The staff of Adventure Theatre Company has issued an unsigned letter alleging that the Glen Echo, Maryland-based children’s theater has engaged in a series of harmful employment practices since reopening after COVID.
Complaints in the letter (which states that it comes from “The Adventure Theatre MTC staff”) include a lack of internal staff protocols, regularly expecting staff to work overtime hours without compensation, and staging back-to-back productions at an unsafe speed that has resulted in physical injuries to cast members.
According to the letter, these practices resulted in widespread staff resignations in October of 2021. Three complaints have been lodged with Not In Our House DC, the collective of volunteers that helps theater professionals navigate workplace difficulties. The complete text of the letter can be found here.
Adventure Theatre MTC (ATMTC) is currently led by a governing board, Artistic Director Chil Kong, and Interim Executive Director Jeanne Ellinport, who was appointed when Executive Director Leon Seemann left the theater in February.
Many of the complaints in the letter are directed specifically at Ellinport. According to the complainants:
The 21-22 Production season at Adventure, previously helmed by Executive Director Leon Seemann, has been a case study in mismanagement, which was further exacerbated at the end of February 2022 by the arrival of Jeanne Ellinport as Interim Executive Director, who has no professional theatre or arts management experience and is ignorant of EDI [Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion] practices. Jeanne Ellinport, former Board Treasurer, may have non-profit management experience, however the performing arts industry requires robust, specialized knowledge, experience, and skills to effectively lead, especially during a pandemic and the industry-wide movement to eliminate racial inequities. Jeanne Ellinport’s mismanagement over the past 4 months has left the staff and contractors confused over the Board of Director’s choice to appoint her as Interim Executive Director, and frustrated with their failure to appoint a capable Executive Director. To date, the Board has not even begun the search for a permanent, experienced Executive Director.
DC Theater Arts spoke to Ellinport about the letter. Ellinport agrees that ATMTC needs to put in place better operating procedures and increase staff pay. “Change can’t happen overnight,” Ellinport told DCTA. “But the board and myself are committed to making it happen.” She notes that pay increases are already on the books for the 2022–2023 season and that staff was informed of this at a recent meeting.
Ellinport told DCTA that she has over 30 years of experience in nonprofits, most recently stepping into interim roles in nonprofit organizations to “get them on the right path” before a full-time executive director is appointed. She points to difficult events of the past few years as exacerbating factors that led the theater to become understaffed. Specifically, Ellinport mentions the 18-month COVID closure, the departure of former Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt, and the fire that destroyed part of ATMTC’s Glen Echo Park facility in 2017. These events have left the theater in what Ellinport describes as “a rebuilding phase.” She notes that the theater has not had a strategic plan in five years. “It would have been wrong for the theater to bring on a new executive director now,” Ellinport says. “There is too much that is unsteady or unknown. Additionally, we are working on rebranding but culture change takes time.”
Another item on the extensive list of staff complaints states,
Leadership has consistently over scheduled seasons with no breaks in between productions for ATMTC staff, creating overlaps of duties and no opportunity for time off; leadership consistently creates inhumane performance schedules without adequate breaks that overextend actors/crew and put undue stress on their bodies and voices, potentially leading to lasting health issues.
Ellinport says that ATMTC leadership is looking into ways to decrease the burden on staff. For this reason, the theater has not yet announced its 2022–2023 season. “We are trying to get creative to balance an overworked schedule. Do we shorten schedules and not have eight-week runs? Are there things we can do in between that aren’t taxing on our staff?” Ellinport notes that she has been talking to other children’s theaters across the country to see how they approach things.
One stressor that ATMTC deals with is its lease at Glen Echo Park, which stipulates that the theater’s doors be open a certain number of days per year.
The letter states that current Adventure Theatre MTC staff members have tried numerous times over recent months to present their concerns about unfair compensation and an unsafe work environment to company leadership. It specifically refers to a June 12, 2022, meeting in which staff members raised safety concerns. According to the letter, Kong and Ellinport failed to offer any solutions and instead referred to the profit-centered business plan created by Adventure’s board of directors.
DCTA spoke to one of the authors of the letter of complaint, who wishes to remain anonymous. “I feel very disposable,” said this staff member, who has worked full-time at ATMTC since early 2022. “Despite the fact that this is what I went to college for and have done for years, it feels like she [Ellinport] doesn’t care about the labor that we do. She treats us like unskilled laborers but this isn’t just something you can pick up and do.”
Artistic Director Chil Kong acknowledges that mistakes have been made at ATMTC in recent years. “The key to mistakes is learning and improving,” Kong says. “I hope we are given some grace as we put into practice what we have learned. I know we have all worked beyond our job descriptions since the theater reopened. Nothing is more important now than rebuilding trust with staff.”
The letter concludes by calling on ATMTC to cease production of its 2022–2023 season until it can correct harmful labor practices by hiring additional staff to fill vacant positions, and implement fair labor and safety practices.
The full text of the letter of complaint by the staff of Adventure Theatre MTC can be found here.
Links included in the letter as “Relevant Industry Information”: