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Ethan McSweeny directs 'Othello' for the ASC Summer 2020 SafeStart Season. (Photo by Dan Hasse)

Ethan McSweeny Resigns After Brief Tenure Leading ASC

The company will move forward with an actor-led model intended to echo the production process of Shakespeare’s theatre.

STAUNTON, VA.: American Shakespeare Center (ASC) has announced that Ethan McSweeny, who had served as ASC artistic director since 2018, has resigned, effective Feb. 11. Details on the reasoning behind McSweeny’s departure were unclear from the theatre’s press release, and no statement was given on his departure beyond the ASC board wishing him well. McSweeny’s departure follows him leading ASC through the ongoing pandemic where the theatre implemented a “SafeStart plan” to return to staging in-person productions last summer, which were also streamed on ASC’s BlkFrsTV.

According to a report from the Washington Post’s Peter Marks, McSweeny’s resignation comes amid “festering tensions over his treatment of actor and staff.” In a statement provided to the Post, McSweeny said he found himself trying to find a way for ASC to enter 2021 with a clean slate—which, he concluded, wound up meaning removing himself from the company altogether. Importantly, Marks reports, as ASC was pushing forward with its SafeStart plan, which caused tensions between the company and Actors’ Equity Association, around 52 members of the company drafted a 10-page letter to the ASC board last fall objecting to McSweeny’s leadership and a “toxic” work environment around the treatment of some women and artists of color.

Marks also reported that a lawyer was retained by the ASC board to investigate the accusations, though the details of the investigation were not referred to in the press release announcing McSweeny’s resignation.

ASC declined a request from American Theatre to comment on the cause and nature of McSweeny’s resignation.

Ethan McSweeny.

For now, as the theatre moves forward, ASC will transition to an actor-led theatre model, ostensibly in the tradition of Shakespeare’s structure for creating professional theatre. According to Marks, the actor-managers who will be leading this new effort will be Brandon Carter, John Harrell, Chris Johnston, and Zoe Speas. Over the last 16 years, ASC’s ensemble produced with this model through ASC’s Renaissance Season, a program that focuses on the ensemble collaborating to create productions, including reviving and restaging productions from previous years. Currently, the new actor-manager leadership plan to mount a summer season consisting of Macbeth, Henry V, and All’s Well that Ends Well as the organization presses forward with live and digital programming.

Additionally, ASC plans to offer a new format for its biennial Blackfriars Conference, responding to pandemic conditions and continuing the tradition of gathering together Shakespeare scholars, performers, and fans to share ideas, papers, seminars, and performances.

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