The leadership at Off-Off-Broadway institution The Flea has pledged to transform the theatre following two public letters, penned by its resident artists, pointing to a longstanding culture of intimidation and fear. The June 18 statement from The Flea, which accepts full responsibility, follows a June 16 letter signed by The Resident Artists of The Flea and circulated on social media, which pointed to collective experiences rooted in “racism, sexism, gaslighting, disrespect, and abuse.”
Addressed to The Flea’s Producing Director Carol Ostrow, Artistic Director Niegel Smith, and the theatre’s Board of Directors, the letter was penned by resident writers and directors, associate artists and The Bats—The Flea’s resident, non-Equity acting company comprised of more than 100 members. The letter was a collaborative effort by RVAC, a resident council of Bats formed in 2019 to combat gaslighting and to be able to safely liaise with leadership, the newly formed Black Artists Collective, and numerous company artists. While Playbill spoke with two members, Dolores Avery and Xandra Nur Clark—who had been nominated to speak on behalf of the collective for this story—the leadership structure is intentionally non-hierarchical and centers the voices of BIPOC artists.
The June 16 letter to The Flea (a longer version of which included preliminary demands and was presented directly to the theatre's leadership) was inspired by an initial letter by Bryn Carter that was made public by the artist in early June. Carter, who is a former member of The Bats, penned the letter in response to the theatre's Black Lives Matter statement on Instagram, pointing to a disconnect between institutions stating allyship and the lived experiences of artists within those organizations.
"We are now hearing from more and more POC about their attempts to do the creative work and the interpretations of their behavior when things are toxic, ignorant, immature, hierarchical," says Carter, pointing to an ongoing, industry-wide movement of individuals speaking out. "I stand with them and feel them kin."
In a section titled "Racism," Carter says The Flea was not a safe environment for many Black artists. She addresses Ostrow directly as she recalls being patronized and experiencing micro-aggressions.
Carter's statement (which you can read in full here) also shines a light on the The Flea's long-standing contractual agreement with its resident actors, which the Flea has now pledged to change. The Bats were not paid wages for productions, but were paid in small stipends. While The Bats are non-Equity, the Actors' Union—for context—allows member actors in New York to perform without a minimum salary as part of the showcase code, which has a limit of 16 performances only.
The collective June 16 letter to The Flea's leadership also alleges “exploitative practices” including “intimidation, disrespect, abuse, or in some cases, deliberate acts of sabotage and retaliation masked as punishment for non-compliance." The letter highlights that resident artists were discouraged to take other work. "We have seen how you choose not to pay your artists, while sabotaging paid opportunities from elsewhere,” reads the letter. “We have seen these same artists paid to cater your events and galas, rather than for their creative work.”
The Flea, in its statement, has declared that artists at The Flea will no longer be volunteers, and will be paid for their work. The theatre has also stated that its resident artists will be included in the season planning process.
The collective of resident artists, which includes BIPOC and White artists, has also pointed to a culture of anti-Blackness. “We have seen Black artists express their discomfort with a trauma-centered 'Color Brave' season only to be told they would be replaced," reads the public letter. "We have seen the mistreatment and fetishization of Black bodies in your institution and on your stages."
The public statement echoes the message in a letter penned by 300 BIPOC artists addressed to the White American Theater earlier this month, stating “We see you” and "Enough is enough." Demanding drastic changes, the resident artists of The Flea have created subcommittees dedicated to racial justice; economic justice; healing and restorative justice; and anti-harassment.
In its statement, The Flea's leadership takes full responsibility for "the ways in which we have let down our artists, and are heartbroken to know that we have come up short for the very people it is our mission to serve."
"We have been moved and humbled by how our BIPOC resident artists have come together to hold us accountable in this moment," continues the statement. "They have provided us with a list of priorities to transform our culture. The Flea is committed to working collaboratively with our artists including adding resident artists to our Board of Directors."
In addition to paying artists, the statement pledges that all staff and leadership will be continually trained in anti-racism; diversity, equity and inclusion; and conflict resolution. "We are pausing all production activity to reflect on the misalignment of our values and actions and to transform our institutional culture and producing model," reads the statement.