Why a whisper network turned into a tornado at Flying V

American theater has long been a tool for upholding white male supremacy, and a reckoning has come.

By K. J. Moran

On Monday evening, June 22, 2020, the Board of Flying V Theatre Company terminated Cofounder and Artistic Director Jason Schlafstein following a weekend of sexual misconduct and harassment allegations published against him across social media. At the same time Associate Artistic Director Jon Rubin tendered his resignation.

Just three days earlier, the morning of Juneteenth 2020—a day that should have been reserved to honor and celebrate the history and resilience of Black folks fighting against racism in the United States—a thread appeared on Twitter accusing Jason Schlafstein of sexual misconduct. The anonymous first-person allegation claimed that Schlafstein had abducted her while incapacitated at a party and taken her to a second location without her consent. The thread also alleged he later invited this same woman to audition for the company and asked her out during the audition. Within two hours a screenshot excerpt of this thread was shared in public posts and private groups on Facebook, where the  allegations—which Schlafstein denies—were quickly echoed by others.

For years, working artists have relied on the whisper networks of DC theater to hear which theaters to avoid, which artists were abusive. But as the Facebook posts gained traction, dozens of actors and designers came forward, no longer whispering but screaming, demanding a statement from Schlafstein and Flying V. Multiple stories of Schlafstein’s alleged verbal abuse and sexual harassment were shared, some dating as far back as his days the University of Maryland in the mid-aughts. Saturday afternoon Schlafstein responded on his Facebook page in a public statement, in which he apologized for the hurt he caused:

I take complete ownership of these mistakes, for which I have been and remain extremely sorry and ashamed. To be specific and clear, during that time I asked out women who were working for or were connected to Flying V or otherwise expressed my interest in them, and that was and is not acceptable. I’m embarrassed that I had to make that mistake and to be appropriately called out to have seen the problematic nature of those interactions and that pattern of behavior. I am absolutely aware now how those actions, however unintentioned, fall into a predatory paradigm… While I have never intentionally tried to make anyone feel uncomfortable at Flying V or acted with malice, this does not absolve me in any way of my errors. I do want to state emphatically that while I have been critically unaware of how my position has affected the view of my actions in a moment, I have genuinely never tried to actively use my power or position for sexual or romantic gain. I fully respect and understand my actions have been interpreted and received in that way, which is legitimate, but it is important for me to clarify that has never been my strategy or goal.

The post received extensive backlash and calls for his resignation, and within five hours Schlafstein deleted his account.

The Board of Directors released a statement Saturday night detailing the Board’s decision to put Schlafstein on administrative leave:

The result of [the Board’s 2017] investigation was 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. After a series of meetings with Jason and other Flying V stakeholders, the Board decided that the issues identified did not warrant termination, but that any future recurrences of similar behavior could alter that decision. This determination was made 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.

Community members continued to rally in the comments for Schlafstein’s resignation or firing, particularly in light of the Board’s admitted prior knowledge of Schlafstein’s behavior. At a special meeting Monday night, the Board fired him.

• • •

Jason did not lose his job or his company because of one mistake or even a pattern of mistakes. The upheaval at Flying V is not solely because of Jason’s personal failings or those of the Board—it is a direct result of white and male supremacy’s hold on nerd culture and American theater. Flying V failed its community this weekend and over the years because it was designed to fail since its inception.

Flying V has held a unique place in the DC theater scene for almost a decade. Since its founding in 2011, it has been the nerdy home of ’90s nostalgia, video game tributes to Chekhov, comic book wrestling matches, and all types of “theatre for people who don’t think they like theatre.” Its mission is to disrupt the structures in traditional American theater that have shown us the same tired interpretations of Shakespeare and Ibsen for centuries in favor of creating space for new and devised work. Its vague call for audiences to “expect awesome, be awesome” represented the quirky, geek theater Flying V became known for—where high culture met pop culture and, inevitably, rape culture.

Sexism and white supremacy were woven into the DNA of Flying V by the very nature of whose stories were told, and who was chosen to tell those stories over the company’s nine seasons. Whether intentional or not, Flying V created a space to share art by and for white men. It was not until the company’s fourth season that they included women in director or playwright roles. While there have been a few Black directors and devisers, there has yet to be a full production at the company by a Black playwright. As the company grew, more people of color and women were employed as designers, actors, and even staff, but the people in power remained overwhelmingly male and white. As of January 2020, men comprised 71 percent of the staff, 58 percent of the company members, and 70 percent of the Board of Directors. No women of color are on staff, and no women were in the top three positions of the company until the recent hiring of their first female managing director.

At first glance, these may seem simply like hiring choices, but a choice in hiring or producing does not stand alone: it is indicative of the cultural mores and institutions that uphold those in power, even if they do not deserve to be. Jason is not Flying V, and Flying V is not Jason, but his legacy is deeply entwined with the gender and racial discrimination that was key to Flying V’s commercial and critical success. The thing about whiteness, and the thing about patriarchy, is that they are detrimental to everyone, including the oppressors. Flying V suffered in its first years when their first seasons were primarily written and directed by white men. Commercial success came only when they expanded the voices included—it is no accident that the first writing team to include a woman at Flying V created their highest commercial success to date (You, or Whatever I Can Get).

When I first started working at Flying V, I was struck by how male the community was. I always feel uncomfortable in predominantly male spaces, particularly theatrical ones, because I have survived sexual abuse at the hands of an actor. I asked a friend who had worked with the company before if it was a safe place for me to work. She assured me it was—she, like me, had never heard anything bad about the men who worked there. The way she put it was, “YES, Flying V has dude energy, but it’s nerd dude energy. They’re safer than most men.” And, like many of us, I assumed she was right.

Yes, I was surrounded by men. But these men were not as harmful as other men. These were men who, like me, enjoyed nerdy pursuits and believed in fighting for a common good. These were not the hypermasculine men to be afraid of. I had come to trust them. I had come to trust Jason, even asking him to be a reference for future theater jobs. I had come to trust Jon as an intimacy director and mentor, already hoping to hire him for future projects. Slowly, I began to feel that yes, this was a male space, but might there be a place for me?

I joined the flock at Flying V during their 2019 season—first as front-of-house manager for We’re Gonna Die, then as a writer on the devising team for Crystal Creek Motel in the fall. These experiences were made great largely by the women and people of color on the teams for these shows: Farrell Parker made me laugh and cry nightly in her performance of Young Jean Lee’s heartbreaking concert-play; Wendy Wrobleski and Zia Hassan slayed as the opening acts for Parker; Kelly Colburn’s pieces in Crystal Creek Motel were some of the most well-directed and achingly beautiful vignettes I have seen on a Flying V stage; Navid Azeez has taught me more about vulnerability, revision, and leadership than most of my college professors. They were the ones who created home for me and many others at Flying V. Why did it matter which white men were in power if my daily experiences with the organization were overwhelmingly dominated by creating art with women and people of color?

It turns out—it matters a lot.

Before my time with Flying V, I was sexually assaulted by another student actor in the department of Theater and Performance Studies at Georgetown University. This man was classically handsome, popular, a former athlete and current frat bro—for all intents and purposes, he was an alpha male, and I should have known better, because I had been told by other women to know better. This was not the sensitive creative or intellectual director who had been determined sexually safer by my peers. This was the rich, popular, white boy who went into acting for power and prestige. He was not a Jason.

But I met plenty of Jasons throughout college: soft white boys determined to become playwrights better than LaBute or Mamet, sad white boys who wrote poetry and lamented why women wouldn’t date them, wannabe white director boys who analyzed theater and video games and wrestling with the same fervor as Jason, as many of the men in Flying V. These boys were largely perceived to be safer than the men like my abuser, since nerdy interests have historically put these men on the outskirts of society and perhaps made space for them to more readily empathize with other marginalized groups. This was also perceived to be true at Flying V—I witnessed firsthand the passion of Jon Rubin, who has dedicated so much of his professional life to intimacy direction and education; Lee Liebeskind, former associate artistic director, who intentionally sought the voices of women and people of color in his curation of Crystal Creek Motel; even Jason, who from the first time I met him emphasized how much he wanted Flying V to be a space for artists of all experiences.

These men were aware of Flying V’s white man problem. They knew their theater was largely made by and for white men, and in the last few years, they had tried to address that head on. Even in this self-awareness, they failed us and so many who uplifted and supported their work. To me, this makes Jason’s actions and the complicity of Lee and Jon so much more of a betrayal. They had played the role of the self-aware white man, and they had played it well: I had trusted these men and their word. I had come to the conclusion that Flying V might be growing into a place where all nerds could convene and create theater together, even if it was headed at the time by three white men. I falsely reasoned that men of the nerdy experience might benefit a little less from the power structures that have historically held up other white men, and take substantive action to include nerds and theatermakers of all experiences in their art. But power is a tricky thing—a white man still benefits from patriarchy more than I ever can, and the isolation and ostracization of nerds is nothing compared with the structural misogyny and systemic racism entrenched in our society and our theaters. Even though Jason knew of his abuse of power, there is something inherent in the patriarchal structures that allows men to believe they deserve to continue holding power, if only they apologize, if only they are aware of their problems.

I remember being in a playwriting class once where I was the only woman, surrounded by men like Jason and Jon and Lee. Self-aware boys who were educated on their privilege, who knew they were blessed just by nature of their birth. They wrote about aliens taking over the earth, and fantastical versions of Jesus Christ, and dolphins in the Potomac River. I wrote about being raped.

It is a privilege to write from your imagination instead of your nightmare. And Flying V, for a long time, has preserved a space for white men to explore their imaginations while setting into motion nightmares for women, nonbinary folks, and people of color in their own community.

But it is not their community anymore. There have been calls for the dissolution of Flying V in the wake of these allegations, but I believe now is the time for the company to be entrusted into the hands of those in the company who made Flying V a successful and beautiful theater. It is a place where folks like Navid, Wendy, Zia, Kelly, and Farrell should be in charge—where Black voices are prioritized, where women and other marginalized gender experiences are put front and center, where those in power put in the work to amplify everyone.

Flying V is not the first company where white men abused their power in our community, and it will not be the last. But, it has also been a place in my experience that has started to do the work of uncovering the structures that allowed to keep Jason in place. If we listen to women, if we listen to Black folks, if we listen to people of color, it can be the place where we make an example of how to rebuild a company out of fire. It can be the place where the phoenix rises from the ashes of change and begins to fly in formation again.

K. J. Moran

K. J. Moran is a DC-based playwright, performer, and writer. A graduate of Georgetown University, she now works as a teaching artist and writer across the District. Her work has been performed at Georgetown University, the Kennedy Center, Flying V, and Theater Alliance.

 

 

 

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. I live in Stafford, love theater, and have never heard of the Flying V before this series of reports. But after reading your article, KJ, I hope the best for you and your friends there. If they follow your suggestions, it will be too bad for me that I have to live so far away from your stage. Good luck.

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