A Small Theater and a Big Celebrity Produce a #MeToo Nonprofit Cautionary Tale

Six Hotels.” Photo: Jason Taellious

March 20, 2018; Seattle Times

The artistic directors and board of Harlequin Productions in Olympia, Washington, are dealing with a firestorm over the company’s long association with playwright Israel Horovitz. Two Harlequin actresses have recently gone public with accusations of sexual harassment against Horowitz, saying that their concerns about the playwright previously were brushed aside by the company’s artistic leaders. As reported last week in the Seattle Times, the theater company’s board is now dealing with the fallout, indicating that an apology from artistic directors and co-founders Scot and Linda Whitney may not be enough.

Harlequin was founded in 1991 and has an annual operating budget of about $1 million. It’s not hard to understand how a relatively small theater company would have been flattered to have the well-known playwright visit their theater when his shows were being produced. It is hard to understand why they would have kept inviting him back—and producing his plays—after actress Kate Parker alleged that Horovitz had harassed her in 2011. Between 2009 and 2014, Harlequin performed six of Horovitz’s plays, and the playwright attended three dress rehearsals and at least five opening nights. The two Harlequin actresses who have claimed Horovitz behaved inappropriately with them (the first alleged incident was in 2010) claim “the artistic directors didn’t take any action because they were star-struck” by the playwright.

Perhaps what is most troubling is that the incidents alleged by Parker and another Harlequin actress might still be unknown—not just to the public, but also to the Harlequin board of directors—if the #MeToo movement hadn’t caught up with Horovitz elsewhere. According to a New York Times article published last November, the 78-year-old author and founder of the Gloucester Stage Company in Massachusetts has been accused of inappropriate behavior by many other women:

Mr. Horovitz’s behavior around women had long been the subject of whispers. But since at least 1993, Gloucester Stage officials had known it was more than mere speculation: that year, Mr. Horovitz was the subject of an exposé in the Boston Phoenix in which 10 women accused him of sexual harassment and assault. The women’s names were not disclosed in the article. At the time the board’s president, Barry Weiner, dismissed the accusations and described some of the women speaking out against Mr. Horovitz as “tightly wound.”

The Times article identified nine women who went on the record with complaints against the playwright. When new accusations were made known in 2017, Gloucester Stage Company severed its ties with Horovitz, who at the time was still serving as founding artistic director, and apologized to the women who had spoken out earlier: “I apologize to the brave women who came forward in 1992 and 1993 but were not listened to,” Elizabeth Neumeier, the Gloucester board’s current president, said in a statement. “We are individually and collectively appalled by the allegations, both old and new.”

As offensive as Barry Weiner’s comments were in 1993, in the current environment it is almost unimaginable that Scot Whitney recently stated to the Seattle Times, in reference to the alleged incident between Parker and Horovitz, “She’s a big girl, she can take care of herself.” And this after publication of the New York Times article and the decision at Gloucester to cut ties with the playwright and acknowledge the mounting case against him.

The Harlequin board must now reckon with both the internal and external challenges raised by the company’s long association with Horovitz, and with the failure of the company’s artistic directors to act on what they’d been told, or to share the allegations with their board. Board president Ben Cushman, an attorney, has urged anyone with allegations of sexual misconduct at the theater to contact him directly. This is a courageous step, and one that any board president would hope never to have to take. The board’s executive committee recently met with the Whitneys; the full board has a regularly scheduled meeting this week and will set a special session within the next two weeks to determine next steps. The board has also hired a media consultant to help them work through this difficult situation.

NPQ has previously covered the growing number of sexual misconduct allegations in the nonprofit arts sector, particularly among high-profile classical music organizations. As recently as yesterday, NPQ’s Martin Levine covered the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to fire conductor James Levine after an investigation that found credible evidence of sexual misconduct; James Levine had been accused of misconduct over many decades, but his was such a big name at the podium that it took the #Me Too movement to make the allegations finally stick.

The Met is a $300 million-a-year operation. Harlequin Productions, as noted above, is a $1 million-a-year operation. The point here ought to be clear: sexual harassment cannot to be tolerated in the nonprofit arts sector, no matter how big the name of the alleged harasser, or how small the budget of the arts group where he (or she) is making trouble.—Eileen Cunniffe