On Nov. 30, Anchorage, Alaska, sustained a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Cyrano’s Theatre Company’s production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, set to open that night, had to be rescheduled. But there were other tremors already shaking the community.
Jenson Seifert, who played Miss Bennet’s romantic hero, the beloved Fitzwilliam Darcy, is a registered sex offender. Seifert, a former teacher at Birchwood Christian School, was charged in 2009 on 14 counts of sexual abuse involving his student, a 14-year-old boy. Seifert spent five years in prison. Since his release he has appeared in productions at Anchorage Community Theatre, the University of Alaska, and Cyrano’s Theatre Company. While some members in the Alaska theatre community were aware that he was registered on the state’s sex offender list, many were not.
That changed when the news emerged publicly online last fall, prompting a social media firestorm and sparking debate in the Alaska theatre community and beyond. According to a Reddit thread, it was a theatre artist who had worked with Cyrano’s in the past who shared the news as a comment on the theatre company’s Instagram account in early November. By the second weekend of performances in December, Facebook posts about Seifert and Cyrano’s began to spread.
And the show went on. Cyrano’s released a statement on Facebook in December addressing the casting controversy, apologizing to those who raised concerns about the safety of their families, and announcing a change in their hiring policy under which they would not hire anyone listed on the state’s sex offender registry to work at the theatre “in any capacity.”
Comments in support of the theatre’s decision were joined by negative remarks deploring the company’s choice. There were disputes about the distinction between public and private life, and posts about how the situation should have been handled. Many commenters felt the production should simply have been canceled. Wrote Therese Brennan, a local dancer, “This post makes it sound as though he was Jean Valjean stealing bread and you’re kindly giving him another chance.”
Others supported the theatre’s effort to grant Seifert just that:
Cyrano's Theatre Co. will drop an actor who is a registered sex offender after social media backlash.
Like he’s going to leap off the stage during a play and reoffend.
Facebook fueled his termination.
People deserve second chances. https://t.co/KsxBTgb8l8
— Nick Dubin, Psy.D. (@NicolasD1977) December 13, 2018
By late December the comment thread was removed from the Cyrano’s Facebook page, but the conversations continued both online and in the community.
Michael McLaughlin, chair of the organization’s board of directors, spoke on the phone in January about the controversy. “We certainly in no way condoned or excused his crime, but as a member of this community we do believe in second chances,” says McLaughlin. “Theatre is a place for healing and for all voices to be heard. So we decided to give him the role.”
Seifert declined to be interviewed for this story.
According to McLaughlin, Cyrano’s contacted the two other theatres who had hired Seifert before Cyrano’s hired him for a role at the theatre in 2017’s The 39 Steps. “They both gave very positive references for him,” he says. “Seifert was very open with us and contrite about his conviction and status as a registered sex offender. It was not like he was hiding anything. He was very willing to discuss it and understood that there were going to be special circumstances regarding it.”
These special arrangements included scheduling rehearsals when children were not present in the building, and assigning a supervisor for Seifert at all times, a role that largely fell to the theatre’s stage manager. Despite the new policy, McLaughlin says that Cyrano’s stands by its initial decision to hire Seifert, citing the company’s new building—which it rents to other theatre organizations—as well as a lack of resources as the reasons they will no longer hire registered sex offenders to work at the theatre. In retrospect, though, McLaughlin admits that the theatre could have been better about communicating with other building renters about Seifert’s status.
Indeed a shared point of contention among the divided Facebook commenters was the lack of transparency with the theatre’s patrons, the Miss Bennet cast and crew, and other organizations sharing space in the company’s building—particularly the Alaska Theatre of Youth, which hosted a weeklong camp for children when the schools had closed because of the earthquake.
A spokesperson from ATY confirmed that they were not informed of Seifert’s status; when asked about it later, Cyrano’s assured them that Seifert did not have access to the space rented for the camp. Still, the idea that children were publicly invited to a show and into a building shared by a registered sex offender did not sit well with many. As Lisa Willis, an actor who has appeared in past productions at Cyrano’s, commented on Facebook: “This is very difficult for me to process, as both the victim of sexual assault and as a performer at Cyrano’s…I know now that when I was rehearsing for The Spitfire Grill, this individual was performing in Trevor. There were several occasions when I brought my children to the theatre to hang out while I rehearsed in another room. Which meant they were in another room, alone, with this man in the building. His status on the registry was not disclosed to me.”
Krista Schwarting, the show’s director, had hired Seifert for The 39 Steps at Cyrano’s Theatre Company in 2017. She says she does not regret her decision to include him in the Miss Bennet project.
“Jenson was cast because he was the best actor for the part,” says Schwarting. “He has been very forthright about his past and about his desire to be part of the community—and I believe he was entirely sincere in that.”
The theatre was apparently less forthright. McLaughlin says that all of the Miss Bennet cast members were informed of Seifert’s place on the registered sex offender list prior to accepting their roles. He says that artistic director Theresa Pond, the one tasked with calling cast members to inform them they got the job, told each of the actors about Seifert on those calls.
But other sources do not back this up. Maddy Klever, who appeared in Miss Bennet as Anne de Bourgh, says she first learned about her co-star’s sex offender status after she had been cast in the show, and not from the theatre but from a friend who worked with Seifert on a previous Cyrano’s production. The friend, who has a government job and is careful to vet fellow castmates, said that while she was surprised to find Seifert’s name listed on Alaska’s sex offender list, she added that he was great to work with, always on time, and respectful.
“It was kind of a shock,” admits Klever. “I made the decision to accept and put my faith in the director and executive director for having made their decision for a reason. I understand the argument that a cast conversation should have happened earlier, but I have no regrets taking the role.”
On Dec. 1, about halfway through the first act, a large aftershock of the Nov. 30 quake rocked the theatre, but, Schwarting recalls, the “two women onstage did not skip a beat—they were awesome. It passed, and the actors did not stop.” She says she has “a great deal of admiration for how they pulled together,” referring both to the natural disaster and the fierce social media criticism that was swirling around the show.
Schwarting was out of town for the latter, but soon came back to the theatre to support and speak with the cast throughout the rest of the run. Recalls Klever, “We were very lucky to still have people who came out to the show and still came out to support us. It brought a lot of us quite a bit closer together, because we were kind of going through Armageddon at the time. Honestly, getting to be onstage during that was some of the only time that I was feeling okay.”
Klever says she never felt uncomfortable around Seifert, and that the cast banded together when some community members pressured them to step out of the production. The social media backlash led her to delete her personal Facebook account, and she says she’s still reeling from the hate that was spewed from voices outside the production. “I have been living day by day,” she says.
Klever, herself a survivor of sexual abuse, believes that the only person who can know if Seifert is truly rehabilitated is himself. “The difference is that nobody who ever hurt me owned up to it, they never apologized, they definitely didn’t serve time, and they did not make any steps towards bettering themselves,” she says. “For me, that is a very different situation.”
A few big questions were raised, and remain: What would a second chance for sex offenders look like, if they deserve one at all? Is there a place in the theatre for former aggressors who’ve done their time and paid their debt to society?
“I do believe that people can feel differently on this,” says Schwarting. “I absolutely respect the opinion of people who do not believe that Jenson or others in his situation deserve a place in the community. I may disagree on it, but I respect that.” Likewise, Schwarting, who has shared her own personal story of sexual abuse, says that “not all survivors have to feel the same way. I will never tell anyone else how they should feel.”
MaryAlice Larmi, an actor in the Anchorage community, acknowledges that while the company’s notion of giving an offender a second chance is noble, Seifert’s case “is not a line you can cross and then come back and get the privileges of regular life. Participating in some aspects of the community, especially one like theatre, and especially in the town of Anchorage, which is small, you get a certain level of prestige onstage. For someone who used his prestige before to prey upon a student—it sat badly with people.”
The Anchorage community is indeed small. With three theatres in the area, and a few hundred theatre practitioners, a divergent viewpoint or fiery attitude could be as costly to one’s career as, well, being listed on the sex offender registry. The result has been that many of those in disagreement with the company’s choices have remained silent, and did not speak for this story.
Almost two months after the debacle, the debate continues—not with Facebook comments but among local audiences. American Theatre received an anonymous call about an ongoing boycott of Cyrano’s, by both artists and patrons, which allegedly led to a programming change at Cyrano’s this season. With the departure of a few lead actors, and poor ticket sales, the January production of Evil Dead the Musical was quietly shelved. A production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (Feb. 14-March 10) is currently running. McLaughlin declined to comment on the programming switch.
The controversy has even migrated beyond Cyrano’s and onto an upcoming benefit production of The Vagina Monologues helmed by Schwarting. The production is part of the annual Survivors Ball, a benefit event that supports the organization Standing Together Against Rape (STAR). Despite social media criticism, STAR retained Schwarting to lead the production. But a statement from the event’s steering committee, which appeared in the Anchorage Press, calling Schwarting a “rape apologist,” led the Survivors Ball to part ways with STAR; proceeds from the event will now be given to Alaska CARES, an organization dedicated to supporting children who have experienced abuse.
This means that the disagreement over Seifert’s hiring has resulted in lost support for an organization dedicated to advocacy, prevention, and crisis intervention for victims of sexual trauma. The public shaming of Schwarting has gone too far, Klever says. “Is anybody who has ever been in a Woody Allen movie being treated like a pariah?” she asks. “The fact that this community is so small makes it extra hard.”
Klever, who worked with Schwarting on last year’s Vagina Monologues production for STAR, says that the director does a wonderful job with the event. “There are a lot of people calling for a boycott of it because they believe that Krista is not deserving of directing something that supports and empowers women,” says Klever. “Which I strongly disagree with—Krista does so much for women. And it’s a volunteer position. Nobody talking about the boycott has proposed a new director or volunteered their own time.”
When she isn’t moonlighting as a stage director or actor, Schwarting is a general practice lawyer at a private firm in Anchorage. She fears for her future in the theatre.
The ripple effects of the casting controversy have the community looking back at past transgressions, largely unaddressed, within the theatre community.
“The Anchorage theatre community has had several instances of sexual misconduct in the past couple of years,” concedes Larmi. “It tends to be, ‘Oh no, this happened. Let’s sweep this under the rug. We don’t need to discuss it or have procedures in place.’”
Some past cases include that of William Lamon Jackson, an actor who was accused of sexually assaulting multiple women, including members of the theatre community, and who was indicted in January 2017 on 10 felony sexual assault charges. He is currently out on bail under a pretrial agreement that mandates frequent check-ins with an enforcement officer.
Martin Baumann, who has appeared onstage in productions at both Cyrano’s and Anchorage Community Theatre, was sentenced in January of 2018 for attempting to entice a 14-year-old girl online to meet up for sex. Baumann was sentenced to two years in prison, and his place on the sex offender list for 15 years after his release will prohibit him from appearing in future Cyrano’s productions.
Jack Dalton, another offender, was imprisoned for attempting to engage in sexual abuse of a 14-year-old. Dalton was indicted a few months after appearing in a production of Vera Starbard’s Our Voices Will Be Heard at Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre. The play was about the trauma of sexual abuse of minors in the Native community. Dalton was also placed on the sex offender list for 15 years.
“I understand Jenson being kind of an ignitor for this,” says Klever of the new conversations about past aggressors. “Having an arrest every few years, sweeping up the dust, letting it settle—it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. There are a lot of instances in this community where you do feel unsafe, as a woman or somebody not in a position of power.”
Some have called for a town hall discussion, while others feel that the escalated emotions around the topic will result in greater conflict if addressed in a public forum. The solution, so far, has been to move forward without tending to the wounds.
“I am really sad about how fractured our community feels right now,” says Schwarting. “This is an issue on which people can feel different ways, and I just really want us to find a way to respectfully talk about it.”
The change in policy at Cyrano’s will most likely affect the hiring practices at other theatre companies in Anchorage, says Schwarting, a shift that will put a handful of theatre artists in the area out of work, including both Seifert and Dalton. But many of the other theatre companies in the area adopted similar policies long before the Cyrano’s case. When Matt Fernandez joined Anchorage Community Theatre as executive director in 2017, he implemented a policy to not cast anyone on the sex offender list.
Perseverance Theatre has had a policy in place for a few years to not hire anyone with any kind of criminal record. As part of the audition process, Perseverance hires a third-party service to vet potential employees. “The policy and process have not changed in response to Cyrano’s, but the news prompted discussion with staff and at the board level about what we can learn, and if there is more we can do to ensure the safety of all who work with us,” says artistic director Art Rotch. “We will keep working to learn and be current in best practice, and provide training for our staff.”
The question of what are the best practices remains. And while some in the Anchorage community would rather not stir the pot, others are willing to strategize how to best move forward.
“If anyone wants to have a community conversation, or a one-on-one conversation—I am more than happy to do that,” says Schwarting. “I think we gain strength as a community—not by agreeing with each other all the time, but by having productive conversations.”
An earlier version of this article misstated that Krista Schwarting directed Trevor at Cyrano’s Theatre Company. The show was directed by Charlie Cardwell. Also, an earlier version misstated that Dalton was indicted during the run of Our Voices Will Be Heard, it happened a few months after. Another earlier version misstated that Seifert was convicted of all 14 charges of sexual abuse, but was convicted of just one. He served 5 years in prison, not 8.