Former ACT faculty member sues theater company for racial discrimination

Former American Conservatory Theater faculty member Stephen Buescher at his lawyer’s office in Oakland. Photo: Jessica Christian, The Chronicle.

Stephen Buescher was a well-regarded faculty member in American Conservatory Theater’s Master of Fine Arts program, teaching movement courses to graduate acting students and choreographing main stage shows like “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” “Stuck Elevator” and “The Orphan of Zhao.”

But while he worked there, from 2008 to 2018, Buescher, who is black, says he was denied entry to ACT facilities on many occasions by fellow employees. For his work on main stage shows, he says he was paid less than his contract stipulated or not at all and that in one instance, the company didn’t credit him for his work, which is a violation of copyright. He alleges former Artistic Director Carey Perloff told him on multiple occasions that “black plays” don’t make money and that ACT subscribers don’t want to see them. He said he believes that those incidents were motivated by racism, and he says that ACT — the Bay Area’s largest nonprofit theater company, with one of the top MFA programs in the country — created a hostile, discriminatory work environment for him and for other employees and students of color.

Now Buescher (which rhymes with “fisher”) is suing the theater for racial discrimination. His lawsuit, filed Tuesday, Feb. 19, follows a series of formal complaints he made in 2017 and 2018 while still an employee and an attempt to settle with ACT in spring 2018. ACT is now run by Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon and Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein. Buescher’s tenure did not overlap with theirs.

ACT Board Chairman David Riemer and Board President Kay Yun issued a statement shortly after the suit was filed: “We are deeply saddened by the legal complaint we received from Mr. Buescher this morning. As a former valued member of the American Conservatory Theater faculty, Mr. Buescher significantly contributed to the success of the institution, so much so that we made multiple efforts to retain him.

“In early 2018, Mr. Buescher raised issues that were inconsistent with our values. The Board of Trustees, along with our newly appointed artistic director and executive director, have taken these concerns very seriously and put efforts in place to ensure that ACT remains fiercely committed to upholding our values for our employees, students, audiences and artists.” It cites hiring an equity, diversity and inclusion consultant to review policies and procedures; creating a board EDI committee; streamlining the process for reporting grievances, including creating an anonymous complaint hotline; recruiting new HR personnel; retraining staff; and rewriting job postings.

During a phone call, Riemer added that ACT’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion is reflected in its main stage season, where this year four out of eight playwrights are women of color and which next year will be “as representative of different voices as this year.” He says that of the company’s seven openings for faculty and guest artists this year, five went to people of color. Still, he says, “EDI work takes time. … We remain fiercely committed to investing in the area.”

Perloff, reached by phone in Stratford, Ontario, would not comment on the specifics of the suit. But she said, “Stephen Buescher was one of my closest and most valued colleagues for many years. We built a lot of shows together. I really valued working with him, and I’m sorry it’s come to that.” She adds, “I made a passionate commitment over many, many years to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace and to producing work from many different cultures.”

Buescher joined ACT as part-time faculty in 2008, becoming full-time faculty in 2009 and then part of the artistic team in the 2012-13 season. His title when he quit the company, in May 2018, was Head of Movement. “Stephen was beloved by the students and was an extremely effective faculty member and a real artistic leader in the conservatory,” says former colleague Jeff Crockett, who taught in the Conservatory from 1995 to 2017. “He really championed developing the artistic voices of the students and empowered them to generate their own work and to value what they had to say as artists.” Buescher is now an acting professor at UC San Diego.

In the lawsuit, Buescher says he was denied entry to ACT facilities on four occasions from 2014 to 2017 because of his race. Twice, he was allowed in by house managers or security staff only after white colleagues vouched for him. Once was for a class for which he was the teacher. Fellow ACT employee Stephanie Wilborn overheard one of the incidents, at ACT’s Costume Shop in November 2017. Security “didn’t think he worked there,” she says. Her team had to send another staffer over to persuade security to let Buescher in.

Buescher alleges multiple instances of nonpayment, underpayment or copyright violation for his work as movement choreographer in ACT main stage shows. The lawsuit says that for 2013’s “Stuck Elevator,” ACT reported to Buescher’s union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, that it paid him $18,305, when the theater paid him only $3,200. For 2014’s “The Orphan of Zhao,” the suit says ACT reported to the society that it paid him $16,305 but in fact paid him nothing.

Buescher also alleges ACT didn’t pay him for his work on “A Thousand Splendid Suns” when it toured. In one instance — at Grand Theatre, in London, Ontario, in 2018 — Buescher’s name initially got left off the credits, though they used his material. Grand Theatre added Buescher’s name once it was made aware of the omission, says Artistic Director Dennis Garnham.

Buescher also described a broader culture of hostility toward people of color at ACT. He described instances in which black actors were told to act “more black” or “ghetto”; he said the artistic team repeatedly said that black students didn’t get better roles because their voices were “hard to understand.” In an interview, Buescher said that white students with British or South African accents didn’t face the same bias.

He said that young students who came to ACT from its Education and Community Partnerships programs, many of whom are of color, had to have an escort while on the premises, while the predominantly white students in its Young Conservatory were given access codes to come and go as they pleased.

The suit details two instances of racist casting practices in the MFA program. In one, in fall 2012, the lawsuit says black students objected to being cast as slaves in a workshop reading of “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” where characters had names like “jigaboo” and “jackass.” He says that when students protested, they were told those roles were the only ones available to them and that the students felt pressured to accept since Perloff was directing, and she had much power over their future casting opportunities. .

In another instance, an entire class of students boycotted a production of “The Lady Vanishes” planned for February 2017. The two black actors in the company were cast as a Croatian nationalist and a white Jewish woman passing as a gentile. There was “no attention to what it means to have black bodies in these roles,” Buescher says. When the students boycotted, Buescher says Conservatory director Melissa Smith threatened to withhold their diplomas, though she later apologized.

Buescher believes that he’s not alone, but that others have not spoken up about racism either at ACT or other theaters and conservatories because “there’s this feeling of … ‘You know what, you should just be happy that you’re here.’ ”

He didn’t set out to file a lawsuit, Buescher says, but, “I also want ACT to take full responsibility and accountability for how they specifically have treated black folks there over the years. Even if they’re doing black plays on the main stage, there’s backstage, in classrooms, in rehearsal halls. I want them to make a meaningful shift in what’s happening. I also want them to get some very strategic help from the outside to make that place more authentically equitable for black folks and people of color.“

This article by Lily Janiak originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 20th, 2019.

Former American Conservatory Theater faculty member Stephen Buescher. Photo: Jessica Christian, The Chronicle