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Signature Theatre co-founder steps down amid accusations of sexual assault

Signature Theatre’s founding artistic director Eric Schaeffer was accused of sexual assault by actor Thomas Keegan. (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)
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Eric Schaeffer, founding artistic director of the Tony-winning Signature Theatre, resigned late Tuesday after an actor made public his allegation that Schaeffer sexually assaulted him during a Washington awards show in May 2018.

The actor, Thomas Keegan, took to Facebook and Twitter on Sunday to accuse Schaeffer of “grabbing or fondling my genitals through my pants at least three times over the course of a bewildering five minute exchange, including twice after I made it clear that I wanted him to stop.” Another actor, Joe Carlson, subsequently posting on Facebook, asserted that Schaeffer grabbed him by the genitals at a raucous annual fundraiser at Signature in 2016, a now-discontinued event sponsored by Theatre Washington called the Summer Hummer.

A two-month investigation in 2018 by a lawyer hired by Signature, Linda Hitt Thatcher, concluded the accusations were “not credible,” according to the theater. As to why he’s resigning now, Maggie Boland, Signature’s longtime managing director, said Schaeffer “doesn’t want to do any harm to this theater that he built or to this community that he loves.”

Schaeffer’s departure, effective June 30, concludes the leadership career of the longest-serving artistic director of a major theater in the Washington region. Schaeffer was a champion of musical theater, whose work has been seen on Broadway and internationally. The 57-year-old Pennsylvania native founded Signature with actress Donna Migliaccio in 1989 in a middle school in Arlington. Moving to a former auto repair garage and later to a $16 million, two-theater complex above the Shirlington Library, Signature evolved into a nationally recognized outpost for musicals. Its specialty became the musicals of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

In a statement, Schaeffer said: “After 30 years, with the world feeling upside down, I am retiring as co-founder/artistic director of Signature Theatre. . . . I always looked to innovate and create pathways for more voices to be heard, with programs like the Women’s Voices Festival. I hope that the next generation of leaders can weather the many storms our profession faces. To do so, it needs to pull together, dedicate itself to the work, and avoid the toxic polarization that damages not just the institutions, but the work itself, the art.”

The artistic director’s resignation was submitted to the executive committee of Signature’s board of directors late Tuesday, and announced to the board and full-time staff of 54 on Wednesday. A national search will be conducted to replace Schaeffer at the helm of the company, which has an $11 million annual budget and is a cultural anchor for Northern Virginia.

In 2009, Schaeffer and the company were awarded the Tony for excellence in regional theater, the first time a Washington-area theater had been honored since Arena Stage received the accolade in 1976. The crisis at Signature represents another chapter in the long-running national scandal over allegations of sexual misconduct in the worlds of arts, politics and business.

Keegan, 34, filed a complaint with Signature in May 2018, saying that the assault had taken place at the Anthem venue on the Washington Wharf, during the May 14 Helen Hayes Awards ceremony, the yearly show honoring theatrical achievement throughout the D.C. region. (Keegan’s wife, actress Alyssa Wilmoth, was one of the show’s emcees.) The actor has a long list of Washington credits, including a pair of roles at Signature in 2012 in playwright Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City,” and he recently appeared on Broadway in Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play.”

Boland said that Carlson, who has also appeared locally in a number of shows, filed his complaint with Signature on the same day.

She added that Schaeffer was placed on a two-month administrative leave during the ensuing inquiry. According to a statement posted on Signature’s website on Monday, the investigation “involved numerous interviews with the complainant, Eric Schaeffer, current and former Signature staff . . . along with attendees at the event where the incident allegedly took place.” While no action was taken against the artistic director, he was instructed to undergo what one company insider called “management training” and what Boland described as a “coaching opportunity, so Eric could learn” from the experience.

The issue lay dormant until earlier this month, when Signature posted a note on its website expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, in the midst of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “They posted a note about racial injustice and I saw red,” Keegan said in a telephone interview. He decided that he could not stay silent any longer about the incident he says he experienced; his Facebook post sparked a flurry of responses, including some additional anonymous assertions of improprieties.

“I’m not trying to get up on any pedestal,” Keegan said, “but if no one is going to call them out for this hypocrisy, I will.” Of the report that found no credibility for the accusation, he added: “I don’t know how you come back after I spent 2½ hours with them, and Joe spent 2½ hours, and say, ‘Nothing there.’ ”

Keegan said he regrets that his initial complaint included a demand for $250,000 from Signature, in addition to Schaeffer’s removal and a public apology — all of which the company rejected. He had been advised, he said, that the theater would not take his other demands seriously if there wasn’t a monetary penalty attached.

But he views Schaeffer’s relinquishing his job as only partial recompense. “He needs to make a public acknowledgment of guilt,” Keegan said.

Although Schaeffer in recent years has taken on directorial assignments in South Korea and directed a few Broadway shows, including a revival of Sondheim and James Goldman’s “Follies” and a jukebox musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” he’s the only leader Signature has ever known.

“It’s a seismic event in Signature history,” Boland said. She and others involved in Signature governance said that the company is sound financially: Unlike many other theaters, Signature has not had to furlough any of its full-time staff during the coronavirus pandemic.

The hit to its reputation is more difficult to assess. For the time being, she and Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner will be overseeing operations, with a goal of a post-coronavirus reopening during the winter.

“We will be changed for sure,” Boland said, vowing that “Signature will be able to operate very confidently.”