Philly theater artists demand change in workplace behavior at Walnut Street Theatre
How theater artists are looking to change the toxic and inequitable workplace environment
With businesses opening back up and people going back to work, one of Philly and the country's most historic theaters is now at the forefront of a toxic work environment controversy, as theater artists continue in their battle against racism and inequity in their industry.
On Friday, June 18, a number theater artists and activists came out to Independence Mall and marched to Walnut Street Theatre in protest, demanding change and that its President and Artistic director, Bernard Havard, step down as unsafe and inequitable behaviors persist in the workplace.
Around 80 people came out to support and protest the leadership of the theater, and many had stories to share about Havard’s behavior. For many years, theater artists warned others about the work environment, where management would harass, bully, and demean many of their employees, especially those identifying as LGBTQ+ or BIPOC.
Jenna Pinchbeck, an actor and former employee of the Walnut Street Theatre said she was warned by other theater artists about Harvard when she first started working there
“I started to hear rumors about what it’s like to work there and when I got my equity contract I was pulled aside by other female identifying actors that warned me about the workplace environment,'' Pinchbeck said. “That if you see something that doesn’t feel right and if you speak up, you’ll probably lose your job. Additionally, I was warned to lock my dressing room door because Havard would enter the dressing rooms without knocking.”
However, the discussion didn’t stay under wraps for long, and Pinchbeck commented on a post on the theater’s Instagram, posing questions about how it would make itself more safe and equitable for women and BIPOC as reopening plans were announced.
“There’s also the issue that it’s a very white space so a lot of marginalized artists haven’t been given the opportunity to walk through the doors, but the ones that have, there’s a lot of pain there, a lot of things have been said by Bernard that are really harmful, ” Pinchbeck said.
She also said that there was a “scarcity mentality” that the artists are forced to believe is real.
“It creates an environment where people are forced into silence because they are just trying to pay their bills or get a head start in their career, and they feel like the Walnut is a stepping stone,” said Pinchbeck.
For her comments, Pinchbeck received a cease and desist order from a lawyer representing Havard that claimed she had accused him of criminal activity. It threatened to sue her over defamation.
“Any company should jump at the opportunity to say what they are going to do to make women feel safe to make anyone feel safe,” Pinchbeck said. “But instead they said I had to be quiet or they would sue me and I think that’s very telling. It just goes to show you how they operate.”
This past week, Pinchbeck co-founded Protect the Artist in hopes of gathering more stories of mistreated employees from the Walnut Street Theatre, and to make a change for working theatre artists. The organization also created a petition for the removal of Havard and hopes it will not only deter other theater artists from supporting, but audience members as well.
“I’ve been collecting testimonials over the past week and I have almost 100 testimonials about what happened in the workplace, I mean, it’s everything from misogyny to racism to fatphobia, transphobia, homophobia,” said Pinchbeck.
Walnut Street Theater is the oldest operated theatre in the U.S., and Havard has been the president for 39 years.
Pinchbeck said that in order for things to change in the work environment, it has to start with a change in leadership.
“We are all artists who care about each other and care about our institutions being safe,” Pinchbeck said. “We need to make this a safer space and in order to do that we need new management, it’s time for new folks to come in and make the space safe.”