At Gloucester Stage, a reckoning with Israel Horovitz’s legacy
GLOUCESTER — On a wall in the lobby at Gloucester Stage Company hangs a large plaque that trumpets the titles of all the plays that have premiered there over the past four decades.
It was once a source of pride that the lion’s share of those plays were written by Israel Horovitz, the cofounder, longtime leader, and chief creative force at the small but influential theater. Indeed, very few theater companies anywhere in the world were more closely identified with a living dramatist than Gloucester Stage was with Horovitz.
But now, as it prepares for its 39th season, Gloucester Stage faces a double-edged challenge: to construct an artistic identity that is independent of Horovitz while confronting questions about whether theater executives looked the other way when it came to his alleged sexual misconduct.
They insist they did not, and there is no evidence that in recent years Gloucester Stage failed to act on complaints of sexual harassment or abuse by Horovitz. But the theater’s leaders over the years could not be described as proactive in guarding against the possibility of misbehavior by Horovitz, either, especially in light of the fact that as far back as 1993, the Boston Phoenix reported on 10 unidentified women — including actresses and Gloucester Stage staffers — who accused him of sexual misconduct. Then came a bombshell at the end of November from The New York Times, which reported allegations by nine women of sexual abuse, including rape, by Horovitz from the mid-1980s to 2016.
That story prompted a winter of long-overdue reckoning at Gloucester Stage, even as still more allegations against Horovitz kept surfacing. On March 16, The Seattle Times reported the accounts of two actresses who said that Horovitz sexually harassed them when his plays were being presented at an Olympia, Wash.-based theater. A month earlier, the film actress Heather Graham said that in the late 1980s, when she auditioned for one of his plays after the end of her relationship with his son, Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, the playwright pushed her against an elevator and “[stuck] his tongue down my throat.’’
Even before The New York Times article appeared, Horovitz had resigned as a member of the board of directors, ex officio, as artistic director emeritus at Gloucester Stage. (The board had already decided he would be removed if he did not resign, after being alerted to Facebook posts by Maia Ermansons, whom Horovitz had known since her childhood, alleging that he groped her in 2016, when she was 21.)
In February, the theater adopted tough new anti-sexual-harassment procedures, with board president Elizabeth Neumeier stating: “We have been individually and collectively appalled by the allegations of past misconduct at Gloucester Stage and throughout the theater industry.’’ When the lineup of plays was announced early in March for Gloucester Stage’s upcoming summer season, Horovitz’s name was conspicuously missing, the theater having canceled earlier plans to present his “Lebensraum.’’
“We’re not going to produce him anymore,’’ managing director Jeff Zinn said grimly, seated in the lobby near the plaque listing those premieres. “Period.’’
For playwright, theater, and city alike, that represents a remarkable reversal of fortune. Horovitz, who turns 79 on March 31, cofounded Gloucester Stage in 1979 and served as artistic director until 2006. Even those who rolled their eyes at his displays of ego and entitlement concede that he put Gloucester on the play-goer’s map. Seldom passed a summer at the brick theater on East Main Street without a staging of one of his works, and the city of Gloucester itself inspired characters, stories, and settings in plays such as “North Shore Fish,’’ “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard,’’ and “Gloucester Blue.’’
Though some residents of Gloucester objected to his depictions of the city, ticket sales were invariably strong whenever a Horovitz play was presented at Gloucester Stage. That’s likely one of the reasons that, even after he stepped down as artistic director, Horovitz continued to enjoy the showcase for his work he’d grown accustomed to at Gloucester Stage. From 2007 to 2017, the theater presented seven productions of his plays, including shows directed by Horovitz himself in each of the last three years.
What will his exile from Gloucester Stage mean for the theater’s finances, visibility, and identity? Without the lure and cachet of the Horovitz name, will the company recede into the sea of similar small theaters? “It’s going to be strange now,’’ remarked actress Marina Re. “Israel Horovitz is Gloucester Stage Company. Otherwise, it would just be one of many little theaters that barely survive.’’
Re has a unique perspective: She acted in several productions of Horovitz plays at Gloucester Stage in the 1990s, drawn to the strong roles he wrote for women. But she is also one of Horovitz’s alleged victims; she says that he groped her and stuck his tongue in her mouth in 1992 when she was standing in the wings of the theater, waiting to perform in “North Shore Fish.’’
“He took away all of your sense of self, doing something like that to you,’’ she said. Despite her anger, Re said, “I do hope that theater survives. There’s such a strong community bond.’’
The exceptionally prolific Horovitz has written more than 70 plays, two of which were presented on Broadway. But off-Broadway is where he first gained renown, with his 1968 Obie Award-winning “The Indian Wants the Bronx,’’ starring a young Al Pacino. Pacino would later star in the Horovitz-scripted, autobiographical 1982 film “Author! Author!,’’ about a playwright coping with family pressures while his Broadway play is in rehearsal. Horovitz also directed a 2014 film adaptation of his play “My Old Lady,’’ starring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith.
Horovitz did not respond to Globe requests for comment. In a statement to the Times published in the story on his nine accusers, Horovitz said that while he has “a different memory of some of these events, I apologize with all my heart to any woman who has ever felt compromised by my actions. . . . To hear that I have caused pain is profoundly upsetting, as is the idea that I might have crossed a line with anyone who considered me a mentor.’’
As they cope with the fallout, the current leaders of Gloucester Stage say they have been heartened by an outpouring of supportive messages from local residents. The over-arching question the company now has to answer, according to managing director Zinn, is: “What is Gloucester Stage separate from Israel Horovitz?’’
“We have an opportunity to define ourselves apart from Israel Horovitz,’’ said Zinn. “It’s Gloucester Stage Company, not Israel Horovitz Stage Company.’’
Artistic director Robert Walsh insists that the theater can thrive by maintaining its focus as a champion of new plays and playwrights. He points to two world premieres and two New England premieres on this summer’s schedule. Walsh and Zinn both say there has been no diminution of interest from highly regarded actors, directors, and designers in working at Gloucester Stage. “People can usually look past Israel and see the quality and the integrity of our game,’’ said Walsh, adding: “I want to be sure that people feel we’re making a safe harbor for people to come in and work, and not fear harassment and abuse.’’
Nonetheless, the damage to Gloucester Stage’s reputation and skeptical questions about the theater’s handling of Horovitz will not be easily dispelled. The fact that the welcome mat remained out for Horovitz at Gloucester Stage for nearly a quarter-century after the 1993 Phoenix story alleging sexual misconduct incenses a young woman who believes it left her in harm’s way when she worked on a play written and directed by Horovitz within the past couple of years. She described an episode, not previously reported, when she was walking with Horovitz through the theater’s lobby on a summer day and the playwright suddenly reached out and “very deliberately’’ patted her on her buttocks. When she looked over at him, stunned and speechless, Horovitz wore a smirk on his face, she recalled. Mindful of his power, and, she said, “terrified to rock the boat,’’ the woman did not report it to the leaders of Gloucester Stage. But she is furious at them nonetheless.
“They had the full knowledge of what those women tried to say all those years ago,’’ she said heatedly. “And yet they still thought it was acceptable to allow him to come back every season with young women starting out in theater, and let him be alone with those women. There was zero talk, zero warnings, zero heads-up. It was as if they hoped he would be on his best behavior.’’
Zinn, who has been managing director since 2015, and Neumeier, who has been on the theater’s board since 2007 and was named president at the beginning of 2016, both told the Globe that they had been unaware of the 1993 Phoenix story. Walsh, who has been artistic director at Gloucester Stage since 2014, did know of it. “I was aware that there were these women who said this guy is a problem,’’ he said, referring to the Phoenix’s report. “It was pretty public news in the theater community.’’
Asked whether he regrets allowing Horovitz to continue working at Gloucester Stage since he took over as artistic director, Walsh replied: “Should he have been banned from the theater because of the allegations in the 1990s? I’m sorry, I don’t have a good answer for you.’’
Walsh acknowledged receiving a complaint about Horovitz’s behavior during the summer of 2016 from a representative of the company’s female apprentices, college graduates who were launching their careers in theater. The representative asked that he tell Horovitz to stop greeting the young women with hugs and kisses on the mouth. “I’m not sure if that’s sexual harassment,’’ Walsh said, adding that Horovitz greeted older women the same way. “It was done in public. He wasn’t cornering people or trapping people in a situation they couldn’t escape from.’’ Walsh said he immediately spoke to Horovitz and told him to stop the behavior. Horovitz did. According to Walsh, that was the only complaint the theater received.
Upon being told by the Globe of the woman’s account of Horovitz touching her in the theater lobby, Walsh expressed “disappointment, anger, frustration,’’ and said: “We have zero tolerance for that.’’
“The pat on the butt — if there was stuff going on, I didn’t hear about it,’’ said Walsh. “I’m not sure how you take an action on what you don’t know about. If I had been aware that he was still doing this stuff, I would have asked him to step aside and would not have produced him.’’
As he answered questions, Walsh’s words came more and more slowly and heavily. “This conversation puts a pit in my stomach, I’ll tell you that,’’ he said.
These are queasy days for others as well. Eric Engel, who succeeded Horovitz as artistic director in 2007 and led the theater until 2014, said there were no complaints of sexual misconduct by Horovitz during his tenure, but conceded that it raised his eyebrows when he saw Horovitz delivering “hugs that lasted too long or kisses meant for the cheek that landed on the lips.’’
In a follow-up e-mail, Engel said: “Knowing what I knew from the 1993 Phoenix story, I wish we would have created and promoted clear mechanisms for reporting distractions or traumatic events in our theater. . . . It makes me sick to think that — should something have occurred — staff members and artists might have felt they had no recourse. And looking at the history, I can understand why one might have felt that way.’’
Horovitz’s career is now in ashes; Gloucester Stage is just one of multiple theaters nationwide that have canceled plans for productions of his plays. Walsh, whose friendship with Horovitz dates to the 1990s, said he has spoken with the playwright since the Times story was published.
“It’s pretty overwhelming for him,’’ Walsh said. “All of his plays are being withdrawn all over the country. You’re watching your career implode. I can tell you he has a lot of heartfelt contrition. I don’t know what his plans are relative to apologies or any kind of reaching out.’’
Gloucester Stage has its own fences to mend, and the current leaders clearly realize that. Laura Crook, who says she was aggressively groped and kissed by Horovitz at the theater in 1990 when she was a 24-year-old understudy, told the Globe that in her view, the attitude of the theater’s leaders over the years has been “enabling. It’s a little like saying there’s a wolf in the herd, but we’re going to leave him there, and if we have to replace some sheep, so be it.’’ Board president Neumeier recently requested a meeting with Crook, who was featured in the Times article, at which the two discussed what Horovitz allegedly did to her.
As for that plaque on the wall of the Gloucester Stage lobby, the one with all those titles of plays by Israel Horovitz? Said artistic director Walsh somberly: “I can imagine it coming down.’’