Joseph Haj came to the Guthrie Theater in 2016 with a mandate to foster diversity and inclusivity. But at least one area at the region’s flagship theater has proved resistant to change: the scene shop, according to current and former employees.
Molly Diers, a longtime carpenter at the theater, resigned in frustration two weeks ago over complaints she raised over a period of several years. Her union filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging the Guthrie has not effectively enforced its policies to protect against workplace harassment.
Diers described the scene shop as “an intolerable environment” that included jokes about rape and talk of retaliation for lodging complaints. She alleged she was “physically blocked after an assault by another man from going to [human resources] to report it.”
The Guthrie has hired a law firm to investigate her allegations.
Haj vows that he is committed to change throughout the institution. To underline that commitment, the Guthrie website posted an “open letter” sent to the theater’s board and administrators two days after Diers quit.
Signed by “A Christmas Carol” director Lauren Keating, development director Danielle St. Germain-Gordon and 77 other employees from various departments, including the scene shop, the letter cites “frustration and pain” at “sexist operational practices and structures that place women at a distinct disadvantage in negotiating our institution.”
The post includes a response from Haj and board chairwoman Martha Aronson: “While we know it to be true that there have been many dedicated efforts to create a more equitable organization,” it says in part, “we also acknowledge that despite these efforts, this letter represents the view and experience of a number of women who work at the Guthrie. We hear them clearly and we support them fully.”
Last fall, the theater took steps to reinforce its harassment policies after Twin Cities actor Sun Mee Chomet complained of “hostile and inappropriate” behavior by a male castmate in Haj’s staging of “King Lear.”
In an interview, Guthrie managing director Jennifer Bielstein said that since Haj became artistic director the theater has made strides to become “a truly respectful workplace environment” but that “there is much more work to be done.”
She acknowledged “a shared impatience” with bringing change to behind-the-scenes workers. “Creative teams are hired for each production, and we are doing 20 [shows] annually, so there’s more opportunity to fill those positions” with artists from diverse backgrounds and from underrepresented groups. “With full-time positions, though, we’ve had very little growth.”
The Guthrie has a full-time staff of 150 and about 200 temporary workers on its payroll at any given time.
Diers began freelancing at the theater 13 years ago and was hired full-time 3½ years ago as one of three lead carpenters on staff. The scene shop currently employs 11 full-time workers, one of whom is a woman.
Guthrie policy on harassment
Guthrie policy prohibiting harassment in the workplace spells out a range of abusive behavior, from bullying and “suggestive comments” to physical assault and pressure for sexual favors.
Diers said she had complained for years to Guthrie executives about violations of that policy, “so many times I lost count.” While she felt listened to, she said, inappropriate remarks and nonsexual touching continued to occur. The last straw, she said, came when she was passed over for a promotion for which she thought she was qualified.
“We believe that we hired the most qualified applicant,” a Guthrie spokesperson said.
On Diers’ last day on the job, Jan. 17, the carpenters’ union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 13, filed a charge with the NLRB. It also has filed a grievance with the Guthrie. Matt Rice, the union’s business agent, said the NLRB charge could result in back pay or even reinstatement for Diers.
“The employer is required to maintain a safe, hassle-free, discrimination-free environment,” Rice said.
He said he met with the new Guthrie administration in 2016 to discuss “unfair treatment” of the union’s members: “I was told they were aware of the hostile work environment. We were assured that things would change.”
When she quit, Diers touched a nerve with a Facebook post that said the Guthrie “breeds a culture that has kept and continues to keep women down.” It drew more than 200 responses from figures on the Twin Cities and national theater scene, including a “thank you for speaking out” from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, who is at the Guthrie for an upcoming production of her play “Indecent.”
Sue Hennessy, a carpenter at the Guthrie in the 1990s, commented that the scene shop was the institution’s “last straight male bastion.”
A tough environment
Another carpenter, Nate Saul, also resigned last month — in sympathy with Diers, he said — after more than 15 years at the theater. He had applied for the same job Diers had sought.
“People, specifically women, feel uncomfortable, excluded, and disrespected” at the Guthrie, he said on Facebook. The “current culture is one of fear: fear of retaliation for speaking out and standing up.”
Scene shops can be tough places for women to work, said Kate Sutton-Johnson, a noted Twin Cities theater designer who worked at the Guthrie 15 years ago.
“I don’t think we can overestimate the baked-in misogyny that leads to very biased behaviors in this industry,” she wrote in an essay for a trade publication last month detailing the complex power dynamics for women working behind the scenes at theaters.
Rose King, a freelancer who works in the scene shop at the Guthrie about nine months of the year, said Diers often spoke up for her because, as a contract employee, King felt too vulnerable to do so. While she admires the Guthrie’s public avowal of equity and diversity, “in the scene shop, we get pushed aside,” she said.
In the past couple of years, King said, she and other employees had begun to talk more about micro-aggressions, including the use of belittling words such as “sweetie” or something she calls “gig-jumping” — “a man would step in front of me, take a tool out of my hand and just do it.” But those behaviors have persisted, she said.
Leaders already learning
Managing director Bielstein cited a long list of meetings, workshops and discussion groups on the topic of diversity and inclusion as evidence that the theater’s management is working hard to change the culture.
The Guthrie also changed its hiring requirements two years ago: The list of potential candidates for every open staff position must be not only qualified but also diverse.
Diers and other current and former employees are being interviewed as part of the investigation by the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels (which also represents the Star Tribune). While the Guthrie awaits that report, Bielstein said, leaders have learned some things: The theater needs more professional assistance to enact its equity/inclusion initiatives; some employees have not felt empowered to speak up; and the Guthrie needs to communicate better with staff.
“We are on this journey, and we are committed to facing these challenges head-on,” Bielstein said.
Diers and others say they hope that journey speeds up.
“I was a squeaky wheel,” Diers said. “A lot of women came to me and said they understood my choice [to resign] and I said that just because I’m not there anymore doesn’t mean I’m not going to be loud. I want the Guthrie to be a better place to work because it really could be the best place on the planet.”