Can the Williamstown Theater Festival change a “broken” culture?

The festival usually takes place on the Williams College campus in Massachusetts.

(Rob Ross)

When Ryan Seffinger applied for the Williamstown Festival unpaid lighting design internship in 2019, he thought to himself, “The weight would be extremely good for my career, whether it’s just to have 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 earned a reputation as a promising springboard for new works. The final seasons of the Tony-winning festival featured world premieres of Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould’s musical “Lempicka”, Bess Wohl’s comedy “Grand Horizons” and Adam Rapp’s two-handed film “The Sound. Inside “, of which the last two are currently in the running for several Tony Awards. The internship promised the opportunity to help with the season’s flagship titles and lead designs on smaller shows.

“This institution, with so much reputation and esteem, brings you to work with these incredible professionals and surrounds you with people who are all as passionate as you, who care deeply about the job,” said the former assistant to the directed by Lauren Zeftel. “It was like the festival was saying, ‘We are invested in your art, and we want to give you the support, the space and the time to do great things.'”

But Williamstown’s productions are less like rambling summer shows than those on major regional and Broadway stages, and putting together about eight major productions in eight weeks – sometimes with a double-header at the opening – requires 24-hour work. around the clock behind the scenes.

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

Seffinger has spent the summer rigging and focusing lights by hand for up to 16 hours a day. As he crawled through the tight 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 it as a concussion.

He said he was explicitly instructed during orientation to remove any hard hat when climbing in that area, or any high stage space; According to Bagwell, Seffinger’s supervisor, the festival helmets did not have chin straps and could potentially fall into the house and injure someone. Seffinger used his own health insurance coverage for the hospital visit, otherwise he would have had to pay out of pocket without the festival’s help. And he was not eligible for workers compensation because interns were classified as unpaid festival volunteers. The festival did not respond to a question from The Times about the availability of helmets with chin straps, but said that “we are aware of certain situations in previous seasons where the Festival has worked to obtain medical attention for them. apprentices or trainees and offered our payment when needed.

This situation was part of a pattern at the festival, according to almost all sources interviewed by The Times, who claim that a lack of safety equipment, training and sufficient time to complete tasks led to preventable injuries – an allegation echoed in the appendix to the letter from festival alumni who was obtained by The Times. In addition to several other concussions, the paper cites lacerations requiring stitches and second degree burns; trips to the emergency room were frequent. “Production staff were told to keep buying more dressings and wound care rather than actively training and supervising to prevent injuries,” the letter read.

The appendix, included below, also alleges that the workers suffered from asthma flares and skin irritations from the “mill,” a collection of almost abandoned buildings used to store building props and decorations ever since. 2011. It was regularly infested with pigeons and other animals (which had to be competed every year), and was only fitted with eyewash stations in 2018, after many requests from various teams. The ground collapsed once under a worker, according to the annex.

“It was no secret that anyone has been there – leading actors, board members, they all saw the condition of the building,” said Julia Buerkle, former head of the department of paintings. Williamstown told The Times that the festival ended its lease at the “factory” in 2020 “after evaluating our options based on documented working conditions.”

Elders also allege that the theater festival did not have an adequate system for reporting safety concerns and that its workplace culture encouraged workers to minimize both injuries and fatigue that could lead to it.

“Young, unskilled workers are trusted to do safety-oriented jobs, and it’s scary,” said Barbara Samuels, a former assistant lighting supervisor who, as an intern, nearly fell out of her mind. a lattice structure. “And that is normalizing, because we are taught that ‘accidents happen’, as if it were a single accident and not a complete and dangerous work environment.”

Board chairman Johnson said in a statement that Williamstown had “clearly defined, documented and disseminated reporting structures to raise concerns at the festival, whether it be safety or harassment or discrimination », Via employee manuals, onboarding and training sessions, and signage displayed throughout its facilities.

Almost all of the alumni who spoke to The Times said they did not report the festival to a state or federal agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or because they thought they did not. sufficiently strong case to justify an official complaint or by the belief that it would not result in any significant change to the festival. “Honestly, I felt a bit defeated and was afraid of what would happen if I said something on my own,” Bagwell said.

Seffinger filed 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 that it was me,” he said, citing fears of retaliation from Williamstown that could harm his career. He filed the complaint after reading the state regulation on unpaid internship, which require that the role 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 the interns were instrumental in the festival. “In Williamstown,” he said, “we were the workforce. (A public record request with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards showed no record of a formal complaint filed against the theater festival.)

Former department heads told The Times they instead alerted festival management, either through email requests before a season begins, or through in-person debriefings after the season is over. But they said they were promised solutions that did not always materialize or left to improve conditions on their own. For example, Bagwell said, a training manual was only as detailed as the manager responsible for writing it; at one point, a department’s manual, called its “Bible,” was an empty filing cabinet.

Many former students said the dangerous conditions were exacerbated by sleep deprivation, high stress and minimal free time – which they said resulted from the festival’s business model. “WTF simply wouldn’t work without relying on young workers, mostly unpaid and untrained, to push their bodies through severe physical stress for dangerous hours,” reads the alumni letter. students in the direction of the festival.

Shortly before the 2021 season, festival management acknowledged the intense demands of the job when they emailed Lindsey Turteltaub, then Williamstown’s production manager, to submit a doctor’s note before returning. at work. “We want to make sure your doctor understands that to perform the essential job functions listed below, you will be working 7 days a week in a high pressure environment for the next few months,” read the email, which was obtained by The Times. Turtletaub said his doctor refused the request, calling the schedule “ridiculous”; she resigned shortly thereafter.

In 2016, the festival “carried out a comprehensive review of our seasonal employment structure which led to significant changes – in pay, hours of work and breaks to name a few,” according to the Board chairman Johnson’s statement, which three former department heads told The Times is the result of collective bargaining efforts.

Four years later, conditions remain troubling enough to prompt former students to send a letter to leaders. Among his demands were the provision of adequate training, fair wages and personal injury insurance for festival workers.

“The safety and emotional well-being of the entire WTF community is our top priority. And we take any assertion to the contrary very seriously, ”Johnson said in his statement to The Times. “We assess and offer the possibility of continuous assessment of workplace and safety issues each season. This includes pre-season, post-season, and throughout-season department manager meetings to address any concerns and ensure we grow and evolve with each year to come.

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

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