On toxic artistic leadership (part one): When workers unite in protest

Over 50 employees and actors at American Shakespeare Center took their complaints to their board. When they did it together, they got results.

News of Ethan McSweeny’s departure as artistic director of the American Shakespeare Center has prompted a variety of responses—and the mainstream theater critics seem divided on how to handle it. A lengthy, detailed letter to the ASC’s Board of Directors makes crystal clear that he had alienated not only the front office staff but many members of the acting company as well.

The list of alleged incidents is a long one: crude, sexist language, indifference to the horrific events of the past year—police shootings, police chokings, etc.—and the general failure to take into consideration the legitimate needs, psychological and physical, of his actors. The reported episodes, involving specific staff and specific actors, in the midst of a pandemic, make for grim reading indeed, especially for those of us who love the ASC and who care deeply about its community.

Some critics have chosen to ignore the accusations, substantive though they might be, and shrug this off as just another rough day at the racetrack. Others have made a point of mentioning, albeit in indirect terms, the context in which the decision was made.

To the cowards: at least we know whose side you’re on.

To those trying to be honest about the situation: thanks for at least trying to give it to us straight.

Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen, in a recent piece in her must-read theater newsletter, Nothing for the Group, points to a frustrating tendency, especially in the upper levels of theater management (and theater reportage), to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary has just happened; it’s just a typical business decision. No matter how outrageous and how intolerable the behavior, “Every [departure] statement reads like it was processed through the same meat grinder of legalese and mediocre spin.”

Whatever the reasoning may be behind the ASC’s reticence, the litany of abuses, amply documented (through multiple eyewitness accounts, emails—even video footage), paints a picture of every actor’s and front-office worker’s worst nightmare. McSweeny’s frequent tirades, along with the disturbing pattern in his targets, left the overwhelming majority of ASC’s team convinced that he not only played favorites but specifically targeted members of the BIPOC community.

It’s one thing to shout at actors in rehearsal; it’s another to create situations in which actors suffer physical harm onstage for no reason. It’s also deeply disturbing to learn that ASC’s much-vaunted “Safe Start” program, for live performances this past year, was completely undermined by McSweeny’s demands. Only by sheer dumb luck did the run of Othello not include at least one superspreader event.

But let’s pause for a moment to consider how mundane all of this is, because theater artists have lived with this kind of stuff for years, myself included. What we have here is an arrogance and toxicity that is, sadly, inherent in our theatrical culture. Too many people, when given the rare privilege to exercise any kind of artistic authority, have treated people as if their own judgment were immaculate, their power absolute, and their “underlings” worthy of little more than contempt.

Many theater workers have suffered this kind of abuse; up to now, we have had to choose between accepting the abuse as our fate in life; or we have made the gut-wrenching decision to walk away from the profession, because the problem is simply too deep and the egos too impregnable to effect any change.

It doesn’t help that for years, whenever anyone has had the courage to stand up to the powers that be, they were blacklisted by the (largely, but not exclusively, white male) production hierarchy.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that over 50 employees and actors at ASC put their names in print, took their complaints to their Board of Directors, and took a huge professional risk. The good news is that when they did it together, they got results.

Let’s face it—given the nature of the beast, I’d hardy be surprised if letters of this kind weren’t already being drafted at theater companies across the country. By rights, the courage exhibited at ASC should inspire a more revolutionary spirit among all the front-office staffs and stage artists whose sacrifices audiences have taken for granted for so long. These employees are the heart and soul of the enterprise.

Halvorsen has her finger on one of the most important reforms any professional company can make: the need for all employees, on and off the stage, to communicate any grievances directly to their board, whenever the artistic leadership grows toxic. Communication needs to be a two-way street, and the professional theater community to its credit is beginning to realize that there is tremendous power in collective action.

The days of board members hobnobbing only briefly with actors and staff at opening night galas, exchanging pleasantries, keeping the conversation light, are over. As Halvorsen puts it: “The primary responsibility of a board is financial oversight—and that’s not changing—but it’s finally registering that they’re also responsible for protecting and investing in a theater’s greatest asset: its workers.”

It will be important to see how willing the ASC’s board is to change its mode of operation, and whether they can re-establish and maintain a professional, respectful atmosphere throughout the organization. Teaming up with expert mediators at Eastern Mennonite University, to create a space for more dialogue and healing, is a good first step. As ASC regroups, with its Actor’s Renaissance Season set to return by the summer, I sincerely hope that the lines of communication remain wide open, and that both sides are willing to listen actively to each other.

As this episode indicates, we as theater artists have got some work to do; and as Stanislavsky might put it, we must begin by working on ourselves. It’s not enough to run a few bad apples out of town on a rail. We also need to acknowledge that the alleged conduct here is merely the symptom of a far, far deeper problem.


On toxic artistic leadership (part two): Training actors to be abused by Andrew Walker White



On toxic artistic leadership (part three): Manifesto for theater ethics 
by Andrew Walker White


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