It is likely to become a drama school improv scenario for decades to come: you’re about to do your standup comedy set at an event for young actors when Harvey Weinstein walks in and sits down. What do you do? Walk out in protest? Perform a citizens’ arrest? Hide the potted plants?
For better or worse, comic Kelly Bachman found herself in exactly this situation on Wednesday when Weinstein, who is out on $1m bail ahead of his impending rape trial in January, shuffled into the Actors’ Hour, a small “speakeasy” on New York’s Lower East Side. He installed himself at a table and was soon surrounded by a small entourage (described as “younger women and older men in suits”). Bachman, who was up to perform, later confessed she’d had nightmares about spotting Weinstein in her audience. But if this was some kind of audition-by-fire, she passed with flying colours.
The entire episode has been well documented, but to summarise, Bachman adjusted her set on the fly to incorporate the kind of attack lines most people would only have thought of 24 hours later. She began by acknowledging “the elephant in the room”, or rather “the Freddy Kreuger” in the room. “I didn’t know we had to bring our own Mace and rape whistles to Actors’ Hour y’all,” she jokes to the small room. Incredibly, there are boos (in male voices) and a heckler tells her to shut up. “Shut up? This kills at group therapy for rape survivors,” Bachman responds, adding: “I have been raped, surprisingly by no one in this room, but I never got to confront those guys so … uh … just a general ‘fuck you’ to whoever.”
During the interval, two of Bachman’s colleagues, Zoe Stuckless and Amber Rollo, approached Weinstein’s table and furiously condemned him. “I’m going to stand four feet from a fucking rapist and no one is going to say anything?” said Stuckless. They were escorted from the premises.
In a later statement, Weinstein’s publicist Juda Engelmayer made out that Weinstein had been unfairly treated when he was “out with friends, enjoying the music and trying to find some solace in his life that has been turned upside down”. She described the scene as “downright rude and an example of how due process today is being squashed by the public”.
That goes some way to answering the immediate question: what the hell was Weinstein thinking? Is he so devoid of shame and self-awareness that he did not consider the effect of his presence at an event filled with young, female performers? That would certainly fit the pattern, judging by the testimonies of the 80-plus women who have come forward to accuse Weinstein of ruining their lives and careers. Or was he somehow testing the waters of his current notoriety? This would seem to be a familiar phase of the #MeToo process now: witness disgraced comics Louis CK and Aziz Ansari, both of whom attempted onstage comebacks following their own admissions of sexual misconduct – comebacks that were widely judged to be premature.
One thing this episode sheds light on is how Weinstein and others might have got away with their (alleged) abuses for so long. When we talk of a “culture of silence”, this public appearance was an illustration of how persistent and pervasive it still is – exacerbated by basic human decency and politeness. Many at the Actors’ Hour venue were reportedly stunned when Weinstein came in, not believing it was really him, but very few of them spoke out about it. Many involved in this incident came to Weinstein’s defence, however: the audience members who booed Bachman and told her to shut up; the people sat with Weinstein, one of whom called Rollo a “cunt” when she told Weinstein he was a monster; Weinstein’s publicist. A male standup also attempted to defuse Bachman’s earlier gag by saying: “I’d like to address the elephant in the room. Who in this room produced Good Will Hunting? ‘Cause that shit was great.” If this was a drama school test, that’d probably be a fail. Even Bachman herself later admitted she was under pressurenot to speak out, from herself and others, since her act was being recorded and she wanted a “good, evergreen tape” of her new material to send out to people.
The venue have also had to defend their actions, or rather inactions. They claimed their goal was “to ensure that all guests are treated equally”. Unsustainable though the notion is considering the mountain of testimony against him, Weinstein is technically innocent until proven guilty. There is a “due process” argument that he will get his reckoning in court. In the meantime, we can still question just how much an accused sex criminal’s desire for “solace” should be accommodated above that of others. Some would argue free speech ultimately won the day, and if Weinstein was testing the waters, he certainly got his toes burnt.
There would also be a delectable irony if the careers of Bachman, Rollo and Stuckless got a boost from this episode. Bachman already says she has had a spike in Twitter followers. They could be the first women in showbiz to come out of an encounter with Weinstein better off than they went in. That would be a turning point of sorts. But perhaps this bizarre incident also illustrates how the structures that enable male abuses of power go deeper than most of us imagined, and they still will be there after Harvey Weinstein has been dealt with. Bringing the final-level baddie of #MeToo to justice does not mean it’s game over.