Long Wharf Chair Calculates Next Steps

It began with allegations, made over several years, of sexual misconduct in the workplace. It ended with the swift firing of a once-celebrated artistic director. Now Long Wharf Theatre is asking: What does the next chapter look like? What are the institution’s collective steps forward? And how great or small will they be? 

Earlier this week, the New York Times broke a story in which multiple women accused Gordon Edelstein, then Long Wharf’s artistic director, of multiple occasions of sexual assault and misconduct in the workplace (click here and here for the New Haven Independent's ongoing coverage). The report was comprehensive: 24 on the record interviews detailing crude language, verbal assaults, and sexual harassment, with several recounted in fine detail. 

Laura Pappano in a video for Long Wharf Theatre at the end of last year. Long Wharf Photo.

Laura Pappano in a video for Long Wharf Theatre at the end of last year. Long Wharf Photo.

While programming at the theater continued as usual—its latest play, Office Hour, is set to open tonight, and there was a week of community outreach already planned—the Board of Trustees met Tuesday, voting to fire Edelstein immediately and bar him from the premises. At the time, Board Chair Laura Pappano released the following statement:

Long Wharf Theatre’s Board of Trustees voted this evening to terminate Gordon Edelstein as the theatre's Artistic Director, effective immediately. The board voted to consolidate artistic and administrative leadership under Managing Director Joshua Borenstein.

The board also voted to engage a third party to conduct an independent internal review of staff and board policies and procedures for reporting instances of misconduct. We must ensure that nothing like this happens again.  We’ll announce in the coming weeks who has been retained to perform this review, and the timeframe in which it will be completed.

The board and management of Long Wharf Theatre take seriously the need to ensure a fair, equitable, open and supportive theatre workplace. This is a time that demands sober self-reflection and openness. We must do more to create the kind of working environment that our talented and committed staff deserve. Long Wharf Theatre has long been a place where great things started. We need to make that true on stage -- and off.”

On Wednesday, The Arts Paper had the chance to speak with Pappano, who stepped up as the theater’s spokesperson for the last three days. As she prepared for Office Hour’s opening night, at which staff and board members are wearing “LWT Is Me” buttons "to show solidarity for one another and for the institution," she spoke about next steps, the notion of being complicit, and where Long Wharf falls in the midst of #MeToo. That interview is below.

The Arts Paper: The place that I want to start is based on a comment that Ms. [Meghan] Kane made in the initial article that the New York Times ran, stating that everyone is complicit in this. Let’s begin there. 

'Complicit’ is a hashtag word right now, but I think that the facts are a little more complicated than that. When we’re talking about the 2006 sexual harassment complaint, I actually did look at contemporaneous notes taken by two different people at that time, which is why I made the very clear statement that the board and the administration dealt with what they dealt with at the time.

That doesn’t mean that these other things didn’t happen. They just were not reported. And I think one of the problems is that you can’t act on things that you don’t know about. When I think of the culture of Long Wharf, I think that … obviously, we need to do better. With so many people coming forward after the fact, not having made formal complains, it signals to me that we have work to do. Really simply: No excuses. We have work to do.

The idea that everyone knew everything at the time, I really challenge that. Since this story broke, I have spoken to so many people … and people are surprised. People had just not learned or heard or known about this. 

When I became board chair last June, I perceived that the issue with Gordon was really around privilege and the fact that he wasn’t always kind to the people who were working for him. On the other hand, there were people who worked for him who think he was absolutely terrific and wonderful for their careers. But I did perceive his willingness to use rough language now and then, which strikes me as very different than that 2006 complaint.

‘Complicit’ implies that there was some big secret and everybody knew it. That’s simply not the case. 

So where does one draw the line? I agree that there is a line between verbal harassment and manipulation, and physical harassment. But we’re in this very interesting moment as well.

Here’s what I would say. What’s really good about the moment that we’re in right now is that those lines are getting clearer. What I mean by that is that there’s a lack of tolerance for the rudeness. In a way, a lot was allowed to go on in culture at large. I’m not just saying at Long Wharf. 

As a woman (Pappano has worked as a reporter and author for many years and now also advises student journalists in New Haven as well), there are a lot of moments where you roll your eyes and you’re like: “Okay.” But I would say that the refreshing thing is that now we’re saying: “Nope. Not okay.”

And that’s really important. There is a difference between someone who is making crude jokes—unacceptable jokes about a nun—and actual, physical cases of sexual misconduct, misbehavior.

The bottom line, for me, is that on a certain level it’s not confusing at all. To me, culture matters. Culture is the foundation of any great organization or institution. And the fantastic thing about Long Wharf is that the rest of the culture, the relationship among the staff, is just something to behold. It’s wonderful. And I feel really confident that we can end up with a tremendous culture at Long Wharf.

You know, we were already in the steps to do that and have engaged a 'culture change expert' to be working with us. That change is slated to begin in just a couple of weeks. But the ‘complicit’ thing, I find it kind of popular, of-the-moment language that fails to dig underneath the complexity of the situation. 

I’ve worked at nonprofits where there’s sexual harassment training, but the leadership ends up being exempt. Would something like that ever happen at Long Wharf?

No. It’s pretty standard in every workplace that everybody goes through sexual harassment training, and Long Wharf would be no exception. It’s not like we’re going to suddenly institute sexual harassment policies and training—we’ve already done that.

The issue is not the rules on the books or what the handbook says. The issue is the comfort level and the culture in which people feel comfortable speaking up and raising their hand when they don’t feel comfortable, or a standard of behavior. You can’t legislate culture, but you can build it. 

I’ve spoken to women in the arts—theater but more broadly as well—who have spoken about power dynamics, and not always feeling like they can take the steps to speak to HR. I understand that part of this is that if you don’t say something it can’t be addressed. But I’m wondering if you can talk about next steps going forward. 

There's the culture change process that we’re undertaking (Pappano did not give the name of the person Long Wharf will be working with but noted that it was a woman). Josh [Borenstein] and I were sitting down with the person who is going to lead that last week, before all of this broke. We were asking, "What does this look like? How does this work?”

She said that the first-three hour meeting is with no administrative staff and no department heads. And she made this comment to me. Sshe said: "The newest people in the door have the clearest view of the culture." And I thought that was a fantastic observation.

The goal is to get people from the bottom up to take charge, and be the people who speak up and speak about the culture. It just has to be real and honest. We just have to have people feeling comfortable at every level.

And this is the aim of that process—almost to reverse it. Not to get the top leadership in the room and say ‘This is how we have to handle it.’ Flip it! Bottom up. 

The first statement that was released [which Pappano wrote] had a line that “The only place for drama is on the stage.” I spoke to a couple women who were concerned that it could be perceived as trivializing sexual assault. 

No, no, no, no. I think that’s a misinterpretation of it. What I mean by that is that when you’re working somewhere, you want a certain amount of predictability. You don’t want drama in your job. You want to be able to have the security and the freedom and the steadiness to be creative. 

This notion that creativity happens in chaos is, I think, ridiculous. Creativity happens because all of the other things are calm and you are able to do your work without the drama and distractions. That’s what I intended by that statement. I’m sorry if it was unclear.  

Sometimes after an incident like this, nonprofits will have a huge shift—sort of a cleaning of house. Is there any sense that that may happen?

Not that I see. I’ve been board chair since June, and one of my questions has been: "Is there a bro culture here? Is there a frat culture?" And what I’ve heard is no. That the issue was Gordon.

Now, we’re having an outside party come in and review the way we operate, and if there are things that we find out, if there are recommendations, then we can look at that. 

Somebody at the staff meeting [earlier this week] said that Long Wharf is the sum of its parts, and not just one person. And they spoke about how much they respect and admire all the people that they work with. And it inspired one staff member to get people to create a button that you will see on opening night, that says "LWT Is Me." There was a real sense of unity. She said: "We thought this button was a way to show solidarity with each other and the institution, and a way to still speak when we're not quite sure how to respond."

As board chair, it made me really happy. Yesterday, staff put up a sharing wall and made comments. 

You had a video statement for Long Wharf in November last year, where you spoke about the role and value of nonprofit theater. As all of this is happening, opening night is still going on, next year is still being planned. How do you feel about that statement now—the role that Long Wharf can have in the community going forward?

One of the things that strikes me is that Long Wharf has a long history of engaging difficult conversations. Usually that’s on the stage. And actually, it is tonight. But we don’t shy from addressing these things. 

The whole country of regional theaters is watching to see how we handle this, and we have to do it right. I actually feel really great about the rest of our season and most of next season. And I can tell you that waking up this morning … I’m already getting producers, proposals, people who like the way that we’ve handled things and want to bring their shows here. 

Our mantra, inside, has been ‘do the right thing.’ I didn’t know what the consequences of that would be, and I think we have yet to find out, but the early return—I’ve been really thrilled to see people coming out and bringing proposals to us. And I think that really says something. But hold us to it.