WESTERLY — The Colonial Theatre board of directors is investigating sexual harassment allegations against an employee of the theater company, which has presented summer Shakespeare productions in Wilcox Park for more than 20 years.
Nicholas Moore, the board’s vice president, confirmed Wednesday that he has been heading up the investigation. He said he was contacted in late April by two people, a candidate for employment and a past employee, who each raised allegations of sexual harassment against a theater employee. Moore said the allegations involve comments of a sexual nature that created an allegedly hostile work environment, not a quid pro quo type of harassment that involves a person of authority making promises of career advancement in return for sexual favors.
Upon receiving the complaints, Moore said he informed his fellow board members. “The board agreed to suspend all other board activities, inform our partners and investigate immediately,” he said.
As part of the investigation Moore developed and distributed a questionnaire to past employees. The questionnaire sought to help the board “better understand the background of these claims by sharing your experience,” a letter from Moore to recipients of the survey stated. Respondents were asked to include their names but were assured that identifying information would be withheld when the results of the questionnaire were compiled. In the event identifying information had to be shared with non-board members, Moore said respondents would be notified.
The theater board issued the following statement: “The board of trustees of the Colonial Theatre is investigating two allegations of sexual harassment, hostile environment. In order to protect the interests of the employees, the organization, our clients and partners, the board of trustees would investigate any allegation presented to the board on any related topic. The investigation is ongoing and we don’t have conclusions to offer at this time.”
Moore declined to say how many questionnaires had been distributed but said about 20 percent of those sent out had been returned as of Wednesday morning. On Friday afternoon, the theater announced in a press release that it would take a one-year hiatus from its Shakespeare in the Park production and would instead offer different types of entertainment and, possibly, a theater camp.
The press release also announced “a new partnership” with the Westerly public school system. Under the partnership, the theater would expand a program that started with after-school activities this school year by providing educators and curriculum, and the school system would provide performing space and promote the opportunity to students. On Monday morning, the theater withdrew the press release.
When asked whether the decision not to conduct Shakespeare in the Park was connected to the investigation, Moore replied, “We are excited about our relationship with the Westerly Public Schools and are trying to focus on that.”
The theater, Moore said, is largely a family-based organization. He was recruited to serve on the board by his cousin, Marion Markham Abood, a longtime actress for the theater. Moore’s wife has done graphic design work for the organization, and his daughter has had small roles in some of its plays.
“The Colonial, in my eyes, has always been a sort of small, grass-roots organization … Not only do we take these sorts of allegations seriously and investigate them for the sake of the theater and its employees, but my family is out there, too,” Moore said.
For many, Shakespeare in the Park has become synonymous with Westerly.
“When you see the lights and see the stage and the props and hear the productions, you feel the energy. That’s my memory of the theater. This saddens me and I hope that if we see that these things happened in the past, that we can continue with corrections,” Moore said.
In the course of his investigation, Moore was contacted by a lawyer who said he represented a client who had observed a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment. The lawyer, Robert Lombardo, said his client also questioned Moore’s ability to conduct an open and honest investigation. Lombardo also said that his client had accused a theater board member of being “an aider and abettor of the conduct, as well as a primary offender.”
Moore shared his response to Lombardo with The Sun. In it, Moore asked Lombardo to provide facts to back up his statements and asked for his client’s “full testimony.”
“We are committed to gathering the evidence necessary to make a determination on the appropriate course of action, irregardless of whether any alleged infraction was committed by a board member or an employee,” Moore wrote in his response to Lombardo.
Regarding Lombardo’s question about whether Moore was the appropriate person to conduct the investigation, Moore told The Sun he did not disagree that a third-party, outside agency or individual might be best-suited to conduct the inquiry, but he said the theater has limited financial resources for such an investigation.
Mark Sullivan, who has been a Colonial Theatre actor for about six years, said he had never observed anyone making inappropriate comments during rehearsals or productions.
“As a general practice, the backstage and rehearsal atmosphere has been collegial, cordial and friendly,” Sullivan said.
He noted that the theater’s actors range in age from 16 to 80 or older, and said that their experience levels vary as well, from seasoned professionals to those who are just starting to act.
“At no time did I ever see anything that was cause for alarm,” Sullivan said.
Dawn Robinson, the board’s treasurer, said she joined the board after her teenage daughter asked her to get involved. Her daughter worked on the theater’s production of “Hamlet” in 2016.
“We as a family have never had an incident to be concerned about,” Robinson said.
Harland Meltzer, the theater’s founder and producing artistic director, did not respond to a message Wednesday afternoon seeking comment for this article.
Editor’s note: A picture originally attached to this article that showed the old Colonial Theatre building, which is currently the Granite Theatre, has been removed. The Granite Theatre is not involved in the current situation.