Volunteers at the Acrosstown Repertory Theater are speaking out against sexual assault and harassment despite fears of retaliation.
Update 10/2/18: The Acrosstown board implemented new policies in the wake of this investigation and issued an apology on its website. Despite multiple comments saying he had, Michael Bobbitt never resigned from the Acrosstown’s board of directors. Read our follow up here.
Tucked away in the Baird Center, a squat brick building that sits between downtown Gainesville and Depot Park, is the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre.
Founded in 1980, today the Acrosstown has hundreds of volunteers. They direct and act in the shows, design the sets and lighting, clean the theater and comprise its board of directors — all under a tagline prominently displayed in the lobby: “A safe place for unsafe theater.”
Yet over the course of an investigation that spans 25 interviews with current and former Acrosstown volunteers and locals in the community, three people have told the Fine Print they experienced sexual assault or harassment while involved with the theater. Five additional sources told the Fine Print they do not view the theater as a “safe” place. Out of those five, four said they no longer work at the theater, specifically citing a lack of transparency and clear anti-harassment policies as factors in their decision to leave. Nearly all requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation or blacklisting.
Stacey* — who volunteered at the theater for years as a board member — worked alongside her allegedly emotionally abusive partner, Harry*, over the course of 2013. She repeatedly attempted to alert her fellow board members to the situation; she left the theater shortly after the president at the time said she was “not mature enough” to work alongside Harry.
In October 2017, a cast member was reportedly pressured during a rehearsal for “Rocky Horror Picture Show” by the director, who was intoxicated, to not wear an undergarment designed to hold genitalia in place “to give the audience a better show.”
A month later, Clara*, who was a new volunteer, was sexually assaulted in her bed by another member, Michael McShane, while on prescription sleeping medication. After his arrest Dec. 1, 2017, Anna Marie Kirkpatrick and Michael Bobbitt — Acrosstown board members and close friends of McShane’s — contacted Clara over Facebook with messages she interpreted as pressuring her not to press charges.
Ultimately, Clara had no choice. The assistant state attorney decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute. Without a blood test taken near the time of the incident, Clara said he couldn’t prove she was on sedatives, despite McShane acknowledging to detectives and on a recorded call that he knew she was on sleeping medication when he had sex with her. McShane, who could not be reached for comment, pled not guilty.
Kirkpatrick could not be reached for comment. Bobbitt maintains he was trying to support Clara, and vehemently denies that he attempted to intimidate or dissuade her from pursuing legal recourse.
Carolyne Salt, the current president of the Acrosstown, did not comment on the multiple allegations, but she said it was not the theater’s place to intervene in Clara’s case. “It’s not for us to take sides, not for us to usurp the legal system,” Salt said. “It’s only for us to give people who volunteer with us and comprise the Acrosstown family a safe place for unsafe theater.”
In September 2017, Clara, who minored in theater at the University of Florida, moved back to Gainesville. That October, she went to open auditions for a production of Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” at the Acrosstown. There, she saw Michael McShane, whom she had run into days earlier at the protest against Richard Spencer’s speaking event.
Clara had known him briefly in undergrad through the Tabernacle of Hedonism, a local variety show. McShane grew up in the local theater scene and regularly directed, designed and performed in productions across Gainesville. His father, Timothy, is a playwright, actor and mentor to many in the theater community.
Though Clara’s best friend from undergrad, Bailey Piper, still lived in Gainesville, she didn’t know many other people in town. McShane, who still performed at the Tabernacle and was designing lights for Acrosstown’s production of “Rocky Horror” at the time, seemed friendly.
Eager to work on another production, Clara asked McShane to rehearse with her for the Acrosstown’s next open auditions for “Gaslight,” a play about a man who manipulates his wife into believing she’s going insane. (This play originated the psychological term “gaslighting.”)
McShane agreed and encouraged Clara to approach “Gaslight’s” director, Laura Jackson, about the script at a karaoke night in early November. Jackson emailed Clara a copy of the script to rehearse from that night. “People were very welcoming over there when I first started,” Clara said.
As Clara and McShane began to rehearse and hang out, McShane told her he was homeless. In a Facebook message, Clara asked if McShane was going to Maude’s Classic Cafe; he responded, “Where all the homeless artists go.” One night, Clara said that McShane called her from downtown, too drunk to drive. As she was close by, she drove him in his car to the Acrosstown, where she left him. She said McShane told her he was sleeping at the theater.
Carolyne Salt, president of the Acrosstown’s board of directors, said that McShane was not sleeping at the Acrosstown. The Baird Center’s landlord said he asked Salt about a car he kept seeing parked outside the building around mid-November. After he inquired, the car was gone.
McShane told Clara that he had been kicked out. She gave him a mat so he wouldn’t have to sleep on people’s floors. Instead, McShane began to regularly fall asleep on Clara’s living room couch. Police reported Clara “often felt bad and [would] let McShane stay over because it was so late by the time they were finished.”
Sometimes, McShane would come over just to sleep, even though Clara said she never explicitly invited him to. She also bought him food. “I didn’t mind,” Clara said. “I was glad to help. If I’m in a good place, and someone needs help, I’ll help.”
Yet as they spent more time together, Clara began to feel uneasy. At an arts festival in early November, Clara’s coworker asked her if McShane was her boyfriend. Clara’s coworker told the Fine Print Clara said no.
Over Thanksgiving, while McShane was house-sitting for the Bobbitts, he told Clara that Bobbitt had given permission for her to come over. (Clara, unsure what McShane meant, asked what he had told the Bobbitts. She said he said he told them they were rehearsing for Gaslight.) Clara stayed the night on Saturday; she said McShane slept in the guest bedroom, and she slept on the couch.
In a Facebook message to her, McShane commented about how he liked one of her profile pictures because it showed off her legs. In another, he asked if they could snuggle. “Haha, you just woke up from a nap. You don’t need sleep,” Clara responded. On a sticky note placed on screenshots of their conversations that Clara printed for the assistant state attorney, she wrote that this had been a purposeful deflection.
Though his comments made her feel uneasy, Clara wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t want to judge people based off norms,” she said. “I want to give them a chance to be friends.”
After two weeks, Clara felt like her roommates were also growing uncomfortable. One of Clara’s roommates, who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, said that “all of a sudden he was just over a little bit more frequently” than she expected. McShane would still be asleep on the couch as they were leaving for work in the morning.
And Clara was nervous about taking the sedative she is prescribed for insomnia around him. She was losing sleep. “I didn’t fully trust him,” she said.
Over the course of an investigation that spans 25 interviews with current and former Acrosstown members and locals in the community, three people have told The Fine Print they experienced sexual assault or harassment while involved with the theater.
On Tuesday, Nov. 28, McShane came over to Clara’s house, as he had begun to do regularly. While they were listening to music in her living room, Clara decided to address the night the before when they had a few drinks at a Tabernacle show. In the morning, Clara had woken up without her pants. According to the police report, Clara said they cuddled and kissed, but she “was unsure if anything sexual had happened but did not know why she didn’t have pants on.”
Clara said she told McShane that she didn’t know what had happened, but she wanted to make sure he knew that because she wasn’t sober, she wouldn’t have been able to consent. She said McShane responded he understood.
Later that night, Clara said McShane asked if he could spend the night, the first time she can recall him directly asking for permission. “I don’t know if I want you to sleep here because I’m taking the medicine,” Clara told detectives she said.
Reluctantly, Clara agreed to let him stay the night. According to the police report, she told McShane “I’m a different person on my sleeping medication and I don’t want to do anything.” The detective wrote in the police report that Clara thought McShane understood that “anything” had a sexual connotation, and that Clara said she “made it clear that she didn’t want to have sex, and that McShane agreed.”
Clara told the Fine Print that McShane then asked to sleep in her bed instead of the couch, saying that he didn’t want to disturb her roommates. Before going to sleep, Clara said McShane watched her take her medication. Then she turned off the lights.
“I woke up,” Clara said. “And he was having sex with me.”
In the morning, Clara did not talk to McShane. He left her apartment when she did.
McShane came over Wednesday night to sleep. According to the police report, he tried to make another sexual advance; she told him no. The detective wrote that Clara said McShane may have performed oral sex on her, but she is unsure.
Clara said her memory of the night is hazy. Exhausted, dissociating and in denial about what happened the night before, she couldn’t sleep without her medication.
“Because I was on this medication, I was completely helpless to resist both mentally and physically,” Clara wrote in her petition for a restraining order. “He knew I was in this state, and he had sex with me anyway.”
On Thursday, Clara said she fully realized what had happened when she met her best friend, Piper, at a park to talk. “Is it so fucked to want to make conscious decisions about my body?” Clara had said, crying.
After talking to Piper, Clara texted McShane, hoping to arrange a time to talk. He said he would be going to the Hardback Cafe later that night. “I will be able to get a place to crash tonight from folks there if you are to go home and take your meds and sleep,” he wrote.
Clara asked him if they could meet beforehand. “Yes,” he responded. “I figured as much. Where?”
Outside the Acrosstown, her knife in her pocket, Clara told McShane that she had said she didn’t want to do anything that night. But he did anyway and that was “entirely fucked.” “‘I know, I’m an asshole, I’m sorry,’” McShane responded, according to Clara’s sworn testimony. “That’s entirely fucked,” she had repeated.
The next day, Clara got a message from McShane. “Can I take you to a nice dinner to see if there is any way to resolve this issue with civility I am truly sorry,” he wrote.
She tried to ignore his message, but she couldn’t stop thinking: What would it be like to be around him now? What if the same thing happened to someone else? “I don’t want to be in this situation,” she said she thought. “I don’t want to deal with the fact that he got away with raping me, and he’s just gonna go about his life.”
After work, Clara drove to the Gainesville Police Department. In a small room with a bookshelf, an officer and a detective had Clara make a controlled call. A typical part of sex crimes investigations, a controlled call is a recorded call made by the victim to the perpetrator under detectives’ instruction.
Clara said the detectives told her to act like she was worried about getting pregnant and to ask where McShane was. If he made an admission, they could take “immediate action.”
When McShane answered, he was at the Hardback getting ready to perform for Artwalk. “So,” McShane said, “Will you take me up on my offer of dinner?”
As they spoke, the officers wrote out their questions on a piece of paper for Clara to ask. She started with Monday night. (A full transcript of the controlled call is available here.)
“The thing with Monday,” McShane said, stammering, “the thing with Monday, I thought was OK … . Because I did not deal with that without what I thought was your consent. Which, Wednesday, at that later point, with you on the meds and then your sedated state, my misinterpreting when you would [inaudible] when you were in that state, but I did go way beyond what we had talked about. Monday, I swear I did not.”
“Way beyond?” Clara asked twice. “Even encroaching on,” McShane responded, “because you had said no.”
“What made you think … ‘Oh, I’m actually going to have sex with her when she asked me not to?’” Clara said.
According to the police report, Clara told McShane “I’m a different person on my sleeping medication and I don’t want to do anything.”
McShane was silent. “My own foolish receptions of the night as opposed to negating everything,” McShane finally said after she pressed him. “… It was my own idiocy. It was my own fucking stupidity.”
“I hesitated throughout all of that, wondering what exactly was going on,” he said minutes later. “ … Through what I had been doing and seeing… I knew what I was doing was wrong. Very wrong.”
Clara said the detective told her to wrap it up — they had everything they needed. “Yeah,” she said before hanging up. “I don’t think we can do dinner.”
That night, Clara stayed with her mom at a hotel. At 5 a.m., she got a call from Court Services. McShane had been arrested.
In early February, Daniel Owens, the assistant state attorney assigned to Clara’s case, called her to say the case would not be going forward due to insufficient evidence. She insisted they meet in person to talk about it.
Clara said Owens told her he couldn’t “press charges off a warning label,” meaning her prescription. Without blood tests taken close to the time of the incident, there was no way to prove Clara was actually on her medication, even though Clara pointed out that it would have been “impossible” for her to drive herself to a hospital while she was sedated. It was also not enough that McShane had nodded when a detective asked him if he knew Clara was on sleeping medication, according to the police report.
Clara did complete a rape kit, but it was taken two days after the incident occurred, rendering it inconclusive. Forensics had found two used condoms in Clara’s trash can, but that still did not prove the act had been non-consensual. Owens also said that he wouldn’t be able to use the controlled call because “it could be interpreted in different ways,” Clara said.
“[McShane] was apologizing, but he could’ve been apologizing for something else,” Clara said Owens told her.
Crystal Walters, Clara’s victim advocate who came to the meeting with her, said it seemed to her like Owens was implying a jury would not find McShane guilty because Clara let him sleep in her bed. Though Owens couldn’t be reached for comment, Darry Lloyd, the public information officer for the state attorney’s office, said the office takes precautions to interview victims respectfully, but that it can’t account for an attorney’s “style.”
Other questions have been raised with the way the state attorney’s office handled the case. Clara had come prepared to her testimony meeting — the first step in the judicial process where the victim recounts the incident — with a manila folder of notes. She had meticulously recorded her interactions with McShane, believing it could help her case.
But when Clara sat down to testify, Owens told her to put away her notes, take an oath and describe the incident from memory. (Reviewing victims’ notes is a practice that varies from attorney to attorney without standardization. Owens declined to use them.)
Without her notes, she worried about describing something incorrectly. “So I was supposed to carry this around with me for over a month,” Clara said. “Just fresh at the forefront of my mind?”
Owens asked Clara what she was wearing that night in a manner Jessie Lazarchik, the victim advocate who attended the testimony meeting, described as “blunt” and “direct.” Without any context, he posed the question: If she was worried about McShane, why did she let him sleep in her bed?
Laura Kalt, the director of the Alachua County Victim Service and Rape Crisis Center, said Clara’s testimony meeting sounded like a “failure on the part of our criminal justice system.”
“This is the kind of thing that our court system unfortunately uses against survivors frequently,” Kalt said. “It’s exploited by defense attorneys artfully. They’re so good with showing, ‘Oh there’s a picture of you with this person on Facebook two weeks later at a party, and you’re laughing with them. How did you end up on Facebook with someone who sexually assaulted you?’”
Clara said she came away from the experience victim-blamed and re-traumatized.
The only time Clara felt recognized by the judicial system was at the civil hearing on Feb. 22, when Judge Robert Groeb granted a restraining order against McShane indefinitely. “I do believe there is substantial, competent evidence in this case that an unlawful sexual act was committed by the respondent against the petitioner,” Groeb stated for the record.
“It is my intention for the injunction to be a permanent injunction,” he added. “That is to say that it will remain in effect as long as either one of you are alive.”
Two days after McShane was arrested in December, Clara had just finished Acrosstown auditions near Depot Park. As she was leaving, Clara said Anna Marie Kirkpatrick, a board member and McShane’s friend, caught up with her to talk about McShane’s arrest.
Clara didn’t know what to make of the conversation until a day later, when Kirkpatrick sent her a lengthy Facebook message. (The messages have been edited for length and can be read in full here, here and here.)
“I appreciate you sharing with me about what transpired between you and Mike,” she began. “I cannot tell you how much this news saddens me. I understand why you feel you had to go the route you did to call him to account and feeling you needed to protect other women.”
Kirkpatrick went on to write that she thought Clara was “a good fit” for McShane, mistakenly identifying her as his girlfriend.
What she wanted most, she wrote to Clara, was healing for everyone, but that “the path you are heading down now is going to cause more damage than I think you realize. Already shock is vibrating throughout the community.” Kirkpatrick described how McShane had lost his job and been placed on house arrest. “He cannot be four miles from where you work or live,” she wrote. “That’s all of downtown. All his hangouts.”
“And that’s just the start,” she wrote. If McShane took a plea deal, he would be “labeled as a sex offender for the rest of his life.” If the case went to trial, prosecutors would “shred him and make him look like a monster,” Kirkpatrick wrote.
“And the defense that gets hired will come after you,” she added. “They will be just as ruthless looking into everything they can about you and your past. It will be a bloodbath and all in the public eye. And the community will take sides. He will be shunned. And you will be shunned.”
“Please look into your heart,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “Please ask yourself if the punishment equals the crime.”
About 30 minutes later, Clara received another Facebook message, this time from Michael Bobbitt, another friend of McShane’s.
Bobbitt has worked in the theater community for years. He’s currently the facilities manager at the Acrosstown — a board position — and it’s likely he will become president. McShane’s father, a prominent local playwright and actor, is his mentor. One cast member said that due to the amount of money Bobbitt puts into the theater, he is “virtually indispensable.”
Bobbitt asked Clara if she was free to meet over coffee, writing that he wanted to see what “our close knit community” could do to support her and talk about options going forward.
Clara wrote back that she thought it would be good to have an open dialogue about the incident. She wanted to ensure it did not happen again.
A few hours later, Bobbitt followed up with a second message. “As a board member of the theater and likely about to assume the presidency, I have to make sure that our community theater is a safe place for everyone and I am concerned about the conflict on the horizon so I thought that if we could speak we can formulate a plan for protecting everyone’s interests and sense of respect and security,” he wrote. He added he could bring his wife if she felt uncomfortable meeting with him alone.
Clara again agreed; she thought this could help the whole community.
According to Clara and Piper, who came to meeting at Patticakes with Bobbitt and his wife as a witness, Bobbitt began by saying, “‘As you probably know, Michael McShane is my best friend in all of Gainesville.’”
Clara had not known that. She thought they were meeting about the community, not McShane specifically.
“I would rather use my resources to help you rather than fight against you if possible because I think you have a lot to offer the community as a whole and specifically are [sic] Theatre community.”
Piper said that Bobbitt and his wife seemed on edge. “I felt like they were trying to guilt her,” Piper said. “Because they were saying, ‘He’ll die in prison.’”
Bobbit wrote that he never said that. Kirkpatrick had also written something similar in her message to Clara: Despite not being diagnosed, she wrote, she believed McShane was autistic, in poor health and had never been taught how to “treat women with respect” since his mother left him in his youth.
“I don’t believe he will survive between being different and his illness,” the message reads. “… The experience [of being in prison] will change him forever if he survives.”
Clara said Bobbitt told her he was prepared to spend $10,000 on McShane’s defense but that he wanted to see if she could come up with alternative solutions. Bobbitt wrote in a Facebook message to a friend of Clara’s that he never mentioned any “particular amount of money.”
Bobbitt finished the conversation by telling Clara that he was helping McShane find housing. “To hear [that] from a board member of the local community theater who has said he was going to be the next president of the Acrosstown?” Clara said. “That power stance is really — just really gross.”
Bobbitt told a friend of Clara’s that McShane ended up staying with Kirkpatrick.
After their meeting, Bobbitt sent more messages to Clara. In one sent Dec. 7, he told Clara that McShane’s supporters were raising funds for “a good attorney,” and that friendships were “fracturing at the Acrosstown between those who are giving money to help Mike’s defense and those who are not.” He said he would pay for a “treatment and education” program for McShane and counseling for Clara.
“It is getting ugly fast and it’s heartbreaking…,” he wrote. “If you have any thoughts on how to resolve this issue before the character-assassination process of the court proceedings begin, I am willing to do anythign [sic] to help you accomplish them. … ANYTHING you need to help bring the legal proceedings to an end, you can count on me.”
In a message sent Dec. 20, Bobbitt told her that he and McShane had their first meeting with the defense attorney. “I just thought I would reach out to see if there are any alternative scenarios you have come up with that would meet your needs for respect and Security and public Reckoning [sic] before thousands of dollars go into the legal process,” he wrote. “I would rather use my resources to help you rather than fight against you if possible because I think you have a lot to offer the community as a whole and specifically are [sic] Theatre community.”
“Never did I tell the accuser what she should do, and never did I tell her that she should not pursue legal avenues for recourse,” Bobbit wrote in a statement to the Fine Print, later concluding, “I stand by my actions in this matter. I was a supportive friend to someone who denied the allegations against him, and I also tried to offer support to the accuser.”
Bobbitt also wrote he thought Clara was open to exploring alternative solutions, and that at their meeting, “she expressed an interest in exploring multiple possible resolutions to this incident, stating clearly that she, ‘Didn’t want to see Mr. McShane go to prison’ and that she would also like to avoid a trial if possible.”
Bobbitt also told the Fine Print he does not recall ever talking about Clara to anyone in the community. Yet in a Jan. 15 message to a former member of the Acrosstown, Bobbitt wrote of Clara, “there is no proof her side of the story is true… Mike vehemently denies it and as we get into the awful, awful process of the trial, it is coming out that she has a long history of instability and attention-seeking.”
Carolyne Salt, president of the Acrosstown’s board of directors, said Bobbitt wasn’t officially acting for the board. Bobbitt maintains the same position. Salt said that his messages, which she had been provided by Bobbitt, showed a man who, though he may have used a poor choice of words, was acting out of passion for his community.
The Acrosstown has not had a written sexual harassment policy for at least five years.
“No, I don’t think it’s right,” Salt said. “But I also think there’s a big difference between saying, ‘Do not pursue this legally,’ and, ‘I would like to see this not pursued legally, and how can I help?’ I think there’s a very big difference between those two statements.”
A few weeks after the meeting with Bobbitt, during the last Tabernacle show at Maude’s Sidecar Bar, Alan Bushnell approached Clara to talk about the allegations. Bushnell owns the Hardback, which now hosts the Tabernacle as part of an effort to become “a focal point for the arts scene.” He said he asked her why she was still coming around the places that McShane’s friends frequent.
Bushnell said his intention wasn’t to cause Clara harm. But she came away from the conversation feeling victim-blamed and angry: She had been at the Tabernacle’s first show. Clara said she had to miss work the next day because of emotional distress. Since the incident, Clara has missed over 80 hours of work. She’s lost over $1,000. “I stopped going out,” Clara said. “I didn’t interact with much of the community after that.”
Bobbitt and Salt insist that the Acrosstown had been nothing but welcoming to Clara. “The accuser remains welcome in the theater, and she needs only to reach out to find a wellspring of support from our community of artists, despite her limited involvement at the theater to date,” Bobbitt wrote in his statement.
Clara does not feel like she can go back.
The Acrosstown has not had a written sexual harassment policy for at least five years.
In his official statement, Bobbitt wrote that the Acrosstown has a “zero-tolerance policy for abuse of any kind.” But when cast and crew members sign on to a show at the Acrosstown, they aren’t given any kind of paperwork that would inform them of their rights if they are harassed or of the rules of the theater.
In fact, there are “no rules, per se,” Salt wrote in an email. The Acrosstown’s bylaws do include a general non-discrimination policy, but it does not enforcement provisions. Multiple sources said directors are the only volunteers to receive any kind of guidelines.
This is not unique to the Acrosstown. The Gainesville Community Playhouse does not have a sexual harassment policy, though a representative said over the phone it is developing one. The Actors Warehouse could not be reached for comment, but no sexual harassment policy is available on their website. The Hippodrome, the only professional theater in town, does have a sexual harassment policy as it’s required by the Actors Equity Union.
Salt said that in the interest of safety, she imagined the theater would remove an alleged perpetrator until the situation is resolved, which she said the board did in McShane’s case. Bobbitt also wrote in his statement that the board took “immediate action.”
However, multiple members said they assumed that McShane continued to volunteer at the theater while he was under investigation, as the board never publicly addressed the incident. A director at the theater said they only knew McShane was banned because they asked. One volunteer said Facebook comments made by Salt and Bobbitt gave them the impression McShane was still working there.
Salt did not reach out to Clara until after she was contacted by The Fine Print for this story. Salt said she did not view it as her responsibility: Since Clara and McShane were not working on the same production and the incident did not physically happen inside the theater, it was not “an Acrosstown issue.”
“That’s like saying they met at Publix and you were going shopping together, and therefore Publix is implicit in that relationship,” she said.
She later added over the phone that she did not consider Clara part of the community. “It just seems weird to do a couple of rehearsals and a stage reading and then say that you’re deeply embedded in the community,” she said.
When asked why Clara’s level of involvement was significant, Salt responded, “It’s not that it matters to me. It’s just that it strikes me odd that it’s mattering to her.”
Salt also insisted that Clara and McShane were dating and sleeping together, neither of which was true, according to Clara.
During an interview, Salt said this was the first time the Acrosstown has had “such a case,” to explain why the theater never had a sexual harassment policy. But since 2013 at least two other instances of sexual misconduct have occurred between Acrosstown members.
In late 2010, Stacey* volunteered in a production of “Elephant Man” at the Acrosstown. Like Clara, she studied theater in college and had just moved to Gainesville, where she hoped to build her portfolio and make friends. Within a year, Stacey joined the Acrosstown’s board of directors.
In late 2012, a play Stacey wrote was featured in a local showcase. An actor in the play, Harry*, sent her a message, writing that her play “spoke to him” and he wanted to get involved in theater. She introduced him to the Acrosstown; they began to casually date.
After a few weeks, Stacey said Harry started to exhibit possessive and controlling behavior. If she didn’t pick up her phone or answer his “zillions of messages,” she said he would threaten to hurt himself. Stacey felt like she had to tell him when she was driving or in class to explain why she couldn’t answer.
Stacey soon tried to end the relationship, but she said Harry told her he was struggling with depression and anxiety and that he didn’t have a job. As she also struggles with mental illness, Stacey felt compelled to help Harry. She would let him stay over and eat her food, even on nights when he would show up without permission.
Stacey later identified his behavior as gaslighting, the term for psychological manipulation that leads someone to question their perception of events.
“The feeling I got was that they simply didn’t believe me.”
In March 2013, Stacey again tried to end the relationship, messaging Harry over Facebook that she wanted to stay with him, but she wouldn’t be able to if he couldn’t find a “respectful, tempered” way to communicate with her. Harry responded with several messages, calling Stacey a “manipulative liar.” He asked Stacey to call his mom to explain why their relationship was over.
“I am being ripped apart,” Harry wrote in one of his final messages. “Never have I had such hatred in my heart for another as I now have for myself. This is the reward for falling in love with the perfect woman. Whatever punishment you think I deserve I am living and certainly didn’t need any help.”
Meanwhile, Harry was getting more involved with the Acrosstown. He joined the board of directors. “I started feeling like I couldn’t show up [to the theater], because if I showed up he’d say, ‘See, you’re following me,’ even though I had responsibilities because I was very deeply involved,” Stacey said.
Stacey repeatedly attempted to alert her fellow board members to what she said was emotional abuse. She said she told them that she had called the police after a fight. (The Gainesville Police Department confirmed that Stacey’s license plate registered a “disturbance call” at 2:11 a.m. June 2013, but no report was filed.) Suddenly, Stacey said other board members were alleging in emails and at meetings that she was difficult to work with or “trying to take over the theater.”
“The feeling I got was that they simply didn’t believe me,” Stacey said. “I heard a lot of, ‘Oh, but he’s so talented,’ and, ‘Well, we’ve had difficulty with you.’ To this day I’m not entirely sure what that difficulty entailed. All I can guess is they sensed there was a problem with the two of us. They couldn’t reconcile that this guy they liked could be the bad guy.”
In December 2013, Stacey cut Harry out of her life. She brought up his behavior to the board one more time, at a meeting before “The Peppermint King,” the final production Stacey worked on that ran from late January to early February 2014. Harry also worked on the production.
Stacey said that the president at the time told her she was “not mature enough” to be around Harry and that she should quit the production, even though Stacey was crowdfunding money to support it. (The president declined to comment, writing in an email that many misunderstandings were circulating at the time.)
The Peppermint King was Stacey’s last play at the Acrosstown. “I walked away, and never looked back,” she said.
In March 2014, Stacey was included in a mass email from the former secretary of the board, who could not be reached for comment. “I have always said keep you [sic] friends close and your enemies closer,” the secretary wrote. “As long as [Stacey] is on the Board we can keep and [sic] eye on her — once she is off she will be even more out of control. I think a vote needs to be strategic — her exit needs to leave as little room for retribution as possible. Do I know how to do this? No, I don’t.”
Another member responded, writing in an email to the former president that he and others saw the email as “highly offensive.” The former president, cc-ing Stacey, responded that this “discussion … takes up far more time than it should.”
In a private email to Stacey, the former president apologized for the secretary’s email, but did not address what Stacey identified as the cause of the discussion: Harry’s repeated threats to her health and safety. “We can stop this now, or it can get bigger,” the former president wrote in the last line of her final email to Stacey. “The ball is in your court now. It is your choice to return it to play or smash it away.”
Now several years removed from the situation, Stacey said she has considered returning to the Acrosstown. Harry is no longer on the board, and Salt wrote in an email she had felt “compelled” to rectify the theater’s culture at the time Stacey resigned.
But Stacey doesn’t feel like much has changed. Last year, on a Facebook post Harry made about an ex who had come back into his life, Bobbitt allegedly claimed that Stacey had once stalked Harry. According to Stacey’s partner, who sent Bobbitt a Facebook message asking him to delete his comment, the claim upset Stacey so much that she felt suicidal and took her entire bottle of antidepressants.
Though Bobbitt apologized and deleted the comment, Stacey said she doesn’t feel like the Acrosstown is currently an emotionally safe and supportive place for her.
After she left the theater, Stacey tried to get involved in Gainesville’s other arts scenes. But she can’t escape the reputation of being “difficult to work with.” “I still hear it,” she said. “‘[Stacey’s] difficult to work with.’ It’s effectively killed my dreams of doing theater in this community.”
Matt* was a cast member in last year’s production of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It was Matt’s second show as an actor at the Acrosstown, and his last.
Matt’s only costume was a pair of neon green and gold spandex shorts, which already made him feel self-conscious. With so little to wear, an integral part of his costume was a dance belt, an undergarment that’s similar to a jock strap. But Matt had forgotten to bring his dance belt to rehearsal that day.
He said the director of the show, Jessica Arnold, who is also the vice president of the board, had shown up to the final dress rehearsal intoxicated, which several cast members said was a regular occurence. According to Matt and two other cast members, Arnold began to heckle the performers from the audience in an “inappropriate” and “unnerving” way.
“She proceeded to tell me that she wanted me to not wear my dance belt for the show because it would be better for the audience,” Matt said. “So that everything would flop around in front of the audience to give them a better show.”
Matt said no, but Arnold kept pressuring him. He eventually walked backstage, where he had an anxiety attack. “I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or just inebriated,” Matt said. “It came across very much like she wanted me to do this, and I was not OK with that.”
Matt said he told the other directors and the stage manager, who all declined to comment, what had happened. “They all went, ‘That is super not okay,’” he said.
Arnold wrote in an email that she had been drinking before rehearsals. Regarding Matt’s dance belt, she wrote, it wasn’t working with his costume and needed to be fixed. “Giving the audience a ‘show’ was not about the interpretation you were given,” she wrote. “It is about clean lines and good costuming.”
Arnold’s comment was not the only instance of what Matt perceived as harassment.
The previous week, Matt missed two rehearsals because of work. The day of the second rehearsal, Matt left the show’s group chat. A few hours later, Michael Bobbitt came into Matt’s workplace to ask if he was quitting the show. “If I opened my mouth to argue back I could get fired,” Matt said.
Arnold and two other cast members also came into Matt’s workplace to ask if he was quitting. The cast members later apologized to Matt, who got in trouble with his boss. Matt said neither Arnold nor Bobbitt acknowledged the incident.
In a phone call, Bobbitt said that Matt’s “claims are wildly off base.” Bobbitt said he stopped by Matt’s work because the actor was threatening to quit, and he wanted to see how he could help. He said he even spent $38 to help Matt with his sales goal. Bobbitt also said he recorded the interaction, which Matt told the Fine Print he had not been given permission to do. Bobbitt said he did so because he was “concerned about it” since Matt is an “emotionally unstable guy.”
Although Matt acknowledges he left the group chat and missed two rehearsals, he denies he threatened to quit the production. Matt left the theater after “Rocky Horror.” He had begun to feel it was “toxic” for him, like it was taking over his personal and professional lives.
Without access to a written and enforceable sexual harassment policy, Avery*, a former volunteer who worked on three shows at the Acrosstown, including “Rocky Horror,” worries that their ability to report potential inappropriate behavior is contingent on whether or not the board likes them. “I don’t feel confident [the board] would do anything if I were to come to them with a problem,” they said.
Avery said that for safety reasons, they would only do another show at the Acrosstown if they personally knew and trusted the director.
Avery initially did not want to speak to the Fine Print for fear of retribution. “Four other people told me they were nervous to speak out,” Avery said. “But somebody has to. This can’t go on. This isn’t right at all.”
Stacey also identified a lack of a sexual harassment policy as a problem in her case: “That would have been nice,” she said. “‘Cause then there would have been something to appeal to.”
Avery*, a former volunteer who worked on three shows at the Acrosstown, including “Rocky Horror,” worries that their ability to report potential inappropriate behavior is contingent on whether or not the board likes them.
During the run of “Rocky Horror,” an allegation of sexual assault was brought against a cast member by a local. According to Matt, Avery and a former board member who resigned after “Rocky Horror” wrapped named Maddox*, the directors asked the cast not to talk about the allegation, appearing to act like it would create “bad press.”
Arnold told the Fine Print that is “absolutely not true.” She said she reached out to both the alleged victim and the perpetrator. “Nothing was reported or came out of it other than a random [Facebook] post,” Arnold wrote. “We took it very seriously and proactively considered our options. It was not covered up. It was seriously considered and debated.”
Arnold acknowledged that she didn’t tell the cast she had investigated the allegation. “It’s not my business to tell other people’s private lives,” she wrote. The three cast members said that without clear communication from the directors, they didn’t know if the allegation was investigated, or how seriously they should take it. Maddox said this was particularly concerning because a minor was in the cast.
Acrosstown volunteers had the same questions about McShane’s case. A former volunteer told The Fine Print that though they thought it was good the board had banned McShane from the theater, they never addressed it a “transparent or public way.”
The closest this volunteer could recall the board discussing the incident publicly was after WCJB’s coverage of McShane’s arrest was shared on Facebook. Salt wrote in the post’s comments that she was privy to “backstory” that gave her “some perspective of the days leading up to the event.” “Compassion all around. <3,” she wrote.
The fact that the board may be privy to extra information about the situation “doesn’t cut it for me,” this volunteer wrote. “I respect that Carolyne and Bobbitt do most of the heavy lifting that keeps the Acrosstown going, but it’s still a COMMUNITY theater.”
A director at the Acrosstown said he thought it was wrong that McShane’s arrest was not publicly addressed by the board. But he feels like he can’t advocate for what he sees as better policies without hurting the whole theater, which is “floundering” financially. “If certain people were removed from the board, what would happen to theater?” he said. “Maybe it wouldn’t survive.”
“There’s no way of knowing how many women are not involved in theater in Gainesville because of these behaviors being tolerated.“
He said he doesn’t believe McShane’s case is “some big conspiracy,” or that the board acted maliciously. “It doesn’t surprise me they don’t have a lot of policies,” he said. “Leadership passes through so many hands that the disorganization is to blame. There’s just a lack of organization or ownership.”
In an email to the Fine Print, Salt said the board was working on developing a comprehensive director’s manual for the upcoming season. At the time of the email, the manual did not include a section on what to do in cases of sexual assault or harassment. Salt wrote she had never seen one included in director’s manuals. “If you have suggested wording, I would gladly present it to the board for consideration,” she wrote.
Salt, Arnold and Bobbitt have insisted that the Acrosstown is a “refuge” for theater in Gainesville. “You could join the board tomorrow,” Bobbitt said over the phone. “We’re trying to be welcoming to everyone.”
Bobbitt added that the allegations are “so far off base.” “We’re just flabbergasted you’re coming after a small volunteer theater,” he said.
Jill Burton, a local experimental musician, has volunteered with the Acrosstown in the past. But she said that after hearing about Stacey’s story, she is currently uninterested. She said she doesn’t feel safe in a community that seems to look the other way during instances of alleged sexual assault or misconduct.
“There’s no way of knowing how many women are not involved in theater in Gainesville because of these behaviors being tolerated,” Burton said. “I feel like that’s a much greater loss to the community.”
Watching the #MeToo movement unfold solidified Clara’s decision to speak out: If Harvey Weinstein could be held accountable, so could those in Gainesville who she perceived as standing in the way of her and justice. “From the police or from the court system, I thought that was where the negativity would come from,” Clara said. “I didn’t expect it from a community that I had perceived as progressive.”
Salt said the Acrosstown plans to adopt an anti-harassment policy for its upcoming season. She also said she plans to direct an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” this summer because it touches on themes of #MeToo and women’s empowerment.
Bobbitt told the Fine Print that the board would resign upon this article’s publication. “You’ll see after the article goes out,” he said, declining to comment further.
Bobbitt also wrote in a Facebook message to a friend of Clara’s that McShane would be moving to Chicago in May.
Stacey is starting over in Los Angeles theater, where she hopes to feel safer. Matt recently started a new job and is waiting for another theater to hold auditions that interest him.
As summer approaches, Clara is getting back to what is important to her: telling stories that need to be told. She has continued to be involved in local theater. She said she’s focusing on trying to stay present and positive and to keep being kind, even though “kindness is what got me into this mess.”
For now, she’s going to be wary. She’s seen firsthand how kindness can be abused. “I am way more aware,” Clara said, “that just because people are a part of the community, or accepted in the community, doesn’t mean they’re good.” •
*Names have been changed.