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this week in debacles: ethan mcsweeny and american shakespeare center
On February 19th, American Shakespeare Center announced that artistic director Ethan McSweeny had resigned eight days earlier, less than three years after he joined the organization.
The Washington Post reported that last fall, 52 full- and part-time workers at ASC (the theatre’s staff size at the time was around 70) submitted “a 10-page ‘Save the ASC’ letter to the board of trustees…the allegations revolved in part around a ‘toxic’ work environment created by McSweeny and unacceptable treatment of some women and artists of color.”
I’ve read the full letter to the ASC board and I think this is an incomplete assessment of the contents. (I do not know if Peter Marks had access to the document or if the theatre provided a summary.) The letter meticulously details an abusive culture of fear, intimidation, and bullying, citing multiple instances of McSweeny’s disregard for physical safety concerns, flagrant misogyny, aggression towards BIPOC artists and employees, and negligence of safety protocols during the theatre’s COVID-19 producing model. The testimonies are harrowing and I hope the ASC community is provided with the necessary resources for healing.
My quibbles with the Post reporting pale in comparison to the New York Times’ coverage. Under the softball headline “Shakespeare Troupe to Go Without an Artistic Director”, the NYT reduces the allegations and staff-wide organizing to “complaints about the workplace climate from some employees”, and only quotes McSweeny to contextualize the events:
[McSweeny] declined to comment on the complaints, which were voiced in a letter submitted to the theater last fall, other than to say “it is a factor, but not a cause.”
I would argue that 80% of your staff writing a comprehensive letter to the board demanding your removal, which triggered an outside investigation into your conduct, was probably more than “a factor”, but go off.
As a dramaturg, I’m trained to constantly think about how information is framed and received. This newsletter obviously operates under very different editorial standards than The New York Times. But it’s been over three years since the start of the #MeToo movement and we’ve seen dozens of similar resignations as the theatre industry reckons with workplace inequity, racism, and sexism. It’s inexcusable for media outlets to give artistic leaders accused of abuse and harassment a platform for their personally crafted exit narratives. Centering McSweeny's version of the story — one that reduces the staff’s brave advocacy to a marginal plot point — allows him to retain his power.
This isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to messy leadership transitions. Institutional messaging around these issues always rings insincere and incomplete because real transparency is hampered by complicated legal agreements and settlement conditions. At the same time, I’m also exhausted by the flimsy, formulaic language and paint-by-numbers structure of these resignation/”retirement” announcements. Every statement reads like it was processed through the same meat grinder of legalese and mediocre spin. Here are some common elements, with supporting quotes and citations:
The outgoing AD never apologizes or admits any wrongdoing.
The outgoing AD uses some version of ‘self-reflection about the current moment’ as the reason for their departure, as if stepping down was their idea and not the result of board investigations, staff-wide organizing, and calls for their dismissal:
“While the pandemic crisis metastasized this past fall, I increasingly found myself trying to conceive of an ASC that would enter 2021 tabula rasa. . . It turns out that part of what became necessary to give the company a truly blank slate was to erase myself as well…[the Board and I] determined that within the financial constraints of the foreseeable future, ASC could still thrive without my leadership.” - Ethan McSweeny
“I believe that during a time when the theater is not producing, and during a time of truly hopeful cultural transformation, I am no longer the right person for the job…I hope that by resigning I can create an opening, which allows the theater to continue on its journey of structural transformation.” - Peter DuBois, The Huntington
Depending on the severity and type of misconduct, the theatre will include a few sentences touting the accomplishments and legacy of the outgoing leader.
See: A.R.T./NY, Mosaic, Signature Theatre (VA), and The Alley Theatre, the latter of which backfired so badly the Managing Director later apologized for the lack of transparency in the initial announcement.
There’s always a sentence from the board chair about moving on and looking forward:
“We are moving forward in terms of dealing with strife and turmoil, and all theater companies are experiencing the anxiety of the pandemic.” - ASC
“We are looking forward to building on our rich artistic history as we continue to work toward the day when Triad Stage can return to live productions in a post-pandemic world.” - Triad Stage
“Coming out of our Summer and Fall of introspection and planning, Mosaic is committed more than ever to the path forward. This future will not look the same, as the world doesn’t look the same.” - Mosaic Theater
“Looking forward, we are confident that we have the board leadership, organizational leadership, and staff in place to truly make the Huntington’s reemergence the beginning of a new era in Boston theatre.” - Huntington
Instead of regurgitating these glorified Mad Libs, I wish news outlets would focus on a more compelling angle: how theatre workers across the country are organizing and appealing directly to boards to oust toxic leadership. (We’ve seen this recently play out at A.R.T./NY, Huntington, Mosaic, and now ASC.) Depending on the size and culture of a theatre, the communication chasm between staffs and boards can be vast, and abusive leaders will often tightly control the information flow and restrict relationship-building opportunities in order to escape accountability. Workers bypassing the very leadership perpetuating harm to advocate for themselves takes immense bravery, and the fact that it’s yielding consequences is a major landscape shift.
The primary responsibility of a board is financial oversight — and that’s not changing — but it’s finally registering that they’re also responsible for protecting and investing in a theatre’s greatest asset: its workers.
John Clinton Eisner will step down from the Lark, 27 years after founding the new play development laboratory. Eisner announced his intentions to step down in January 2020, and through a search process run by a committee comprising Lark artists, staff, and board, a new artistic director was selected in January 2021 and will be announced next month.
Aziza Barnes and Jeremy O. Harris will adapt Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half into a drama series for HBO. This was the best book that I read in 2020.
Sivan Battat will be the 2021-2022 Roundabout Directing Fellow. Iraqi-Jewish director Battat, a current member of the Roundabout Directors Group, will begin her fellowship when productions resume later this year, starting with assistant directing Trouble in Mind.
My endless gratitude to my forever editors Rebecca Adelsheim and Adrien-Alice Hansel for their insights on this week’s missive and for tolerating my elevator pitch on why they need to watch Dickinson posthaste.