following the abrupt retirement of longtime Alley Theatre Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, the Houston Chronicle reported today that more than a dozen current and former Alley employees have said that under Boyd, the theater had a "toxic, bullying atmosphere." Those interviewed for the story describe the former leader as a ruthless "tyrant" who singled out female actors with verbal abuse. In addition, actress Emily Trask has accused Boyd of allegedly groping her multiple times, among other behavior that caused her to quit the theater. The Chronicle also reports that Boyd inserted female nudity into certain scenes, even when others found it unnecessary or it made little sense.
Jennifer Decker wasn't surprised by the news—she's heard stories. She told Houstonia she sees Boyd's departure as a good thing, and not only for the Alley. As executive director for Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company, one of the city’s smallest professional companies, she sees a changing of the Alley guard as a potential opportunity for small and mid-sized companies to share in its success.
"As far as the theater community, the Alley is sort of a little castle with a king and everyone else gets the crumbs," Decker says. "They don’t collaborate."
Before Friday's revelations, the initial question was who would replace Boyd at the helm of Houston’s largest and most prominent theater organization after what is anticipated to be a nine-month search for a successor. But the local theater community outside downtown's Theater District had another question: Might Boyd's exit mark the end of an insular culture that stifled artistic and financial cooperation between the Alley and separate, smaller companies?
Asked to comment on the allegations against Boyd as well as the Alley's relations with local theater groups, the Alley Theatre Board of Directors issued the following statement: "The resident company and employees that comprise the Alley Family have enabled the Alley Theatre to become one of the most prominent artistic institutions in the United States. During this transition to new artistic leadership, the Board of Directors has renewed its commitment to providing a dignified and respectful workplace. The Board has also appointed a special committee to assess the workplace environment and deliver recommendations to ensure the Alley Theatre continues to be a destination for world-class talent."
Decker—who works as a volunteer and takes no salary—says Mildred's Umbrella operates on an annual budget of roughly $100,000 (versus the Alley's $18.5 million) and regularly relies on its peers to share resources. The mid-sized Stages Repertory Theatre, for example, lends Mildred’s Umbrella prop furniture free of charge, and it’s common for companies to negotiate exchanges to advertise in one another’s programs and email newsletters out of mutual interest.
"If I asked any other company in the city, 'Hey can we do an ad swap, newsletter swap, anything'—the answer is 'Sure!'" Decker says. "Anytime we do anything with a fundraiser, everybody gets involved. Pretty much everybody in town does that."
That is, except the Alley. A few years ago, Mildred's and the Alley discussed doing a swap in which each company would advertise in the other's email newsletter. Mildred's Umbrella followed through on their end, but the Alley never reciprocated. Decker says that was some of the only official contact she’s had with the Alley in 16 years directing her company, which, amid recent funding concerns, will not renew its lease at Spring Street Studios when it's up in April, instead borrowing space from the Museum District's Classical Theatre Company.
Decker made it clear that she has had positive experiences with other members of the Alley staff. She believes the lack of engagement between the Alley and companies like hers has stemmed directly from Boyd. "The general atmosphere of the Alley's insular nature seems to come from the artistic leadership, in my opinion," Decker said in a follow-up email.
Kim Tobin-Lehl, co-founder and co-artistic director of 4th Wall Theatre, attempted similar ad swaps with the Alley, also to no avail. And beyond the business side of things, she's disappointed by the lack of mentorship from the city's flagship company—one with the power to launch successful, national acting careers. In 12 years, Tobin-Lehl says that, if Boyd was in the audience of another company's show, she never saw him, something she interprets as indifference to local talent. "That’s what iconic, large theaters should do," she says. "We’ve always felt like, in Houston, we’re isolated from the Alley. We don’t have any recognition from the artistic leader, at least through Greg Boyd."
This impression flies in sharp contrast to Boyd's public statements. In a 2015 panel discussion at the Theatre Communications Group Conference, hosted in Cleveland by the publisher of American Theater and billed as the "largest gathering of theatre people in the country," prominent artistic directors from across the United States responded to the question, "How can we create a better world for theater and a better world because of theater?" Choking back tears when he spoke, Boyd stressed the importance of building a strong company of actors who create an "artistic home" in their respective cities. "The artists live in the community for whom they perform," he said. Decker, who was in the audience for the discussion, appreciated the irony of Boyd's answers.
Tobin-Lehl, too, emphasizes that her criticism is limited to Boyd: "A lot of the staff there that I've worked with—I've worked with a lot of their designers—are amazingly generous and collaborative people. I think a lot of people who have worked under Greg [Boyd] really want to be collaborative people to give opportunities to others and work outside the Alley. That instinct to be collaborative and be participatory in a large environment is there."
Now, Tobin-Lehl believes a new ethos could emerge and, along with it, more equitable success. A recent report found that just 2 percent of arts organizations nationwide receive nearly 60 percent of contributions, with the majority of donors and foundations giving to large, well-established organizations such as the Alley. A more collaborative leader, Tobin-Lehl hopes, will encourage its deep-pocketed patrons to explore more of what Houston theater has to offer.
"If this new person says, 'We have to cultivate the whole system,' all of us will benefit financially," she says. "The Alley could change everything—they're sitting on all the Houston money.”