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Probe at Toronto performing-arts school raises questions for theatre community

George Randolph poses for a portrait at Randolph College for the Performing Arts in Toronto on Aug. 15, 2011.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto theatre community is facing more questions about how it handles complaints of harassment after George Randolph, founder and long-time president of the Randolph College for the Performing Arts, was found by an independent investigator to have engaged in "unwelcome comments and physical gestures."

Mr. Randolph announced his resignation in October, shortly before an employee at the school filed a formal, written complaint about his behaviour on Nov. 1. That complaint became public this week, when the school told its students at an assembly on Monday about the results of the investigation.

"The report concluded that there was evidence of unwelcome comments and physical gestures towards certain staff and adult students by the former President," the school's new executive director, Lauren Randolph, said in a letter to the school community. "This behaviour was determined to be inconsistent with existing policies and guidelines governing conduct that have been in place for over 15 years. Following the report, the former President submitted a letter of apology to the Board."

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The report will remain confidential for privacy reasons, said Stephen Greig, one of four current members of the board of directors.

"There was merit to the complaint, there were unwanted comments and gestures in the way of hugs. … That is harassment," Mr. Greig said.

At least eight people at the school provided testimony to the investigator, including Mr. Randolph, Mr. Greig said. Mr. Randolph did not respond to several requests for comment.

"He had planned to retire and move to a different area anyhow, and this stepped that up," Mr. Greig said.

News of the investigation is likely to add to debate over whether Toronto's theatre community enables powerful men to abuse performers who fear speaking out could cost them work in a competitive industry.

Lawsuits against the Soulpepper Theatre Company and founding artistic director Albert Schultz, and the outcome of the investigation into Randolph College also raise questions about whether cultural institutions need revised governance rules. People with strong family ties to each of the men at the centre of the cases were in leadership positions at the organizations.

Soulpepper last week severed ties with executive director Leslie Lester, who is Mr. Schultz's partner.

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Ms. Randolph, Mr. Randolph's former partner, was appointed as the college's new executive director in December. The two were married for decades, but the school said they have been separated for 2 1/2 years.

Mr. Greig defended the choice.

"We needed someone in place immediately who knows how the school functions, who people trust and look up to," he said. "The general feeling with students, staff and faculty was they were thrilled with her."

Ms. Randolph worked at the performance school for 20 years, in multiple roles, from financial aid and admissions officer to general manager.

The "RCPA Board was honoured to offer this position to Lauren to advance the mission of the College," the school said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

No search for a new leader was undertaken before Ms. Randolph's appointment, Mr. Greig said. Ms. Randolph declined a request for an interview.

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The #MeToo movement, propelled by high-profile women who have talked about being harassed, has led to a new willingness to report abuse. Four women who worked with Soulpepper recently launched multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits that allege Mr. Schultz was a "serial sexual predator." Mr. Schultz has said he will "vigorously defend" himself against the suit.

Theatre and film are not more likely to harbour sexual harassers than other workplaces, said Arden Ryshpan, the executive director of the Canadian Actors' Equity Association, which represents 5,000 artists working in live performance. But she added that employees may be more emotionally vulnerable because of the nature of the work.

"In any office building, in any city, something inappropriate is going on," Ms. Ryshpan said. "What is different about our sector is that there are times when people, as part of their job, are expected to be intimate with each other in ways that are not normally done in the workplace. That could mean a scene of enormous emotional intensity. That's where people can become very vulnerable, where people can take advantage of other people."

This fall, the association launched a national campaign to educate and encourage performers to respond to harassment and bullying run jointly with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres.

When rehearsals on a new production begin, representatives of each group explain what harassment is and how people can report it. "We hope that our members will begin to feel more empowered to speak up, that if they see something, they will be able to step forward and say, 'Hey, that's not okay,'" Ms. Ryshpan said.

A former senior administrator at the college said he warned Mr. Randolph about his conduct years ago. "I sent George an actual letter, a formal letter, telling him that he's got to be very careful about how he talks to students," said Ron Singer, who was artistic director at the school for 17 years, until 2009.

Mr. Singer said he sent the letter after students spoke to him and a guidance counsellor about language and innuendos Mr. Randolph was using.

"He would comment on their appearance," Mr. Singer said.

However, Ms. Randolph said in an e-mailed statement that "the college has no record of any letter written by Mr. Singer to Mr. Randolph."

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