After seven years of “adventuresome” performances that at times pushed boundaries in Salt Lake City, Utah Repertory Theater Company said Tuesday it has closed amid allegations that its actors have been mistreated and abused.
The company’s sudden demise came three days after the cast and crew for its production of “American Psycho: The Musical” found their set vandalized on Saturday, hours before opening night. “F--- this show” had been painted on the floor and on the back wall of the set, inside the Eccles Theater’s smaller Black Box theater.
In a confession on Facebook, actor Ryon Sharette said he had long been concerned about the group’s working conditions and had hoped to stop the show to protect his former castmates.
Reaction to his allegations first engulfed the production — as other cast members decided not to go on with the delayed opening set for Thursday — and then the theater company itself.
The company had “no choice” but to close after being “tried in the court of public opinion,” Utah Rep managing director JC Carter said Tuesday. “The vandal, Mr. Sharette, has a lot of friends in the acting community. And they kind of started a Me Too movement against Utah Rep."
He added: “We’re just grateful that we had seven years to make wonderful theater here in Utah and we’re sorry that things came down the way they did. There’s nothing we can do at this time except let it go. If the acting community is that against us, I don’t know how we’d ever cast another show.”
Sharette, 37, said in an interview Tuesday night that he’s “kind of sad” that the company has shut down, adding that he felt the community’s broader response “got out of my hands” when other people read his Facebook post and began reacting to it by calling for a boycott of Utah Rep.
“They took my story, they believed me, and then they did their own thing with it,” he said. “I just wanted the show to close to save my fellow cast members from further suffering. Maybe it needed to be done, and people are celebrating. Maybe it is something worth celebrating. But that was never my goal.”
‘It got everyone talking’
Carter had acknowledged there were difficulties in the production, a musical based on the 1991 novel about a Wall Street investment banker who is also a serial killer. “It is a show that depicts violence,” he said.
And Sharette and others on social media said they believe the company was facing an overdue reckoning after years of unethical conduct.
“I’m not a disgruntled employee who vandalized property on the way out the door,” Sharette wrote in his confession on Facebook. “I’m a person who was tired of a company’s abuses against his castmates and was trying to make a very precise amount of trouble to stop the abuses and allow my cast to leave blame free.”
He leveled a lengthy list of grievances in the post, based in part on what he described as his own experiences. He charged Utah Repertory Theater Company with poor communication and hazardous working conditions, such as asking cast members to perform in ways that were unsafe or made them uncomfortable.
He acknowledged that Carter took action after an individual made racist comments. But he also referred to alleged incidents of sexual misconduct, which he said Tuesday night that he has only heard about from others.
In a Monday interview, Carter had responded: “There are many incorrect allegations in that manifesto.” He added that neither he nor any other member of Utah Rep management had received any complaints of sexual harassment.
Carter said Monday that as far as he knew, the sexual misconduct accusations are “100% false. And if a specific victim wishes to come forward and proceed with an allegation,” he said, “then we will openly listen to them."
Sharette had been cast in the play as well as serving as “fight captain,” guiding actors’ moves during scenes of violence in the production. He said he received a phone call from a Salt Lake County Sheriff’s deputy on Saturday night and returned to Eccles Theater and confessed; he said he was cited for criminal mischief. (According to Salt Lake City Police, the case has not yet been evaluated for charges.)
His post continued: “Am I sorry I painted the set? Not really,” adding, “One man’s vandalism is another man’s non-violent protest. … Don’t do what I did, kids. But it got everyone talking, and I’m kinda proud of that.”
In the interview Tuesday evening, Sharette said that when he went to the theater to retrieve his personal belongings, he was in a “desperate state of mind" and the idea of vandalizing the set “had been running around in my head for about three days.” He added: "Something had to be done, and my mind was racing to figure out what that something should be.”
‘They were being neglected’
Sharette said he doesn’t “condone” his actions and that he’s “perfectly willing” to pay whatever his fine turns out to be. But he’s also been “overwhelmed with the support” he’s gotten online and in person from his “American Psycho” castmates and other members of the theater community, he said.
“I’ve had some very low lows over the past three days, but those have been highs,” Sharette said.
“American Psycho” would have been Dallon Thorup’s eighth production with Utah Repertory Theater. Some, but not all, have had workplace issues, he said Tuesday. After initially being hired as the stage manager for “American Psycho,” he had to step away for health reasons.
“When I rejoined the cast it was apparent how upset everybody was,” he said. “ ... They were being neglected and not being listened to.”
As people starting quitting the production a few weeks ago, he stepped into one of the roles. “I was very optimistic and thought it was going to work out,” he said. But when Sharette left, Thorup quickly followed.
“I felt super unsafe,” he said, saying that during one rehearsal, he was punched by another actor in the sternum. “When I left Saturday, I was honestly scared for their [the cast’s] safety and all of their well-being."
A GoFundMe page has been launched to benefit members of the cast who quit. It had raised about $2,200 of a $5,000 goal by Tuesday evening; organizer Aaron Michael Ross said the money will go toward actors’ medical bills, counseling and travel expenses related to the hardships they had experienced, as well as their forfeited performance pay.
Actor Whitney Black said walking away from the production was “an extremely scary thing.” Balancing the stage tradition to “always do what the director says” and be “easy to work with” with setting personal boundaries can be difficult, she said.
“I was fully aware that I was risking my entire career as an actor, something I have worked incredibly hard at for years,” Black said. “But I realized that if I didn’t stand up for myself and the women (and men) around me who were being taken advantage of, I myself was perpetuating the problem.”
Other cast members contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune Tuesday declined to comment or did not immediately respond to requests.
The show was budgeted at $26,000, including actors’ salaries. But, in a nonunion company, actors only get paid for performances, not rehearsals. “The actors who walked out voided their contracts,” Carter said.
Utah Rep had contracted to pay $5,000 to Salt Lake County for the use of the Black Box theater; it paid $3,115 upfront and still owes $1,885. The rights to “American Psycho: The Musical” cost $4,184; that won’t be refunded. The company spent $1,100 to rent rehearsal space, and still owes designers about $7,000.
‘Theater should be a safe place’
The theater company was founded by Johnny Hebda, and a writer using that name donated $200 on GoFundMe page. Hebda did not return calls to The Tribune, but Carter said Hebda had mentioned to him that he planned to go on the site and donate.
“I too believe theater should be a safe place,” Hebda wrote, adding that he feels “horrible for the cast. ... This is not meant as a defense for anything. I have made mistakes, I have done wrong, I either directly or through those involved with the company I founded have hurt those artists and volunteers involved. I have failed. I need to do better and be better. I deserve the consequences that have and will come to me. My focus will be on changing and striving to rectify those wrongs and those who have been hurt. The closing of Utah Rep is the right decision.”
“American Psycho: The Musical” ran briefly on Broadway in 2016, with the book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (“Riverdale,” “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”) and music by Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”). The novel previously was made into a 2000 movie that starred Christian Bale.
Sheik had been scheduled to attend a Saturday performance and talk with theatergoers. Those who bought tickets for the production should contact ArtTix for a full refund.
Carter had said the scenes of violence “were carefully choreographed,” noting: “I am a certified combat instructor. And then Mr. Sharette was effectively my assistant as he was the fight captain.”
But Carter also acknowledged Sharette’s statement that “there were conditions that were not to his liking and to the liking of many of the cast is correct. And we took measures to correct those.” He added the cast was “empowered” by designating a representative to whom they could go “in case they didn’t feel comfortable coming forward” to management.
“We did everything in our power as a company to ensure that the situation … was being dealt with, and that those [involved with any problems] were reprimanded and or removed from the production,” Carter said.
On Monday afternoon, Carter said the production was “back on track” and would be ready to open on Thursday after “the cast agreed that ... that they all wanted to continue to work toward doing a good show.”
The subsequent walkout, by “the remaining cast for ‘American Psycho,’ minus our lead and a couple of other actors,” was a surprise to Utah Rep leadership, who then decided to close.
Utah Rep recently co-produced “Sweeney Todd” with Utah Valley University’s Noorda Theater, starring Jeff McCarthy and Jacquelyne Jones. Its first production was “Side Show” in 2012. It went on to hold the Utah premieres of “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Grace,” “Bare,” “[title of show],” “Ordinary Days,” “Heathers: The Musical,” “The Other Place,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Straight,” and “Afterglow,” its website said.
The company’s plans to produce “Disgraced” and “Straight” sparked controversy in 2017, when the Sorenson Unity Center initially rejected the plays due to their mature content.
“Disgraced” is Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that explores Islamophobia post 9/11. The 2012 play “Straight” explores sexual identity. The community center, which had never previously filtered the kinds of plays put on at its black box theater, later reversed its decision.
The center’s creation was rooted in a First Amendment battle; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave the land under it to Salt Lake City in exchange for ending the public easement on the section of Main Street that the faith purchased and turned into a plaza between the LDS Temple and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. The church controls behavior and speech on the plaza.
Reporter Kathy Stephenson contributed to this account.