Inside the battle to change a prestigious theater festival's 'broken' culture

Inside the battle to change a prestigious theater festival's 'broken' culture

9/25/2021 5:48:00 PM

Inside the battle to change a prestigious theater festival's 'broken' culture

Alumni say the Williamstown Theatre Festival is 'deeply broken.' The festival says it welcomes change. But is it enough?

1For more than 60 years, hundreds of young artists have spent their summers at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, hoping to start their careers on the right foot. Frequented by influential vacationers to the Berkshires, the months-long event is considered a rare opportunity for up-and-coming actors to share scenes with Tony Award winners, for emerging directors to learn from industry titans. Work the festival and securing gigs in the industry will be easier, thanks to the company’s standing, its vast network and its proved track record of transferring productions to New York City. Sure, the pay is low — or nonexistent — but the payoff is known to be well worth it.

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Or is it? Recent complaints and subsequent interviews with 25 current and former festival staffers, department heads, apprentices and interns reveal not a professional springboard but a development program that exposes artists-in-training to repeated safety hazards and a toxic work culture under the guise of prestige.

In an eight-page letter and accompanying appendix, sent to the festival’s leadership and board in February and obtained by The Times, 75 alumni alleged a pattern of dangerous working conditions and demanded changes to its treatment of young arts workers. “It wasn’t just one summer. It wasn’t just one production. It wasn’t just one bad apple,” read the letter. “The system that sustains Williamstown Theatre Festival is deeply broken.” headtopics.com

The festival responded nearly three weeks later with a one-page letter that did not include an apology or acknowledgment of harm, but noted the hiring of an outside law firm for an investigation into the issues raised. According to festival, that investigation remains “ongoing.”

AdvertisementAdvertisementIn a statement to The Times last week, board chair Jeffrey Johnson said the festival’s leadership “focused on a culture of continuous change, improving the way we operate and the environment we create for our stakeholders... We welcome all constructive dialogue as we continue to analyze our successful 66-year history to inform our actions going forward and ensure our success and the growth of the American theatre for many years to come.”

Johnson also cited initiatives implemented in Williamstown’s latest season, including a program for emerging theatermakers of color. But for numerous alumni who shared their festival experiences with The Times, these changes — introduced after many arts and culture workplaces came under scrutiny amid the reckonings of 2020 and as the theater industry remained shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic — are too little, too late.

“The festival is trying to look like they have soil that is incredibly nutritious, but artists are being brought into soil that does not actually foster their growth,” said former lighting department head Brandon Bagwell. “I mean, you’re defeating these people before you even give them a chance.” headtopics.com

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2‘An entire, unsafe work environment’The festival is usually held on the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts.(Rob Ross)When Ryan Seffinger applied for the Williamstown festival’s unpaid lighting design internship in 2019, he told himself, “The clout would be extremely good for my career, whether it’s just having that line on my resume or because of the people I was going to meet there.”

Founded in 1954 and held on the Williams College campus, the festival had cultivated a reputation as a promising springboard for new work. Recent seasons of the Tony-winning festival featured the world premieres of Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould’s Broadway-bound musical “Lempicka,” Bess Wohl’s comedy “Grand Horizons” and Adam Rapp’s two-hander “The Sound Inside,” the latter two of which

. The internship promised the opportunity to assist in the season’s marquee titles and to spearhead designs on smaller shows.Advertisement“This institution, with so much reputation and esteem, brings you on board to work with these amazing professionals and surrounds you with people who are all as impassioned as you are, who deeply care about the work,” said former directing assistant Lauren Zeftel. “It felt like the festival was saying, ‘We’re invested in your art, and we want to give you the support and the space and time to make great things.’”

But Williamstown productions less resemble scrappy summer stock shows than those of major regional and Broadway stages, and mounting approximately eight large productions in eight weeks — sometimes with a double-header on opening — requires round-the-clock work behind the scenes. headtopics.com

“Everything was constantly running behind, everyone was always stressed out,” said former costume design intern Leah Mirani."[The seasonal workers are] good at what they do, but Williamstown sets them up to fail because they just don’t have the resources, infrastructure or the training to deal with that volume and pace and quality of show.”

Seffinger spent the summer rigging and focusing lights by hand for up to 16 hours a day. While crawling in the restricted space above a Williamstown stage to hang a power cable, he hit the back of his head on a horizontal metal support pole and suffered what doctors later diagnosed as a concussion.

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He said he had been explicitly instructed during orientation to remove any hard hats when climbing in this area, or any stage space at height; according to Bagwell, Seffinger’s supervisor, the festival’s hard hats did not have chin straps and could potentially drop into the house and hurt someone. Seffinger used his own health insurance coverage for the hospital visit, otherwise, he would have had to pay out of pocket with no assistance from the festival. And he was ineligible for workers’ compensation, as interns were categorized as unpaid festival volunteers. The festival did not respond to a question from The Times about the availability of hard hats with chin straps, but it stated that “we are aware of certain situations in prior seasons where the Festival worked to secure medical attention for apprentices or interns and offered our payment when needed.”

This situation was part of a pattern at the festival, according to nearly allsources interviewed by The Times, who claim that a lack of safety equipment, training and adequate time to complete tasks led to preventable injuries — an allegation echoed in the appendix to the letter from festival alumni that was obtained by The Times. In addition to multiple other concussions, the document cited lacerations requiring stitches and second-degree burns; trips to the emergency room were a common occurrence. “Production staff were told to just keep buying more bandages and wound care rather than actively training and supervising to prevent injury,” read the letter.

The appendix, included below, also alleges that workers suffered asthma flare-ups and skin irritations from “the mill,” a set of all-but-abandoned buildings used for storing props and building scenery since 2011. It was regularly infested with pigeons and other animals (which had to be wrangled out annually), and was outfitted with eyewash stations only in 2018, after numerous requests from various teams. The floor once collapsed under a worker there, according to the appendix.

“This was no secret to anybody who walked through there — A-list actors, board members, they’ve all seen the condition of the building,” said former paints department head Julia Buerkle. Williamstown told The Times the festival ended its lease at “the mill” in 2020 “after evaluation of our options based on documented working conditions.”

Alumni also allege that the theater festival lacked an adequate system for reporting safety issues, and that its workplace culture encouraged workers to downplay both injuries and the fatigue that could lead to them.“Young, unskilled labor are trusted to perform safety-driven tasks, and it’s scary,” said Barbara Samuels, a former associate lighting supervisor who, as an intern, almost fell from a truss structure. “And it gets normalized, because we’re taught that ‘accidents happen,’ as if it’s a single accident and not an entire, unsafe work environment.”

AdvertisementBoard chair Johnson said in a statement that Williamstown has “clearly defined, documented and disseminated reporting structures for raising concerns at the Festival, whether about safety or relating to harassment or discrimination,” via employee handbooks, onboarding and training sessions, and posted signage throughout its facilities.

Nearly all the alumni who spoke with The Times said they did not report the festival to a state or federal agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, either because they did not feel they had a strong enough case to warrant an official complaint or out of the conviction that it would not result in any meaningful change at the festival. “I honestly felt a little defeated and afraid of what would happen if I alone said something,” said Bagwell.

Seffinger did file an anonymous workplace complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office after his summer at the theater festival. “My parents refused to let me put my name on it in case the festival somehow found out it was me,” he said, citing fear of reprisal from Williamstown that could harm his career. He filed the complaint after reading the

state’s regulations on an unpaid internship, which require the role to be educational, for the benefit of the intern and not to displace a regular employee, among other rules. In particular, Seffinger was struck by the guidelines because interns were so instrumental to the festival. “At Williamstown,” he said, “we were the labor force.” (A public records request to the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards showed no record of a formal complaint lodged against the theater festival.)

Former department heads told The Times that they instead raised alarms to the festival’s leadership, either through emailed requests before a season began or during in-person debriefs once the season had ended. But they said they were promised solutions that did not always materialize or left to improve conditions themselves. For example, said Bagwell, a training manual was only as detail-oriented as the department head in charge of writing it; at one point, one department’s manual, referred to as its “Bible,” was an empty binder.

Multiple alumni said that the unsafe conditions were exacerbated by sleep deprivation, high stress and minimal time off — all of which they say resulted from the festival’s business model. “WTF simply would not function without relying on young, mostly unpaid, untrained laborers to push their bodies through intense physical stress for an unsafe number of hours,” read the alumni letter to festival leadership.

Shortly before the 2021 season, festival leadership acknowledged the intense demands of the job when it requested in an email that Lindsey Turteltaub, then-Williamstown’s director of production, submit a doctor’s note before returning to work. “We want to make sure your doctor understands that in order to perform the below listed essential functions of your job, you would be working 7 days a week in a high pressure environment for the next several months,” read the email, which has been obtained by The Times. Turtletaub said her doctor refused the request, calling the schedule “ridiculous”; she resigned soon afterward.

In 2016, the festival “executed a full review of our seasonal employment structure which led to meaningful changes — in compensation, working hours and breaks to name a few,” according to the statement from board chair Johnson, which three former department heads told The Times was the result of collective bargaining efforts.

Four years later, conditions remained troubling enough to prompt the alumni letter to leadership. Among its demands were the implementation of adequate training, fair wages and personal injury insurance for festival workers.“The safety and the emotional well-being of the entire WTF community is our top priority. And we take any claims to the contrary very seriously,” Johnson said in his statement to The Times. “We evaluate and provide opportunity for ongoing assessment for safety and workplace issues each season. This includes pre-season, post-season and in-season department head meetings to address any concerns and ensure we grow and evolve with each coming year.

“Over the past several years, we have, and we will continue to implement policies and practices to foster a work culture that upholds a commitment to theatrical achievement and prioritizes the safety of our people.”AdvertisementRead the Williamstown Theatre Festival alumni’s letter, appendix and response

In early 2021, over 75 Williamstown Theatre Festival alumni sent an 8-page letter and a 26-page appendix of their experiences with the festival’s leadership and board. Nearly three weeks later, the festival responded with a one-page letter that did not include an apology or any acknowledgment of the harm caused.

3‘The worst kind of work ethic’The lobby of Williams College’ ’62 Center for Theatre & Dance, a building where the festival usually takes place.(Robert Benson)In 2016, Itzel Ayala was intrigued by Williamstown’s apprenticeships: a curriculum of specialty acting classes and hands-on experience in various design departments. The program, which the festival website once described as “an on-ramp into the world of the professional theatre,” sought “hard-working multi-hyphenates” who “have a desire to experience the theatre in its totality.”

“I wanted to go because it seemed like it’d give me a good footing in professional theater, especially in New York. Even though this isn’t in New York, everybody in the New York theater world works there,” Ayala told The Times. A spot cost more than $4,000, a fee that many afforded after crowdsourcing funds online. Still, she believed the opportunity would be worth the price, so her parents took out a loan for her to go. “I was very aware of the sacrifice they were making to help me achieve this,” she said.

At first, she and the other apprentices completed their duties without complaint: driving eight hours in a car of questionable condition to fetch a prop; building sets despite no familiarity with power tools; changing entire stages overnight. It was made clear that “festival needs” — a shorthand for the litany of tasks required by the star-studded marquee productions — came before any educational or creative opportunity. Many times, Ayala found herself ditching her acting classes to save her energy for her next shift or recover from her last one.

“It was hard when the projects that were supposed to be my opportunities felt like the bottom of an endless list of tasks,” said Zeftel. “No one has time to be a collaborative artist because they’re being utilized as cogs in the machine to make the festival’s biggest priorities happen.”

Apprentices’ chances to act were scattered across smaller, one-night-only projects that rehearsed and played at odd overnight hours, but they could do so only if they weren’t assigned to other, more menial tasks. Three sources told The Times that it was not uncommon for an apprentice to go an entire summer without acting in anything. “They pay a lot of money to learn a trade, and in the end they are just a small army” of free labor, read the appendix to the letter obtained by The Times.

“The festival positions itself as a rock of educational instruction, but there is no education,” said Bagwell. “It really just teaches you the worst kind of work ethic: Are you willing to work harder than you ever have in your entire life for exposure?”

Both the document and sources interviewed by The Times claimed that the festival’s emphasis on social connections and lack of a support structure for workers created a culture of fear. Without money, major credits or other benefits to fall back on, young theater artists were not in a position to speak up against safety issues, overwork or lack of opportunity without risking retribution. Those who did make in-person complaints to supervisors and schedulers were either ignored or instructed to grin and bear it, per the letter and appendix sent to festival leadership.

Midway through the summer, Ayala called her mom, cried and debated quitting the program. “How can I do theater, a thing I love, while making sure I don’t end up hating it forever?” she recalled thinking. She wasn’t alone: According to the documents obtained by The Times, the program “left many former apprentices feeling that their significant financial hardship was neither justified nor respected.”

AdvertisementAyala stuck with it and nabbed a small, nonspeaking role in the season’s final marquee production: a new staging of the 1997 play “An American Daughter.” But she was also tasked with handling the costumes for the entire cast, arriving early to iron them before each performance and staying late to ensure that everything had been put back in its place. (It is not common for actors to complete cross-departmental crew duties in a professional production in which they also perform onstage.)

“Looking back now, I don’t know if I was scheduled into the show in a specific way for me to do those tasks, to have me count as part of the crew,” she said. Read more: Los Angeles Times »

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