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More than a dozen current and former Alley Theatre employees say the outgoing artistic director, Gregory Boyd, created a toxic work environment at the city's most renowned theater, describing him as a tyrant who frequently singled out young actresses for verbal abuse.

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Susan Carroll, Wei-Huan Chen
Molly Glentzer, Houston Chronicle

More than a dozen current and former Alley Theatre employees say the outgoing artistic director, Gregory Boyd, created a toxic work environment at the city's most renowned theater, describing him as a tyrant who frequently singled out young actresses for verbal abuse.

The allegations against Boyd, who abruptly retired this week after a 28-year Tony-winning run at the Alley, focus primarily on bullying and abusive behavior directed at young women under his direction on the stage.

Emily Trask, a member of the company for nearly two years, said she quit the Alley in April after reporting to three members of management that Boyd had bullied her, screaming "What the f--- is wrong with you?" at a rehearsal, called her a "stupid c---" while giving another actor stage direction and twice touched her buttocks inappropriately.

"I felt I had no choice but to leave what was my dream job," she said, citing "harassment and what I felt to be an unsafe environment."

Boyd did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations.

A second actress, who asked not be identified for fear of retaliation, shared a similar story.

The actress said Boyd pinched her buttocks once on stage and once while she was making coffee in a break room. He made sexual comments about her to other actors, she said, and talked about the way she dressed and screamed at her on stage for the smallest of missteps.

"It was a very scary place to work for me," she said, "a very hostile place."

Like Trask, she said she complained to management, but nothing happened. "It was like it just got swept under the rug."

The theater's administrators and board president declined to answer questions about the allegations against Boyd, 66, who was widely considered the most influential figure in Houston's theater scene. Boyd was just one year into a five-year contract and was paid at least $420,000 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2016, according to the company's tax records.

The theater's managing director, Dean Gladden, did not respond to interview requests. Board president Butch Mach referred an interview request to the public relations firm assisting the Alley.

"There is no plan to respond for interviews at this time," Nancy Sims, a spokeswoman with the PR firm, said in an email.

On Dec. 6, American Theatre magazine published an article based on 100 interviews and emails with actors and staff in theater companies across the country about their experiences with workplace harassment. It did not mention the Alley, but the next day, Gladden and Boyd sent out an email that reiterated the Alley's policy against harassment and pledged "to make the Alley a better, kinder place to work."

"We will not stifle comment on job performance that is valid evaluation, but we will not abide by those who communicate such an evaluation in an inappropriate fashion," they said.

On Dec. 8, Boyd seemed to offer a general apology at a staff meeting, according to a recording obtained by the Chronicle.

"I recognize, and I hope all of you do too, that criticism in our business is a good thing. It's how we deliver the criticism that we need to work on ...," he said. "I know I need to get better on this point. I can't say I'm going to be 100 percent successful, but I think it's time to make the best effort."

Some former employees said the problems at the theater aren't solved simply by Boyd's departure.

"There's a real problem over at the Alley," said Philip Lehl, who worked as an actor at the theater on and off for about 14 years. "Someone is protecting people. Someone is protecting Greg. I think there was an atmosphere over there that allowed (abuse) to happen."

Screaming 'relentlessly'

The Houston Chronicle started interviewing Alley employees in November as the #MeToo movement spread nationally and current and former employees complained about Boyd. The Chronicle on Dec. 20 asked to review the Alley's financial records under a state law that requires certain disclosures by nonprofits. The theater declined to produce the records electronically; a date stamp indicated it printed them out on Dec. 29, but told the Chronicle they were ready on Jan. 4.

The Alley's news release, issued Tuesday, said Boyd had planned to retire last fall but delayed the announcement because of Hurricane Harvey.

"Leading this extraordinary theatre company in this wonderful city for over a quarter century has been an artistic dream fulfilled," Boyd was quoted as saying in the news release. "With the marvelous efforts of the artists, staff, and Board, we created a state of the art theatre-making complex with performance, production, and administration all in a brilliant, expansive space that welcomes theatre-goers in a unique and exciting way. The Alley's achievements have been a great source of satisfaction for me and I look forward to new achievements to come in the next era."

Houston philanthropist Lynn Wyatt, a longtime Alley patron and good friend of Boyd's, said the director called her Tuesday to say he was retiring, but she did not realize he was leaving immediately and said she was not aware of any improprieties.

At the staff meeting Tuesday announcing Boyd's retirement, Gladden tearfully praised him, saying: "You are a legend in this theater forever."

Boyd's retirement was effective Thursday.

During his tenure, the Alley rose in national and international prominence, winning a Tony Award and breaking attendance records. Boyd brought prestigious actors such as Vanessa Redgrave and Ellen Burstyn to Houston to star in productions, and he produced premiere plays that went on to New York and elsewhere while leading the organization's financial and artistic growth.

Actor John Feltch said he has known Boyd for 40 years. Feltch worked at the Alley in the '90s and came back about 18 months ago.

"His volatility and cruelty to people is kind of legend, actually, all over the country," Feltch said, adding he was let go in August by Boyd, at least in part because he spoke up for Trask.

Trask said she was cast as Celia in Shakespeare's "As You Like It," which premiered in 2015. At one rehearsal, Boyd screamed at her "relentlessly," she said, and asked: "What the f--- is wrong with you?"

While giving direction to another actor, Boyd stepped into the actor's character and stared at Trask and said: "I mean, look at her. She's just a c---. She's a stupid c---," Trask recalled.

Feltch and a current staff member who witnessed the exchange verified Trask's account.

"There was no question in my mind that it was assaultive," Feltch said.

Trask complained to the stage manager, she said, but nothing was done.

The final straw for her, she said, came when she was rehearsing for the production of Lucas Hnath's "The Christians" in 2016 and he started "berating" her, controlling her movements, down to the direction of her eyes.

He called her incompetent, she said, and one of the worst actors he'd worked with and "too stupid" to take directions.

She said quietly to him: "I'm a human being."

He mocked her, she said, and she got angry.

"Get off my ass," she said she replied, "and let me do my job."

She left and started sobbing and called the union and her agent, considering walking away from her contract. But she could not afford it. She said she reported what happened to two managers.

She said she met with Gladden for an exit interview in April, telling him about the pattern of harassment. She said she told Gladden he'd be hard pressed to find an actress who hadn't been treated inappropriately.

She said Gladden replied that he couldn't believe that. Gladden said he was sorry, she said, and asked for her phone number and suggested they speak about it again later.

Gladden never called her, she said.

Wrestling in underwear

Actors aggrieved by Boyd's actions date back to the '90s, when actress Amy McKenna says she had an on-and-off consensual relationship with Boyd while acting in "Travesties," a Tom Stoppard comedy.

McKenna said Boyd used his position as a director to insert nude scenes that she believed were perverse and unnecessary. He said her 10-minute monologue should be done wearing nothing but ankle socks and heels, she said. "The scene ends with a strip tease, so it made no sense I'd be nude," she said. "He said, 'It's the only way anyone will pay any attention.' "

Later in the show, McKenna and an actress were to engage in a conversation at a tea party, she said. Instead, Boyd subtracted the dialogue and substituted a wrestling match, with both women scantily clad. The scenes ended up in the production.

"It took away a lot of our lines," she said. "He took away our voices and put us in our underwear."

Blair Gulledge, who worked at the Alley from 2006 through 2013 as a resident costume design assistant, described Boyd as "tyrannical," saying: "We had actors who were sobbing in fitting rooms, and we had to do our best to shore them up and send them back out."

Gulledge, who now works for Hartford Stage in Connecticut, said she felt compelled to speak out, in part because "you have to speak up for people who signed nondisclosures or felt they can't speak out," she said. "Even if he is retired, there are people there that allowed this to happen.

"I know the focus now with the Me Too movement is on sexual harassment, but bullying is part of that," Gulledge said. She said she hopes the "extreme mental anguish that he caused so many people" is not overlooked.

Alisa Zeljeznjak worked as a production assistant at the Alley from 2011 to 2013, when she was in her mid-20s.

"He could instill a type of fear in you that was so acidic," she said. "Actors would get belittled, cut down and made to feel stupid for asking a question. You could be in a room, and having fun, and when he walks in, everyone says, 'Oh god, he's here.' "

Zeljeznjak said Boyd "used his position of power to lord over women."

The managers saw it, she said, but didn't stick up for people who reported to them because "they know they'll get punished for it."

"It breeds this toxic environment of not sticking up for each other," she said. "It ends up being, 'boys will be boys, actors will be actors.' Then it's fine that they make all the women uncomfortable."

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