According to company members, the sudden shutdown has little to do with either the coronavirus or fiscal matters; ASC is receiving a total of $1.8 million through the federal aid to the arts program known as Shuttered Venue Operators Grants. Rather, some say the cancellations were caused by internal strife over how the company is run, and its treatment of women and people of color.
In recent weeks, the organization has been riven by pent-up grievances and departures. Just weeks into rehearsals in September, “Keene’s” director, Mei Ann Teo, resigned; others who left included one of the pivotal longtime company members, actor and music director Chris Johnston. His resignation after 15 years in Staunton was particularly debilitating, not only because his musicianship was so central to ASC’s productions. He was also one of the four actor-managers who had been appointed to run ASC after the upheaval surrounding the resignation in February of Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny.
The ongoing internal problems led to a meeting Saturday of the ASC board, during which the company authorized a nine-month contract with equity, diversity and inclusion consultant Joseph Toni Castañeda Carrera. “They’re going to lead us through revising company values through an EDI lens,” said Kelly Burdick Carter, ASC’s director of advancement. “They had come in and done a week of intervention to help us right the ship that we found to be very, very helpful. We are going to continue with them for the foreseeable future.” Carter added that “issues around training, personnel and policy” necessitated the production stoppage, and actors were paid for the entirety of the run. The troupe is also on a search for a director of human resources with experience in the performing arts.
ASC is a small-to-midsize theater company that operates a handsome mock-Tudor, 300-seat theater, the Blackfriars Playhouse, in the Shenandoah Valley city of Staunton, about 150 miles southwest of Washington. It has long sought to punch above its weight and with McSweeny, who was hired in 2018, it began to attract national attention for its work. The highlights included a well-received new musical, “The Willard Suitcases,” and “Othello” with Jessika Williams in the title role. Before the pandemic its performances ran 50 weeks a year on an annual budget of more than $4 million and with a staff of 70 full- and part-timers — a number now reduced by half.
Under McSweeny, the company, facing dire financial straits as a result of the covid-19 shutdown in March 2020, was one of the first theaters in the nation to return to live work, four months later. That had the effect both of saving the company and exacerbating long-simmering tensions; the company returned to the stage before Actors’ Equity had pronounced it safe to do so, and some actors had to resign from the union to perform. A majority of staff members subsequently signed a lengthy letter to the board titled “Save the ASC” in which they enumerated their complaints about McSweeny’s management. They alleged anger issues and patterns of abusive or intimidating behavior.
McSweeny’s departure divided the board as well, with two prominent members, upset over how he was treated, resigning in protest. According to several people with long-standing ties to the company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, whatever problems may have surfaced during McSweeny’s tenure were not solved with his departure.
The four-person “actor-manager” model, they said, began to show signs of erosion, as one of the members, troupe standout Brandon Carter, shifted to programming duties. Eventually, according to Kelly Burdick Carter — Brandon’s wife — a management committee of six department managers, representing production, engagement and other units, replaced the actor-manager model as the company’s essential supervisors.
Teo, the director of “Keene,” who is associate artistic director of new work for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, said in an interview Wednesday that she was pleased that ASC had decided to stop production for a spell and address the complex interpersonal issues among company members that prompted her departure.
“For an art form that explores our humanity, we should be able to make that art in a way that deeply honors our humanity, and ASC is doing exactly that,” Teo said.
In a statement, former music director Johnston said: “I have given 15 years of my heart to the ASC. Blood, sweat and tears. I’m proud to have made theater with some brilliant artists. The magic of the ASC is its belief in words and imagination. My hope is that they will find their way back to the spirit of the work that is so powerful in that space.”
Kelly Burdick Carter said canceling the fall season was prompted by the need to put equity, diversity and inclusion squarely on the front burner, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the calls of artists of color for White theater makers to listen to their demands for reform.
“People have been trying to address EDI concerns in the world slowly and incrementally,” Carter said. “Then you had this movement last summer, saying slow and incremental is not the way you do that anymore.”
Reducing ASC’s heavy performance calendar, and determining what kind of management structure to settle on, will be on the agenda in the coming months, Carter said, adding that plans now call for the seasonal presentation of “A Christmas Carol” to restart the company in December.