With allegations still lingering, community dialogue with Iron Crow Theatre abruptly cancelled

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In the wake of allegations made in the spring of sexual harassment and an abusive working atmosphere, the city’s only dedicated queer theater company, Iron Crow Theatre, had scheduled a community discussion for today to “discuss how we as a theatre community can heal, move forward, and ensure a safe environment for our artists and administrators after a recently investigated allegation of harassment at the theatre,” according to a statement on the group’s website.

The conflict resolution group Restorative Response Baltimore was hired to facilitate the dialogue.

Last night, it was abruptly cancelled.

Priya Bhayana, program development manager for Restorative Response Baltimore, wrote in an email that the group no longer felt the structure and process of a responsive circle was appropriate.

“From our prep, it has become clear to us that many people are looking for a different type of dialogue process, which unfortunately we do not provide,” she wrote. “We believe that if we were to facilitate the dialogue tomorrow, it could potentially be harmful, re-traumatizing, and unsafe for people.”

In a statement shared on Facebook, Iron Crow said it was “deeply saddened” and laid blame on its strongest critics for trying “to circumvent RRB’s process and procedures” and having “falsely represented discussions with RRB’s moderators.”

They went on to question why people would continue to attack them on social media instead of engaging in “a sincere and solutions-based dialogue.”

“At this point, we have done, or are currently in the process of doing, all that we said we would do in response to the events of this past spring as a proactive way of moving forward,” the company wrote, “including engaging in a private conversation facilitated by RRB with the former volunteer who initially brought forth his concerns.”

“We have done this work in service to our community, our artists, and our future, regardless of the fact that our investigation, under the guidance of outside legal counsel, did not find any merit to the allegation of assault or harassment at Iron Crow Theatre,” Iron Crow’s statement said.

Eddie Van Osterom, the former actor and volunteer who alleged Iron Crow CEO and artistic director Sean Elias groped him, spread rumors about his sex life with other actors and fostered a generally abusive, unprofessional environment, told Baltimore Fishbowl in an email he was “heartbroken” about the dialogue being called off.

“I really thought it was going to get better, and I was fully ready for the changes they would bring,” he wrote.

Nick Horan, who worked with Iron Crow as an actor and served as marketing director for parts of 2014 and 2015, and has pushed for more accountability from Iron Crow following the allegations, told Baltimore Fishbowl the cancellation was “not entirely surprising, but incredibly disappointing.”

Horan said a public Facebook event for the dialogue was created to put the discussion on people’s calendars and get more community participation. Then the cancellation happened.

Some of the people who were planning on attending are still meeting today, he said, to figure out what kind of actions they can take and how to move forward.

He also said Iron Crow’s response comes off as victim blaming.

“It’s a very odd line to be sort of walking, you know, people that have come forward and made accusations against you, and now you’re the victim,” he said. “I don’t fully understand it and it feels incredibly out of touch.”

The controversy surrounding Iron Crow began in March, when Van Osterom shared the allegations, details he outlined in a letter to the president of Iron Crow’s board of directors.

Later that month, the board released a statement saying it had conducted an investigation and still had full confidence in Elias. But critics demanded more details, and in response, Iron Crow put out a second statement saying they offered confidentiality to people they spoke with. They did, however, affirm “the specific allegations of sexual harassment by a former volunteer member of our organization did not occur.”

Even so, the allegations continued to spread online, and commenters alleged Iron Crow deleted negative critiques from its Facebook page, all of which prompted the cast of the show “Corpus Christi” to suspend its production with the company. Jessica Lanzillotti, treasurer of Iron Crow Theatre’s board of directors, said at the time that “Corpus Christi” and another show, “The Laramie Project,” would be rescheduled for the summer.

Soon after the dialogue scheduled for today was announced, Iron Crow’s detractors raised concerns about how it was rolled out.

For one, they questioned why the event was scheduled in the middle of a Friday, when many of the people with a stake in the discussion would be at their day jobs. That led Van Osterom to suggest the dialogue was an attempt by the company to “check it off a checklist and move on.”

“But I’m not going to let them move on, and I’m not planning on letting them move on,” Van Osterom said.

There was also concern over a screening process that involved a phone conversation with a member of Restorative Response Baltimore, and what they saw as a cap on a number of attendees to shut people out.

Bhayana said the calls are meant to ensure there is no potential for danger or harm during the discussion and to get a sense of people’s ideas so facilitators can better guide the conversation. The limit on attendance makes it easier for the two facilitators who will be present to ensure dialogue is effective.

“I’m just there to guide the conversation,” she told Baltimore Fishbowl last week. “We never dictate what happens in the circle, it’s completely up to the people in the circle.”

In addition to scheduling the now-cancelled dialogue, Iron Crow has pledged to expand its policies on harassment and install a new Community Advisory Board, led by Ron Legler, president of the Hippodrome Theatre.

“Queer stories must continue to be told here in Baltimore, and I want to help Iron Crow Theatre do so,” Legler said in a statement. “The Community Advisory Board will ensure that artists are able to continue telling these stories in a safe, professional, and transparent environment. I am confident that the Board of Directors is moving in the right direction, and this new Community Advisory Board will help the theatre continue its great work in our community.”

But Van Osterom said he would like to see the policy changes spelled out.

“I would not by any means call it a policy, because there’s no plan,” he said in a phone conversation with Baltimore Fishbowl last week. “There’s not a signature that says, we’ll hold ourselves accountable to this.”

Horan disapproved of the company’s reaction to the allegations, saying they didn’t listen or acknowledge people who came forward or make changes in leadership.

“I think this has been a case study in exactly what you’re not supposed to do in a situation like this,” he said. “At every turn they could have made a choice that would have mitigated all of this conflict.”

As for the future of Iron Crow, Van Osterom said he would to see the theater continue operating, following some turnover at the top.

“But it’s not easy to take over a theater company that has experienced this controversy,” he said.

Horan, on the other hand, said he would like to see Iron Crow dissolved, and for a new company dedicated to queer stories and performers to take its place.

“I think there’s a need in this city,” he said, “and I don’t think Iron Crow can fulfill it anymore based on these last three months.”

In a statement given to Baltimore Fishbowl, Iron Crow’s board said they felt the group could still uphold the mission and reiterated the company was seeking a “proactive way of moving forward, growing and learning together, regardless of the fact that our investigation, under the guidance of outside legal counsel, did not find any merit to the allegation of abuse or harassment at Iron Crow Theatre.

“At the end of the day, supporting queer artists and their stories is what all of this volunteer work is supposed to be about,” the board said. “We would like to get back to and refocus on that work next season and would love every member of the community to be a part of that.”

Brandon Weigel

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