WALNUT STREET THEATRE TESTIMONIALS

Trigger Warning: Workplace harassment, Abuse, Racism, Sexual Harassment, Fat Phobia, Ableism, Pregnancy discrimination, Mental illness, and more.

 

“Bernard would go around to dressing rooms after an opening to congratulate actors on the evening. This was often not something actors (specifically female identifying) felt comfortable with. I was pulled aside by multiple actors asking if I could inform them when Bernard was near to ensure they were fully dressed. He would knock and turn the door handle at the same time without waiting for the “all clear” signal. 

It was kind of a well known fact that he did this, and the lack of an HR department made me feel like there wasn’t a safe space to bring it up.

I didn’t feel like I could go to anyone.

Everything about the environment is toxic. I think the worst part is there is no safe space to talk about issues. Aside from Bernard, the entire theater exploits non-union employees (including apprentices) both in pay and treatment.

I have a very vivid memory of going to an apprentice lunch where he stated that the theater wouldn’t be successful without the cheap labor."

“Working as an apprentice at the walnut left me with post traumatic stress symptoms and it has taken me years of distance to begin to trust myself as a professional and as a creator again. In the first week of my contract it became clear to me that the walnut operated like a parody of an old-timey theatre, but I was young and did not realize how this would trickle down through company culture and be used to exploit and abuse their most vulnerable workers such as myself. The red flags were apparent when, during an introductory lunch, the managing director began complaining about how the disability advocacy group that they had been consulting for their upcoming production of the curious incident of the dog in the night-time (a show with a main character heavily implied to be on the autism spectrum) had suggested that the theater should hire an actor with a disability rather than the artistic director’s son. He then proceeded to make jokes about individuals on the autism spectrum. My own brother is on the spectrum but I knew not to speak up because unfortunately it is built into the American theatre culture to stay quiet and amiable in order to protect your career. As the season continued, my experience only worsened as I was forced to navigate an antiquated management system with inconsistent standard operating procedures (which has not been applicable in any of the arts organizations I have worked with since), as well as daily berating for extraneous details such as not adequately presenting baked goods or properly stirring cream cheese during  meet-and-greets for first rehearsals. I soon noticed a pattern: the only way to avoid verbal abuse for the day was to engage in gossip about other employees’ performance, who were mostly women. Since this culture of intensity is so expected as part of American theatre and because I truly believed at age 22 that this was my “dream job” and my ticket to get any position I wanted in the industry, I tried to stick through the abuse to no avail. I was so anxious in the mornings that I would throw up any breakfast I attempted to eat. If I had a morning with no yelling I would maybe be able to eat a small lunch, but oftentimes I was too anxious to digest anything. I quickly memorized the best parts of the building to cry in without anyone finding me because I knew “the walls have ears”. Soon the small mistakes I was making became larger ones because I began having post traumatic stress reactions such as dissociation. I tried to communicate that I was going through a difficult time to my supervisors but it was clear that they saw me as a liability and not an investment, despite the “educational opportunity” of the apprenticeship program. Since our office served as the HR of the building I knew that the only other outlet I had for voicing my frustrations was the director of education, but a fellow apprentice had attempted to use that resource to voice concerns about his supervisor, only for said director of education to betray his trust and tell said supervisor this apprentice’s concerns directly. By the time I quit, I was down two full dress sizes, in desperate need of therapy, and my entire attitude towards theatre as an art form had been permanently altered for the worse. “

“As a grant apprentice, I interfaced with a lot of board members. I was warned by my managers to avoid certain male board members at donor events as they could get handsy. I attempted to do so but still had one board member grope my butt, and another make relentless requests to take me out on a date--they were done "in jest" but made me very uncomfortable. When I told the other members of my department what happened they were sympathetic but said there was nothing they could do--he was a large donor. When they tried to assign me to a different position during events, he proceeded to harass the other female identifying apprentice who was put in my place."

“As a non-union SM for one of the TYA shows, I was put in the position of tech-ing a show in 3 days instead of 4 because changeover went long. When I expressed concern that we would not be able to create a polished show in that time, I was dismissed. When on the first show we had a tech malfunction, Bernard stormed up to the booth and proceeded to scream at me, calling me by the r word and curse at me, all while I was trying to get the show back on track. After the show, Bernard came up to me and told me to blame a specific crew member, even though they had not been responsible for the mishap. I did not do so in my show report and was fired the next day. When I asked the director of education why I was being let go he said that, off the record, I got in the way of a union dispute, and that Bernard didn't think I had what it took to handle the "politics of the institution.”

“Towards the end of my callback for the Acting Apprenticeship, Bernard proceeded to ask several questions regarding my resume and training (including if any of my credits are legitimate paying ones or if they’re college production) and in the midst of my response he states, “You know, you’re a little...huge”. I took a moment to process the question and mistook it for my singing voice being loud and tried to play it off as a joke. But he quickly responded with, “No, I mean your weight. You could be leading material but the weight...”. If it wasn’t for my former contract and the incredible cast members I worked with that gave me the foundations of body confidence and help me to understand that as long as I was able to function properly and do what I need to get done without feeling winded or very fatigued (as opposed to numbers on a scale) I don’t know how I would’ve reacted to his unsettling comment.”

“I was stretching in the fourth floor studio before a show and the door was open. Mark Sylvester walked by on his way out of the office as I was in a downward dog position. He made a sexual comment about how it seemed like a position I was all too familiar with. Made me feel gross - still does when I think about it. “

“The Walnut Street Theatre is by far the worst job I’ve ever had, and is notorious for treating its workers, especially the apprentices, as disposable and not worthy of empathy or basic human decency. And I am still coming to terms with my experience there and how I was treated to this day, three years later.”

"I’ve been in an audition setting and witnessed the most talented women with the strongest auditions of the day dismissed because they are “Too Big”, “an Irish wench”, “goth” because they have black hair, “not beautiful”, or “I don’t want to look at them for two hours”. All of this was behind closed doors and without the actresses being aware of the artistic director’s assessment. There was no questioning a “No” given by Bernard based on his idea of objective beauty, and I believe it contributed to mediocrity in talent being rewarded because of looks alone.

It was made clear that casting required the artistic director’s approval, and a No was a no. I did not feel that my job would be protected if I confronted the individual."

“I tried to negotiate a modest salary increase when I was asked to play a lead role and Mark told me “Bernard said you’re not worth a penny more.” I took the job because I needed the money. “

“The intimidation by both Bernard, several staff, and union members pushed me into deep isolation depression. I have PTSD from my experience there and blacked it out of my mind for several years, until I started therapy."

“I grew up in Philadelphia, and Walnut is where I saw my first live show. Getting a job in theater as soon as I got out of college, at a place I loved growing up, no less, was nothing short of phenomenal for me. All of this illusion shattered during my time at Walnut as an employee. I no longer work in this industry, and fellow apprentices from my class and I have steered college graduates seeking this apprenticeship away due to our shared experiences. Talking about it, even so many years later, still incites anger, anxiety, and fear in me. Following my time at Walnut, I have sought treatment for the ongoing anxieties I feel at my current place of work as a result of my time at Walnut.”

“I was the general management apprentice at The Walnut Street Theatre and that experience has left me with post traumatic stress symptoms and it has taken me years of distance to begin to trust myself as a professional and as a creator again…I wound up having panic attacks almost daily in the office.“

“During both of my pregnancies, I was told time and time again by The Company Manager at the time ,that Mark Sylvester was grossed out by pregnant women. She found it very funny, and would tell me every time she saw me how disgusted he was by pregnant women, and was uncomfortable around them and he would probably avoid me at all costs. She joked that I should pretend my water broke in his office, and that I should go out of my way to walk near him. She didn't realize that I spent most of my career avoiding him, and this time would be no different.”

“I began my employment on a Monday. By Friday, I was in therapy. I was paid a pittance. My grandmother died around the time bonuses were given out. When I returned from the funeral I found out I was not receiving a bonus because Mark hated me.


I got no sympathy card or condolences either, but later that month when Mark Sylvester’s parrot died the whole theatre signed a sympathy card.


I will never forget when Mark looked me dead in the eyes and said “I have no respect for you.

And why was I fired? No reason was given because there was no reason. I was a damned good employee for 7 years and I was treated like subhuman pond scum.”

"Mark was/is the worst human I’ve ever met. He has made sexual comments about women, minors, and people with disabilities detailing why they should not be allowed to work at the walnut, calling minors a “pedofiles wet dream” and shaming women body types. Ken Westler (who thankfully no longer works at the walnut) once stated that the “Race issue” at the walnut would “fix itself” when I referred to the overwhelming white, mostly male board of directors and Paul hit on me so many time I started to black out the comments entirely.   

After telling multiple staff about Paul and how he made me and other staff members uncomfortable nothing was done and he was fired for something completely unrelated and after the incident with Ken I was told the situation was being handled but I believe he also got fired for something unrelated.


The Walnut Street Theatre is and always will be a white space. From the shows they put on, to the way they cast, to the fact that only two (to my knowledge) of the full time staff members during my time who are Black don’t work in custodial, to their patrons. I was constantly asked if I was the house managers daughter, simply because we’re both Black. The two men at the top are so pretentious and bad at what they do that it makes me want to scream. They are sexist, ableist, disgusting people who couldn’t make art if they tried. While I was undoubtedly the better house management apprentice, I was always undermined and my white male counterpart was offered opportunities such as paid daytime tours and house managed all studio shows even though they were suppose to be split evenly. Working at the Walnut as an apprentice is definitely in the top 3 traumatic experiences in my life. They only good thing about the theatre was the education program and even that went downhill. Bernard has a plaque in his office reminding him that he works for a non-profit, but my guess is that is so far away he simply can not see it. They have always been profit over people and you could not reform this theatre even if they fired everyone and started over. If it burned down tomorrow I would jump for joy knowing I would never have to see it on my walk to the walnut street wawa again."

"Predatory hiring process including a statement made by the PM when asked how to survive at such a low pay rate. “If you spend your money wisely you’ll thrive here.”


Transphobia: I was asked if my name was a joke When ask Why I wasn’t a TD I made reference to a joke that is always made in my field about me not qualifying to be a TD because I don’t have a beard to which the Td @wsT responded with a laugh and said yes that’s true. To which I replied but apparently I don’t have the chromosomes for that.

When reporting the harassment to the people who caused the incident I was gaslit and basically written an email where they try to justify their actions.

I do not feel blacklisted however I feel like a lot of apprentices could not speak up or felt like they could not speak up out of fear that they would be blacklisted or lose their jobs." 

Working in Phone Charge I dealt with a number of patrons and subscribers over the phone and in person who made inappropriate comments about women and people of color. This behavior is enabled by the mission to maintain the largest subscriber base possible, even if that means placating racist and sexist patrons. I had a horrible experience with Brian Kurtas, then Casting Director/Assistant to the Producing Artistic Director regarding the audition invitation to be an "Extra" for South Pacific after I quit Phone Charge. I attached the email thread to this form. I also heard stories regarding the then-Refreshment Services Manager making lewd comments in regards to his suboordinate employees.

My complaints fell on deaf ears at the Walnut, I stopped working there and stopped applying for the GPAAs as it became clear to me I was only given an audition slot due to my race/ethnicity filling a quota for their audition demographic." -Twoey Truong (She/They)

"During email correspondence, I was offered a role for the TYA (Theatre for Young Audience) series. After discussing pay and schedule, I was asked if I would mind shaving or cutting my hair. I responded to let them know I was not comfortable with cutting my hair. In many auditions, I was asked by Bernard or casting at the time about cutting my hair. Every time I explained that my hair is a representation of my heritage and upbringing as part of the Native Muscogee tribe. I was always brushed off, and obviously it was an issue for them, as they continued to ask me every time. This email was no different. Except this time, after already being offered the role, Tom informed me that he would need to run all casting decisions by Bernard Havard. I was then asked to send a photo of my long hair. I did. The following email simply said, "We are going to go in a different direction". I later saw photos of the show, "Goosebumps", and the actor they used to for the role I was offered, was white, and wore a beanie the entire time. So it was obviously not about my long hair.

I was not a union actor at the time. I didn't feel like my voice would be heard, and many people working at WST had warned me about their blacklisting frequency. Which is against union policy, but so hard to enforce.

I have auditioned for what feels like hundreds of companies at this point in my career. Some, I feel very welcome in the room, other's are neither here nor there, but at WST, if Bernard is running the room, I have NEVER felt welcome. I'm almost always dismissed by him. His casting will usually have me do multiple things for them, but if I see him in the room, I know I'm there for a short unpleasant time."

-Topher Eufaula Layton (They/He/She)

At the first day of rehearsal for 'Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time' (a play/book about and written by a person with autism), Bernard came into the rehearsal room and proceeded to lecture the room about how the word 'autism' will be a forbidden word. He told the whole team to never say the word in the rehearsal room and especially not to the press. He said the word was unnecessary and unimportant to the story being told ... a story that would be entirely unremarkable without honoring the main character's disability. Throughout rehearsals, the actors and director would slip up and ALMOST say autism, but stop themselves and awkwardly laugh about it because they didn't want it to get back to Bernard. They knew it was wrong, but they didn't dare defy him. The whole thing made me realize that Bernard and company didn't care about telling a story about a person with a disability. (Certainly didn't care to cast a person with that disability or to employ a disabled person as a dramaturgical advisor.) They wanted to do the play because they knew the success of the play on Broadway along with the on-stage special effects and spectacle would bring audiences (read: money) in.

As an understudy, I felt it wasn't my place. I also suppose I gave them the benefit of the doubt that that choice was coming from a good place? (lol)" - Katie Horner (She/Her)

"Mark made me feel less than and never took the time to get to know my name because I was just an extra. If memory serves, he never knew the names of any of the non union actors including those actually in the dancing ensemble. He stopped me at an audition in NYC one time baffled that one of his shows was on my resume. Bernard would make snide comments to my boyfriend at opening nights about how he was “lucky to have me on his arm” and other such related things. 
At the time, I was fresh out of college and just kept my mouth shut. I just thought this is how it was in the real world, and I had to earn my place.
I certainly felt very belittled even though I worked incredibly hard and showed up just as much (if not more) than the actors who were featured in the show. The “extra” system needs to be re-examined. And the treatment of non equity/EMC actors is also abysmal. Everyone deserves a safe space to create."

"Mark consistently hit on and made sexual comments to many of the young male actors. He would make them uncomfortable when they didn’t come to stop by his office to speak with him. I also heard him make sexual comments to young male staff members. He uses his position of power to make many of the younger male actors feel obligated to engage in flirty conversation with him. This isn’t specifically harassment but Mark is way less interested in engaging with female staff members. Mark never learned my name even after an entire year as his apprentice. When his apprentice from the previous year came to visit, he had no idea who she was.
I wasn’t personally harassed so I didn’t want to speak on behalf of anyone else and threaten my position.
Yes, they have a bonus system that is not typical for other non profits. At the end of the FY, senior staff members receive insanely large bonuses that don’t get included in their “salary” for accounting purposes."