It’s always difficult to leave home. When you call a place, especially a theatre, home, it means you’ve created a bond with it—with the people, with the building, with the art being created. Part of what makes a place a home is safety, a sense that it’s a place of trust, welcome, and vulnerability.
Over the last year, American Shakespeare Center—a $4.3 million theatre company in Staunton, Va., known for producing the Bard’s work in repertory with a stripped-down style and a resident company of actors—became a contentious, mistrustful, even traumatic place for many who had called it home. Some company members chose to leave, and many of them—52 in all, both current and former ASC members—joined forces to compose and sign a 15-page letter to the theatre’s board pinpointing the main source of the recent turmoil: artistic director Ethan McSweeny, an acclaimed director who had been brought on to lead the company in 2018. Their “Save the ASC” letter, delivered in October, alleged a pattern of “abusive, manipulative, and dangerous behavior, actions, and speech” on McSweeny’s part. The board investigated the letter’s claims late last year, and while no findings were shared with the company or public, McSweeny’s resignation was announced in mid-February.
All parties directly involved—including a new cohort of four “actor-managers” who have been named to lead the company in the near term—have been bound by legal agreement not to speak of what went down. But the letter, which was shared in redacted form with American Theatre, along with the accounts of several theatre workers who have left the company, paint a damning picture of McSweeny’s temperament and judgment. The letter claims that his tenure was characterized by “behavior that values control over all else, and that uses fear, intimidation, and bullying to cement that control.” The letter also alleges that his aggressive and demeaning treatment of company members—what one white colleague called “a way of interacting with staff that was overbearing and rarely crossed over into abuse, but did cross that line sometimes”—fell disproportionately on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) theatremakers in ASC’s space.
For his part, McSweeney (he/him) called the claims in the letter “inaccurate, false, and misleading,” and attributed the “chorus of complaints” to a “perfect storm” created by the theatre’s SafeStart program, in which ASC employed a health advisor to help them “continue producing in the face of pandemic…an absolute necessity for a company like ASC to survive.” His resignation, he said, was based on the understanding among the board and himself that, no matter the substance of the allegations against him, they had poisoned “the fragile bonds of trust on which all creative endeavor depends,” thus he was “no longer best positioned to lead ASC.”
Indeed, the drafters and signatories of the Save the ASC letter seem to agree with McSweeny on one point: The pandemic made things worse. If they felt like they were walking on eggshells around their artistic director before COVID, they reported that tensions were exacerbated by the strain of worrying about their health during a pandemic.
“I saw Ethan lose his temper, but afterwards he was usually pretty quick to either kind of explain it away or sort of half apologize,” said Dan Hasse (he/him), who did an observership through the SDC Foundation’s program to shadow McSweeny during his first year as artistic director, then joined the company as associate artistic director. “The people around him were willing to kind of dismiss it as the strain and stress of his first season of programming and wanting everything to go perfectly, and not being used to an organization that wasn’t at the same scale in terms of staff or funds as, say, the Shakespeare Theatre,” the D.C. company where McSweeny had worked previously. But as that stress and strain intensified during COVID and SafeStart, so did complaints about his high-handed, belittling approach.
Fear of McSweeny’s anger, not to mention his power—he remains a very well-connected figure with an impressive directing résumé, once hailed in these very pages as having a “Midas touch”—is the reason three Save the ASC signatories asked to remain anonymous as they recounted their experiences with him. All were clear about their love for ASC and its work—indeed, this is one reason they were at first reluctant to go public with their accusations against McSweeny, and waited until the day after ASC’s season concluded in October to deliver their letter to the board. Though they were pleased that the board responded quickly with an internal investigation, they became increasingly worried when they heard nothing for months. It was essentially radio silence until the signatories heard from their selected representatives, who worked directly with board representatives on behalf of the group, that the board had made a decision. What was the decision? They couldn’t learn, because it was a “personnel issue,” and many of the signatories were no longer employees, as their season contracts had ended.
Ultimately they found out about McSweeny’s departure only after it was final and the news was announced publicly—an approach they found lacking in closure and accountability. As one signatory put it, “There was absolutely no humanity in how this process was handled. There was just no sort of acknowledgement that people went through actual traumatizing situations with this man.”
Worse, the release and subsequent reports in the press glossed over their detailed reasoning for demanding McSweeny’s removal, alluding to the existence of the letter and an investigation but also lifting highlights of his tenure. These reports quoted a Facebook post of McSweeny’s in which he said he had “increasingly found myself trying to conceive of an ASC that would enter 2021 tabula rasa,” and that he’d concluded that this necessitated his own graceful departure. To some signatories this smacked of a white savior narrative, with McSweeny nobly stepping aside for the good of the company’s artistic and financial future. And the significance of the “tabula rasa” image was not lost on others: In effect, McSweeny was being allowed to give himself a clean slate. That’s when the signatories decided to speak out.
When discussing McSweeny’s tenure with the Save the ASC signatories, a common boiling point kept arising as the crucial moment when action should have been taken. As the theatre worked to produce through a summer of trying and heartbreaking events for Black people in this country, including the murder of George Floyd, ASC joined many U.S. theatres in releasing a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. But for the Save the ASC letter’s signatories, this gesture seemed merely performative, as efforts by a BIPOC actor to have the company’s BLM statement put up in the lobby of the company fell on unwilling ears. (McSweeny claims that he was open to posting the statement, but that it got tied up in conversations with the board.)
“I was very disheartened by the way ASC had spent so much time worrying about the pandemic and not about the statement that they made,” said one signatory, “knowing that there were Black actors and actors of color working with us, and how unsafe Staunton can be.”
Staunton, a rural and predominantly white town with a population of around 24,000, is a place where Black performers can experience racism and be called slurs on their way to work. BIPOC members of the company recall an emotional meeting with McSweeny over the summer at which they shared their experiences as BIPOC artists in the community. McSweeny reportedly vowed that things would change moving forward, and that the theatre would thereafter be a safe environment for BIPOC artists.
“He did not stand by that,” said the signatory. “He’s a very scary person, and I learned that throughout rehearsal.”
Events came to a head during an Aug. 26 rehearsal of Othello. It was three days after the shooting of yet another Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisc. You may recall that this event led to protests which, two days later, made the white wannabe militiaman Kyle Rittenhouse a household name. As detailed in the letter and confirmed by multiple signatories, one BIPOC performer said they needed a break to process their emotions about these unfolding events, and notified stage management to this effect; they took some space and time to themselves elsewhere in the facility.
When stage management tried to inform McSweeny of the actor’s location, McSweeny reportedly hung up on them before approaching the company’s Racism, Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Safety (RIDES) deputy during a break. McSweeny reportedly referred to the actor’s actions as “throwing a tantrum,” before following up in a later email, quoted in the letter, saying, “I hope that you are able to reconcile whatever was troubling you this afternoon. It was very unsettling to everyone because you normally have such a professional demeanor, and I was initially concerned that there had been a personal tragedy in your family.”
McSweeny disputes this account, characterizing the actor’s departure as an abrupt walkout, and saying that he was told by fellow cast members that the performer in question “had been castigating fellow cast members backstage for not demonstrating a sufficient emotional response to the shooting of Jacob Blake the previous weekend,” and that the “tantrum” quote came from one of the actor’s colleagues.
Several weeks later, a Zoom room was made available to company members who needed to process grief and gather after the failure of a Kentucky grand jury to indict the officers who shot Breonna Taylor in her bed earlier in the year. It was there that members of the performance company voiced their strong frustration about why, weeks earlier, their fellow BIPOC company member was accused of being unprofessional for needing similar space and time. No response was given for two days; McSweeny moved to have the subject discussed at a RIDES meeting.
But the next RIDES meeting was reportedly near its end before the issue arose, despite it being on the agenda and being among the main reasons for holding the meeting at all. Members of the acting company say they had to demand that it be discussed. At first, multiple Save the ASC signatories said, McSweeny acted like he didn’t remember what they were talking about. It was only when he was repeatedly pressed that he broached the issue, which he did by referencing pages of notes, including the aforementioned email, he had brought with him to the meeting.
His eventual apology, one signatory said, deflected responsibility, instead saying he was sorry the BIPOC company member felt the way they did.
“We were realizing over time that RIDES was not going to solve the problem,” said one signatory. “When the source of the problem is the person in charge—it was set up to fail.”
McSweeny responded, “It is not accurate to ascribe responsibility for the success or failure of RIDES meetings to me,” describing the process as one in which he shared leadership with two other leaders. Regarding the issues raised by BIPOC company members, he says he wishes in hindsight that a mediator had been involved, as “emotions remained high and effective resolution proved elusive.”
By most accounts, that tense meeting became a tipping point.
“We all love this institution,” said one signatory, “and this institution does not deserve to be harmed. It’s very clear that it’s about this one individual. That’s where the idea of going to the board came from, and drafting the letter.”
What began with 10 people writing down their experiences under McSweeny expanded to include stage management, production, and administrative staff. The realization hit the original drafters that this wasn’t just happening behind the closed doors of the rehearsal room—it was company-wide. And company members who were initially afraid to speak up felt their “fear of [McSweeny] basically fucking up your career…starting to dissolve because there were all these great people coming out and sharing their testimonies.” These soon grew into 100 pages of testimonies and videos, submitted to the board along with the letter.
“It was so much darker than people realize,” said one signatory. “Sure, actors are very emotional people, but the testimonies that I heard and read—that aren’t in the redacted letter—were the hardest part. People are going to therapy for this man because of the way he treated them and the way he minimizes people’s worth and value.”
One way, signatories say, that they felt undervalued was around the theatre’s highly touted SafeStart season plan, which saw the theatre break ties with Actors’ Equity Association to work with an outside health advisor to put COVID-safe protocols in place; some actors even relinquished their Equity membership so they could perform with the company last summer. According to the theatre’s director of communications, Kelly Burdick (she/her), the program was a success: “We completed 60 performances for 1,000 patrons, with an actor bubble of 17 actors, and had no reported cases of COVID.” What’s more, she said, a safeguard the company put in place—installing deputies who could contact a board member directly if they felt the company was ever not responding adequately to their concerns—was “never triggered.”
But as early as mid-July, according to the Save the ASC letter, SafeStart policies were undermined by McSweeny when an actor became ill and went to get diagnosed by a local doctor. Though the doctor diagnosed that actor with a non-COVID illness, the doctor recommended they be tested for COVID anyway as a precaution. Based on the SafeStart policy, rehearsals should have been paused until the person being tested for COVID received a negative result. It’s arguably a gray area—the COVID test was a precaution, and a separate diagnosis had already been given. The performance group was given the option to pause rehearsals or continue on. The group decided to pause in an effort to establish a precedent moving forward, but McSweeny inserted himself as the decisionmaker with the authority to pause rehearsals, sending an email reprimanding the group for “not keeping in the spirit of the SafeStart document” and accusing them of following their feelings over supposed facts and science. The email was divisive among the administrative and performance group, and led some to consider the entire SafeStart plan as nothing more than “an ego-driven PR stunt.”
For his part, McSweeny claims that “no staff were upbraided by me” on this matter, and that “the suggestion that I ever put ‘running the shows’ ahead of safety is speculative mind-reading and it is false.”
Whatever his motivation, that’s the impression some signatories got. Said one, “They totally were ready to disregard any of the protocol when it came to our safety. We could be out there for hours and hours without a break. Then, if anyone brings it up to Ethan, he’s huffing and puffing and rolling his eyes like, ‘Oh, you guys just don’t want to work.’”
Though the image of McSweeny that emerges from the letter is harshly negative, he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has if he behaved this way all the time. As multiple sources confirmed, McSweeny is a “quiet storm,” a smooth talker many say could finesse his way out of anything. “I have met very few people who can spin as well as he can,” said one former colleague.
Indeed, the way he carries himself, one signatory explained, belies the fear he strikes in those who work with him.
“He always made me feel special,” said the signatory. “Until I started working with him. Then, all of a sudden, it was like I was one of the biggest pieces of shit on the planet. He’s so smart and he’s so eloquent and he can sweet talk anyone. That’s what makes him such an effective abuser.”
Dan Hasse, who is also a signatory on the letter, had a similar experience. He had grown up around ASC and thought of working there as “a dream job,” but was warned by colleagues about McSweeny’s reputation when he joined the company. He promised those colleagues that he would quit should he ever see anything like what he was being warned about.
Then, on Aug. 27, he and McSweeny had a conversation on McSweeny’s porch. It started as a pitch for why Hasse should stick around for a few more years: He should stay to see the implementation and growth of BlkFrsTV, ASC’s streaming service, and Live @ Blackfriars, a digital concert series from ASC’s artists, as well as help mount the upcoming winter production of A Christmas Carol. “I think it was meant to be an opportunity for him to mentor me on the ways in which directing is difficult, whether it’s a pandemic or not,” said Hasse, whose experience is detailed in the 15-page Save the ASC letter as well as in a separate letter he sent to the board.
The conversation soon shifted to McSweeny describing an incident when an actress disrobed in front of him in a dressing room. McSweeny, Hasse said, then proceeded to make disparaging remarks about her body. Hasse said that McSweeny went on to describe various women, actors from his time at Shakespeare Theatre Company, as “a fucking cunt,” “a bitch,” and “nasty.” It was an uncomfortable moment of realization for Hasse.
“The scary thing was that now I had a better sense of what he was thinking,” Hasse said. “It didn’t matter that he doesn’t always speak those thoughts. The attitude that was revealed was abhorrent, and the implication that we had grown close enough for him to confide in me what he really thought about certain actors meant that I was somehow in his good graces, which is fucked up in a very special way.”
(McSweeny has disputed this account, saying that this “language is in no way characteristic of how I speak,” and, “I do not recall using any such words in the course of the meeting.”)
Immediately after that conversation on the porch, Hasse called his partner to debrief. He gave his notice two weeks later.
“I’m not saying [McSweeny] should never attempt to have an artistic career ever again,” said one signatory. “I’m saying that he would have to earn that back…I really cannot for the life of me believe that there was just no accountability, no apology.”
But can ASC turn the page to a new era without a full reckoning of this most recent chapter? The board and new leadership are certainly going to try. The new actor-manager model, though considered temporary for the moment, shares leadership equally among four performers: Brandon Carter, Christopher Johnston, John Harrell, and Zoe Speas. The shift builds in part on ASC’s popular Actors’ Renaissance season, a 16-year-old program in which the performance company mounts a series of “director-less” productions in rep. In a Zoom interview, the actor-managers said this experience may put them in a uniquely strong position to make the joint leadership model work.
“I think we are maybe more perfectly set up for this sort of experiment than any other classical repertory theatre, just because of the nature of the work we’ve done in the past,” said Harrell (he/him), a veteran of the company since its earliest days. “As we head into the future, I think it serves us well.”
Though none of the new leadership could comment on McSweeny’s tenure or the terms of his departure, they did agree that ASC’s next chapter may be part of a fieldwide sea change, in which theatres look for new ways to distribute the power of artistic leadership, including at theatres like the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, which has a rotating slate of co-artistic directors leading one season apiece while collaborating on the others.
“I always heard theatre described as ‘enlightened dictatorship,’” said Harrell. “That was kind of the model we all did. It feels, not just here, but generally, that the time for thinking that way may have passed, and we’re in an industry-wide evolution into a new model.”
Board chairman G. Rodney Young (he/him) affirmed this impression.
“I think certainly in light of the past year, and looking more broadly at what we understand as a board is going on in the theatre world, there’s clearly an expectation and in some cases a demand that companies reassess how they’re organized, how leadership functions within them, and an increased expectation that theatres will be less vertical in how they produce art,” Young told American Theatre. “The traditional top-down model is certainly under serious reconsideration, and our board has taken the position in the near-term—though it is somewhat experimental, and we don’t know if this will work—to vest agency in our artists. The people we’ve identified as actor/managers have experience in this model,” he said, referring to the Actors’ Renaissance seasons. “We feel this could serve as a real template for how to move forward. It’s not going to solve all the problems and concerns that people have in the theatre—we’re not that naïve—but we think it’s a start.”
The four actor-managers plan to split and share the duties typically assigned to an artistic director, from programming to casting. They also plan to confer with the rest of the company, including other administrative departments, in an effort to make sure that all voices are heard prior to moving forward. It’s a process that Zoe Speas (she/her) said requires humility and the understanding that one person can’t be the one who solves all of the problems.
“I don’t see how it’s been one person to do all of what we split up and learned in the past two months,” said Brandon Carter (he/him), who finds the new model not only more democratic but an easier lift when shared.
“We’re building on the risks and the experimentation and the successes and failures of a generational art that has been in existence for as long as mankind,” added Speas. “I think you’ve got to look at how theatre has been operated and learn from it.”
Part of that learning curve has been working through what Harrell called “a year of panic and survival for everybody.” That panic, Speas added, has begun to subside as the company looks toward the future. Carter also acknowledged that, while the company was fortunate to be able to work through the pandemic, that work didn’t necessarily give those in and around ASC the time to fully rebuild the company’s culture. The company’s own efforts to make amends currently include bringing in mediators to, as Carter put it, “rebuild who we are and reinvestigate that so it will be a better place for them to come back to.”
When I spoke with signatories of the Save the ASC letter, though, they weren’t sure they wanted to return.
“My heart will always be in Staunton, Va.,” said one signatory when asked if they would work at ASC again. “It was like a home. I just hope, in the future, especially with the people who they have running it now, that they do better. I will always hold that theatre near and dear to my heart.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) contributed to this report.
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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