The Board of Spooky Action Theater has placed Artistic Director Richard Henrich on leave of absence, the theater announced last week. The news came ten days after DC Theater Arts published an article outlining accusations of toxic leadership practices at Spooky Action going back several years.
But the terms of Henrich’s leave of absence allow him to remain active in many aspects of the theater’s leadership. Spooky Action Board President Floyd L. Norton, IV tells DC Theater Arts that Henrich will retain his seat on the board, where he will be active in all decisions moving forward — including decisions that determine his ultimate leadership responsibilities. In addition, Norton says that Henrich will remain treasurer of Spooky Action, where he will continue to make all financial decisions for the company such as preparing budgets and reports for the board.
Henrich’s leave of absence from his artistic director duties will primarily change his role at the theater in one specific way: “Henrich will not do any work in the theater building and will not interact with any of the production team,” Norton says.
The announcement comes amid a flurry of resignations at the theater company and further accusations of mistreatment from people who, until they resigned last week, were working on another project with Spooky Action.
Multiple sources tell DCTA that Spooky Action’s long-time marketing manager (who does not want to be named in this article) resigned on May 26; Gillian Drake, who directed the theater’s New Works in Action program, resigned on May 29 (but retains her seat on the board); and newly hired Development and Community Engagement Manager Paul Marengo resigned on May 30 after only three weeks on the job.
Norton tells DCTA that the board does not plan to appoint an interim artistic director while Henrich is on leave. Instead, James Sullivan, Spooky Action’s company manager, will take on some of the duties traditionally performed by an artistic director. In addition, Norton says, Matty Griffiths will be joining Spooky Action as production manager.
However, in a written statement to DCTA, Norton stipulated that neither staff member will perform the artistic director duties for the remaining production in Spooky Action’s 2021–2022 season, Maple and Vine, set to play September 29 through October 23, 2022. “Any artistic director duties relating specifically to the fall production of Maple and Vine will fall to the director of that production,” Norton says.
The week before the board decided to put Henrich on leave of absence was a tumultuous one at the DC-based theater. At the time, a group of artists was scheduled to begin rehearsals for a production called Can I Have This Dance, part of an Innovative Directors Incubator (IDI) project conceived and managed by Gillian Drake.
When accusations of toxic leadership at Spooky Action were made public last month, the creative team behind the IDI project requested that Henrich agree in writing to remain out of the building during their rehearsals.
In response, Henrich sent the members of the IDI project a list labeled “Things I Will Not Do.” The list (a copy of which was sent to DC Theater Arts) withdraws services typically performed by theater management including taking out the trash, providing a box office for ticket orders, laundering costumes, and coordinating usage of space with the church that Spooky Action performs in.
“It felt vengeful,” one project member says. “We looked at the list and said it looks like you’re withdrawing all support from us. Richard responded by saying, ‘Yes. I am the theater and the theater is me.’”
Because of this withdrawal of institutional support, which violated the terms in the contracts signed by the 14 artists involved in the project, the IDI leadership team collectively resigned from the project on May 27, shortly before rehearsals were scheduled to begin, citing “Henrich’s damaging management approach.” The letter also refers to the Spooky Action board of directors. “Spooky Action Theater is still governed by persons who chose to continue employing Richard despite their awareness of his destructive practices. The Spooky Action board chooses to keep Richard in his position as artistic director; we condemn that choice and refuse to lend our art as a means of growth.”
Spooky Action, in messages sent to the IDI leadership by Company Manager James Sullivan, agreed to pay the artists half of the fee agreed to in the contract.
Under a cloud: Artists describe toxic work conditions at Spooky Action Theater (report by Nicole Hertvik, May 20, 2022)