This story is part of an issue about abuse, harassment, and sexism in the theatre. You can read other #TheatreToo stories here.
Since October 2017, when the #MeToo movement broke as a national story and the subsequent Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment and predation has only grown in moral force, one thing was clear: Theatre would not be spared. Since last fall a number of theatre artists have been accused of sexual harassment, and in some cases lost jobs over it, including playwright Israel Horovitz and Lee Trull, former director of new play development manager of Dallas Theater Center. Others were accused but still retained their jobs while their companies conducted investigations, such as Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Ill., and currently Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney Theatrical Group.
In some cases, entire theatres were accused of fostering sexist culture, as happened at the scene shop of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater, from which two employees resigned in protest and aired their allegations in the local press. Though not entirely validating the substance of the specific complaints, the Guthrie did use the opportunity to do an internal investigation of the entire $28-million company’s policies.
More egregiously, at two major U.S. theatres, the fallout from specific harassment allegations against their artistic directors led to multiple-month investigations and evaluations of company culture. They are the Alley, a $17.6-million theatre in Houston, and the Long Wharf, a $6-million budget theatre in New Haven, Conn.
These cases are all markedly different, as have been the responses of the organizations. But they followed in such rapid succession, and had enough similarities in their impact and in the common themes they raised, to constitute a striking trend.
First, in early January, Gregory Boyd stepped down from his post as the Alley’s artistic director, which he had held for 29 years, garnering the theatre a Regional Tony Award. Two days later, on his last day on the job, the Houston Chronicle released a devastating article in which a number of former employees accused Boyd of “creat[ing] a toxic work environment at the city’s most renowned theatre,” calling him someone “who frequently singled out young actresses for verbal abuse.”
Just 11 days later, The New York Times published an article in which former employees accused Long Wharf Theatre artistic director Gordon Edelstein of behavior ranging from “sexually explicit remarks in the workplace” to sexual assault. Edelstein had led the Tony-winning institution since 2002. A day after the Times article ran, the Long Wharf board fired Edelstein.
January was also the month that a Guthrie employee, Molly Diers, announced her resignation from the theatre’s scene shop in protest over allegations that its “sexist culture” had held her back professionally.
The Long Wharf, the Alley, and the Guthrie are all multi-million-dollar institutions that employ hundreds of artists annually; a gig at one of those theatres means a living wage and a boast on a résumé. Over the past few months, American Theatre has spoken to artistic leaders at those institutions, as well as former employees. All spoke frankly about how harassment culture was allowed to flourish within their walls, and about their plans for making sure it never happens again. The heads of those theatres also spoke about their hopes for how their processes (and its findings) can help other theatres around the country, who may soon face their own #MeToo moment.
One Man, and a Whole Culture
On Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, reporter Michael Paulson of the Times emailed the leadership of Long Wharf Theatre a list of harassment allegations against then artistic director Gordon Edelstein, including a charge of sexual assault from former associate artistic director Kim Rubinstein. By the following Tuesday evening, the board voted to terminate Edelstein’s contract with the theatre.
Laura Pappano, an author and journalist, had recently stepped in as the chair of the board of the theatre. Speaking from managing director Joshua Borenstein’s windowless office at the theatre, she said she had been unaware of Edelstein’s behavior. But, as someone who had never worked in a theatre, she noticed some discord when she began meeting with the Long Wharf staff before the allegations broke. She couldn’t pinpoint why at the time, but “the culture wasn’t as joyful as it should be.”
After the Times article, she recalled being “in tears” during an all-staff meeting, as workers finally spoke frankly about their “painful” experiences working under Edelstein. “Hearing it was just a reminder that we had to change how we were doing things,” she said emphatically.
Since the events of January, Long Wharf hired an outside lawyer, Margaret P. “Penny” Mason, who examined various company documents and interviewed 21 people, including current and former staff members. Among her findings was, according to a report released to American Theatre, “misconduct emanated from the behavior of this single, powerful person [Edelstein]. His departure removed sexual harassment and bullying from the theatre environment.” Indeed, though the company handbook detailed a mechanism for reporting misdemeanor from the managing director, there was no similar mechanism for the artistic director.
Still, Borenstein and Pappano made it clear that it wasn’t enough to just fire one man; the theatre’s entire culture needs to be rethought. Based on Mason’s recommendations, as well as recommendations from staff (including an advisory committee made up of junior staff members), the Long Wharf is adopting both short-term and long-term changes.
“What we’re talking about is creating a culture where people feel empowered to come forward and say, hey, this feels funny to me, or this doesn’t feel right, or this treatment isn’t appropriate,’” said Pappano. “I think that you have to build that; it doesn’t happen overnight. Even if the rules are all on the books, that’s not how it happens. It happens because people feel comfortable and respected and valued.”
Some of the changes are small, such as giving Kit Ingui, the associate managing director who oversees human resources, a private room to talk to staff (she usually sits in an office nook with no door). Other changes are larger, such as a “360 review process” for managers, where those who work under them can provide feedback to Borenstein.
When asked why it took until the Times article for staff members to speak up, Borenstein was circumspect. From 2002 to 2011, the year he was appointed, there had been five managing directors, so the only constant in leadership was Edelstein. “I think that over time, that just wore people down,” Borenstein said. “It created a sense that people were disposable.”
Former staff member Annie DiMartino echoed Borenstein’s assessment. She has reported that Edelstein harassed her in 2010, when he placed her hand on his crotch at a holiday party. This was a full three years after he had undergone mandatory counseling, following complaints by Kim Rubinstein to Long Wharf’s board. Because, as far as DiMartino knew, Long Wharf management had never widely acknowledged the problem with staff, she felt that Edelstein was untouchable, and so never reported his behavior to human resources or the managing director. “It really did turn into a culture of, everyone knows it’s happening, why say anything? Nothing is going to happen anyway,” she said.
Borenstein claimed that the board and staff did not know the extent of Edelstein’s behavior, particularly the board, which regularly rotates members. But he did admit that many in the theatre were unclear on the company’s reporting structure, and that the company handbook did not contain stipulations for how to report on the artistic director. Among the changes that Long Wharf is making, in addition to sexual harassment training for all employees, is to create multiple avenues for reporting and regular interactions between staff and board, since the board is the only entity with the power to reprimand an artistic director.
Long Wharf plans to assess the efficacy of these changes in a staff survey next year. Borenstein said that the policy has already proven effective: Since January there have been two internal harassment complaints, he said, which have been resolved, with follow up, on all sides.
“I’m optimistic,” said Rubinstein, who participated in the Edelstein investigation. To her, seeing the theatre lay out clearly how and to whom staff can express their grievances is “already a huge difference from when I was going through it and feeling like there wasn’t any place I could turn to.”
Pappano and Borenstein repeatedly emphasized that these measures are a work in progress and that “we’re learning.” In addition to this investigation, Long Wharf is currently searching for a new artistic director. In the interim, Borenstein has been operating in both a managing and artistic capacity; to plan the 2019-20 season, he took suggestions from the theatre’s staff and board. “I actually had a trustee recommend a play and we might do it,” he remarks.
It is perhaps an apt metaphor for how the theatre and its workers have come together to navigate through this challenging period. Pappano said she believes that “theatre is better positioned to address all of this,” compared to other industries. “People respect the whole notion of conversation and communication. I think theatre is set up for expression; this is our chance to harness that, not just on the stage, but when we’re dealing with our own work culture.” She said she sees this moment as “a great opportunity.”
A Reckoning, Minus Judgment
While the Long Wharf firing Edelstein made clear the link between his behavior and his departure, there was no such clarity at the Alley Theatre. Boyd’s retirement was announced on Jan. 9, and the Chronicle report—obviously in the works for months—emerged just three days later. While the Alley administration would not speak publicly about the widespread inference that the allegations and Boyd’s departure were linked, managing director Dean Gladden did issue a public apology two weeks later, saying in part, “Long-time Alley artistic director, Gregory Boyd, had been discussing retirement options with members of the board of directors. When the Alley Theatre board leadership learned of the depth of staff concerns regarding his behavior, they requested he proceed with his retirement. Part of the negotiated retirement contract included a severance payment and an immediate departure from his post.”
As Boyd had signed a five-year contract with the Alley in 2016, this early termination of his contract meant that he received a severance package of $383,000. When asked why the board had cut his contract short, seemingly hastily so, in a phone interview in February, Gladden responded that he could not discuss “personnel issues.” But he maintained that the Jan. 9 announcement about Boyd’s retirement was “absolutely truthful.” In the meantime, while the theatre searches for a new artistic director, associate artistic director James Black has stepped in as acting artistic director.
Also in January, the Alley hired human resources consultant Robbin Walker to meet with current staff and assess the theatre’s workplace environment. Based on her findings, and input from all staff members, the theatre has created a six-point plan, which includes hiring a human resources director and conducting training on proper workplace conduct.
When asked what precipitated the investigation, if not Boyd’s behavior (which Gladden would not comment on), the managing director said the Alley had been investigating its conduct policy since last fall, following an email from Actors’ Equity Association requesting that theatres go through their harassment policy with cast members before every show.
The Chronicle reported in May on the Alley’s six-point plan, which echoes many of the themes of Long Wharf’s policy changes. When former employee Lauren Halvorsen read the article, she said she felt “cautiously” optimistic. “I was very encouraged by the measures the Alley is taking to empower and protect employees, especially creating multiple reporting structures and offering extensive training, and that the current staff is being consulted and actively involved in policy,” said Halvorsen, who worked as literary manager at the Alley from 2008 to 2011. “I sincerely want the best for all of them.”
But a number of people we spoke to, including former Alley employees and Houston-area theatre workers, expressed frustration at the refusal to acknowledge Boyd’s behavior and the harm that it caused to those who’ve worked at the theatre over many years. Gladden addressed this frustration by saying, “Obviously for legal reasons we can’t be completely transparent, because we’ve got to deal with certain issues beyond our control.”
Carmelita Becnel, who worked as a stage manager for the Alley between 1999 to 2007, said she witnessed inappropriate behavior and comments not only from Boyd but also from other men on the staff. “It seemed to be the culture, so if Papa Bear on top is getting away with this freely for ages, it kind of gave the ‘okay’ to some other guys to do that,” she said. “The misogyny was often free-wheeling.”
Becnel, who now works at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, said that when she worked at the Alley, she frequently reported Boyd’s bullying behavior to management. “They basically told me, ‘This is the behavior to be expected, this is how it is. Working at the Alley isn’t for everyone.’”
Another former staff member described a similar environment. The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that when she worked at the theatre, because of Boyd’s reputation for being “temperamental,” most communication with him was facilitated through her manager. “I was complicit,” she said. “We all were complicit. We were told that’s how it was and we said ‘okay.’ Because it’s the Alley, we put up with it. There were so many small instances where any of us could have stepped in and said, ‘This isn’t right,’ and we didn’t.”
When asked if there was more he could have done, Gladden responded elliptically: “I think in life there are always things you can do better. But we’re responding and moving forward.”
The anonymous former employee said that while Gladden and senior management have faced the most scrutiny, she also questions the board’s culpability. “I think the board dropped the ball,” she said. “It’s not completely clear how they are reevaluating their role in perpetuating that [Boyd’s] behavior.” At the same time, she expressed hope that under the new policies, staff will be able to interact regularly with board members, whereas before “communication was very tightly controlled by a very small group of people.”
While many of these measures look great on paper, many observers believe that more can and should be done. “I think a part of moving forward is the really hard work of grappling with what happened and what transpired and really coming to terms with it,” said Halvorsen, who said that Boyd subjected her to verbal abuse during her time at the theatre. “There needs to be a thoughtful interrogation of the existing systems and people that enabled that behavior for decades.” The point is not to reopen old wounds but to examine how they were inflicted, and how future harm can be prevented.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of dramaturg I’d be and the type of leader I would be right now if I didn’t spend three years being made to feel that I was stupid and I had nothing to offer and my opinion was worthless,” Halvorsen continued. Though she now works at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., she is certain that for many women, Boyd’s behavior did cause them to leave the industry. “We can never really measure that impact of what that company did to decades of young women.”
Halvorsen cited the Old Vic’s investigation following the allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of former artistic director Kevin Spacey. Among the actions that London theatre took was to set up a tip line to which former employees can report their experiences, so that the theatre can be made aware of the extent of the behavior under its roof.
Gladden did concede that only current Alley employees spoke to Robbin Walker, and that no attempt has been made to contact former employees. And an anonymous tip line that the Alley has put in place for concerns is only open to current employees.
Despite the challenges and critical feedback from outside sources, Gladden said he was hopeful, even grateful for this reckoning. “This is, I think, a wake-up call for everybody to reexamine the workplace environment, and I think it’s a great thing and I think it’s something that all of us can do a better job at.”
Contacted recently for a follow up, Gladden released a written statement that ended with, “I hope outside entities allow us the space and time to do just that without added judgment.”
Fighting the Reset to Status Quo
Accountability has also been a concern for those who’ve spoken out against the Guthrie Theater. It was on Jan. 16 that Molly Diers, a longtime carpenter in the company’s scene shop, posted her resignation letter on Facebook explaining why, after three years, she was leaving her job after being passed over for a promotion. In the post, she cited “a sexist culture” in her department, where “women are mocked and belittled.” She placed the blame on her boss, technical director Josh Peklo, and the Guthrie’s leadership, writing, “The Guthrie as an organization breeds a culture that has kept and continues to keep women down.”
A male carpenter, Nate Saul, also resigned in solidarity with Diers. Following Diers’s post, which received around 1,200 likes and 300 comments, the Guthrie launched an investigation with the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels into the workplace culture of the entire theatre, not just the scene shop. Following interviews with 53 current and former staff members, including Diers, the firm found instances of “inappropriate physical contact” and multiple instances of improper comments.
Following those findings, the Guthrie is instituting several new policies, including evaluations and management training for all supervisors, unconscious bias and diversity training for the board, and an all-staff survey to identify “organizational strengths and weaknesses.”
“I am terrifically humbled by this,” said artistic director Joseph Haj, who started at the job in 2016. “What this has illuminated for us is how much work we have to do.”
Haj disputed Diers’s central notion. “I don’t agree that we have a toxic culture,” he said. But he did concede that “in scene shops there’s an added challenge of trying to change the culture in a historically male-dominated area, ‘guys doing guys’ work.’” He says that since he started in 2016, the Guthrie has “worked hard” to close the disparity between the scene shop and the costume shop, which have been traditionally divided along gender lines, with an attendant pay gap.
Two current staff members at the Guthrie and one visiting artist who spoke to American Theatre acknowledged progress but affirmed that the company still has a long way to go. Rosanna King, a freelancer regularly hired by the scene shop, conceded that the shop has begun to hire more women compared to before.
“It is great to finally see this shift,” King said, but added that in her opinion “none of them would have ever gotten hired if Molly’s post hadn’t gone viral.” And though Peklo, the technical director called out by Diers, has since resigned from the Guthrie to take a job at the Minnesota Opera, King described the environment in the shop now as “depressing. The only thing they can do in my eyes to fix it is to hire Nate and Molly back.”
Diers is campaigning for just that. In March she filed two charges against the Guthrie: a charge of discrimination with Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, and a charge of retaliation with the National Labor Relations Board (filed by Diers’s union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees). At presstime the discrimination charge was in mediation, and the NLRB, which found merit in her charge of retaliation, planned to go into arbitration with the Guthrie in September. Though neither Diers nor the Guthrie could speak about the specific allegations now that they’re going through these formal channels, Haj did say, in reference to both Diers and Saul, “There are open positions at the Guthrie, and they are free to apply for those jobs.”
As for the larger cultural assessment the theatre has undertaken, Diers counts herself skeptical, noting that staff had undergone regular training previously, and that “everything resets to the status quo.” Added a woman in the theatre’s production department, who requested anonymity: “They say a lot of bullet-point things of, this is what we’re going to do, and they sound great, but there’s no accountability. They haven’t given any sort of timeline.” This staff member said she also found the Guthrie management’s claims that they were unaware of the extent of the culture disingenuous. “One of the things that frustrates me is hearing over and over again, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the first I’m hearing of this.’ No, it’s not—we’ve been telling you for a long time.”
Actor Sun Mee Chomet believes that the fault lays in a communication breakdown between the Guthrie’s human resources department and the theatre’s leadership. She recalled that during a production of King Lear at the theatre in 2017, one of her fellow actors frequently demonstrated hostile and inappropriate behavior toward her. She took the complaints to HR, which gave the actor a warning, and he finished the run of the show. When she later shared what happened with senior administration, she said they expressed confusion, having not been informed of the incident at the time.
“Perhaps HR was trying to protect themselves and not the woman who was reporting this,” Chomet said. “They worried more about protecting the theatre and their jobs than what I went through.”
In the transcript of a staff meeting the Guthrie shared with American Theatre, leadership announced plans to revamp its human resources department with the help of an outside party, and to ensure that staff members are aware of multiple paths to report concerns. And in an interview, Haj conceded that the old model of an HR department whose main responsibility is to handle payroll and benefits for the institution is outmoded, and in 2018 must be more responsive to employees’ needs.
Coincidentally, the theatre’s director of production, David Stewart, who oversaw numerous departments, including the scene shop, recently resigned, as did the theatre’s managing director, Jennifer Bielstein, who fielded some of the harassment complaints. Stewart admitted to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he felt that the controversy had damaged his reputation.
Despite the pending NLRB arbitration, Haj maintained that there is no retaliation for reporting misconduct on his watch, but conceded that the biggest part of the work ahead for his theatre—and for many theatres afflicted by sexual misconduct and/or misogyny—is to make sure that all its employees and freelancers believe and trust that.
“We can rewrite policy till we’re dead, but it won’t matter until we have a workplace where one actually feels safe to report an incident,” said Haj, echoing a theme that resonated throughout this reporting. Another thing he’s learned, he said, is that “if we think that just by jettisoning people out of this organization, we’ve solved it, we’re wrong. There are issues that require a global approach; you don’t just circle the bad players and get them out.”
Fear Dies Hard
Even when culprits are eliminated and lines of communication officially opened, the culture of silence can be formidable. Former actor Nicole Lowrance, who said she endured harassment and unwanted physical contact at the hands of Long Wharf’s Edelstein, knows people who are still afraid to tell their stories about him, even though he’s gone and the company has taken steps to restructure their human resources (the same is true, American Theatre found, of folks associated with the Alley). Some survivors clearly still feel that to speak out would put their livelihoods on the line.
“The root of the problem is, for every person who steps into theatre and entertainment, there are 500 people behind you—you are expendable,” Lowrance said. While theatres can rewrite policy and install in-house mediators, her suggestion is to bring in a third-party facilitator. “What if there was somebody in the rehearsal room who was part of the union, who has no attachments to Long Wharf or my career?” she posited. “The only attachment they have is the show and if it’s following a code of ethics.”
Suffice to say, any theatre grappling with sexual harassment that wants to rehabilitate its institution would do well to take a multi-pronged approach. While misconduct may originate with one person, one incident at a time, it is too often enabled and exacerbated into a pattern, a culture, by a system of silence, fear, and complicity. That’s why it will take the efforts of everyone working, brick by brick, to challenge and dismantle this system and create a better, more accountable, more inclusive culture in theatres around the country.
For Kim Rubinstein, that work begins at the most personal level.
“I really feel strongly that it is a very potent time for us to admit that we’re all humans, meaning that we have the dark side and the light side in all of us,” Rubinstein said. She paused, then added: “How do we learn to listen better in the moment so these catastrophes don’t have to happen? I’m kind of dedicated to that.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly described Gordon Edelstein as Long Wharf’s executive leader, rather than a co-equal leader with Joshua Borenstein, and incorrectly reported that Borenstein had taken over the planning of the 2018-19 season after Edelstein’s firing. One quote from a survivor of Edelstein’s abuse has been edited because it originally conveyed the impression that there had been no reporting system at all prior to the investigation; there was in fact such a legal channel, though it was not sufficiently clear to all who might have availed themselves of it.
Joseph Haj was initially misquoted as saying that Molly Diers and Nate Saul were “candidates” for the open jobs at the Guthrie. And one paragraph initially contained language that implied a link between the departure of managing director Jennifer Bielstein and the investigation into harassment at the theatre. Bielstein and the Guthrie have confirmed that there was no such link.
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