Written by: Michael Paulson
The American Shakespeare Center in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley claims to have the world’s only replica of the indoor venue where Shakespeare’s company performed. And now it’s going to attempt another Shakespearean structure: an actor-led company.
The nonprofit announced Friday that its artistic director, Ethan McSweeny, had stepped down eight days earlier. The theater did not offer an explanation; McSweeny cited financial strain caused by the pandemic, but he was also facing complaints about the workplace climate from some employees.
“While the pandemic crisis metastasized this past fall, I increasingly found myself trying to conceive of an ASC that would enter 2021 tabula rasa, preparing to reshape itself for rebirth into a massively changed arts ecosystem and national economy,” McSweeny said in a statement on Facebook. “It turns out that part of what became necessary to give the company a truly blank slate was to erase myself as well.”
He declined to comment on the complaints, which were voiced in a letter submitted to the theater last fall, other than to say “it is a factor, but not a cause.”
The theater, in Staunton, Va., said its “actor-led theater model” would be in place at least for the immediate future, which is expected to include productions of “Macbeth,” “Henry V” and “All’s Well That Ends Well” this summer.
The chairman of the theater’s board, G. Rodney Young II, said that he could not comment on the specifics of McSweeny’s departure, but that the theater is addressing its workplace culture and “moving away from a top-down, vertical approach to producing plays.”
“We are committed to focusing on improving how we work with each other, how we communicate with each other, and how we respond to the challenges that many of those who work for us are experiencing — and by that I’m talking about people of color,” he said. “We’re aware that in the theater world there are challenges to a traditional, hierarchical structure, and we think that this new model we’re going to pursue will in some ways address those concerns.”
The company, founded in 1988 and a destination for Shakespeare lovers, has, like many arts nonprofits, had a challenging year.
The theater, in a rural area with a low number of Covid-19 cases, decided to continue presenting plays — indoors, outdoors and streaming — using a variety of safety measures, but without the blessing of Actors’ Equity, the national union of stage actors. Several actors left Equity in order to be able to continue working at the theater.
The theater has nonetheless contracted financially, from about a $4.2 million organization before the pandemic to a $1.8 million organization now. The theater is currently dark and much of the staff is on furlough.
McSweeny began at the theater in 2018 after a freelance directing career that took him to Broadway (“A Time to Kill” and “The Best Man”) and around the world. He oversaw the development of an ambitious strategic plan that was finished last March, just days before the pandemic prompted theaters around the country to close.
“The catastrophic impact of the last eleven months of pandemic has resulted in a significantly changed trajectory for ASC,” McSweeny wrote. “As the new year dawned, the Board and I determined that within the financial constraints of the foreseeable future, ASC could still thrive without my leadership. Accordingly, I offered my resignation and will not be returning from the current companywide furlough.”
The theater’s managing director, Amy Wratchford, announced her departure in October, but has continued to help balance the books as an interim controller. “They have a lot of figuring out to do, but they’ve got the financial stability to take the time to figure it out,” she said on Friday. “They’re not swimming in cash, but they’re not on death’s door, and I definitely think the company can and will survive.”
She said the new leadership structure is an opportunity to try a new way of operating.
“We’ve been saying for decades that the nonprofit theater model is broken,” she said. “They have an opportunity to create a truly new model. I’m excited to see where they go.”
Jessika D. Williams, one of the actors who left Equity to continue performing at the theater this summer, said American Shakespeare Center had been working for some time on director-less shows. Its 2020 production of “A Christmas Carol,” for example, was developed and run by actors.
“We had been starting to plan this actor-manager model, learning the ins and outs of administration and development and education, so we could have more agency and input moving forward,” she said.
Williams, who was not among those who signed the letter about the workplace environment, has left the company to pursue a career in film and television.