May 22, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

Can Williamstown Theatre Festival change a ‘broken’ culture?

7 min read

The festival is usually held on the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts.

(Rob Ross)

When Ryan Seffinger applied for the Williamstown festival’s unpaid lighting design internship in 2019, he told himself, “The clout would be extremely good for my career, whether it’s just having that line on my resume or because of the people I was going to meet there.”

Founded in 1954 and held on the Williams College campus, the festival had cultivated a reputation as a promising springboard for new work. Recent seasons of the Tony-winning festival featured the world premieres of Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould’s Broadway-bound musical “Lempicka,” Bess Wohl’s comedy “Grand Horizons” and Adam Rapp’s two-hander “The Sound Inside,” the latter two of which are currently up for multiple Tony Awards. The internship promised the opportunity to assist in the season’s marquee titles and to spearhead designs on smaller shows.

“This institution, with so much reputation and esteem, brings you on board to work with these amazing professionals and surrounds you with people who are all as impassioned as you are, who deeply care about the work,” said former directing assistant Lauren Zeftel. “It felt like the festival was saying, ‘We’re invested in your art, and we want to give you the support and the space and time to make great things.’”

But Williamstown productions less resemble scrappy summer stock shows than those of major regional and Broadway stages, and mounting approximately eight large productions in eight weeks — sometimes with a double-header on opening — requires round-the-clock work behind the scenes.

“Everything was constantly running behind, everyone was always stressed out,” said former costume design intern Leah Mirani. “[The seasonal workers are] good at what they do, but Williamstown sets them up to fail because they just don’t have the resources, infrastructure or the training to deal with that volume and pace and quality of show.”

Seffinger spent the summer rigging and focusing lights by hand for up to 16 hours a day. While crawling in the restricted space above a Williamstown stage to hang a power cable, he hit the back of his head on a horizontal metal support pole and suffered what doctors later diagnosed as a concussion.

He said he had been explicitly instructed during orientation to remove any hard hats when climbing in this area, or any stage space at height; according to Bagwell, Seffinger’s supervisor, the festival’s hard hats did not have chin straps and could potentially drop into the house and hurt someone. Seffinger used his own health insurance coverage for the hospital visit, otherwise, he would have had to pay out of pocket with no assistance from the festival. And he was ineligible for workers’ compensation, as interns were categorized as unpaid festival volunteers. The festival did not respond to a question from The Times about the availability of hard hats with chin straps, but it stated that “we are aware of certain situations in prior seasons where the Festival worked to secure medical attention for apprentices or interns and offered our payment when needed.”

This situation was part of a pattern at the festival, according to nearly all sources interviewed by The Times, who claim that a lack of safety equipment, training and adequate time to complete tasks led to preventable injuries — an allegation echoed in the appendix to the letter from festival alumni that was obtained by The Times. In addition to multiple other concussions, the document cited lacerations requiring stitches and second-degree burns; trips to the emergency room were a common occurrence. “Production staff were told to just keep buying more bandages and wound care rather than actively training and supervising to prevent injury,” read the letter.

The appendix, included below, also alleges that workers suffered asthma flare-ups and skin irritations from “the mill,” a set of all-but-abandoned buildings used for storing props and building scenery since 2011. It was regularly infested with pigeons and other animals (which had to be wrangled out annually), and was outfitted with eyewash stations only in 2018, after numerous requests from various teams. The floor once collapsed under a worker there, according to the appendix.

“This was no secret to anybody who walked through there — A-list actors, board members, they’ve all seen the condition of the building,” said former paints department head Julia Buerkle. Williamstown told The Times the festival ended its lease at “the mill” in 2020 “after evaluation of our options based on documented working conditions.”

Alumni also allege that the theater festival lacked an adequate system for reporting safety issues, and that its workplace culture encouraged workers to downplay both injuries and the fatigue that could lead to them.

“Young, unskilled labor are trusted to perform safety-driven tasks, and it’s scary,” said Barbara Samuels, a former associate lighting supervisor who, as an intern, almost fell from a truss structure. “And it gets normalized, because we’re taught that ‘accidents happen,’ as if it’s a single accident and not an entire, unsafe work environment.”

Board chair Johnson said in a statement that Williamstown has “clearly defined, documented and disseminated reporting structures for raising concerns at the Festival, whether about safety or relating to harassment or discrimination,” via employee handbooks, onboarding and training sessions, and posted signage throughout its facilities.

Nearly all the alumni who spoke with The Times said they did not report the festival to a state or federal agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, either because they did not feel they had a strong enough case to warrant an official complaint or out of the conviction that it would not result in any meaningful change at the festival. “I honestly felt a little defeated and afraid of what would happen if I alone said something,” said Bagwell.

Seffinger did file an anonymous workplace complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office after his summer at the theater festival. “My parents refused to let me put my name on it in case the festival somehow found out it was me,” he said, citing fear of reprisal from Williamstown that could harm his career. He filed the complaint after reading the state’s regulations on an unpaid internship, which require the role to be educational, for the benefit of the intern and not to displace a regular employee, among other rules. In particular, Seffinger was struck by the guidelines because interns were so instrumental to the festival. “At Williamstown,” he said, “we were the labor force.” (A public records request to the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards showed no record of a formal complaint lodged against the theater festival.)

Former department heads told The Times that they instead raised alarms to the festival’s leadership, either through emailed requests before a season began or during in-person debriefs once the season had ended. But they said they were promised solutions that did not always materialize or left to improve conditions themselves. For example, said Bagwell, a training manual was only as detail-oriented as the department head in charge of writing it; at one point, one department’s manual, referred to as its “Bible,” was an empty binder.

Multiple alumni said that the unsafe conditions were exacerbated by sleep deprivation, high stress and minimal time off — all of which they say resulted from the festival’s business model. “WTF simply would not function without relying on young, mostly unpaid, untrained laborers to push their bodies through intense physical stress for an unsafe number of hours,” read the alumni letter to festival leadership.

Shortly before the 2021 season, festival leadership acknowledged the intense demands of the job when it requested in an email that Lindsey Turteltaub, then-Williamstown’s director of production, submit a doctor’s note before returning to work. “We want to make sure your doctor understands that in order to perform the below listed essential functions of your job, you would be working 7 days a week in a high pressure environment for the next several months,” read the email, which has been obtained by The Times. Turtletaub said her doctor refused the request, calling the schedule “ridiculous”; she resigned soon afterward.

In 2016, the festival “executed a full review of our seasonal employment structure which led to meaningful changes — in compensation, working hours and breaks to name a few,” according to the statement from board chair Johnson, which three former department heads told The Times was the result of collective bargaining efforts.

Four years later, conditions remained troubling enough to prompt the alumni letter to leadership. Among its demands were the implementation of adequate training, fair wages and personal injury insurance for festival workers.

“The safety and the emotional well-being of the entire WTF community is our top priority. And we take any claims to the contrary very seriously,” Johnson said in his statement to The Times. “We evaluate and provide opportunity for ongoing assessment for safety and workplace issues each season. This includes pre-season, post-season and in-season department head meetings to address any concerns and ensure we grow and evolve with each coming year.

“Over the past several years, we have, and we will continue to implement policies and practices to foster a work culture that upholds a commitment to theatrical achievement and prioritizes the safety of our people.”

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