An internal review by New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre of its sexual harassment policies has found no fault with management or the board of directors over alleged misconduct by its former artistic director but recommends that workplace conditions be improved to prevent such conduct in the future.
The review, conducted by New Haven attorney Penny Mason of the firm LeClair Ryan, was precipitated by the sudden dismissal of longtime Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein in January following a New York Times article documenting accusations of inappropriate behavior.
Managing Director Joshua Borenstein interpreted the report as saying that the theater “itself does not have a pervasive culture of sexual harassment, but certain things made it hard for people to come forward.”
However, “no one was asleep at the wheel. You don’t see anything like that in the report.”
The report concludes that Edelstein’s “misconduct emanated from the behavior of this single, powerful person” whose “departure removed sexual harassment and bullying from the theater environment.”
Mason’s introduction to the report sets the scene:
“The former artistic director was, according to his reputation and those interviewed, a brilliant, creative director, charming fundraiser and overall success in his artistic role. He was a big personality who dominated the room and who had high expectations for everyone. His artistic success and large personality, however, gave him cover for harassment of theater 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.” While there were rules, procedures and trainings in place that met the rule of law, his behavior went largely unreported, unchallenged and unchecked.”
The report also stated that “it is the role of management, not the full board, to respond to most employee issues, including reports of harassment.”
The Times article, which led to Edelstein’s immediate suspension on Jan. 22 and the termination of his position one day later, listed numerous allegations against him, dating as far back as 2003, shortly after he became artistic director, to as recently as last year. The incidents ranged from inappropriate comments to groping and sexual advances.
One of the major accusations had been reported to the Long Wharf board in 2006, and while the board did act on the complaint, some current employees have questioned whether the response was strong enough. The report stresses that board membership has also turned over since the allegations were lodged.
A draft of the report was given to the theater in May, at which point an ad hoc committee convened to consider its recommendations and add recommendations of its own.
The report, and the committee’s subsequent “worksheet for recommendations,” were approved by the Long Wharf board June 12 and then shared with the theater’s staff. Among the dozens of itemized recommendations: sexual harassment training for all employees; clarify policies and procedures; review process for complaints; create one-page document with statements of values and expectations for visiting artists; and “the affirmation of LWT as an inclusive workplace, not just a family.”
Board chair Laura Pappano and Borenstein, who became managing director in 2011 after holding several other positions at the Long Wharf, say that while Mason’s report essentially absolves the board and management in this situation, they are resolved to improve workplace conditions so that employees feel empowered.
They say they want to practice transparency and openness by sharing and discussing the report publicly and will work to improve communications among the staff. Pappano says that she has shared her email with employees and encouraged them to contact her with any workplace issues.
“We will be seeking staff feedback in a more active manner,” Borenstein says.
“We want to seize this moment,” Pappano says, “and build something.”
The openness has extended to Long Wharf patrons. The Long Wharf had two shows left in its 2017-18 season when Edelstein was dismissed.
Borenstein, and occasionally Pappano, would make pre-show announcements addressing the scandal.
“It’s something we acknowledged,” Borenstein says. He and Pappano speak of the support they have received from the community.
“People recognize the role Long Wharf plays in this state,” Pappano says. She says the Long Wharf’s annual fundraising gala, held June 11, was marked by “the robust energy of people being ready to support us as we head in this new direction. We may have netted the most money of any gala we’ve held in a decade.”
Besides the Mason report, the Long Wharf has been examining itself in the months since Edelstein’s firing by drafting a new strategic plan for the theater. Borenstein and Pappano suggest that the plan, which enumerates the institutions’ strengths, weakness and opportunities, may be approved by the board as soon as the end of this month.
Borenstein says the search for a new artistic director will be a chance to challenge the old “impresario model” of regional theaters as having “an artistic genius at the center of it all, with the others all there to support them.”
The theater just began advertising the artistic director position at the beginning of June, Borenstein says, in a manner that makes it clear that “we are interested in candidates that are not the traditional candidates.”
A transition committee set up in the wake of Edelstein’s dismissal had already recommended that the new artistic director be prepared to live in the New Haven area and be “invested in the community.” (The theater maintained an apartment in Connecticut for Edelstein, who lived in New York.)
Mason, who has no affiliation with Long Wharf, is an expert in sexual harassment law, while Pappano, who was made board chair just months before the Edelstein scandal broke, writes extensively on gender equality issues.
“I was not on the transition committee or the ad hoc committee, on purpose,” Pappano says, “but I will be leading the search committee.” The committee has already selected the national firm Arts Consulting Group to conduct the search. According to Pappano, ACG “gets it, in terms of the new structure we may be looking for.”
The theater has not set a date for when it wants a new artistic director in place.
“There is no deadline,” Pappano says. “We want to get the best person.”