Under a cloud: Artists describe toxic work conditions at Spooky Action Theater

Problems at the DC company are rooted in the harmful leadership practices of Artistic Director Richard Henrich and a board that fails to stop his abuses of power, say multiple artists who have worked at the theater.

When Spooky Action Theater posted a letter of apology on its Facebook page on April 18, 2022, people were left scratching their heads. The Spooky Action leadership was acknowledging they had done something wrong, but the letter, written by the theater company’s Board of Directors, was so vague on details that it was impossible to guess what had occurred to prompt their public apology.

“We are writing to apologize to you for the difficult and unpleasant experiences you had with us last fall in the production of Man Covets Bird,” the letter begins. During the December 2021 production, the letter continues, “procedures, behaviors, and structures” led to “failures” and “patterns of behavior that need to change.”

The letter (a screenshot of which can be found below this article) then lists five ways in which Spooky Action, with guidance from an HR specialist, planned to take action to “modify entrenched behavior, and make the theater a supportive environment for creative artists.” The proposed changes include creating better production processes and requiring the board to conduct an annual review of the artistic director, Richard Henrich, who founded the DC-based theater in 2004.

DCTA graphic

In an effort to learn more about what prompted the public apology, DC Theater Arts spoke to three people involved in the production of Man Covets Bird, and four other artists with past experience at Spooky Action Theater. All seven tell similar stories of experiencing a hostile work environment characterized by improper management protocols and aggressive, disrespectful leadership. All seven characterize Spooky Action as a toxic workplace led by an artistic director, Henrich, whose leadership style involves manipulation and microaggressions, and a board that fails to act as a stopgap for toxic leadership.

The artists’ complaints

Patrick Lord was the projection designer on Man Covets Bird and the person whose filing of an official complaint to the Spooky Action board prompted the apology. “The letter that Spooky Action Theater published on Facebook made it seem like we were just mad because we had a lot of technical difficulties,” says Lord. “We know that they are a small, scrappy company but that’s not what the issue was. The issue was that people were being ignored and intimidated. People were being blamed for things they didn’t do, most notably young artists and female artists. That’s what motivated me to speak out.”

Man Covet’s Bird’s director (who does not want to be named in this article) agrees: “The board is trying to frame this situation as a smaller issue between the team of Man Covets Bird and Spooky Action Theater. But the problem is actually systemic and spanning many productions due to unprofessional and dysfunctional leadership. I regret that many members of the creative team with which I worked at Spooky Action Theater were mistreated, disrespected, undermined, insulted, and bullied by Richard Henrich.”

The seven people that I interviewed cited numerous examples of Henrich’s leadership that they felt to be toxic including: refusing to speak in group meetings, pressuring individuals to side differently with him once group consensus had been reached on a topic, cornering individuals outside the women’s restroom, repeatedly entering occupied dressing rooms even after he was asked not to, and waving his hand in front of women’s faces to stop them from talking during group meetings.

The tension got so high during Man Covets Bird that a buddy system was implemented by the women in the production who did not feel comfortable being alone with Henrich. In addition, the artistic team instituted a watch system in which one team member was always on duty to prevent Henrich from entering dressing rooms while the other artists were using them.

According to Lord and others, Henrich insisted that he was the only person who could be on the wardrobe crew and that he therefore had to have unrestricted access to men’s and women’s dressing rooms, which he entered frequently while they were occupied. “The power dynamic of the artistic director taking on these duties is wrong and dangerous,” MCB’s director says. She repeatedly received texts and calls from the actors asking her to help get him out of the dressing rooms. “I told him repeatedly to stop doing that and he claimed that it was ‘his theater and he ‘has to’ be allowed access to that area to do his work.”

MCB’s director also says that Henrich had a habit of waving his hand in front of someone’s face when he wanted them to stop talking, estimating that he did this to her over 20 times during rehearsals and to other female artists as well. “I never saw him do this to any cis male members of our team. I always asked him to stop. I also tried other techniques: I ducked, I laughed, I turned around, I stepped forward, I walked around him in a circle, I sat down. And I often said, ‘Richard do not do that to me. Do not put your hand in my face.’”

Lord confirms that he witnessed this behavior. “From my perspective,” Lord recalls, “Richard seemed to have more of a problem with the women on the team. They were the ones who always got ignored or talked over.”

Another member of the MCB artistic team, who prefers to remain anonymous, recalls a specific incident in which two members of the team, one male and one female, each used bathrooms that were off-limits due to COVID restrictions. “Richard stands outside the women’s bathroom waiting for her to come out and then berates her for using it. The male team member had to verbally reprimand Richard and send him away.”

This artist recalls tensions on Man Covets Bird from the outset. “From the first rehearsal, Richard was disgruntled, and not in any way trying to feign excitement or be anything more than stoically passive-aggressive. The process was miserable.”

Halfway through the rehearsal process, Henrich stated that he would no longer participate in meetings because he didn’t like the way things were going. “He would not speak at all and remained strangely silent even when directly addressed or asked a question,” one source recalls. “He seemed to resent that the creative team valued collaboration, consensus, and collective decision making.”

Instead, Lord says, “he liked to have lots of one-on-one conversations or phone calls. He would pull people aside to have sidebar conversations with them and then not communicate with the rest of the team. He would physically get in people’s paths so he could corner them and have private conversations.”

This lack of communication resulted in serious production missteps, performer and co-composer Navi contends. “Everything was running behind. We didn’t have a props designer. Props were being made the day of opening… like major props. A show of this sort was doomed without a rock-solid production team. Not in the sense that it would be a bad show, but it would be a month in which everyone involved would feel burnt out and stressed. Then when we get good reviews, we are supposed to smile. Richard kept referring to the good reviews we got in his apology letter to Patrick [Lord], like a real ‘suffer for the art’ vibe. I don’t want to do things that way anymore.”

This leadership style resulted in “massive miscommunications,” Lord says. “There were items that didn’t get ordered, things that had to be rescheduled. They had not hired a master electrician two weeks before we were supposed to start loading lights. We had to press for that. We had to press for pretty much everything we needed because we would continually not get a response. Richard and James [Sullivan, Spooky Action’s current company manager] would just ignore our emails. Before we even got to tech, things became very tense. They continually failed to meet our expectations and they didn’t communicate when they weren’t going to do something. It turned into a big trust issue that was rooted in just ignoring people.”

This lack of communication reached a tipping point during tech week. Navi describes a scenario in which “things were all going wrong at once”: “The sense I was getting was that production management had not properly planned for build and tech week, leading up to a chaotic Friday and Saturday of tech.”

The team cites another misstep that occurred during tech week centered around COVID protocols. Spooky Action Theater operates out of the downstairs auditorium of the Universalist National Memorial Church in Northwest DC. “One day, I got a message from our director very last minute saying apparently Richard hasn’t told us that there is an unmasked wedding taking place in the church the next day so don’t come in tomorrow,” one source says. “How does a production manager not know months in advance that a wedding will take place?”

Lord recalls the incident as well. “Spooky Action only communicated to us a few days before a tech rehearsal that the actors wouldn’t be allowed in due to Actors’ Equity regulations, but they still required the tech team to be there while the wedding was going on. They had a calendar of when weddings would take place in that space but again, they didn’t share it with us and then acted like they hadn’t known it was going to happen.” The tech team then found themselves working in the midst of an 80-person unmasked wedding at the height of omicron.

The board’s response (part one)

DCTA reached out to Spooky Action to ask for clarification about the apology letter posted on Facebook. In a written response, Henrich agrees that there were problems with Man Covets Bird. “The theater’s two-person staff and modest resources proved inadequate to the scope of the production’s imagination,” Henrich tells DCTA. “Missteps and changes early on put us critically behind schedule, so that the Artistic Director, acting as Production Manager, was perpetually engaged in a process of triage to address what was both imminently necessary and also doable with the resources at hand. In the midst of this extremely stressful process, the Artistic Director demonstrated a deep aversion to confronting areas of fundamental and seemingly irreconcilable disagreement. At production meetings, the tension was palpable to everyone in the room. It was unpleasant for the artists to feel at risk of being caught in the middle of a damaging crossfire.”

In a written statement to DCTA, Spooky Action’s Board President Floyd L. Norton also acknowledges the problems that took place during Man Covets Bird. “Members of the Man Covets Bird production team identified problems in several areas, including an overall lack of communication, delays in addressing production requirements, arguments during production meetings, and a rude and disrespectful working environment.”

Norton says the board is working to correct these problems.

“The Spooky Action Theater Board and our independent HR consultant have fully investigated the complaints received and have created measures to ensure that we will always provide a welcoming and supportive platform for artists and directors to do their work. We have apologized to the Man Covets Bird team for the issues involved and we are confident that similar issues will not arise in the future. Spooky Action has been, and will continue to be, a theater that offers productions reflecting a wide variety of cultures and perspectives.”

DCTA contacted two other Spooky Action board members who declined to comment for this article.

The history of issues in production

According to DCTA’s sources, problems of this sort were present at Spooky Action Theatre long before the production of Man Covets Bird.

DCTA spoke to three former Spooky Action staff members about their experiences working at the theater between 2018 and 2021.

“There was a fair amount of toxic gatekeeping in terms of how decisions are made,” says Tyler Herman, who worked at Spooky Action as a teaching artist and Director of Education. “There was hypocrisy when it comes to the staff advocating for themselves. Richard would say he wanted to support the staff and create a positive working environment but then would corner people with phone calls. When we got to a staff meeting, the staff had consensus on a bunch of items, and Richard would surprise us all by disagreeing and pitting us against each other.”

Another former Spooky Action employee, who prefers not to be named for this article, agrees: “I was heavily micromanaged. I worked for four hours a day and for about an hour of that, Richard would come and sit in my office, look over my shoulder, and tell me what I needed to do and why I wasn’t doing it the way he liked it. All you are hearing is that you are not doing a good job. And because the culture of the company revolves around this one man, if it doesn’t fit his preference then in fact you are not doing a good job. But his preferences were so mercurial and specific and outdated that it was hard. It felt like he just saw you as someone to sit at a desk and plug information into a computer. There was nothing artistic about that.”

This artist, who began working at Spooky Action immediately after college, describes a deep sense of guilt when they think back on the time they spent at Spooky Action, primarily because their work involved bringing other artists to work in what they felt to be a toxic environment. “I knew it was bad but I stayed and that is really hard to wrap my head around. I contributed to this culture for years. I can’t get away from that and I don’t know how to make up for whatever harm I was passing on by trying to do my job.”

Another former employee, Michael Sullin, worked as Spooky Action’s company manager for 14 months starting in March 2020. It was his first job out of college. His experiences at Spooky Action led him to leave the theater industry entirely when he resigned in late 2021. “We tried to change the company and got so much pushback. And there was nowhere to go for help. As a very young person in the industry, I was scared that if I came out really hard against Richard or said bad things about the theater that it would give me a bad reputation. I didn’t want to quit and go to another company and find that Spooky had tarnished my reputation in the industry. It felt like my co-workers and I were alone.” Sullin shares his story because he feels that a lack of protections for workers is a problem throughout the industry. “We just saw it blow up inside of Spooky.”

The history of issues in employment practices

Former Spooky Action employees and artists also describe problematic employment practices that they say range from outdated to manipulative to racist.

Navi also worked on Spooky Action’s 2018 production of Among the Dead, a production on which Henrich served as director. They recall a particular incident in that production. “During tech, Richard bullied an Equity actor into doing a fire trick she didn’t feel safe doing due to improper preparation. He kept insisting that she do it until she left the room distraught. Tech had to be put on hold while stage management consoled the actor, and Richard sat in the room like someone spat in his lunch. The stage manager put her foot down and demanded that Richard cut the fire trick after this incident, and even then, he fought for it up until the last second. He showed no empathy for the actor. I don’t trust him.”

Another artist recalls the same production from the perspective of casting: “When we were doing Among the Dead, the male character in that show is described as ‘an American soldier.’ Richard told me I was not allowed to call in any dark-skinned African American men because they ‘didn’t look American.’ We also had a long argument about Arena Stage’s production of Our Town because he didn’t think they should have cast any people of color in it because he said ‘they weren’t around back then.’ There are plenty of instances like that.”

Herman describes efforts he led to spearheading an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee at Spooky Action: “I was an advocate for EDI, which Richard said he welcomed but then he backpedaled on any action that seemed like it would actually cause change. After he saw the amount of change these efforts sometimes cause, he canceled all our EDI meetings and did not allow us to have any meetings without him present. When we pressed him on things that seemed actionable, like diverse casting, he would agree and then his casting — I’m thinking of the show The Real Inspector Hound — was a complete backpedal to that. When we called him out on that in a staff meeting he basically said ‘it’s my company I can do whatever I want.’”

The board’s response (part two)

Several of the artists interviewed for this article expressed dissatisfaction with Spooky Action’s board in overseeing Henrich’s leadership. “The board of directors, for the most part, is not interested in listening to criticisms of Richard,” says one source. “They are staunch supporters of Richard so it wasn’t surprising to me when the apology statement came out and included the board offering to do a yearly review of his behavior. What is that going to do? And who are they going to ask, Richard?”

Lord is also skeptical that giving the board more authority to monitor the artistic director will result in changed leadership practices. “They just reviewed his performance and nothing happened,” he says.

Man Covets Bird’s director recalls interactions with the board that led her to feel that they did not understand the fundamentals of how theaters operate. The board members seemed confused about who performs basic tasks in mounting a show and asked her to provide written job descriptions to help them understand the artists’ complaints. “This made it extremely difficult to explain the problems we were experiencing,” the artist says. “They did not seem to understand that the inappropriate and unprofessional leadership of Richard Henrich is harmful and damaging to the people and the process as a whole. They seemed to think it was just a communication issue.”

After Lord submitted an official complaint to the board last fall, he was called in to discuss the matter with Spooky Action’s board president and other board members. After this meeting, Lord received a letter of apology from Henrich. “Even though the letter was addressed to the entire team,” Lord says, “they only gave me a copy. It felt like they were just trying to placate the people who were mad rather than really trying to honor what we were asking for.”

Board President Norton, in a written statement to DCTA, says that Lord’s complaint was treated very seriously by the board. “An ad hoc board committee was created to investigate the matter,” Norton says, “and interviews were conducted with the complainant and some others involved in the production. The board then chose to hire an HR consultant to investigate further and report her findings to the board. The board met with the HR consultant to review the findings. The results of the investigation were discussed at several meetings, and the board is taking steps to implement the policies described in the letter posted on Facebook.”

Lord says that he was never contacted by Spooky Action’s HR consultant even though he was the person who initially filed the complaint.

MCB’s director describes one meeting with this HR consultant. “When I was interviewed by the HR investigator, I was not allowed to openly share my experiences but was asked instead to answer specific questions only. So, the important things I wanted to share were difficult to get into the conversation. The questions seemed based on Richard’s telling of the situation, not on the behaviors that actually needed to be addressed. I tried to get in all the points I wanted to make clear but had to rush to squeeze them in. The bulk of the conversation felt like me being asked to support the ‘he’s not that bad’ narrative. At one point she said to me, ‘And don’t you just kind of feel sorry for him?’ … I did answer yes, because I do, but that does not seem a fair or unbiased question. I wish I’d said, ‘Don’t you feel sorry for the rest of the 15-member team who were mistreated by him?’”

The artists’ hope 

Lord and the others who spoke to DCMTA say they shared their experiences in the hopes that future artists will not experience similar treatment.

The solutions proposed in Spooky Action’s public apology seem inadequate to Lord: “The heart of this, I think, is that you can’t actually grow or change if you don’t admit there was a problem in the first place. At no point in this apology have they addressed the specific behaviors that we all experienced at Spooky.”

“I cannot excuse persistent disrespectful, racist, misogynistic, bullying behavior,” MCB’s director adds. “I was vigilant about naming Richard’s inappropriate and abusive behaviors each time they occurred — pointing them out to him privately, publicly, and in writing when they happened. Richard’s actions didn’t change, and when I and others on our team pointed out his bad behavior, it only seemed to exacerbate it.”

“All arts workers deserve a place of employment that is safe, free from prejudice, and where they are treated with respect,” MCB’s director concludes. “We should also expect a workplace where we are given the tools, information, and support to do our jobs to the best of our ability.”

Spooky Action Theater sign outside the Universalist National Memorial Church, where the theater company performs.

Screenshot of a message posted on Spooky Action Theater Facebook timeline on April 18, 2022, and subsequently taken down:

SEE ALSO:

As Spooky Action Theater digs in, artists and staff members quit (report by Nicole Hertvik, June 8, 2022)

On toxic artistic leadership (part one): When workers unite in protest
On toxic artistic leadership (part two): Training actors to be abused
On toxic artistic leadership (part three): Manifesto for theater ethics
(essays by Andrew Walker White prompted by the departure of Ethan McSweeny from the American Shakespeare Center)

2 COMMENTS

  1. Let’s make a list: Spooky Action, Signature Theatre, Flying V, See No Sun, and the Highwood Theatre (in Silver Spring). Back in the 1980’s, we called these “Vanity Companies.” Ya think that’s why they may all have toxic leaders?

    • I had issues when I designed sound for Henrich: don’t know how much he thought about his actions or if he was being an asshole on purpose. He pretty much started his church-dungeon venue un-vetted and perhaps was more on-the-job training than anything else.

      You could add Ari Roth to the list (for Theatre J and Mosaic) on the other hand I think some of the crew all around are cry babies. A member of the Mercury Theater was spit on by (you guessed it) Orson Welles. But the victim wiped off his face and carried on, because it was the Mercury Theater. Hope it was worth it. I have walked away and later regretted it after seeing the boat that I missed. We forget the show belongs to the director and the director’s vision. But I would never work at Spooky Action for Richard Henrich’s basically throwing away my sound scheme for no apparent reason.

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