LWT Chief Sees Opportunity Amid Crisis

Paul Bass PhotoThe scene: At a regional theater, a sexual misconduct scandal has just exploded. The artistic director, handsy and foul-mouthed, has exited the stage for good, and the steady, behind-the-scenes manager finds himself trying to hold up his life’s passion from the fallout. As the curtain rises, all the stage’s lights shine on one man, emerging from the wings, stepping, deliberately, toward the expectant audience.

Long Wharf Theatre produces a lot of social-issues dramas like that on its stages. On Wednesday the drama was playing out in real life on Sargent Drive, as Joshua Borenstein stepped into the spotlight. It was time to draw on all he’d been learning.

Borenstein has worked at Long Wharf since 2003 (not counting a four-year intermission), and he has served as its managing director since 2011. In that job, he has calmly run Long Wharf while his co-equal manager, Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, served as the public face.

Then a “#MeToo” bomb dropped on the theater. The New York Times Monday published an exposé in which four women described years of rampant sexual misbehavior by Edelstein.

By Tuesday night, the board fired Edelstein. Borenstein came to work Wednesday as not only managing director, but — suddenly improvising — as interim artistic director as well.

That meant preparing for Wednesday night’s opening of a play called Office Hour. It meant completing plans for a Thursday night community not-for-profit’s fundraiser, happening in conjunction with the play. It meant continuing to meet with shook-up staffers, reassure donors, handle the media storm, coordinate with the Board of Trustees, and start to put together a plan to investigate what went so very wrong at Long Wharf and how to change the culture so it doesn’t happen again.

Sleeves rolled up, Borenstein, who’s 42, appeared somber but surprisingly calm, unruffled and centered in his office. As he sipped Earl Grey tea from a Comcast Newsmakers mug and offered a visitor a snack from his office stash of Kind protein bars, he described his new role and his goals.

In this moment of crisis, he said, he sees opportunity: a chance not only to address a problem at Long Wharf, but to “serve as a model for others who are going through the same thing” at cultural and political and journalistic institutions across the country in this Harvey Weinstein-prompted moment of women coming forward with long-ignored tales of sexual predation.

“Sometimes,” Borenstein reflected, “crisis can bring people together.”

Act I

Borenstein didn’t have much time to rehearse the part.

He said that he hadn’t know that the Times was working on the story until the reporter, Michael Paulson, sent him and Long Wharf Board of Trustees Chair Laura Pappano an email this past Friday morning detailing the allegations and seeking comment.

The email arrived while Borenstein and Pappano were in a theater Finance Committee meeting inside Long Wharf’s Stage 2. Borenstein didn’t read it —  and discover the scandal about to hit Long Wharf — until he returned to his office after the meeting.

He was familiar with some of the allegations; he was the one to whom former theater Education Director Kim Rubenstein had brought the original complaint about Edelstein back in 2007. He was not familiar with the full version, including some details of the sexual encounters, now about to appear in print, he said. And he had not heard many of the other stories.

He was stunned.

He thought of how this would devastate the staff. And he wondered how he hadn’t known about all this before.

Pappano had read the email on her phone, too. Rather than leaving Long Wharf, she headed to Borenstein’s office. They began planning the response.

“We looked at each other,” Borenstein recalled, and they decided that at each step, they remind themselves to “do the right step.” If they felt at all uncomfortable with an idea, they determined, they’d ditch it, he said, an account corroborated by Pappano.

One example: They decided they needed some “objective” outside advice. So they hired Roy Occhiogrosso, a former top gubernatorial aide now at a firm called Global Strategy Group, for advice on public relations.

But they decided they needed to do the talking with the media, with the public, with the staff, Borenstein said. They couldn’t hide behind a P.R. firm and its press releases.

Pappano spent the weekend researching the files, and they prepared a public statement for when the story broke. But they also decided to be available to speak directly with people.

In all their dealings, Borenstein said, they resolved not to appear “closed,” “unresponsive,” or “tone deaf.” And more importantly, not to be closed or unresponsive or tone deaf.

Monday Borenstein and Pappano called a staff meeting. (Long Wharf has 50 full-time staffers, according to Borenstein, and a total of 250 people who work at least part-time at some point during the year.) They wanted to break the news, informing the staff that Pappano had just placed Edelstein on administrative leave, pending a Tuesday night Board of Trustees meeting, and that Borenstein was going to be in charge for the time being. They let people know they could come to Borenstein or Pappano directly for help, or to the theater’s Employment Assistance Plan for a free professional consultation.

Meanwhile, as the meeting took place, the Times story went live online.

“It felt,” Borenstein said of the timing, “like a moment in a play.”

Act II

T. Charles Erickson PhotoLong Wharf issued a public statement from Pappano. But Pappano, a journalist herself, also made herself available for interviews with reporters.

Besides dealing with staff, Borenstein said he, too, made a point to be available, to speak to donors, members of the community, contacts in the theater world.

Long Wharf has been working deeply with the community for years now, as it struggles to build new audiences amid an ever-graying membership. It offers free tickets to first-time patrons, and it seeks contacts in the community to find some of those patrons. It also invites groups affected by themes explored in the shows — urban gun violence, say — to see the shows for free and participate in “talkbacks.” It ventures out to neighborhood libraries to read parts of current plays and explore the issues in community forums. Long Wharf also invites not-for-profit groups to hold fundraising events at the start of the run of a relevant play.

A crisis like this can test a cultural institution’s relationship to its community, the strength of its bonds.

So one of Borenstein’s first calls in the wake of the Times revelations was to Sandy Hook Promise, a group founded in the wake of the Newtown school massacre. The group is about to launch its annual “Start with Hello Week,” designed to help teachers and the community deal with isolated, disconnected youngsters. That’s a theme in the Long Wharf play opening this week, in which a college writing teacher seeks to reach a troubled student she fears might turn violent. Long Wharf had arranged with Sandy Hook Promise to participate in and receive all the proceeds from the show’s fundraiser, scheduled for Thursday night.

Borenstein worried that the group might want to pull out of the event because of the Edelstein publicity. So he made the call — and learned that Sandy Hook Promise was still all in.

He also called Andy Wolf, New Haven government’s cultural affairs chief. The Harp administration planned to issue a mayoral proclamation at Thursday’s event.

Wolf assured Borenstein that the city, too, was still all in.

“‘Who are you: Hester Prynne with a scarlet letter on your head?’” Wolf later recalled having told Borenstein.

“Institutions survive long after individuals who may or may not leave their mark on that institution’s artistic legacy,” Wolf told the Independent on Wednesday. The challenge at a moment like this is to “find ways to promote zero tolerance for any serial sexually predatory behavior.”

“It’s a telling moment to reevaluate how we treat each other in the workplace,” he added, as well as to “sustain the legacy of a formidable reputation called Long Wharf Theatre. We will get past this.”

Support came from within the theater world as well, Borenstein said. A production licensing agency called, for instance, to see if Long Wharf needed help with any licensing applications for shows amid all the chaos with which the staff must be dealing.

Act III

Paul Bass PhotoWith Edelstein officially out for good, Borenstein had nuts-and-bolts work to attend to as interim artistic director.

Borenstein earned his MFA from Yale School of Drama in 2002 in theater management. He’s not a curator who picks out new plays and stages them. He said Long Wharf’s artistic department has strong leadership in place, including Associate Produce Drew Gray and Literary Manager Christine Christine Scarfuto, and they’re still working as a team.

The immediate tasks at hand, he said, are:

• Finishing the current season.
• Finalizing plans for the next season. Long Wharf has largely finalized four of the six shows, Borenstein said, with two other shows in the works.
• Hiring an outside firm to conduct an independent review of Long Wharf’s handling of misconduct, like that uncovered by the Times, and then crafting a plan to change the culture, “to create the kind of working environment that our talented and committed staff deserves” and “ensure that nothing like this happens again,” as Pappano put it in a public note.

Borenstein said he intends to move fast, to get a plan in place soon.

He quoted a popular line to describe his determination to fix the problem at Long Wharf, to prevent sexual misconduct and to make sure staffers feel comfortable coming forward with their stories: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

The plan is for him to serve as artistic director for now, not permanently. The culture review and change plan needs to get going before Long Wharf hires a permanent replacement for Edelstein.

Some people have urged the theater to think female when the time comes to find that replacement.

One online commenter to the Times article, Mary Murfitt, was among those suggesting the hiring of one of any number of “supremely qualified female theatre professionals. Numerous studies have shown that women have been consistently overlooked in the theatre world as writers, composers, directors AND artistic directors. #Timesup.”

Board Chair Pappano said Wednesday she would “be delighted with a woman or a trans man” in the role of artistic director, but a “fairness mindset matters more. I want somebody who is particularly excellent and has a good match for the theater.”

“We have to get through the moment that we’re in before we consider who our artistic leader should be. We need to wait to reflect on everything that’s happening,” she said.

In the interim, Pappano said, Long Wharf is fortunate to have Borenstein guiding the ship. She spoke of Borenstein’s “strong reputation” in the broader theater world and the way he has operated at Long Wharf. “He is an incredibly steady, detail-oriented leader, ” she said. And “he has high integrity.”

 

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posted by: Noteworthy on January 25, 2018  2:59am

Is this a PR blitz? If Edelstein’s behavior was bad enough to be fired after all these years - allowing it to continue for all that time by the Long Wharf’s board should prompt it to resign too. The people lining up to say they knew nothing is comical. You can’t work in a small company - and not know of this. It’s not possible. Or, it just wasn’t that bad and this board is overreacting in the era of Me Too. Which is it?