsetting behaviour to contact the Fringe and the appropriate authorities, and we commend those who step forward to help ensure a safer community for all."