On the evening of Aug. 4, Boston’s Lyric Stage Company published a post to its Facebook page. “Our incredible Box Office team is working hard to redesign our Box Office and Front of House area for safe social distancing,” the post read. “We're looking forward to welcoming you back to your theatrical home!”
Tatiana Gil, an actor and playwright, was the first to respond. “Y’all are opening too soon,” she wrote, in part. “It is your responsibility as a theater company serving your community to do your part in keeping folks safe. Not opening period is the way to do that.” Gil ended her comment with a call for the theater to “work on being anti-racist” while it was closed. Then, she went to sleep.
The next morning, Gil awoke to more than 50 replies to her comment, as well as several additional threads in response to the original post.
What had unfolded overnight was a heated and at times acrimonious argument between the Lyric’s director of marketing and PR, Henry Lussier, and various commenters. The dispute was sparked by a reply to Gil’s comment, posted by Lussier from the Lyric’s Facebook account, defending the theater’s plans to reopen. “[And] what of the artists that need to work? [A]nd the artists of color?” he wrote.
“That is New England racism, specifically Boston racism, in a nutshell,” said Gil, who is Latinx, in an interview. “You're using this, like, performative allyship to push your own agenda. It's actually very sociopathic and self-serving.”
Commenters were quick to criticize Lussier for dismissing Gil’s safety concerns. Lussier became defensive, at times resorting to insults. In screenshots shared on Facebook by a commenter, Lussier called one woman a “pig” and told another commenter to “STFU,” an acronym for “shut the f--- up.” Those comments appeared to have been deleted. He also accused another commenter, a Black woman, of being “aggressive” — a remark commenters decried as racist. Others described Lussier’s insults as misogynistic.
“Responding first with condescension, then saying you’re doing it for artists of color, then directing anger and name calling at people o[f] color, and then settling on mournful pleas that you’re the victim… [T]his was a master class in white fragility and maleness,” one commenter wrote.
Many commenters echoed Gil’s calls for the theater to remain closed during the pandemic. Some demanded a more complete anti-racist action plan from the Lyric, which posted a message in support of Black Lives Matter in early July.
On Wednesday, the Lyric reinstated some comments that had been deleted and posted a short apology. Later that day, in a longer statement, the theater announced Lussier had been let go and called his statements “harmful and unprofessional.”
“Members of our community spoke with passion, respect, and reason. This was not the case in the responses they received. We have begun reaching out to apologize to these community members directly, and will continue to do so,” the statement read in part. It also promised a more detailed reopening plan and pledged to release an anti-racism action plan by the middle of next week.
“The posts themselves I found to be appalling and upsetting and I was embarrassed and mortified to read them,” said Lyric executive director Matt Chapuran in an interview.
Reached by phone, Lussier declined to comment and suggested contacting Lyric leadership. “I think they’d like to take the lead on that,” he said.
The incident encapsulated the twin pressures on a theater industry struggling to adapt safely to the threat of COVID-19 and respond to a racial reckoning sparked by Black Lives Matter protests and public accusations of racism in the theater world. And it came on the heels of a similar dust-up on the Gloucester Stage Facebook page, in which the company deleted comments critical of the lack of diversity in the cast for the theater’s gala.
“The culture as it stands in the Boston theater scene, as to COVID, as to George Floyd, as to Black Lives Matter, as to gender inclusivity — all that stuff is very fraught,” said Tonasia Jones, a Boston-based actor and director who responded to some of Lussier’s comments online. “We’ve been coming to a head, I would say, for years now, and this seems to be the summer of reckoning.”
Lyric artistic director Courtney O'Connor agreed with criticisms that the theater had been too slow to release an anti-racism plan. "I think we allowed ourselves to sort of fall into the trap of 'this has to be perfect'," she said. Asked what specific issues the plan would address, O'Connor said, "Programming is absolutely an area where we are looking. Staffing is absolutely an area. The board and the advisory council are absolutely an area. I don't know if this draft will address every single area of concern."
Chapuran concurred that the Lyric had more work to do around anti-racism, diversity and inclusion. But he defended the theater’s plan to reopen Oct. 2, stressing that the date could change if cases spiked or the state wouldn’t allow it. “We're acquiring the rights to one- and two-person shows, which we think are safer to do,” Chapuran said. “We've been running down testing facilities so that we can do weekly testing of actors. I'm meeting with our HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] contractors tomorrow about upgrades to the filtering system for the HVAC system. All this stuff has got to happen at one point or another. We don't know if it's going to be October or January or next April.”
Asked how much financial pressure the Lyric was under, Chapuran said, “In some ways, it's extraordinary," and estimated the theater could lose $1.5 million of its $2.5 million budget over the course of the pandemic. He added, “We start to erode our ability to make good, smart decisions in the future, the less money that we have on hand when we do reopen.”
The Lyric's financial woes reflect a dire situation across the commonwealth. In July, the Massachusetts Cultural Council estimated the state's cultural sector lost $425 million in revenue due to the pandemic and faces $117 million in reopening costs.
But for many in the Boston theater scene, any plans to start staging live performances were irresponsible. “Until we have zero people getting infected and dying, everybody is responsible for trying to keep the human race alive, and doing anything less is saying that you value whatever it is that you're doing above a human life,” Gil said. “And that's just not OK.”
Jones, for her part, said she would reserve judgment until the Lyric released a more detailed reopening plan. But the exchange with Lussier had left her reeling. “I figured out I have a trigger, which is white men saying that I am attacking them when I'm actually not attacking them,” said Jones, who is Black. After the argument, she said, “I woke up crying.”
Jones added that Lyric leadership had reached out to offer her an apology, but that she wasn’t quite ready to speak to them yet.
“I am not currently in the mindset to be open and receptive to that. … But I want to give all of us the benefit of time and the benefit of coming out of it with good intentions and hopes,” Jones said. “And knowing that this is a conversation that will not be solved in a day.”