An iconic local theater was led for over a decade by a “big personality” whose personal charisma and artistic success made him “too big to be held accountable” for his rampant sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.
Now that he’s been fired, the theater’s board, management and staff must work collaboratively to establish a new workplace culture in which all employees feel comfortable and empowered to come forward with complaints and suggestions alike.
Those were the key findings in a five-page report produced by Margaret “Penny” Mason of the law firm Le Clair Ryan after she conducted a three-month investigation into Long Wharf Theatre’s sexual harassment policies and procedures.
The Board of Trustees for the 53-year-old landmark cultural institution based out of a former warehouse in a food shipping terminal in Long Wharf hired Mason to conduct the investigation immediately after firing former artistic director Gordon Edelstein at the end of January for alleged sexual harassment and abuse.
On Jan. 22, The New York Times published an exposé of Edelstein’s repeated and largely unpunished lewd and abusive behavior during his nearly 15 years at the helm of Long Wharf. The board dismissed Edelstein two days later. It was New Haven’s #MeToo moment.
For her investigation, Mason reviewed the theater’s bylaws, employee handbooks, and other mission documents; toured the theater’s physical premises; and interviewed 21 current and former theater employees, including the current managing and associate managing directors, a past board chair, two current board members, and former employees whose sexual harassment complaints had been reported in the original New York Times article.
On Tuesday afternoon, Long Wharf Board Chair Laura Pappano and Long Wharf Managing Director Joshua Borenstein spoke with the Independent about the findings in Mason’s report, their conviction that sexual harassment is no longer a problem at the theater now that Edelstein is gone, and their commitment to changing a workplace culture of timidity and fear of speaking out into one where every employee knows exactly the right channel to voice his or her complaints, and feels encouraged to do so.
“People want to work at places where they think they matter,” Pappano said.
She said one of the primary goals for Long Wharf Theatre now is to give shape to that kind of a collaborative, inclusive workplace culture, both for the benefit of its own institution and as a potential national model for other artistic, media, and political institutions still reeling in the wake of the #MeToo revolution against high-powered sexual predators and the professional culture that tolerated them.
Pappano and Borenstein said they have officially begun looking to hire a new artistic director with the help of the search firm Arts Consulting Group. Borenstein has picked up much of the artistic director’s responsibilities in the nearly four months since Edelstein’s termination. Each season, Long Wharf Theatre produces six plays on its two stages and hosts a variety of community engagement activities around those productions, including frequent conversations at the city’s public libraries.
In the position announcement and in their own comments on what they’d like to see in a new artistic director, Pappano and Borenstein stressed that they are interested in hiring someone from New Haven or someone who is willing to relocate to the greater New Haven area. They said whoever is hired must be committed to diversity, inclusion, collaboration, and community engagement in addition to maintaining the theater’s longstanding history of producing and staging top-tier plays.
“The Artistic Director also is expected to be a visible member of the New Haven social and cultural community,” the job description reads, “eagerly collaborating with the development department and engaging members of the press and public.”
”Too Big To Be Held Accountable”
Mason’s report was completed in late May, sent to Long Wharf’s 25-person board on Monday, and shared with the theater’s 50 full-time staffers on Tuesday morning. It identifies Edelstein as a singular force of personal charisma and intimidating success who frequently abused his authority by sexually harassing staff.
“He was a big personality,” the report’s introduction reads, “who dominated the room and who had high expectations for everyone. His artistic success and large personality, however, gave him cover for harassment of Theatre employees who did not feel empowered to complain. The phrase, ‘Too big to fail’ comes to mind, with an amendment: ‘Too big to be held accountable.’”
Mason writes that Long Wharf Theatre’s sexual harassment policies and procedures were and are technically compliant with the law. But the workplace culture of fear and timidity, she wrote, discouraged victims of abuse from coming forward and reporting their experiences to their supervisors and HR.
“There’s not a huge sexual harassment problem here,” Borenstein said, agreeing with the finding of the report. He said that problem was unique to Edelstein, and has been remedied by his termination.
The persistent problem, he said, is a broader, cultural one.
“There was a culture where communication was poor,” he said. He said employees were unclear as to whom they should speak with if they had a complaint. That lack of clarity as to process, he said, only exacerbated a second persistent problem, which was that employees felt discouraged from speaking out to upper management about anything, whether about sexual harassment complaints or about suggestions on how to improve workplace life at the theater.
The solutions, Pappano said, lie in moving away from the centripetal structure that Long Wharf, like many arts organizations, abided by under Edelstein. In that structure, she said, one charismatic personality dictated everything about the workings of the theater and, regardless of whatever policies and checks were on the books, was rarely held accountable for professional, ethical and legal violations.
“We want this to be vibrant, creative, fantastic organization,” she said. The path to achieve that, she and Borenstein said, lies in greater collaboration across departments and levels of responsibility as well as a certain degree of decentralization.
Borenstein said the workplace culture at Long Wharf Theatre in the past few months has largely followed a “show must go on mentality,” where employees powered through the great shock and disruption of the public revelation of Edelstein’s misdeeds to put on the remaining shows in the season with professional aptitude and care.
Now that the season is over and Mason has finished her report, he said, is the time for the theater to work on building a more transparent and empowering workplace culture for the mid-to-long term future.
A Workplace, Not A Family
Pappano said that after Edelstein’s dismissal the theater’s board formed an ad hoc committee, consisting of five board members and two current employees, to investigate how to improve workplace culture and, now, how to act on some of the recommendations in Mason’s report.
That committee has released a worksheet with over 30 specific recommendations and corresponding timelines that are grouped into four broad categories: how to enhance interdepartmental and staff-board connections; how to prevent harassment and promote a speak up culture; how to develop improved governance and HR management; and additional initiatives from staff survey.
Some of the specific recommendations include:
• Facilitate workshops among department heads to open communication. A summer workshop is scheduled for July 17 and a season opener workshop is scheduled for Sept. 6.
• Review new Mission Statement, Vision, and Values, scheduled for June.
• Sexual harassment training for all employees, scheduled for September 6.
• Review process for filing sexual harassment complaints, including providing a private conversation space for complainants and HR, scheduled to begin immediately.
• Pay equity, and developing a draft plan for increased salaries over a multi-year period.
• Improve diversity and inclusion in hiring and in board representation.
• Create process for performance reviews, and develop a broader feedback process for department head reviews.
Borenstein said that he is committed to engaging in a more collaborative season planning process with staff, and bringing in different perspectives to comment upon the productions, not just the workplace culture, at Long Wharf Theatre.
He said he has given the associate managing director, who is in charge of human resources, access to the theater’s private conference room on Friday afternoons for employees to engage in private conversations about subjects ranging from workplace complaints to strategies for professional development.
Previously, the associate managing director only accessible only in a large room with three lightly partitioned offices. Her office has only a pocket door, which does not provide sound privacy.
“Privacy is important in most human resource conversations,” Nelson’s report reads, “but especially so for the emotionally charged report of sexual harassment.”
“Let’s shape some place that’s fair and just and equitable,” Pappano said about what she hopes to accomplish in this period of self-renewal for Long Wharf Theatre, both on and off the stage. She praised Community Engagement Manager Elizabeth Nearing’s recent production of An American Unicorn, a collaboration between Long Wharf and the refugee resettlement agency IRIS, as an example of the type of diverse, community-engaged programming that both celebrates the manifold talents of theater employees at all levels of the organization and also further connects the theater to the New Haven community in which it exists.
Pappano, a former Boston Globe reporter who has written a book about sexual harassment in the workplace, said Long Wharf is not necessarily setting out to be a national model for other organizations going through similar institutional reckonings. “We want to do the absolute best, most right things we can do,” she said. She said she wants Long Wharf to lead through its actions, and let other organizations take note as they will.
Mason’s report concludes with a reflection on what went wrong in the workplace culture at Long Wharf Theatre under Edelstein, and on what the current leadership is committed to doing differently.
“The Theatre is a workplace, not a family,” reads the report. “A former employee told us that the artistic director used to say, repeatedly, ‘We are a family, we are one big family.’ That mantra created a culture in which it was hard to complain about him, because it would have felt like ‘telling on a parent.’
“No,” it continues, “the Theatre is a workplace where inappropriate conduct is not tolerated by anyone. Its employees should feel safe, appreciated, respected, empowered and rewarded. Our investigation demonstrated that the board, management and staff have the resolve to build and support this culture.”