Does the Walnut Street Theatre care about its BIPOC and LGBTQIA performers, maintaining a safe and healthy workplace, fair pay practices, and diversity in casting? According to about 100 protestors who walked from Independence Mall to the Walnut Street Theatre on June 18, that answer is a resounding no.
Standing before the Walnut Street Theatre (WST) marquee, which boasts the theater’s 2021-2022 lineup, protestors from the newly formed Protect the Artist (PTA) coalition read selections from what co-organizer Jenna Pinchbeck said were 90 testimonials from current and former Walnut actors, administrators, apprentices, and front-line and development staff regarding the actions of Bernard Harvard, the Walnut's president and producing artistic director, and managing director Mark Sylvester.
“He would knock and turn the handle at the same time, without waiting for the all clear,” said one testimonial about what some actors say is Havard’s penchant for entering the women’s dressing rooms without warning.
Other testimonials, read at Friday’s event and shared widely on social media via PTA and its organizers, described a female apprentice who was groped by a male donor and then was told the Walnut could not complain on her behalf. An educator described instructions to remove pronoun introductions from an event, to avoid angering Havard.
“You know, you’re a little huge,” an actor recounted Havard saying about her body at her audition. Another said Havard called her “an Irish wench.” Incidents centering on Sylvester described an inappropriate comment to a staffer doing yoga and warnings about his dislike of encountering pregnant people. Other testimonials have been shared publicly through PTA on Facebook and Instagram.
The June 18 protest called for Havard’s removal from the Walnut, but the theater’s financial success since he took the helm in 1982 is undeniable. A 2010 University of Pennsylvania thesis on preserving historic neighborhood theaters notes that within a year of Havard’s hiring, he formed the nonprofit Walnut Street Theatre Company that operates today so that the theater could produce and license its own shows with local talent as well as present traveling productions. Havard shored up and diversified the theater’s previously distressed financials and initiated a year-round season. In its 2009-2010 season announcement, WST touted more than 56,000 subscribers, the world’s largest theater subscription base. In 2019, WST announced a $39 million plan for a new 400-seat theater, and a restaurant.
A utopian theater?
But PTA protestors out to “#CrackTheNut” asked whether the Walnut can survive what looks like a deliberate lack of diversity in staffing, casting, and productions.
Speaking about his own experience as gay man to Philadelphia Gay News in 2009, Sylvester noted that the Walnut “[doesn’t] do an LGBT series” because the theater already has “a utopian kind of audience” with “stories and people of all races, orientations, ages, and backgrounds.”
But other sources tell a different story. Although the Walnut is no stranger to historic moments in Black American theater (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin the Sun premiered at the Walnut in 1959), a recent staffer’s PTA testimonial quotes a “well-known and respected Philadelphia-based actor” saying “Bernard would never do [Ragtime] because he told me once that he doesn't like to do shows where there are too many black people on stage.”
Since its inception in 1983, the Walnut Street Theatre Company has had 185 mainstage productions, but only nine requiring non-white leads (including Sister Act, Miss Saigon, and West Side Story). Widely circulated 2020 graphics, assembled by local actor Liam Mulshine, point out that between 2010 and 2020, every mainstage director at the Walnut was white, and that its board of trustees was also entirely white. A large majority of its current senior staff and board are men.
Wage inequity is another major point of contention for PTA protestors. According to Glassdoor, WST ticket and phone agents make $9 to $10 per hour, while during the 2017-18 season, Non Profit Light reported revenue of more than $17 million for the Walnut, with Havard’s salary at $690,655 and Sylvester’s at $426,267.
Earlier this month, a lawyer for Havard and the Walnut sent a cease and desist letter to Philly actor Jenna Pinchbeck after she asked in a Facebook comment how the Walnut was improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in its organization and making a safe space for women there.
At the protest
With its cathartic June 18 protest and more actions planned IRL and online, PTA hopes the Walnut board of trustees will be open to change. Marchers were escorted by Philly police along a preplanned route. They wove from Independence Mall to the Walnut and then continued on to pass behind the Kimmel Center and into Rittenhouse Square.
Marchers blew bubbles and rang cowbells, to chants including “Black art matters,” “trans art matters,” and “hey hey, ho ho, Bernard Havard has got to go.” They sang excerpts of Hamilton’s “Rise Up.” Hand-lettered signs carried slogans like “#TimesUpBernard,” “The Oldest Theatre needs a new start,” “Hey Walnut, representation matters,” “Mark Sylvester out now,” “#BernOut,” and “Cease white supremacy, desist wage theft.”
Pinchbeck opened the speeches with an a cappella performance from Falsetto: "I'm tired of all the happy men who rule the world ... I'd like the chance to hide in that world." She grew emotional while reading testimonies from Walnut workers and artists. After speaking, she embraced a weeping member of the crowd from the sidelines. Co-organizer Nate Golden also spoke, noting how many testimonials came from women, in contrast to his own comparatively positive experience as a cis white man. Co-organizer Garrick Morgan pointed out the lack of racial diversity in the protest crowd (the majority of attendees were white), which he attributed to fear in the community.
“No reason representation should not exist on that stage,” he declared, calling for better racial and gender representation, including of gender-fluid artists. Later, other speakers called for better representation of different body types onstage.
Co-organizers maintained a cheerful presence, offered water and snacks, encouraged marchers to wear masks, and circulated a petition for community members promising not to donate to or work with the Walnut until a series of demands are met.
Two young women passing by were drawn in by the protest, and one asked what it was about. “I walk by there every day. It’s good to know what’s going on,” she said.
Image description: A protest in front of the Walnut Street Theatre marquee. Garrick Morgan, a Black man, speaks into a megaphone in front of four people holding a banner that says “We demand change.”
Image description: A grid of 49 small photos, all of them headshots of white directors. Red and white text overlay reads, “Every Walnut Street Theatre Mainstage Director from 2010-2020.”
Image description: A crowd of protestors walk past the Walnut Street Theatre, the front marchers carrying a banner that says “We demand change.”