Jen Ryle had heard The Seattle Times was working on a story about Harlequin Productions, but she didn’t know the details until they were published: that in 2011, a well-known playwright had grabbed an actress’ waist and tried to kiss her, and that Scot Whitney, one of Harlequin’s founders and managing artistic director, was told about the incident and looked the other way.
“It was shocking. Scot’s reactions in that article were obviously one of the things that were difficult,” said Ryle, co-founder of Olympia Family Theater. “He can’t do that. I figured something would happen, and I wanted him desperately to apologize.”
The fallout was swift. As users on social media vowed to boycott the theater, Harlequin’s board of directors issued a statement saying Whitney’s quotes did “not reflect the opinions of the board, nor the opinion of Harlequin Productions.” Within five days, Whitney had resigned from the professional theater company he and his wife helped start in 1991. He told The Olympian he thought it might be the “only way to save the theater.”
More than a week later, people in Olympia’s theater community say they are pulling for Harlequin to get through this. In a town where actors and crew overlap at various theaters, the controversy was felt far beyond Harlequin’s State Theater.
“What is bad for any of us in the theater is bad for all of us in theater,” said pug Bujeaud, who worked at Harlequin before leaving to start Theater Artists Olympia. “My biggest fear is that it’s going to tank a very important organization in this community. It would be a shame if they burned down the house.”
Harlequin staff declined to comment for this story. Some board members met informally Saturday with associate artistic director Aaron Lamb of Seattle. Board member Joe Hyer said he expects an announcement about a new managing artistic director and upcoming shows to be made early next week.
The Seattle Times story that came out March 16 detailed allegations of sexual harassment against the award-winning playwright Israel Horovitz. Actress Kate Parker told the newspaper that in 2011, while he was in Olympia for rehearsals of his play “Unexpected Tenderness” at Harlequin, Horovitz tried to kiss her in her hotel room.
Another actress said Horovitz kissed her on the lips after a 2010 performance of his play “6 Hotels” at Harlequin.
Harlequin employees said the theater company’s leaders “failed to investigate or take any action because they were star-struck by Horovitz,” according to The Seattle Times.
“She’s a big girl, she can take care of herself,” Scot Whitney said of Parker. He intended to talk to Horovitz, but didn’t because “it was awkward and weird,” he told newspaper.
Similar allegations against Horovitz, 78, had been reported elsewhere as early as 1993. They were mostly ignored until the #MeToo movement erupted in October with allegations of sexual misconduct against film producer Harvey Weinstein, followed by allegations against dozens of other powerful men.
In November, The New York Times reported on nine women who said they were sexually harassed or abused by Horovitz over the past three decades. That same month, Horovitz resigned from Gloucester Stage Company in Massachusetts, where he was the founding artistic director.
That Harlequin became part of this story — of a celebrated playwright and allegations going back decades — is, as the journal Nonprofit Quarterly put it, a “cautionary tale” for small nonprofits in the #MeToo era.
A ‘love affair’ with Horovitz
Scot and Linda Whitney started Harlequin with three other people in 1991 with the goal of producing “a more challenging style of theater than was available locally,” according to the company’s website.
“The intention was to produce lesser produced plays but that are really good, and to put a spin on plays that are more produced,” said Ronna Smith, one of the founders who left the board in 1997.
Smith didn’t have any experience in theater, but she worked at a credit union and was brought in to manage Harlequin’s finances — initially just $400 in cash. She helped build sets and worked backstage in the early days and said she was impressed with Scot Whitney’s leadership, professionalism and creativity.
In 1997, Harlequin bought and later renovated the historic State Theater in downtown Olympia. Over the years it added staff, added to its production value, and attracted more out-of-town talent and attention.
For local actors, getting cast in a Harlequin show was like going to Broadway, said Olympia theater critic Alec Clayton.
Harlequin’s relationship with Horovitz started a decade ago, when Scot Whitney got an email out of the blue from the playwright, who was in Olympia visiting his daughter who lived here. From 2009 to 2014, Harlequin ended up producing six plays by Horovitz, who attended at least five opening nights.
“Local theaters do plays by big-name playwrights all the time, but they don’t usually come to the theater,” said Clayton, who once wrote that Harlequin had a “love affair” with Horovitz.
In the wake of The Seattle Times report, Clayton said it was likely necessary that Scot Whitney resign. His comments upset a lot people, Clayton said, and some of them would hold that against the theater.
“The theater is not one person. The theater is all the actors and behind-the-scenes people. … They’re not the ones who brought Horowitz here and overlooked what he did,” Clayton said.
‘We have to heal’
The change in leadership comes at a tricky time. Harlequin saw its ticket sales decline over the past decade and last year turned to online crowdfunding to bring in more donations. It is halfway through its 27th season, and Scot Whitney was slated to direct its next production, “Three Days of Rain,” opening in May.
Harlequin’s board hired a public relations firm in Seattle after the story came out. This past week it hired Stellar Associates in Lacey to investigate what happened and recommend policy changes.
Olympia has seen allegations rock its theater community before. In 2014,Capital Playhouse closed, not long after its founder and longtime artistic director, Jeff Kingsbury, left after informing his board about the theater’s serious financial difficulties. A year later, Capital’s interim artistic director also left after he was charged with possession of child pornography — charges that were later dismissed.
“It’s a big deal for the founder to resign,” said Ryle, who met with the Whitneys before starting Olympia Family Theater in 2006. “Since I started they were pillars of the community.”
Bujeaud, whose husband is the technical director at Harlequin, said the question of how to respond to what has happened at Harlequin has hung over Olympia’s theater community these past few weeks. (One person interviewed for this story said her takeaway was to think about what you want to say before you talk to a reporter.) Bujeaud is currently directing “Macbeth” at Tacoma Little Theater and plans to talk to her cast about acceptable behavior and to encourage cast members to bring any concerns they might have to her.
She said she expects other theaters will take similar steps going forward.
“We have to heal. We have to make people feel comfortable,” she said. “Theater is supposed to be a safe space.”