What Happens When Artists Stop Being Afraid

Black Lives Matter protestors march past The Flea Theater on Juneteenth. (Photo: Diep Tran)

An artistic director resigns after allegations of sexual harassment. The entire staff of a theater is let go following public testimonies of racist behavior. A theater commits to finally paying its actors after a public outcry. Around the country, as people have taken to the streets to support the Black Lives Matter Movement, and to speak up against police brutality and institutional racism, theater artists have not been sitting on the sidelines. Far from it. Many artists are taking this time, while live theater around the country is at a standstill and its workers are jobless, to speak up against the injustice they have witnessed and experienced. They are demanding that the industry, when it does come back, will change. 

Recently, more than 60,000 theater artists (including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sandra Oh) signed a petition called We See You, White American Theatre, which called out racism and sexism in the theater industry. According to their website, they are currently drafting up a list of demands. 

But separate from the We See You WAT letter, groups of artists—first in Chicago, and then New York City, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.—have come forward with their own stories of misconduct at particular institutions, and with lightning-fast speed, have pushed those theaters to respond to their demands. Stephanie Peyton is an Atlanta-based actor, and she and a group of other freelance theater artists were instrumental in getting the entire staff of Georgia’s Serenbe Playhouse laid off. Said Peyton:

“We’re all stuck with this whole COVID thing. And so we have nothing better to do than to be on our social media and see these new videos every day of Black men being shot, and women disappearing and children not being found. Not only are we seeing this every day, but we’re experiencing it every day. And it’s not just with police but it’s with our bosses, it’s with our schools, it’s with our housing, it’s everywhere. And so for us, it was getting to a point of being like, we’re gonna call this stuff out.”

What happened at Serenbe can be traced back to a public Facebook post on June 8 by actor Lilliangina Quiñones, in which she detailed incidents of racism at Serenbe, including former artistic director Brian Clowdus, saying, “’just because you’re Black doesn’t make you the owner of your story,’ and ‘The Color Purple at Actor’s Express was just a carbon copy of a show directed by a white cracker’ and so many other overtly racist statements.” 

Serenbe Playhouse, whose work has received national attention in The New York Times, has an annual operating budget of around $2.5 million. Soon, other former artists who had worked at Serenbe were coming forward with public Facebook posts, detailing their own experience with racism, as well as unsafe working conditions (including an actor who was injured after almost falling off a 12-foot-high platform). Peyton said that when she was an acting apprentice at the Playhouse, she was also told to build sets and wrangle animals. “We did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we had to wrangle a live donkey that was not trained,” she said.

People also began commenting on Serenbe Playhouse’s Facebook page, including one that said, “You should be ashamed. You have A LOT of work to do. How dare you. How dare.” 

Then on June 15, the Serenbe Institute, the parent company of the Serenbe Playhouse, announced that they had laid off the entire staff of the theater, have suspended operations and will rebuild the theater from the ground up, with new staff and board members. Clowdus had left the theater in 2019 to run his own production company: Brian Clowdus Experiences. Clowdus and his company have taken themselves off of Facebook, and have not addressed the allegations publicly. 

I sent an email to Deborah Griffin, chair of the Serenbe Institute board of directors. The Institute has a different board than the Playhouse and I asked if the latter’s board members would be replaced as well—because of the way nonprofits are set up, the board can sometimes have as much say in how a theater is run as its staff.

This was her answer: “We are looking into the role the Playhouse board served in keeping complaints unheard, and if we find the board was part of that culture, we will work to replace those individuals with new leadership.” 

Serenbe Institute is also working with a consultant named Dr. Tiffany Russell, who Griffin says, “specializes in Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity. With her help we will build a better, safer, more equitable and diverse playhouse. This will start from the ground up as we hire individuals who have proven experience leading theatres to be safer and more equitable.”

Serenbe Playhouse’s 2019 production of “Hair.” (Photo: Serenbe Playhouse’s Facebook page)

Meanwhile, while things were coming to a head at Serenbe, on June 21, actor Thomas Keegan alleged on Facebook that in 2018, Eric Schaeffer (the artistic director of the Tony-winning Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C.) had “grabb[ed] or fond[led] my genitals through my pants [at least] three times over the course of a bewildering five minute exchange, including at least twice after I made it clear that I wanted him to stop.”

In 2018, Keegan reported what happened to the board of the Signature. On June 24, the theater released a statement on their website that said, in part: “May 2018 was the first and only time Signature received any complaints regarding inappropriate behavior by Mr. Schaeffer during his 30-year tenure at Signature. Within hours of receiving the first complaint the Board was notified and soon after Mr. Schaeffer was placed on Administrative leave.” The subsequent investigation from Thatcher Law Firm, according to the theater, revealed that Keegan’s claims were “unfounded.” 

Meanwhile, Keegan’s Facebook post circulated on social media, with other artists expressing their support and sharing. One of them was actor Joe Carlson, who also posted his own story about Schaeffer on Facebook.

Then on June 24, Schaeffer announced he was retiring from the Signature after 30 years of leading the company, effective June 30. He made no mention of the allegations. 

That same day, a story published by WAMU, D.C.’s NPR station, detailed numerous instances of Schaeffer behaving inappropriately to artists and former staff members, including an instance where, “during a 2013 run of the musical Miss Saigon, Schaeffer allegedly pulled his pants down and pantomimed receiving fellatio from a prop statue of Ho Chi Minh.” According to WAMU, the Signature responded to the accounts with: “If complaints are made to Signature, we will investigate according to the balanced and fair policies of the organization.”

“Why did he step down after a bunch of people accuse him of sexual assault?” said Keegan rhetorically. “Well, I don’t know. I can tell you that if a bunch of people did that to me, I would gather all of my many friends and have them testify to my character. Why aren’t you defending yourself?”

The Signature Theatre (Photo: SignatureTheatre.org)

Finally, earlier in the month on June 4, in response to a statement from the Flea Theater in New York City about their support for Black Lives Matter, actor Bryn Carter posted on Instagram: “This is BULLSHIT. You do not pay your actors and the racist things witnessed under your roof is ridiculous.” She then detailed her experiences further in a public Facebook post

Even though the Flea has a million-dollar budget and has its own $21-million-dollar building, its resident acting company the Bats, are not paid Actors Equity union wages. The non-union Bats are paid a small stipend when they perform but they otherwise need to log in volunteer work hours at the theater in order to maintain their membership with the Flea. 

After Carter’s post, other former Flea artists were coming forward with their own stories of “racism, sexism, gaslighting, disrespect and abuse.” After a public letter from the current Bats was posted on social media, the Flea announced that it would pay all of the artists who work at the theater.

Aleesha Nash is a former staff member of the Flea and she thinks the issues of the theater go beyond unpaid labor. In an Instagram post, she explained (as the only other Black person on staff aside from Smith) how the Flea was “a toxic space for Black people.” At the end of her post, she detailed ways that the theater can improve, which included, “hire POC and learn from them by listening with compassion and respect. White staff, if your organization has one POC on payroll, speak up and work towards diversifying your staff.”

According to Vulture, Niegel Smith, the artistic director of the Flea, said he was “grateful to have been called out and called in.’” Smith promised that the next phase of the Flea will look like this: “artists are going to be included at all levels of leadership.”

Nash said that these criticisms of the theater are coming from a place of care, and of wanting to see the institution live up to the values it espouses. “That is why people are taking the time to write these statements about the Flea, it’s not because we want to throw them under the bus,” she said. “Just change so that we can actually benefit from the great stuff that you’re trying to do. If you get out of your own way, then you can actually make the impact that you want to make.”

“now we get to practice using our voices.”

Why am I writing a story about these three seemingly different circumstances? Not because I see them as interchangeable. I see them all as profoundly connected: to each other and to the current climate of this country where regular people are standing up against institutional power to demand social and racial justice, and a viral pandemic has brought into sharp focus what truly matters. 

The reckoning for the American theater has been long overdue in many areas: around racial justice, around #MeToo, around labor exploitation. In June, as Black Lives Matter protests were spilling out onto streets around the country, many theaters released statements in support of the movement. For instance, the Signature’s statement said: “Signature is reflecting on the role our theater plays in our community, and on how we can do more to be anti-racist—as people and as a company. We want to do more. We must do more.”

These artists are showing these producers how they can do more. Said Lilliangina Quiñones, one of the artists who spoke out against Serenbe:

“I think this moment is about truth. And it’s about really seeing things as they are, so that we can make some critical decisions about how we’re going to move forward as a healthy community of artists and as individuals. And I think another part of it is just that simple act of practicing using our voices. Having been in primarily white institutions, we’ve been practicing how to be silent. So now we get to practice using our voices.”

It’s no coincidence that these movements have been led by actors and other freelance artists. One of the great lies of capitalism is that it is the bosses, the highest paid people at the top, who have power. And the workers, those who are paid the least, are lucky to be working. For all of its ideals, the American theater has followed a similar hierarchical setup, where the producer who runs the theater will make $500,000 a year while the actors onstage bring in $1,000 a week.

Within that hierarchy, independent artists are arguably one of the most exploited groups in the industry. Because they roam to different theaters for work, they lack job security. That top-down structure ensures that those artists will not feel empowered to speak up for themselves if anything goes wrong, for fear of their jobs. This fear leaves them particularly vulnerable to abuses of power. 

It is that pyramid structure, and that fear that has allowed racism, sexism and white supremacy to flourish, even in spaces that claim to be equitable. Tara Moses is one of the people who spoke in the Serenbe situation. She said that one of the reasons she posted on Facebook was because her word as a director would be taken more seriously.

“There are way more actors than there are directors than there are playwrights than there are artistic directors, and so there’s increased risk,” she said. “So as an individual actor, if you decide to push back against these rigid power systems, you’re easily replaceable. And actors are taught that from the very beginning. I actually started my career as an actor. And that power imbalance became very clear, very quickly.”

And if actors are at the bottom, then BiPOC actors have arguably the hardest struggle. That is why Thomas Keegan came forward publicly. Since he posted his story online, “at least one person who came to me is a person of color who felt targeted and afraid to come forward,” he said. “And as a white ally, I do have privilege in this moment—it is safer for me to stand forward in this moment. And my word is taken more seriously.”

For Nash, this moment isn’t just about calling out one theater. Every theater needs to have its own reckoning. “This is not just in the Flea, it’s in all spaces—and the theater [industry]  is one of the biggest spaces that are perpetuating these issues,” she said. “The theater has really neglected people of color in a big, big way.” The Flea has not contacted Nash about her Instagram post.

Around the country, it is the artists who are forcing these theaters to face their skeletons. A theater’s most valuable resource is not its building, but its people. You can make theater without a building but you cannot make theater without artists. Likewise, prior to this, Peyton had encouraged artists to not work at Serenbe. 

“They can’t do a show without us,” said Peyton. “If they don’t respect us, if they don’t treat us well, if they don’t honor us, then we don’t work. It’s a transference of power. We’ve willingly given the power to these people because they’ve made us believe that they have it, but they don’t have anything without us.”

And during this time where live performance has been paused, now is the time for dreaming and for action. To dream of a theater that is truly equitable and safe, and to take action to put that into being—whether that is to call out institutions that have fallen short, or to support BIPOC-led theaters that have been doing the work. One thing is clear: silence is no longer an option.

Keegan believes that the Signature hasn’t gone far enough. On a public Facebook post, he has called for the resignation of the theater’s staff and board.

“The entire hierarchy of Signature Theatre, to include the board and people I once called friends and colleagues, has aided and abetted a sacrilegious abuse of power, criminal activity, and depraved behavior, in a theatre that good, hardworking artists call home. They have betrayed their patrons, their employees, and the artistic community. They should be removed and replaced by the next generation of theatremakers, honestly and transparently committed to creating safe spaces, free of sexual abuse and harrassment, so they may continue pursuing our most pressing matter: racial justice and equity.”

Even Tony winning costume designer Clint Ramos has called on the Signature to acknowledge what’s happened.

This story is currently still open-ended, like many stories around racial and social justice are in the American theater—an ellipses until the industry gets back to work in 2021 (hopefully) and audiences can see if these producers have lived up to their commitment to change. 

But what is clear in this moment is if change comes, it will not be from those at the top, who have more to gain by maintaining the status quo and a culture of silence. After all, this week, Broadway producer Scott Rudin announced a revival of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town for the Great White Way in 2021, starring Dustin Hoffman, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. In the American theater, with its short memory, it’s easy for people with whispers around them to work again.

The status quo will want to reassert itself. Change will only come from individual artists forcing the issue and banding together to protect each other. That is why open letters representing many people are a popular form of activism right now. As I write this article, artists in the Bay Area have been sharing their own racist experiences in theater on a public Google Doc.

For her part, Quiñones is cautiously optimistic about the future, though she admits she has to be in order to move forward: “I don’t know how many theaters are really going to step up to the plate and really make the needed changes. But I do think that we set some really wonderful things in motion.” 

6 thoughts

  1. Thank you for writing this and telling these stories. I feel like all the stories have been popping up here and there over social media and it feels so important that you’ve gathered them together into this piece. Also, I can’t get over the live untrained donkey! What the?!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! That’s what I was hoping would happen when I wrote this, that other people would see these stories as connected. And I know! So unnecessary, especially because you don’t need live animals in Midsummer.

  2. Thank you for this story. I first read Aleesha’s post on IG and I was so proud of her for being brave enough to share her experience. As a Black playwright this article gives voice to many of my thoughts and concerns that have been festering over the past decade. I look forward to the old paradigm crumbling to pieces. Thank you for being one of the sledgehammers!

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