Artists protest Walnut Street Theatre’s opening night: ‘They don’t hire Black directors’
The protest is a revival of efforts this summer by performers and staff to hold the Walnut Street Theatre accountable for what they describe as a toxic culture at the prestigious institution.
On opening night at the Walnut Street Theatre, more than a year after the pandemic had shut down the nation’s oldest continuously operating theater, ticket holders arrived to see Beehive — The 60′s Musical. Outside the theater, a group of protesters asked patrons to consider what it was like to work inside its walls.
Former employees passed out fliers decrying artistic director Bernard Havard’s 2019 $745,015 pay and spoke to patrons about the lack of racial representation at the theater.
“They don’t hire Black directors, they don’t hire Black designers,” said Ryk Lewis to one patron, trying to be heard over the din of the Fralinger String Band, which showed up to perform outside the theater. Lewis, who is Black, was the main stage sound designer at the Walnut for three seasons a decade ago.
The protest is a revival of efforts this summer by performers and staff to hold the Walnut Street Theatre accountable for what they describe as a toxic culture at the prestigious institution. Led by actor Jenna Pinchbeck, the group, dubbed Protect the Artist Philly, is calling for the Walnut’s board to remove its president and decades-long artistic director Havard, 80, who it alleges has presided over a culture of racial discrimination and worker exploitation.
The theater, according to 11 current and former Walnut performers and staffers, is a place where newcomers are warned not to voice concerns or else risk getting blacklisted. The theater world in Philadelphia is small and tight-knit, and as one former performer put it, “so many lines lead back to the Walnut.”
Six Black performers said in interviews there were few opportunities for Black artists, especially on the main stage, and those who did get roles said they experienced microaggressions, such as getting mistaken for a custodian and not being called by their correct name by their director.
In a statement, a Walnut spokesperson said: “The Board of Trustees engaged a third-party investigator that found the allegations against the President to be false. We also categorically disagree with all the negative statements about the institution.”
Board of Trustees chair Scott Rankin said that this past summer was the first he had heard of such allegations and that he acted quickly to commission an investigation. Rankin, president of custom spring manufacturer Vulcan Spring, said he remained confused by the criticism.
“I don’t know where all the complaints are coming from and why they weren’t brought to the proper channels,” said. Rankin, who has been on the Walnut board for five years.
Beehive had three Black women in the cast, as well as a Black choreographer, he said.
Current and former Walnut performers and staffers also criticized Havard’s lofty salary. In the fiscal year ending June 2019, he took in $745,015 in total compensation, while many staffers started at minimum wage, and those in its acclaimed apprentice program took second jobs to pay the bills during their time at the Walnut.
In 2019, only two theater artistic directors made more than Havard: the directors of the Lincoln Center Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival, both of which pulled in about three times the Walnut’s annual $26.5 million revenue that year. The next year, with the pandemic, Havard made $566,569.
Rankin said Havard does the job of three people and is compensated fairly.
“A salary is a salary,” he said. “What you get paid is correct for what you do.”
Current and former performers and staffers said it was hypocritical that the Walnut’s educational program involved putting on shows for low-income schools with majority Black and brown students when there were so few opportunities for Black performers, directors, and production staff at the theater itself.
In a statement, the Walnut Street Theatre said that in the past three seasons, “our performers have been 27% persons of color and 73% white.”
“While we have always welcomed diverse stories, audiences, and staff at the Walnut, we recognize that we can all do better,” the statement said.
Two Black performers said they were so traumatized by their experience at the Walnut that they stopped acting.
“At the Walnut, I realized that my Blackness was almost a commodity,” said Dominic Santos, who apprenticed at the theater during the 2011-12 season. While at the Walnut, he said he felt like he was disappearing. Santos, now 32, works as a waiter and in his free time focuses on directing shows that center Black voices.
While he was an apprentice during the 2015-16 season, Deontez Lockett said he heard from other people around the theater that Havard didn’t like to cast Black people in shows, especially if they were dark-skinned, like Lockett is. But he didn’t believe it, he said, until he heard Havard describe a woman who had auditioned for a show as “too dark.”
Three other former Walnut Street apprentices and staffers said they had seen Havard’s notes on actors’ resumes such as “too large” and “nose too wide.”
Sarah Kelly Konig, a casting intern who applied in 2017 to be a casting apprentice, said that in her interview, Havard asked her what she thought of casting quotas, which he likened to reverse discrimination.
The protests are part of a broader movement to diversify Philadelphia’s theater community. “No more all white seasons,” a group of theater community members wrote in an open letter to the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2019.
Lewis, the former sound designer at the Walnut, said it comes down to this: “We want art in Philly that looks like Philly.”