Spooky Action Theater
Over the last few months allegations of a toxic work environment at Spooky Action Theater have sprung up. The theater rents space alongside the separate Actors’ Center in a church on 16th Street NW; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

It’s been a rough season for Spooky Action Theater. 

On May 31, the Dupont Circle theater announced that its founder and artistic director, Richard Henrich, had been placed on a leave of absence. Vague on details, the announcement only said that his duties as artistic director would be shared among staff and that the board planned to conduct a performance review of Henrich, staff, and productions to ensure a “welcoming environment for all.” Its upcoming fall production, Maple and Vine, will go on “with a cast, design team, and crew that has been contracted since well before the current concerns became public,” according to the statement. What those “current concerns” are, it does not say. 

Spooky Action’s board president Floyd L. Norton explains via email that Henrich was put on leave because “objections to Henrich’s personal presence during productions have been the subject of numerous posts and comments on social media.” Norton says the board felt that “removing Henrich from his artistic director role and from personal contact with production teams at the theater would address these issues, without the need to engage in debates about the particulars.” 

Like the announcement, Norton did not address the particulars, but social media, it seems, began calling out the theater for alleged toxic working conditions in early April. Local creative director Patrick Lord shared on his personal Facebook page on April 9, “Add Spooky Action Theatre [sic] to your list of theaters to avoid working at. We all can, and must demand better. Why are we going to bother returning to our stages if we’re just going to tolerate the old toxic behavior from ‘leadership?’” (As the artistic director and founder of the theater, Henrich heads Spooky Action.)

On June 17, Henrich also confirmed to City Paper that the reason he is on leave, as artistic director, is because, “All of the animosity and bad feelings towards Spooky Action, really, seem to be directed, mostly at me, personally. And in speaking with actors, and folks who are coming up to do our next production, they felt very uncomfortable having me around and so I made an agreement.”

Despite the theater’s continued vagueness, social media, previous media coverage, and numerous interviews with City Paper have shed light on the situation that dates back to pre-pandemic times. Henrich, who has been at the helm of Spooky Action since he founded the company in 2004 and has been active in D.C.’s theater scene since 1989, has been accused of disrespecting women and femme-presenting colleagues, mistreating young people in the industry, and perpetuating racial bias through outdated casting practices. The board’s announcement of his leave of absence only offered short relief. Henrich still sits on the board, which has been accused of failing to handle complaints against him. And he still handles much of the Spooky Action’s operations, such as bookkeeping and accounting. Regardless of the board’s ongoing investigation into improving the workplace culture, many of the people who’ve worked with the theater say any action short of removing Henrich entirely will be insufficient.

“I now know how long, persistent, and abusive his behavior is—the idea that he would not be involved directly with artists but yet would sit on the board and reap the benefits of artists’ work and have control on decisions as leadership for that company is still incredibly damaging,” Lord says. “It makes me trust the board even less … it seemed like they were trying to actively remove him, not just move him to a position somewhere in the back.”

As nearly every person City Paper interviewed noted, Spooky Action Theater’s insidious mistreatment of cast and crew members is coming to light now, in part, because of the pandemic. The theater industry is clawing its way back from two years of devastating uncertainty amidst shutdowns and virus variants while also reckoning with accusations of sexist, racist, and hostile behavior from those in charge. 

“The way that we work as artists is changing,” former Spooky Action staffer Michael Sullin says, crediting industry changes following George Floyd’s murder. “Workers in this industry are willing to be much more vocal about their needs in the workplace. Where I feel like a lot of that [had been] swept under the carpet for the sake of ‘the show must go on’ culture.”

Part of Henrich’s agreement includes bringing in a production manager, Matty Griffiths, for September’s Maple and Vine production and to take on some of Henrich’s responsibilities. During the pandemic, when Spooky Action pivoted to virtual productions, they did away with a full-time production manager position—Norton says they couldn’t afford it. 

“Going forward, we are experimenting with hiring a Production Manager only during the times we are actually in production,” Norton says. “This represents a new model for us.” 

Griffiths has worked with the theater before, as both an actor and carpenter. His role, and that of the production manager, were suggested by Maple and Vine’s set designer, endorsed by the director, and accepted by Henrich.

“We have hired a production manager to do those production things that I would otherwise be doing in the theater,” Henrich says. “So I don’t need to be in the theater. … The idea is that, by removing me as the artistic director that people have to deal with, it’s reassuring that they’ll have folks they will feel comfortable with and that they know and they won’t feel threatened. And that’s the reason I’ve stepped away.”

The May 31 email announcement directed reporters to contact Paul Marengo, Spooky Action Theater’s then-new, now former, community engagement director. On June 1, Marengo told City Paper that Henrich’s leave of absence stems from an earlier production that was short staffed. Though Marengo didn’t name the production, a Spooky Action Facebook post from April 18 apologizes to the production team of December’s Man Covets Bird. “A lot of pressure was placed between Richard and some of the production staff,” Marengo said. “You know, obviously, there were mistakes on both sides. Because the production was so stressful, the board decided that it was best if we take a step back and look at our staffing structure, and then move on from there.” 

Marengo resigned from his position with Spooky Action after less than a month, according to a June 8 article on the local website DC Theater Arts (Marengo rejoined the theater as of June 28). The article also notes that two other staff members resigned in the last week of May. Norton confirmed that Marengo’s last day with Spooky Action was June 3. “With so much uncertainty and no performances before next September, Paul felt that, for now, he simply did not have projects he could successfully promote to prospective sponsors at this time. There were no hard feelings,” Norton tells City Paper via email. Norton says they won’t seek to fill the combined position until August in preparation for the fall season.

Norton and Henrich confirm that Henrich remains on Spooky Action’s board of directors as its treasurer; he is one of six members. He is still receiving his salary, which Norton says is “significantly lower than salaries of executives at similar theaters” and “remains unchanged for the time being.” 

Aside from his role as artistic director, Henrich says he does a “ton of work” for the theater, including a recent data arts project report for a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant. “There’s no one else who has the information and the access to all of the details that they wanted filled in so it was something I had to do. No one else could do it,” Henrich says.

Richard Henrich in 2005; Credit: Darrow Montgomery Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Henrich founded Spooky Action Theater with the goal of producing plays that required audiences to participate using their imaginations. It initially operated out of rented spaces, but since 2010 has had a permanent home on the ground floor of the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street NW.

The board’s decision to place Henrich on leave as artistic director came nearly two weeks after DC Theater Arts published an article on May 20 alleging a toxic work environment under Henrich’s leadership. The article cites affiliated artists who accuse the board of failing to stop the artistic director’s alleged abuses. The aforementioned “current concerns” date back to the December production of Man Covets Bird, during which Lord, the show’s projection designer, filed a complaint with the board. The conflict only became public in April via social media posts, after Lord and his colleagues—including Man Covets Bird’s director as well as navi, a performer and the production’s co-composer—received a response they deemed insufficient. Despite pushback from the production team, the board went public with its apology, which was also shared via Facebook, on April 18. 

Like the board’s May 31 email announcement, the initial apology letter is vague, acknowledging “there are patterns of behavior that need to change.” The theater conducted an investigation, including interviews with staff, crew, and Henrich, and they hired an HR specialist to review the material, according to the letter. Changes, the board promised, would be made. (Henrich tells City Paper he was not interviewed, but was invited to write a summary of “why I believe the Man Covets Bird production was so stressful for all involved.”)

Two months later, several artists who worked on Man Covets Bird say the apology still feels watered down. (Lord describes it to City Paper as “very weak.”) They say it downplays their real concerns—actions they interpreted as Henrich’s mistreatment of women, young staff, and people of color.

Lord responded to the initial apology with another post on his personal Facebook account on April 19: “Even this supposed apology letter ignored the heart of our complaints … To me, this demonstrates that the letter was not, in truth, an apology or admission of anything—but was an attempt to silence and placate those of us with grievances. The problematic behavior of Richard Henrich, in his treatment of female production members, and younger artists is not addressed or acknowledged in a way that would lead anyone to believe that it will change.”

When City Paper spoke with Lord on June 8, he recounted some of what he witnessed during the production of Man Covets Bird. “The core of it came down to a kind of horrible amount of disrespect to everyone, especially to female members of the team,” he says. “Things like Richard would put his hand in someone’s face when they were talking, tell them to shut up. He would corner people physically, in small spaces. He would talk over people or he would just completely ignore questions that were directed at him specifically. He would say one thing very publicly … and then he would deny that later.” 

Lord says he never saw Henrich wave his hand in the face of a man or male-presenting crew member. And navi tells City Paper, “I think he has a very clear difference in how he behaves, and how he talks and his tone of voice and the degree of respect he puts in his words when you are not male, or presenting male.” 

Lord adds: “I’ve never, in 10 plus years of working in theater, and working in theater at all levels, I’ve never witnessed such blatant and gross behavior from a person.” 

Lord and navi’s accounts match Nicole Hertvik’s reporting for DC Theater Arts. She spoke with seven artists and crew members who’ve worked with Spooky Action between 2018 and 2021, including several who worked on Man Covets Bird. “All seven,” she writes, “tell similar stories of experiencing a hostile work environment characterized by improper management protocols and aggressive, disrespectful leadership.” That piece notes, and City Paper confirmed, that Henrich repeatedly entered occupied dressing rooms during the run of Man Covets Bird. Hertvik reports that “tension got so high” during production that women “who did not feel comfortable being alone with Henrich” implemented a “buddy system.” They also developed a watch system where one person waited outside dressing rooms to prevent Henrich from entering them when occupied. 

According to Man Covets Bird’s director, who asked to not be named in order to separate her work from Henrich’s behavior, Spooky Action’s dressing rooms are, in fact, one big room with curtain subdividers that all the actors share. The director says that once she began telling people of Henrich’s insistent attempts to enter the dressing room, others started telling her that this was an “ongoing, long term complaint that’s happened across many—I mean for decades—there.” 

The director also confirms that her cast repeatedly asked her to help keep Henrich out of the dressing room. She says Henrich put his palm in her face regularly. “That is just his communication style,” she tells City Paper. “It reminds me of 1990s middle school, but it was honestly like palm in the face, like, stop talking.” She says she also saw him do it to other women on her staff, including her stage manager.

Henrich, on the other hand, says the allegations of a toxic work environment during December’s show boils down to clashes between him and the Man Covets Bird’s director.

“We were not on the same page at all,” Henrich says. “I tend to try to avoid confrontation. I think the director excels and is invigorated by confrontation. So that was a real mismatch there and it really didn’t work. In her mind, it was toxic that I was not being responsive. I was not engaging in the battle.” 

Henrich acknowledges that he put his hands up in front of the director’s face more than once. He alleges, however, that he raised his hands in defense, after she launched into “what I would characterize as a tirade,” he says. “Starting out by calling me a liar, idiot, bully.” (The director says she “was vigilant about naming Richard’s inappropriate and abusive behaviors each time they occurred … I did not call him an idiot.”) He alleges the two of them were roughly three feet apart, and he raised his hands up, he says, in a gesture of “Whoa, come on. Let me get a word in edgewise here.”

“So if putting my hand up three feet away from someone is waving them in her face, well, I leave you to decide, but it was a gesture that she found offensive,” Henrich says. “I did it on a couple occasions and really tried hard not to do it, even though I felt I was under attack and not being allowed to state myself.” He says he doesn’t recall raising his hands in front of other women’s faces.

As for the allegations of Henrich entering occupied dressing rooms and cornering people, Henrich suggests those are also misconceptions. Henrich says he and the director were having a conversation in the hallway, about three feet apart, when she felt cornered. “She felt very threatened. So I backed away as much as I could, but she felt I was too close,” he says. 

The dressing room issue, according to Henrich, happened only once, when he followed the show’s only woman actor out of the bathroom to inform her that actors were supposed to use the upstairs bathroom so as to not share space with the audience.

Henrich says he followed the actor to tell her about the bathroom policy, and “she just went ballistic. I didn’t make it inside. She got hysterical, got on her phone, and started shouting to the director ‘Get him away from us.’ So needless to say, I did not go into the dressing room.” He notes, however, that he did enter the dressing room occasionally—at times when two of the actors would write and practice music in there. “I would walk in, check and say how’s it going…and walk out. So I would go in at times when they were practicing, but it was not related to times that they were preparing for a show.”

To City Paper, Henrich also calls the claims that he treats women and femme-presenting people differently “completely false,” adding: “I treated the director differently because we had such a bad relationship.”

According to Henrich, Spooky Action has worked with more women directors and playwrights than men playwrights and directors.

“I feel that the way women relate to theater is usually more compatible with my way of relating to the theater,” he says. “Men tend to approach it as an intellectual game, a lot of the time, and women are emotional, they’re collegial, generally speaking, and working to pull it all together. Nobody needs to be captain of the ship. We’re all on it together. I like that feeling, but at times, someone has to say, and I’m the captain, I have to say, ‘No, that’s not possible.’ … But in general, I find, from my point of view, working with women much more relaxed and enjoyable than working with men. There’s always this competition and I don’t feel competition with women.”

A former staffer who worked as Spooky Action’s casting director from 2018 through Dec. 2020 and did freelance work with the theater beginning in 2015, confirms that for at least two seasons while she was on staff, every show the theater produced was directed by a woman or a woman-presenting person. “It was unbelievable to have this place that’s doing this,” says the former casting director. “But I always wonder now: Why was that choice made? Was there a reasoning behind that choice that was somehow malicious?”

When the board shared its April apology letter, it promised to make changes to ensure the theater is a supportive environment for creative artists. Those changes include assessing the organizational structure to improve the production process, adequately staff productions, review communication pathways between production teams and management to speed up the response process, and to review—“at least annually”—the executive director/artistic director.

“They’re suggesting the kind of thing that I truly believe every single arts company in this area should be doing as a baseline,” navi says, calling the apology milquetoast and filled with empty platitudes. Likewise, navi notes that the board, even when announcing Henrich’s leave of absence, has never publicly addressed why a leave was necessary. “It’s not helping them to not directly just address why things are happening and what’s being said about it. I think they’re just trying to bury it.” 

Norton tells City Paper the board responded promptly upon receiving the complaint about Henrich’s conduct, but he failed to explain exactly how the board itself will be reviewed going forward. “In addition to its own inquiries, the Board hired an independent consulting firm to conduct an investigation into the allegations,” Norton says. “Henrich was not involved in the investigation. The board has also adopted several policies and procedures, including some suggested by the consultant, to ensure that problems like those alleged do not arise in the future.” 

When asked for additional clarification on what exactly those policies and procedures were, Norton pointed to those described in the apology letter.

Before departing, Marengo explained that as a recipient of a Bloomberg grant the theater is already in the process of executing ongoing strategic planning for the next fiscal year. The board will consider whether the theater, and the board itself, is diverse enough and whether the organization is welcoming to actors, production staff, and directors, among others. The board will also consider whether Henrich or anyone in the artistic director role was tasked with too much responsibility.

DC Theater Arts’ coverage raises the question of considering diversity in hiring practice. One staff member told the publication they were not allowed to call in dark-skinned Black men for one role because “they didn’t look American.” The former casting director confirmed to City Paper on June 28 that this was said to her.

In an email to City Paper, Henrich defends his decision not to call Black men for the role of an American soldier fighting in Burma during World War II in order to preserve the play’s historical accuracy. The character in Among the Dead served in a segregated, all-White unit, who later met an escaped South Korean “comfort woman” who he had a child with. The essence of the play, Henrich told City Paper, is a young Asian American woman discovering her past and unique Asian heritage. “Casting a black actor as the soldier would have been not only historically inaccurate,” Henrich says via email, “But it would have confused and displaced the playwright’s clear intention to contrast an exceptional Asian mother with a thoroughly ‘ordinary’ Amercan [sic] young man from the cornfields of Kansas.”

“There’s an argument for saying ‘no, it’s important that this be a White man,’” the casting director acknowledges, explaining the play could be viewed as the impact of White men sexually assaulting women. “But instead,” she notes, “the language was, ‘Don’t call any Black people. They don’t look American.’” 

Two other former Spooky Action employees, Sullin and Tyler Herman, also tell City Paper they witnessed, at the very least, a hesitation from Henrich to move the theater toward greater diversity. (Both men, and the casting director, who left the theater prior to the production of Man Covets Bird, also described being early in their theater careers while working there.)

Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, groups like We See You White American Theater sprang up to demand change at all levels. Theaters across the U.S. took heed, issuing commitments to diversity, with some going so far as to make changes in leadership, casting, and more. Herman, who worked as director of education, says he took We See You WAT’s demands to heart and tried to organize meetings at Spooky Action to discuss how the small theater could make changes. Both Herman and Sullin recall asking Henrich to read the demands and say he refused because they were “too long.” 

Henrich counters that he did read the document (which he shared with City Paper), but skimmed over sections he deemed irrelevant to a small theater. He felt that making a “feel-good statement” online was an inadequate response, he says, and instead wanted to identify concrete actions to take immediately and in the long term. Henrich points to an equity, diversity, and inclusion staff training, led by a “highly regarded” consultant, as one example of a step the theater took in response.

After several conversations, Herman says the staff, including the casting director and Sullin, wanted to put together statements to “show the world that we’re on our way to conversations.” Herman says Henrich refused to acknowledge racial bias. “He interrupted me, and threw a 30-minute monologue about evolution and Darwinism and how that links to racial bias not existing,” says Herman, who worked at Spooky Action from the summer of 2018 to the summer of 2021. In response, Henrich says, “I cannot imagine saying anything like this. It makes no sense. This is simply not who I am.”

Man Covets Bird’s director tells City Paper that, early on in the process of creating the show, she told Henrich that she shapes her creative teams to be 51 percent non-White, cisgender people. 

“His response was, ‘that’s not how we do things, we just hire the most talented people.’ I said, ‘that’s framing most talented in contrast with diversity.’” The conversation, she says, ended there. She created her entire team on her own so it wasn’t an issue on Man Covets Bird, but she adds: “That’s the kind of just blatant bias that he kind of brings to the conversation most of the time.”

Norton pushes back against these allegations. “The accusations of racist actions by Henrich have not been confirmed,” he says. “And Henrich himself continues to support the IDEA policy endorsed by the Board.” IDEA refers to inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility, and when asked for more details about the policy, Norton, who was traveling at the time, directed City Paper to the theater’s About page. The website states: “At every level—staff, board, artists, programming—we are committed to seeking out and welcoming the participation of Black and Indigenous people, People of Color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community who have been underrepresented in our organization. We are currently implementing an action plan specifically addressing these issues with achievable and time-specific goals. This is an ongoing process.”

Via email, Henrich writes in response to the director’s comment that his first concern in hiring artists and production teams “is always to find exceptional individuals. It is incumbent on our theater to actively seek out artists who may have been overlooked or not offered opportunities, and I fully support racial and gender diversity in hiring.”

Asked if he had witnessed racial bias during his time as Spooky Action Theater, Lord says in an email, “I cannot speak to witnessing racist decision making, but I can say that our young set designer was an artist of color and was notably not given respect and choices directly affecting his department were made without his knowledge, and he bore the brunt of gaslighting about changed deadlines and choices. I can’t say if that was racism or bullying a young and less experienced designer.”

Kimberlee Moore, a former board member, says via email that she had never heard of such allegations until contacted by City Paper. “I actually don’t have any information or insight about the allegations around Richard and casting, so I am unable to speak to them. Your email is the first that I’m hearing of the allegations,” Moore says.

Outside Spooky Action Theater; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Marengo insists the reason for the theater’s vagueness in its May 31 announcement is because the board hasn’t finished its review. “You can’t report on something you haven’t actually gone through,” he said. And though he doesn’t have an exact timetable, Marengo said that the board will begin implementing whatever changes are needed before work on the fall production begins.

But Lord and navi aren’t quite sure. Lord says there’s no satisfactory solution that allows Henrich to remain involved. With Henrich still on the board, he says, it’s not enough.

“This has been going on for so long. It’s behavior that is so entrenched that I went public the way I did after the board response because I don’t have a lot of faith that they’re actually looking out for artists in the community,” he says. 

The former casting director agrees. “Richard coming out and saying ‘I am the theater’ is not wrong. It’s true. This wouldn’t exist without him. But also I think it’s OK that it shouldn’t exist. I’m like to the point where this theater company just needs to go away.” She suggests the board should transfer its assets to a younger company and let Spooky Action go. “It doesn’t mean that the work wasn’t creative, but I think the harm that it has perpetuated outweighs the fact that it should continue.”

“It’s a baby step, it is not a solution,” navi says of Henrich’s leave of absence. Man Covets Bird was navi’s second time working at Spooky Action. They worked with Henrich and the theater in 2018—an experience they describe as worse than Man Covets Bird, in part because Henrich directed that piece. They joined last winter’s show with a distrust for Henrich already in place. And there were issues, from miscommunications to a disconnect between leadership regarding the project. “Then the show happened and, in my mind, it wasn’t worth it,” navi says. 

“I am of the belief that no single artist or arts company or massive theater is entitled to exist,” navi says. “Everyone needs to earn their keep at any given point in history in order to justify continuing to exist as an organization that makes money off of art.”

Editor’ note: This article has been updated with additional comment from Richard Henrich and to update Paul Marengo’s employment with the theater.