Theater company moves forward after firing artistic director over sexual harassment concerns

Theater company moves forward after firing artistic director over sexual harassment concerns

Flying V’s new executive director wants more welcoming atmosphere

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Logo from Flying V Theatre Twitter page

A Montgomery County theater company is moving on more than a month after firing its artistic director due to allegations of sexual harassment from multiple women.

Flying V Theatre, a company that performs in Bethesda and Silver Spring, fired Producing Artistic Director Jason Schlafstein on June 22 after allegations of sexual misconduct resurfaced on social media.

Washington City Paper reported allegations last month from multiple women that Schlafstein harassed them, either while working at Flying V or somewhere else.

Among the allegations are that he tried to date women who worked for him, that he walked into a women’s dressing room unannounced at a different theater company and that he made an actress take her shirt off during a rehearsal for a Flying V show.

Schlafstein declined to comment for this story.

On June 20, Flying V announced on Facebook that it had placed Schlafstein on administrative leave to “further investigate accusations of workplace harassment that took place prior to board action in 2017.”

The Facebook post was signed by Flying V Board of Directors President Judy Gilbert Levey and Melissa Wiley, who was the board’s president from 2016 to 2018.

It stated that “members of the Flying V community came forward in the past with accounts of their interactions with Jason” and that the board, led by Wiley, investigated allegations in 2017 from women who said Schlafstein made them feel uncomfortable.

“The result of that investigation was a determination that Jason had inappropriately crossed professional and personal boundaries by expressing romantic interest in female members of the community in a way that could reasonably be understood as an abuse of power,” Levey and Wiley wrote in the post.

On June 22, Flying V announced that it had terminated Schlafstein and that Associate Artistic Director Jon Rubin had resigned.

Attempts to reach Wiley and Rubin were unsuccessful.

On June 22, the same day Schlafstein was fired, Rubin posted his resignation letter on Facebook, writing that the best way for the company to move forward was for him to no longer be part of “any sort of administrative power structure and authority within the organization.”

Rubin went on to say that he had known about “specific instances of impropriety” involving Schlafstein that led to the 2017 investigation.

“While I did not previously know the severity or multitude of the accounts that I have learned this weekend, the fact is that I had heard the rumors and of the ‘whisper network’ surrounding Jason and Flying V,” he wrote.

Rubin wrote that he “made excuses for the fragments of stories” he had heard and underestimated their severity.

“As one of the leaders of this organization since late 2011, I feel that I have failed Flying V, my community, and the genuine values that I hold highest for both my work and myself,” he wrote.

On July 15, Levey wrote on Flying V’s website that Katherine Offutt had been appointed as the company’s new executive director as part of a transition in the company.

In a separate statement below Levey’s, Offutt wrote that the organization had restructured itself, with a new executive director reporting directly to the board who oversees day-to-day activities.

“Is this restructuring permanent and overall helpful to how the organization runs, or is it a Band-Aid for a leadership vacuum created by the removal of Jason? Time will tell. I am going to do my very, very best to be worthy of what is effectively an unorthodox promotion,” she wrote.

Offutt said in an interview with Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that under the new structure, she will be the sole person responsible for managing the business operations of the company and reporting to the board. Previously, both the artistic director and the managing director answered to the board, she said.

Flying V, headquartered in Bethesda, normally performs roughly six or seven productions per year, Offutt said. The company will turn 10 years old in January.

Currently, Flying V isn’t performing any shows due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Offutt said the company has a number of decisions to make in the coming months, including whether to hire a full-time or part-time artistic director. She said she would “theoretically” oversee the artistic director, but the details have to be worked out.

“Right now, there isn’t [a director] because we don’t know what that artistic leadership is going to look like,” she said.

Offutt, who joined Flying V in April as managing director, said she couldn’t talk about Schlafstein due to “employment laws.”

Offutt said she is considering is designating a “deputy” among actors in a show — someone fellow actors can discuss complaints with. The deputy system, Offutt said, is commonly used among equity actors, those who belong to a union.

Offutt clarified that she isn’t advocating that Flying V unionize, but said there needs to be an easier way for actors to voice complaints than to have to speak to someone in leadership first.

“Asking a cast member who has four lines in a show to go directly to a board member is scary,” she said.

Offutt wrote that the company had also learned over the last few weeks that women and minorities felt unwelcome at Flying V, which had leadership that is “predominantly white, straight and male.”

Offutt added that the changes the company is making aren’t “just about responding to allegations of harassment against one leader in our organization, and the culture the organization may have bred under that leadership — it’s fundamentally about breaking down the power structures, known and unknown, that created a space for those things.”

Offutt said she thinks recent events such as the racial justice movement that has swept the country in the last couple months, along with more time for personal reflection during the pandemic, have led some Flying V staff members to discuss how they felt uncomfortable.

She said the reexamination of Flying V’s diversity isn’t specific to her company.

“People across the board [in the arts] are saying, ‘We accept a lot from arts organizations, and we don’t want to do that anymore,’” she said.

When asked whether complaints about Schlafstein were factors, Offutt said she didn’t want to speculate because she would be “putting words in other people’s mouths.”

Levey told Bethesda Beat on July 17 that only three of the 10 board members are women. She hopes to change that, so that the leadership of the organization reflects the diversity of its artists.

“Flying V has always on the stage represented a diverse spectrum of people. Women can be superheroes,” she said. “Men can be superheroes. You can be gay. You can be straight. You can be whatever. But the leadership of the organization and the board of the organization has not matched that diversity.”

Levey declined to comment when asked about Schlafstein’s firing and the sexual harassment allegations against him.

Offutt said one strategy for recruiting more women and minorities to the board might include an “open call,” in which the organization advertises to the public that it is looking to make the company more diverse.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdsamagazine.com

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