Purple Rose Theatre targeted by multiple complaints, litigation due to alleged hostile workplace environment
CHELSEA, Mich. – The Purple Rose Theatre has been making numerous changes amidst an 18-month cascade of criticisms aimed at the theater’s treatment of apprentices, women artists, artists of color, and artists who identify as LGBTQ+.
The charges and criticisms are aimed primarily at Artistic Director Guy Sanville, but other staff are implicated as well. The situation was so dire that Purple Rose founder Jeff Daniels, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, told Sanville that if he resigned under the pressure, he would also step away from his role at the theatre, thus jeopardizing the theatre’s future.
After settling lawsuits with a number of apprentices, who, according to sources with knowledge of the settlements, received $10,000 a piece after charging the theatre with unfair work practices that included work weeks that substantially exceeded 40 hours, bullying and tasks outside normal or acceptable scope, the Purple Rose eliminated the apprentice program and have filled roles previously done by apprentices with full and part-time staff.
But that is not the end of the controversy. Charges related to hostile treatment of people of color, women and LGBTQ artists persist. Those charges go back decades.
In recent weeks, the theatre has added staff including front-of-house team members, a House Manager, two Production Associates, an Artistic Associate, a Production Manager, and a Box Office Associate. The theatre also engaged a firm last year to handle Human Resources when it became apparent that it did not have the expertise or capacity to cope with complaints under its old practices.
Multiple stakeholders have complained of bullying
The complaints against the theatre have been numerous and of various natures, but all were voiced during the COVID-19 pandemic hiatus, and, in some cases, fed off one another. One of the litigants, for example, was an African-American apprentice from the 2017-18 season, who complained not only of a hostile work environment for apprentices, but of people of color overall and him specifically. Others have complained of an unfair, intimidating and at times toxic workplace driven by Sanville.
The Purple Rose enjoys a certain status in Michigan, having been founded in 1991 in Chelsea, Mich. by Emmy Award winning and Tony Award nominee Jeff Daniels. Daniels grew up in Chelsea, raised his family there, and still resides there when he is not working on location. For many, Daniels has “favorite son” status in the state. Guy Sanville has been Artistic Director for 26 years and resides in Chelsea as well.
On September 14, 2020, a 22-page letter signed by 77 artists who have worked at The Rose was sent to The Purple Rose – Sanville, Manager Katie Hubbard, and the board of directors. Among other things the letter stated: “For many years, the Purple Rose has operated with an increasingly toxic internal culture; one that ultimately privileges and protects a few key individuals—most notably the Artistic Director (Sanville), while providing inconsistent or no protection for those who have experienced an unsafe work environment at the hands of these same individuals.” The letter cites manipulation, emotional abuse, and bullying, discriminatory hiring practices, unsafe working conditions, homophobia, and racism.
Those who have worked at The Purple Rose and want to share their stories, have been uploading them to an Instagram account, @the_purplestories, with an option of maintaining anonymity. When sending in stories, though, the individual must include an email address so that the organizers can verify the identity and veracity of the time during which they worked at the theatre. As of October 29, 345 individuals have signed the petition.
The petition states: “We, and others like us, have given Purple Rose Theatre Company every opportunity to listen to our voices, and to address our qualms quietly over the years. We have not been taken seriously.”
Among those sharing their stories is Aral Gribble, a noted actor in Michigan who was invited to read for a part in a recent play, Sherlock Holmes and The Case of The Fallen Souflee. Gribble table-read for the part of a heavyset character in the story, but was ultimately not cast. Gribble is naturally heavyset, but the part went to an actor who was dressed in a fat suit. Later, according to Gribble and an actor who was in a group setting with Sanville, the Director explained, without naming Gribble by name, that he would not cast the actor, fearing that his weight would be a liability to his health during the rigors of rehearsals and a two-month run of the show. The group knew it was Gribble Sanville was talking about as actors present for the fat-shaming texted Gribble.
“Are you gay?”
An Anonymous actor gave this story: “When rehearsing for my first show at the Purple Rose, Guy Sanville stopped rehearsal for a five-minute break and asked me to come speak with him at his chair. “I don’t care, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said, “but are you gay?” This is not okay and should never have been allowed. My sexuality has no bearing whatsoever on my ability to do my job. I was also forced to participate in unsafe intimacy exercises. Though no kisses existed in the script between my character and his significant other, we were forced to repeatedly practice kissing one another at the discretion of Guy. When I voiced various concerns to stage management, I was told that I could absolutely not speak candidly with the director to ask for help.”
An Anonymous former Apprentice and Understudy from 2016-17: “The apprentice program, takes advantage of young people, fresh out of college, eager for experience in the arts. The program wildy undervalues and under compensates their labor, under the guise of providing an invaluable hands-on education. It is exploitation. Neither housing nor meals are provided (though housing has been provided in the theatre’s bungalow at times) and apprentices work 60-70 hour weeks for a tiny stipend well below a living wage.”
Former PRT artists have come forward and complained to the Actors Equity Association that a rule stating that complaints about events that took place more than 30 days prior to a complaint filing are automatically dismissed.
Jeremy Kucharek, an actor who worked at PRT is among those who signed the letter. He told Bridgette Redman, writing for Onstageblog.com: “It was mind-boggling considering what we have learned about victims and abuse and the #metoo movement,” Kucharek said. “We’ve learned how power and money can stifle voices and how difficult it is to speak out from others, especially when you have someone like Jeff Daniels who has all the power and connections and the money he holds.”
Former apprentices tell stories of one apprentice per season being singled out for a version of hazing – regular intimidation, intense scrutiny, and embarrassment in front of other staff.
Fueling the accusations that a climate of hostility toward LGBTQ people has been in place for many years, an anonymous apprentice from 2003-04 wrote of their experiences sitting in on general auditions at the Rose. After praising the work of one actor to the apprentices, Sanville reportedly said, “He was good. But we’ll never have a gay man on The Purple Rose stage.” Over the years, several LGBTQ+ actors have expressed the opinion to EncoreMichigan that they do not feel welcome or wanted at The Rose.
A chilling story reported in Onstage Blog, also reported by Ms. Redman, involves Kristin Stetler, an apprentice in 2011-2012, who was fired after six months after revealing a mental health issue, including a call to the National Suicide Hotline. Stetler reportedly asked for one to two hours a week to see a therapist, and was denied permission. Apprentice work hours were routinely 7AM to 10PM. Stetler’s locker was cleared out, and Stetler’s father was called by a PRT staffer to come to the theatre.
The Purple Rose did not make Sanville, Jeff Daniels or apprentice director Michelle Mountain available to respond.
At the heart of PRT’s current issues is the culture. It can feel at times like that of a football team or military school: a survival-of-the-fittest, “our-way-or-the-highway” environment that goes beyond simply having pride and passion for the dramatic arts. What seems evident from the multitude of complaints and allegations, as well as the range of complaints, is that PRT has become too insular and insulated from good, modern human resources practices. It’s been too dependent on a cult of personality of one person, and has resisted accountability for professional employee relations.
Daniels’ loyalty to Sanville
According to one source who asked not to be identified, Jeff Daniels, who continues to stand behind Sanville as the Artistic Director, told them: “My apprentice experience was so valuable, we just wanted to carry that tradition forward.” Daniels’ own apprentice experience was at Circle Repertory Company in New York City, where he has said that he participated in all phases of the productions and maintenance of the theatre, including cleaning the facility–an experience that has been a part of the Rose apprenticeships. PRT apprentices have routinely been told to shovel snow and clean toilets among other non production duties according to complaints published by @the_purplestories.
Setting aside for a moment some of the specific complaints from women and LGBTQ artists, one of the issues at The Rose seems to be a generational divide. Daniels is 66, and Sanville is 68. They came up in theatre where you were taught to have a “thick skin,” and it was a time when cleaning bathrooms was just “part of the deal” if you wanted the experience of working in a big-time theatre. That thinking, though, is well out of step with today’s industry standards.
But the complaints from African-American artists, LGBTQ artists and women transcend a mere generational divide.
Sanville clearly knows the craft, and has made a name for himself as a director, teacher and actor. But he is also known for running down people who have worked at The Rose by name in front of staff and artists– unusual in a small community of artists where artists work at multiple theaters. He is also a tireless supporter of AEA and union protections of actors and theatre staff. Despite what we may think of as an environment of sensitivity and creativity in a theatre, Sanville’s style can be described at times as that of a tough football coach without perhaps the sensitivity that is in order to manage artists, especially younger ones, in 2021. He is, in short, “old school,” which at times means he has little or no filter on his words and how he carries himself.
The presence of Daniels, a major Broadway and Hollywood star, and his identity with the theatre, has long given PRT a venerated status in the Michigan theatre community and among patrons. Daniels himself has written many of the plays that have performed at the theatre; some years two out of the four plays done in a season. Daniels, too, has often been in the house on opening nights, chatting with donors after the show and appearing in pictures posted to social media.
Daniels exercises a certain amount of public activism. He has publicly denounced Donald Trump, and has stated that he would not work in another Woody Allen film given the accusations of sexual predatory behavior against the actor and his long-time cohabitation with his former partner’s (Mia Farrow) daughter. He set aside a script he was working on to start writing a new play, titled “Flint”, to shed light on the Flint water quality crisis and treatment of Flint residents. That play went up at the Rose in 2018, and won a Wilde Award (The Publisher’s Award). To say the least, Daniels has not been a shrinking violet, afraid to put his politics and values on display.
After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Daniels issued a letter in support of championing the rights of African-Americans, and was interviewed on several TV talk shows like Stephen Colbert’s Late Show talking about raising awareness of racism and oppression of people of color. Last September, he was on with Colbert again reiterating his earlier commitments and expressing his support of keeping Critical Race Theory in educational curricula.
Talk is cheap if not followed by public accountability
It was the dichotomy of Daniels’ public comments and PRT’s handling of complaints that led actress and director Casaundra Freeman to sign the letter and petition supporting the effort to hold the theatre accountable. “I was never treated badly at the Purple Rose, but I believe the stories that I have heard and read, and I’m not the sort of person who is going to stay on the sidelines while other people suffer just because I wasn’t treated that same way,” said Freeman. “When I saw Jeff talking about George Floyd and then seeing how they were treating people who brought their stories forth, that was enough for me. And I signed my own name to it and the petition.” Freeman is the only artist who was (at the time) employed by the Rose to sign the petition, as well as the only resident artist to sign their name to the effort.
So far, Daniels has not commented publicly about the torrent of accusations. But the theatre carries a letter from Daniels on its website from 2020 stating that the theatre company had been examining its diversity and inclusion policy and practices since 2019. That letter states that he, Sanville and Chief Diversity Officer Lynch Travis “are committed to taking actionable steps to increase opportunities for Michigan’s marginalized playwrights, actors, directors and designers.”
Daniels went on to write, “From the beginning (of PRT’s formation) all I wanted to do was bring home everything I’d ever learned and offer that knowledge and experience to anyone who wanted it. In particular, I wanted to give that twenty-one year old kid I used to be the training and techniques that can only be found at the national level. Nothing would please me more than to take this moment in our country’s history and do the same for human beings of color. I want to find their voice. I want to hear their voice.”
Travis, several complaintants believe, was a poor choice for the role of Chief Diversity Officer due in part to his long-standing relationship and close friendship with Sanville and Daniels, and in part to the belief that he will not effectively challenge the culture of the PRT. He is on PRT’s payroll and continues to act and direct at the theatre. Travis deferred calls to PRT Managing Partner Katie Hubbard.
One of the organizers of the complaint letter against the Purple Rose Theatre is Actor/Director Dan Johnson, who has worked at PRT as an actor, and who is also an organizer of BLAQN, (Black Literature & Art Queens Network) an organization that began in 2021 that acknowledges Black Womxn performers and encourages anti-racism and policies in Michigan performing venues.
Johnson has related stories of violations of the Family Medical Leave Act, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 in Michigan, and OSHA rules as told to him by apprentices.
One of the things that Johnson and other complainants want is a public airing of grievances. One of the problems with that idea, however, are lawyers. Once apprentices litigated as a class against PRT, the process forward was taken over by legal considerations. Lawyers now review media inquiries, and would likely never allow Rose staff to publicly address spontaneous queries in a public forum, because any comments would be fodder for future lawsuits.
The media has been quiet on this subject for a variety of reasons. Much of the activity took place during the theatre hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, so reviewers like those at EncoreMichigan were not circulating at theaters for some 18 months. Local papers have arts reviewers rather than arts reporters. Bridgette Redman is one of the few. The issue first came to EncoreMichigan’s attention in August when Facebook posts referred to the stories being posted on social media.
Would forcing Sanville’s resignation be seen by the community at large as “cancel culture” run amok? Or, rather, would it be basic accountability? Several actors, directors, comedians, and executives have lost their jobs and opportunities in recent years because of past acts that number far fewer than the complaints against Sanville. Producer Harvey Weinstein is a pariah in Hollywood because of his abuse and treatment of actors and actresses, and is facing jail time. Actor Kevin Spacey hasn’t worked significantly after being credibly accused of sexual misconduct. Celebrity chef Mario Batali has vanished from the airwaves after being accused by multiple former employees of sexual harassment. CBS broadcaster Charlie Rose has been invisible since women employees credibly reported his inappropriate behavior.
At the same time, though, some apprentices lost their jobs for simply needing services or benefits afforded to employees of most companies today, and were intimidated and threatened with job loss if they spoke up or challenged what they viewed as unfair treatment.
All of those cases of careers ended or interrupted center on men whose celebrity grew alongside a perception of power that made them feel allowed to remove filters of acceptable and professional behavior toward subordinates and associates. Sanville has been largely accountable only to Jeff Daniels. The theater’s board is comprised of individuals who, not unlike most boards of public companies and non-profits, are selected for fund-raising and name recognition, as well as expertise in areas of finance, marketing and communications, but not real oversight.
The PRT announced in 2020 that it was making a special effort to develop new plays with playwrights of color. The statement reads: “The Purple Rose Theatre Company is taking actionable steps to provide and increase opportunities for marginalized artists and theatre makers. We are working with our staff, artists and patrons to create, live and behave in ways that will respect and represent the wide diversity of souls who call the Midwest home. The theatre also updated its policy that calls for no tolerance for racial discrimination or harassment. This policy will be clearly communicated to all staff, apprentices, actors, designers, independent contractors, and volunteers.”
The theatre said it is committed to developing new plays written by BIPOC/Latinx artists for possible production at The Purple Rose. The first work coming from this effort is Under Ceege, premiering on The Purple Rose Stage in Jan. 2022. The theatre also held auditions for the play in Detroit rather than just at its Chelsea home.
But while the Rose previously stated it would seek greater diversity on its board, today it remains comprised of 13 white people, and one member PRT spokesperson Katie Hubbard says is BIPOC. If Daniels’ letter of 2020 is accurate, and efforts of creating greater diversity goes back to 2019, it is notable that at the end of 2021, there is still just one BIPOC member – George Moses, who is Arab-American, according to Katie Hubbard.
Theatre boards typically consist of people who are wealthy and have access to other people of wealth who can raise money. Both Sheila Ford Hamp and husband Steve Hamp, for example, are on the board; the former is part of the Ford family that controls Ford Motor Company, in addition to being the managing owner of the Detroit Lions. The PRT also receives annual funding from the Ford Fund, and well as from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and other granting institutions. The complaints against PRT and how the theatre has handled them could impact those future grant renewals.
Sanville has not addressed charges publicly, and is not addressing media inquiries. But those that know him well say that he wants a more orderly transition to the future so that the theatre will survive in Chelsea beyond his and Daniels’ tenures. A previous study of the PRT’s economic impact on Washtenaw County was estimated to be $3.6 million, with most of that coming from businesses in Chelsea specifically, such as local restaurants. The PRT’s four plays a season, which run for two months each, typically sell 90%+ of their seats. That’s a lot of economic stimulus for the small town of Chelsea that would go missing without the PRT.
PRT’s first production to open after the announcement of its diversity push will premiere in January. Based on past form, Guy Sanville is expected to be there on opening night, and we can assume that it will be a full house.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article worked at the Purple Rose Theatre as an understudy in 2016, and has taken several classes at PRT. This story will be updated as more people come forth and wish to comment or add to the reporting.
Corrections were made to the story after initial publication to reflect fact-checks that were pointed out. Jeremy Kucharek worked at PRT as an actor, not an apprentice. Aral Gribble’s story has been revised to correct an earlier error.
A previous version of the story stated that “Dan Johnson and others” believe that Guy Sanville should resign. While that is the sentiment of many, after reading victims’ accounts, Dan Johnson says that idea does not reflect his thinking.