211110ind CTCFile

Officials from the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, shown here in a file photo, recently fired four actors and publicly accused them of “racism and misogyny" following a series of disagreements over the theater's latest production "The Thanksgiving Play."

WAKEFIELD — The Contemporary Theater Company has fired four actors and publicly accused them of “racism and misogyny.”

The firing of the cast of “The Thanksgiving Play” — a play centered on issues of race — came after the cancellation of the mid-October opening night performance and involves four white performers and Tammy Brown, the theater’s African-American creative director, arguing over creative intentions that erupted into divisions over racial and mental health issues.

The theater accused the cast in a social media post last Thursday of “racism and misogyny.”

Theater reviewers and others in performing arts called the public firing and accusations “unprecedented” for either community theater or national and Broadway productions.

Ryan Sekac, director at the CTC and president of the theater’s Board of Directors, refused to answer questions about the board’s reasoning for launching public accusations of racism.

The actors offer a different explanation about the events.

Sekac also refused to explain the board’s reasoning for CTC’s firing of the entire cast. The board, in evolving formal statements over two days, also would not explain its reasoning.

The accused actors say they never behaved in any discriminatory fashion toward Brown who is a long-time friend to them all. They insist instead she displayed toward them “insensitive and unprofessional” conduct after complaints of some being unable to execute a scene Brown required involving a suicide and self-hanging by a Native American Indian as part of a song.

The play examined issues of race and behavior as well as suicide in the context of North American settlers’ understanding and treatment of Native Americans.

It is about three white teachers and a white assistant attempting to put on a Thanksgiving play in honor of Native American Month, but with conflicting, often humorous and absurd ironies arising from their interpretation of events without the point of view of Native Americans.

According to Brown and Andrew Stigler, speaking on behalf of the affected actors, planning was going well until some actors raised concerns about a short pantomime of an Indian committing suicide by hanging.

“One actor, at an early rehearsal related a personal experience regarding suicide that was deeply personal, at length,” said Stigler, a U.S. Naval War College professor and spokesman for himself and the three other actors. “It is the single most personal revelation I have ever heard during a rehearsal process. A second actor mentioned the recent suicide of a family member that still profoundly impacted that actor.”

The actors involved are two women — Julian Trilling, 31, and Kelly Robertson, 26 — and two men — Stigler, 53, and Dillon Medina, 34. Medina and Robertson confirmed their decision to publicly now talk about the effects of the suicide discussions on them.

Brown said that she changed the scenes so that Medina, who said the scene significantly affected him, would be replaced by Stigler. Robertson had a relative who died by suicide in the last year and was upset that the portrayal was part of the play, Stigler said.

The actors, however, agreed to do the scene, according to Stigler, but he said that other conflicts with Brown over artistic style also arose, escalating to the point that the actors concluded the entire “process was conducted very badly and insensitively.” They also complained to CTC management about Brown.

On opening night, Medina  decided he could not go forward with acting in the play, and it was abruptly canceled as the audience waited for it to start. The cast was fired the following week, according to Brown and Stigler.

Brown said she tried to accommodate the cast and their concerns.

“As a play’s director, I am responsible for the full artistic vision of the show,” Brown said in a statement last week. “My directing style is such that I often invite cast and designers into the creative process as collaborators, but final decisions of staging and the overall look and feel of the theatrical experience are mine to make. That is the standard for all directors of theater productions.”

According to Brown, the cast disagreed with an artistic choice she made, argued against the choice at “unusual length” and persisted “until finally, long beyond any normal amount of time, they relinquished.”

She said the tension angered, frustrated and upset her because her authority as a director was challenged by experienced actors who should understand the role of a director.

“My only conclusion is that, consciously or unconsciously, they were empowered by racism and misogyny. As white people, and particularly men, they could not accept that I would not bend to their will,“ she said.

Brown conceded that the performers’ complaints and actions could be interpreted different ways, but she interpreted them as discriminatory toward her on grounds of race and gender.

She also said that making the initial claims on Facebook was important to stand up for the integrity of the process and “the social justice causes to combat the behaviors that underly their actions.”

Acknowledging that she knows them all personally and purposefully selected them for this play, she said she considered their defiance of her authority as a “direct attack on me.”

In addition, the director also said, “Because of the extreme actions taken by the cast, and the utter disrespect shown to me and to our theater as a whole, there was no path forward for this group. The breakdown in trust was complete and irreparable.“

The cast, Stigler said, sees it differently.

“Another possible conclusion: the director badly mismanaged the process, and displayed striking insensitivity, leading to what happened on Oct 21. The cast tried to find a way forward to complete the run after that night,” Stigler said in his own Facebook post and during an interview.

“The director, as far as I know, did not,” he continued, adding, “preferring an expression of anger to a completion of the run of the show, which would have been a run of the show as she had directed it and a show with which she had expressed complete satisfaction. And the director calls the cast unprofessional.”

“It is also ugly to publicly offer unsupported and false speculation of bias,” he said about the theater Board of Directors and Brown’s accusations of “racism and misogyny.”

The CTC Board of Directors, in a rare written statement, said it supported sidelining the actors, but would not explain the specific reasons with examples for its public accusations and firing of the actors.

“The CTC has learned from its experience in this case and continues developing practices to ensure the CTC remains a theater where all members of the community can come to play.”

Brown said, however, that these four actors “would not be invited back again.”

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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