As Spooky Action Theater digs in, artists and staff members quit

Amid charges of toxic leadership, the board puts Artistic Director Richard Henrich on leave... but only from certain duties.

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.

DCTA graphic

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.

SEE ALSO:
Under a cloud: Artists describe toxic work conditions at Spooky Action Theater (report by Nicole Hertvik, May 20, 2022)

1 COMMENT

  1. Spooky action is a not for profit, so their tax information is freely available. Whenever a theater company goes through something like this I always check their financials to get a sense of how much power was abused.

    To anyone shocked that Richard is sticking around, that he’s allowed on the board, that he’s the treasurer and making financial decisions, they just need to look at the tax return.

    https://apps.irs.gov/pub/epostcard/cor/421646001_202006_990_2021041317935473.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0XN-CY45i4qZ73HY3_1YL8ya_-lNrn0LSyAG4Wd1nhESk9q23pnUxOWgA

    When you look at Schedule L, Part II it’s clear as day. As of 2019 (pre/early pandemic) Spooky Action was on the hook for $50,000 to Richard. Up 30k from the 20k he originally loaned them the year prior. How can this board do anything to a man they owe 50k to, and while it’s not yet available, I doubt it’s gotten any better since covid.

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