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Jason Schlafstein, the founder and artistic director of Flying V Theatre, a small, nearly 10-year-old theater company based in Montgomery County, has a history of sexual harassment stretching back more than a decade, multiple people who know and have worked with him say. Although Flying V previously investigated his behavior, Schlafstein was not fired and associate artistic director Jonathan Ezra Rubin did not resign until a June 19 series of tweets about Schlafstein gained wide attention in the D.C. theater community. On June 20, Schlafstein was placed on administrative leave as anger stewed on social media. Late on the night of June 22, Flying V, known for its quirky, off-beat productions and its pop culture focus, announced Schlafstein and Rubin were no longer with the company
Discussion of Schlafstein’s behavior resurfaced when a woman tweeted about a 2016 incident when he drove her home from the bar where a show he directed for a different theater company took place. After the show ended, Schlafstein heard she was interested in theater and new in town. They began to chat, and she eventually ended up drinking heavily with the cast. She attempted to use Uber to get home, but he offered to drive her instead. She passed out in the car and woke up outside of a movie theater, where Schlafstein tried to convince her to see X-Men: Apocalypse. He’d expressed interest in seeing it all night, and she’d agreed, but she says she hadn’t meant she wanted to see it late that night while drunk. (Schlafstein said it was clear he meant that night; another person who was at the bar recalls turning down his invitation that night.) She asked him to drive her home and he obliged, after making his disappointment clear, she says. A year later, she says, she auditioned for a Flying V show and he asked her out for coffee before the audition had finished. “I will say it didn’t feel like a quid pro quo moment, but it did feel very uncomfortable given our previous interaction,” she says. She asked not to be named for privacy reasons.
In an emailed statement, Schlafstein tells City Paper “… that night I found myself in a situation where I was given consent to drive someone to a movie and once that consent was revoked, I immediately took her home … I did not engage in any illicit or illegal behaviors.” He also says he did not ask her out on a date—he was asking her to catch up in a friendly manner.
“Was what he did illegal? I don’t know. Was what he did illicit? Yes. And I don’t think it’s up to him to make that judgement call,” the woman says. “Was it not a great show of judgment? Absolutely! And not the show of judgment you’d want from someone in an artistic director role, when people who work with artistic directors are in an incredibly vulnerable space.”
As the Twitter thread gained attention, D.C. theater artists began posting on social media, both publicly and in private Facebook groups, about the harassment, abuse, and assault they’d experienced at the hands of people in regional theater—including Eric Schaeffer, the founding artistic director of Signature Theatre, who stepped down in late June following multiple accusations of sexual assault. Many stressed that these kinds of behaviors are common in the D.C. theater scene; others described it as a “#MeToo moment” in regional theater, both in large, well-established companies like Signature and smaller theaters like Flying V, which tend to use more non-unionized actors.
Multiple people wrote that Schlafstein was known for sexism, making inappropriate advances, and retaliation against people who rejected his advances. Maryland Theatre Guide reported Schlafstein was also accused of cyberstalking and making sexual advances toward intoxicated people, which he denies. In the 115 comments on Flying V’s announcement of his leave, multiple people shared accounts of what they believe was inappropriate behavior and called on the company to fire him.
While he does admit to some professional misconduct, he denies that his behavior was harassing. “I believe that there was potentially a hostile work environment,” he says. “I certainly believe that there was no sexual misconduct, and I believe that there was absolutely an issue with my inappropriate behavior related to my position, and a lack of boundaries between my personal and professional interactions with people. I asked people if they were interested in going on a date, or said that I thought they were interesting and cool and I would like to get to know them better. That was the limit of my interactions with anyone.”
After he was placed on administrative leave, but before he was terminated, Schlafstein wrote a post on his personal Facebook account, which he later deleted, addressing how “allegations resurfaced.” He admitted he expressed interest in and asked out women who worked for Flying V while he was the artistic director. “I am absolutely aware now how those actions, however unintentioned, fall into a predatory paradigm,” he wrote. He also described how accounts of his behavior came to the attention of Flying V leadership three years ago, and claimed “they were seriously investigated at the time by the Flying V board with my full cooperation and support.” Dozens of comments on his post demanded his resignation.
Many comments made reference to Schlafstein’s use of “resurfaced” in the Facebook post. “I think it’s sort of been an open secret in D.C. theater for years,” says Angela Pirko, the resident director and co-producer at Nu Sass Productions, a small woman-focused local theater company. She participated in Shakespeare Theatre’s 2015-2016 Directors’ Studio with Schlafstein. “A lot of people knew enough to advise people not to work at Flying V, but no one has actually done or said anything up until this point, and now it’s sort of all coming out in the open.”
“I knew that Jason was not someone I would send young women artists to,” she says. “I wish I had maybe done more at the time, because it’s a lot more than I realized, and I think a lot more people than I realized had complaints against him,” she says.
After graduating from the University of Maryland in 2008, Schlafstein’s profile in the theater scene rose for a few years before he was able to co-found Flying V Theatre in 2011. The small, nonprofit company, which bills itself as “theater for people who don’t like theater,” is known for focusing heavily on pop culture elements, putting on shows that took inspiration from the computer game Oregon Trail, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Superman, and Sherlock Holmes. In 2015, the company won the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company at the Helen Hayes Awards, which honors new companies that show great promise.
Flying V knew about Schlafstein’s behavior for years. In 2017, under the leadership of board president Melissa Wiley, there was an investigation that resulted in “a determination that Jason had inappropriately crossed professional and personal boundaries by expressing romantic interest in female members of the community in a way that could reasonably be understood as an abuse of power,” according to the company’s June 20 Facebook post. However, the board decided not to terminate him at that time “in significant part due to a serious commitment by Jason to do the work necessary to understand his position of power within Flying V and to avoid actions that could cause any member of the Flying V community to feel that he was using his power for personal gain.” Flying V’s board president Judy Gilbert Levey declined City Paper’s request for comment.
The company’s associate artistic director, Rubin, who resigned the same day Schlafstein was fired, had held his position since the beginning of 2020, but had worked with Flying V since 2011. He served as Flying V’s fight and intimacy director and ran workshops in the region on effectively staging intimacy in theater. He wrote in a Facebook post that he wanted to apologize for his complicity in Schlafstein’s behavior, adding that he loved him “like a brother,” and that, “I have always known him to genuinely want to be the best person he can be.”
After backlash, Rubin wrote another post, where he said, “I am sorry for the hurt and pain that I have caused and for not speaking up louder and more unequivocally before now.” On the night of June 22, he posted his resignation letter on Facebook, where he acknowledged that he’d previously heard about Schlafstein’s behavior and apologized for how he’d “made excuses for the fragments of stories I had heard and I had underestimated the severity or multiplicity therein, which is completely unacceptable.” In the post, he encouraged the Flying V board to overhaul the company’s leadership structure and to hire women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. When asked for comment, Rubin directed City Paper to his resignation letter.
Another woman, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, described an interaction with Schlafstein that was similar to the initial tweets. In the summer of 2018, about four years after they first met, he attended her 26th birthday party at a bar with many others from the theater scene. She says he gave her unsolicited casting advice, telling her the reason she wasn’t cast often was because she was very smart and very pretty, and people couldn’t see her as smart because of that. That comment, coming from an artistic director, shook her confidence, she says, and was detrimental to her career. Schlafstein says he never implied she couldn’t be cast because of being both pretty and smart, and that he was speaking purely as a peer at a social occasion, not as a professional.
Later, after she’d had multiple drinks and some of her best friends had gone home, Schlafstein, who was sober, was still at the bar. He insisted she not take an Uber back to her boyfriend’s house and offered to drive her instead. They began talking about #MeToo and the concept of “blurred lines,” she says. “And he told me something to the effect of: ‘Yeah, situations can be misconstrued. Look at me, I’m sober, I’m driving you who, who’s drunk, home; I’m an artistic director and physically bigger than you. People could ask questions about this right now,’” she recounts. “And all of the hairs on my neck stood up. It went from being like ‘Oh, Jason’s just kind of creepy but harmless’ to me realizing that he very much knew that if he wanted to act on that moment, he had the power to do so.” Schlafstein says he was trying to reckon with his role in the theater community and that his comments reflected his relief at having someone in the scene he could talk to in a friendly manner and feel comfortable around.
Schlafstein was very aware of the line of outright unacceptable behavior, she says, and made sure to never clearly cross it. But, she says, he still made multiple women feel unsafe and uncomfortable in personal and professional spaces. “It’s not about the gray area there or what his intention may be or may not be. It’s about as an artistic director, as someone in a position of power, you need to be on it and 100 percent aware of the implications and the impact you are making in any decision you do, especially when you are working with young and emerging artists.” She eventually left professional theater.
The woman who he tried to see X-Men with characterizes his behavior as “malicious cluelessness.” “Jason gets this pass from everyone because he’s clueless, but I mean, if you maintain that cluelessness for an ongoing period of time, especially when you’re told that it’s causing harm, then it becomes malicious,” she says.
Schlafstein says it’s extremely complicated to navigate relationships in a field where one’s social and professional contacts overlap so heavily, and that from the moment he became aware of his power in the theater community, he has tried to act responsibly and professionally. He says he was unaware of how many of the women City Paper spoke to felt until now. He also says his unwillingness to cross lines of unacceptable behavior is true and a positive statement about his character, and that he takes those lines very seriously.
“When people have provided me with honest and direct feedback about how I could be a better leader, a better collaborator, or a better mentor, I’ve responded with appreciation and intentional shifts to my processes and communication styles, for the better,” he says. “I believe those changes and that growth was on consistent display over my time with Flying V, as I grew from a novice, 25-year-old college graduate to the leader of a performing arts company with multiple wings and disciplines. Anytime I was given the opportunity for awareness, and to grow and better myself, I took it.”
Nevie, who asked that her full name not be used, says she met Schlafstein in 2007 when they were both in college at the University of Maryland; he was a few years older than her and they hung out in the same theater circles. She says he sexually harassed her for months in college after she made it clear she was not interested in him romantically or sexually. Two of Nevie’s friends from college confirmed to City Paper that she told them about much of Schlafstein’s behavior at the time and afterward.
“It was just a really dehumanizing, degrading experience,” she says. Schlafstein says he only ever asked her out twice, then moved on.
Nevie also ended up leaving professional theater, but in one of her last professional experiences, a 2010 production at 1st Stage, Schlafstein directed the other half of the play, and they shared rehearsal space. During that production, there was an instance where he walked into the ladies’ side of the dressing room unannounced, she says. “I was, like, half-naked in the middle of changing my costume. He did not knock or announce himself or ask if he could come through. He needed to talk to one of his actors on the women’s side,” she says. “Then again, there’s this toxic thing in theater where you’re just supposed to be OK, you’re doing quick changes, everybody’s naked around each other. But this was a man who sexually harassed me and had repeatedly tried to convince me to date him.” (Schlafstein says he has never entered a dressing room unannounced.) She felt increasingly disillusioned by the industry and all of the abusive men in it, she says, and eventually stopped doing theater.
Watching Schlafstein’s behavior discussed publicly and seeing him fired was both cathartic and painful for Nevie. She’d spoken about him before, she says, but no one wanted to take action, especially after he started his own company. “I felt like if people had listened to me 10 years ago, how many girls would have been saved that pain?” she says. “How was he allowed to run a company in the first place?” Schlafstein says Nevie disliked him for years for personal reasons, and her opinion has no bearing on his professional conduct at Flying V or elsewhere.
Another woman, Katie, who asked for her full name not to be used, went to college with Schlafstein and was later a company member at Flying V. She recounted multiple experiences of inappropriate behavior in professional settings. In 2008, when she was 20 and Schlafstein was turning 23, she was an actor in The Naked Party, which he wrote and directed, at the 2008 Capital Fringe Festival. The conceit of the play is that multiple people are going to a college “naked party,” where they all undress upon arrival, and as a result, each character delivers a long monologue into an imagined mirror while getting naked.
Schlafstein did private monologue work where he had Katie “actually undress, actually be naked for this private monologue rehearsal,” she says. “I did not understand this at the time, maybe he didn’t either, but I can’t express to you how wildly inappropriate it was for actors to actually be naked for this monologue work. It was completely unnecessary and detrimental, to be honest, because it’s really hard to concentrate on the intellectual work of working on a monologue when the reality is you’re actually naked in the room with this person.” She was naked in a room with just Schlafstein and another man, the stage manager, and ran her monologue for about an hour, she says. Another cast member from The Naked Party, whose character did not have an undressing monologue, says he was not aware of any discomfort or of any semi-private naked rehearsals at the time, but stressed he didn’t “want to say somebody else’s experience didn’t happen.” Two other cast members told City Paper they recall hearing about intense, semi-private monologue work after the point in rehearsals when cast members were expected to be naked, including one whose character undressed onstage like Katie’s did.
Schlafstein says actors never rehearsed nude while alone or in closed settings, and the use of nudity was carefully and professionally structured in the rehearsal process.
Later, in a 2013 Flying V production, Katie played a character who, in the midst of a breakdown, wearing only a bra, straddles another character and places his hands on her breasts. When they were blocking the scene onstage, Schlafstein had her take her shirt off. “At this point, I did know better, but it is inappropriate and not industry standard to actually have me be shirtless while we’re blocking that scene,” she says. “That was completely unnecessary.” Additionally, she had an audience: A group of men working on the production watched her run her lines, which “was a very challenging scene to do from an acting standpoint, not even hard emotionally, but from an intellectual perspective, a professional perspective,” she says.
Eventually, she felt uncomfortable and distracted enough to ask to clear the room, and Schlafstein and the others obliged. In the aftermath, she says she was embarrassed and uneasy, as she felt the impression was that she’d had a “diva moment.” Schlafstein apologized, but she still felt she was seen as unreasonable, and Schlafstein’s support was cold comfort—he acted “like he wasn’t the one who had set up the dynamic in the first place that made me feel unsafe,” she says. Katie’s scene partner, Josh Adams, confirmed her telling of events.
Katie remained with Flying V until 2018, after the internal board investigation that found Schlafstein had abused his power but allowed him to retain his role. She was not aware of the investigation at the time. “At a certain point, I was like, yeah, I can kind of keep myself safe here. But by being a member of this company, I’m enabling this person, and I’m making it look like this is a safe place to work,” Katie says. She’s now a company member at a different theater in Fairfax County.
In the post announcing Schlafstein’s termination, Flying V stated it would take the coming weeks to establish a “plan of action” and would provide further updates no later than July 15.
The last weeks have been a mix of emotions for the woman who first tweeted, but her main regret is tweeting her thread on Juneteenth. “I should have waited a day,” she says. “All of this energy that is being directed at these problematic guys by a largely White woman brigade isn’t being directed at the conversation about race that is happening globally, and also the conversations about race that are happening in the D.C. theater scene.”
With Schlafstein removed, the woman whose birthday party Schlafstein attended says the scene—and the company—may be able to make some progress. “Flying V is not Jason, and Jason is not Flying V, so I’m excited to see what they move forward with, and I think it’s going to give their company a chance to do something new and fresh,” she says. “More than anything, I want to see long-term change so that people like me don’t leave theater.”