As theaters start to reopen after being shut down, they are faced with an audience they have been largely out of touch with for more than a year, as well as a different world in which issues of race and equity are at the forefront.
About 75 activists and theater artists gathered on Independence Mall and marched to the Walnut Street Theatre in protest, demanding that its president and producing artistic director, Bernard Havard, step down for running an unsafe and inequitable theater.
The Walnut Street Theatre is the oldest continuously operated theater in America. Havard has been at the helm for 39 years, turning the ailing enterprise into a powerhouse organization making high-quality theater and touring productions that have launched many careers.
Friday night, several demonstrators expressed their love for the theater and the opportunities it offers, but in the same breath berated its leadership.
For many years, the demonstrators said, artists have quietly warned one another about working at the Walnut, where senior management can be bullying, harassing, and demeaning, particularly to Black, trans, and queer theater artists.
“I have been in the theater community now for about 15 years professionally, and the name Walnut Street Theatre has been spoken in circles since I was a teenager. Whispers of `Be careful,’” said Rob Tucker, 40, who once worked in the Walnut’s education department. “One gets the message that this is not a place that champions the kind of work you want to do and the kind of people you want to do it with. It’s been known.”
Those whispers and hushed backstage confidences became louder two weeks ago after a social media commentator demanded that the Walnut Street Theatre present a plan to make itself more equitable and inclusive as it reopens from the pandemic shutdown.
Jenna Pinchbeck is a performer who earned her actors union card through the Walnut Street Theatre and most recently performed in its traveling production of the musical “Legally Blonde” in 2019. About two weeks ago, she posted a comment to the Walnut’s season announcement on Instagram, asking how it would “make your space safer for BIPOC, trans, and disabled artists?” and “what is the Walnut Street Theatre doing to make women feel safe with Bernard at the helm?”
Pinchbeck received a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer representing Havard that claimed she had accused Havard of criminal activity and threatened to sue her for defamation.
That letter shook the world of theater artists in Philadelphia, mobilizing them into the street.
“The most compelling thing was that cease-and-desist letter. Period, full stop,” said Garrick Morgan, a Philadelphia theater artist. “We watched someone ask a simple question, and they were met with force. To be threatened for your free speech in the art community is blatantly disgusting to me. And so that’s why I’m here. I’m here to make it known that it’s time to stop.”
An activist organization, Protect The Artist, has been formed from the pushback against the Walnut Street Theatre. Pinchbeck said that in the past week she has received 90 anonymous stories of racist, homophobic, and body-shaming bullying at the Walnut, some of which are posted on Protect The Artist’s Instagram page.
The group has also posted a list of demands, among them an audit of the theater’s finances, an anti-racism action plan, and more diverse representation on and off the stage.
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