“They are afraid of me”

The Walnut says cease and desist, but Philly theater artists keep speaking up

6 minute read
Jenna Pinchbeck has questions for the Walnut Street Theatre. (Image courtesy of Jenna Pinchbeck.)
Jenna Pinchbeck has questions for the Walnut Street Theatre. (Image courtesy of Jenna Pinchbeck.)

The paper copy arrived on June 10. “Omg! I just got my physical cease and desist letter from the Walnut Street Theatre!!!” local stage and voice actor Jenna Pinchbeck wrote on Instagram that day, caressing the envelope in her kitchen to the tune of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.”

The letter was a response to a comment Pinchbeck posted on the Walnut’s June 6 season announcement on Facebook. Speaking with BSR on Monday, Pinchbeck called the letter “probably the best thing that could have happened” in terms of reigniting the Philly theater community’s demands for a diverse, equitable, and inclusive industry.

“A better future”?

Pinchbeck and others in the community note that while other companies have engaged in an anti-racist reckoning and community dialogue this year alongside Covid-safe programming, the Walnut has been comparatively dark and silent since a June 2020 statement on social media declaring that “this is our country’s chance to take its own story in a new direction, where we all share equal rights and work together to build a better future.”

Referencing Walnut president and producing artistic director Bernard Havard, Pinchbeck commented to ask how the theater would “make your space safer for BIPOC, trans, and disabled artists?” and “what is the Walnut Street Theatre doing to make women feel safe with Bernard at the helm?”

She hit a nerve, two days later receiving a cease and desist letter from an attorney for Havard and the Walnut (since widely shared on social), claiming that she was accusing Havard of “criminal activity” and threatening to sue for defamation and “intentional infliction of emotional distress” if Pinchbeck didn’t retract her questions.

The exchange quickly generated outrage, especially from Philly’s community of independent theater artists, many of whom flocked to the Walnut’s original Facebook post to echo Pinchbeck’s comment and ask for their own cease and desist letters (the Walnut has since deleted the comments and restricted new ones; its Instagram season announcement post has comments disabled).

“We were perplexed by your letter,” reads a June 11 response from Pinchbeck’s attorney to the Walnut, also widely shared on socials, which called the Walnut’s defamation accusation “groundless.”

“In social media posts, Ms. Pinchbeck raised questions over the Walnut’s commitment and response to the important public issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the letter reads, inviting the Walnut’s board to speak with Pinchbeck.

“The walls have ears”

Pinchbeck, a Florida native, graduated from Shenandoah University with a degree in Musical Theater before moving to New York City. She did her first Philly show in 2014, and “met all of the Philadelphia artists that make their own way and create their own work.” They helped her realize she could forge her own path in the business.

Pinchbeck moved to Philly in 2015 and is now a board member of Simpatico Theatre; she' also worked closely with 11th Hour Theatre Company and Mauckingbird Theatre Company. The Walnut has hired her in many capacities, including as a teaching artist, performer, and photographer. In 2019 she got her Actor’s Equity card in the cast of the Walnut’s Legally Blonde.

That was when she began to hear from other folks in the industry about the work environment at the Walnut. “A lot of folks don’t feel safe working there,” she remembers hearing, alluding to low pay for many artists and staffers, excessive hours, and a lack of diversity.

“The walls have ears. If you speak up, you will lose your contract or be blacklisted,” Pinchbeck said colleagues warned her at the time.

“People are terrified to speak up,” she continued. “Especially for the actors, it’s the best paycheck on the East Coast.”

Last year, among other actions, Pinchbeck attended a meeting of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and signed its public accountability pledge for non-Black theater community members. For her, asking questions of the Walnut now is part of carrying out that pledge.

“A diverse and equitable workplace”

“I don’t want to center myself in this movement, but I’m willing to fall in this movement,” she said, noting that she became the face of the current controversy because she received the letter, not because she sought a leadership role. “I want to amplify marginalized voices.”

“I’m not surprised that they want to silence me,” Pinchbeck said of the Walnut’s threatening legal action. “I am surprised that they’re so dumb. But I’m here for it.”

And she has learned something since she first left her comment last week: “They are afraid of me.”

A spokesperson for the Walnut directed all inquiries to Douglas Diaz, the Walnut’s attorney.

“The Walnut Street Theatre cares deeply about its employees, apprentices, and volunteers, and works hard to provide a workplace environment that is collegial, respectful, inclusive, and free from intimidation of any kind. Moreover, the Walnut prides itself on a diverse and equitable workplace in which every voice is heard and celebrated,” Diaz said via email.

The Philly arts community will rally at Independence Mall on Friday, June 18. (Image courtesy of Jenna Pinchbeck.)
The Philly arts community will rally at Independence Mall on Friday, June 18. (Image courtesy of Jenna Pinchbeck.)

What’s next

Pinchbeck still hopes the Walnut board will meet with her. But other actions are in the works, thanks in part to co-organizer Nate Golden, a longtime employee of the Walnut and Pinchbeck’s close friend and colleague.

They’ve launched Protect the Artist (PTA), a new coalition for “holding institutions accountable and promoting (long overdue) systemic change,” open to artists of all stripes. A protest is planned for 5pm on Friday, June 18, with marchers gathering at Independence Mall, walking west on Walnut for a rally outside the theater, and then continuing on Walnut through Rittenhouse Square. Pinchbeck encouraged potential speakers or statement-makers to reach out to [email protected], and urged arts patrons to lend their support by attending.

In partnership with 11th Hour and Simpatico, Pinchbeck said, she’s developing a pledge for local artistic directors promising that artists who speak up for diversity, equity, and inclusion will not lose job opportunities. And in consultation with trauma specialist Peter Andrew Danzig, the PTA team has launched a survey Pinchbeck called a “testimony home base” for community members who want to share their experiences working at the Walnut (with an option to remain anonymous).

“It’s going to take a long, hard fight,” Pinchbeck said of taking on the Walnut. “They wait for the things to blow over, and we can’t let it blow over.”

Disclosure: BSR editor-in-chief Alaina Johns, the author of this article, was a Walnut apprentice for the theater’s 2006-2007 season.

Image description: A headshot of Jenna Pinchbeck, a white woman wearing a baseball cap that says “LOVE” on it, and a denim jacket.

Image description: A logo for a Protect The Artist protest says “We will not be silenced” and “Friday June 18 5pm” over an illustration of diverse people waving signs that say “inclusion,” “equity,” “diversity,” and “safety.”

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