Shadowbox's #MeToo Reckoning

Dave Ghose and D.A. Steward
Stacie Boord

It’s a Friday night in late January, and all hands are on deck at Shadowbox Live. While the worker bees in nearby office buildings are calling it a day, the Brewery District theater company’s “metaperformers” are just getting started. They’re chopping vegetables, selling tickets, making phone calls, waiting on tables, even cleaning toilets. Then, when the audience is nestled in seats with cocktails in hand, the disparate crew of actors, singers, musicians and dancers come together on the cabaret stage for the evening’s music and comedy revue. It’s an impressive feat of teamwork, and it shows why Shadowbox’s late leader, Stev Guyer, used to call the company “the Navy Seals of theater.”

Stacie Boord, now the captain of the Shadowbox ship, sits in a corner conference room as that controlled chaos occurs elsewhere in the building. Though he’s been dead for nearly two years, Guyer is still looking over her shoulder—in the form of a framed 8-by-10-inch photo of him and Saturday Night Live alum Garrett Morris on a nearby table. For its first three decades, Guyer, the long-haired visionary who built Shadowbox into the largest resident ensemble theater in the country, was the face of the company. Then in late 2016, he was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Guyer was forced to resign, and Boord, his longtime collaborator and friend, replaced him as the company’s leader. Despite those difficult circumstances, the transition has seemed remarkably smooth. Shadowbox has continued to churn out new shows, generate impressive ticket sales and attract a growing pool of grants and contributions. But as everyone in show business knows, looks can be deceiving.

Boord is a vivacious platinum blond belter who’s been a fixture in Shadowbox productions since “Dawn of Infinite Dreams,” Guyer’s rock opera about Merlin the magician that launched the company in the late 1980s. But as she talks about Guyer’s legacy, a pall descends over the former high school cheerleader. Her spunk begins to disappear. Her answers grow more somber. Her glittering smile evaporates.

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Guyer was brilliant but difficult, she says, charming but unpredictable. She cherishes some of his eccentricities, such as the odd way he spelled his first name, and admires his artistic courage. On a wall is a mounted sword from “Tenshu,” one of Guyer’s risky passion projects, a Kabuki rock musical that proved to be a surprising commercial and critical success. Yet Guyer took chances offstage, too. And when Boord took over the company, she found herself cleaning up a monumental mess caused by his recklessness.

Guyer was long known as a harsh boss, and his multiple romantic relationships with Shadowbox subordinates over the years were something of an open secret. But his behavior also crossed the line into harassment, sexual misconduct and bullying, five former employees tellColumbus Monthly. They accuse Guyer of making lewd comments, touching them without permission and forcibly kissing them, while 10 other former employees describe a broader toxic culture, including other male employees making crude remarks and slapping women’s butts. Two former female employees allege that a current Shadowbox performer assaulted them while they were on the job, reaching down their pants and inserting a finger in their vaginas.

The allegations put Boord on the hot seat, forcing her to confront this history of troubling behavior within her organization. Over the past three years, she’s been attempting to transform a freewheeling theater company steeped in raunch, rebellion and rock-and-roll into a kinder, gentler arts organization (at least offstage, anyway). And she’s had to do it while also sorting through her own complicated feelings about the flawed man at the center of the controversy. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. “I didn’t know that side of him.”

In 1988, Guyer, a guitarist and drummer, and his then-girlfriend, Rebecca Gentile, founded Shadowbox as a ragtag, all-volunteer troupe dedicated to performing his rock operas. From those humble roots sprouted a truly unique Columbus arts organization: a multidisciplinary theatrical company with an outsized ambition and a rebellious, DIY spirit. Guyer was the undisputed Renaissance man at the heart of the organization, and when he died in March 2018, the Columbus arts community honored him as one of its most creative and shrewd arts leaders.

Yet there were also hints of Guyer’s darker side. “He had wonderful things [about him] and not-so-wonderful things, like we all do,” his longtime Shadowbox collaborator Julie Klein toldThe Columbus Dispatch for its obituary. “The bigger the personality, the bigger the extremes can be, I guess.”

Under Guyer’s leadership, Shadowbox was experimental, adventurous and in-your-face. Guyer used to read scathing reviews of Shadowbox productions from the stage, and the company’s house band, BillWho?, was named after the former Dispatch music writer Bill Eichenberger, who’d panned the group. Shadowbox performers seemingly had a chance to do it all—act, sing, dance, play music, probably even belly dance if that was their passion. In return for those opportunities, Guyer demanded sacrifice, long hours and extreme devotion, counting on his team not only to perform on stage but also to help out in the kitchen, write press releases and take on other less-than-glamorous duties. “I admired him just for his determination,” says Matt Buchwalter, a drummer in the house band for about 20 years until leaving Shadowbox in 2017. “The best way I can describe it is, he was not a very good singer. He was not a very good musician. He was not a very good actor. But what he was really good at was getting people to believe in what he wanted them to believe.”

He was also fiercely independent, refusing until recent years any external oversight or grant money, unusual for an arts organization. He didn’t want outsiders questioning his ideas and vision. “I’ve always thought of Shadowbox as not really a part of the theater community,” says Acacia Duncan of Available Light Theater. “There is a lot of cross-pollination that happens in the scene here. For the most part, everyone works at many different theaters. But if you’re in Shadowbox, you’re only in Shadowbox.” The insular environment “feeds the possibility of #MeToo situations,” Duncan says.

From the beginning, Guyer had romantic relations within the company. “Stev was a womanizer of epic proportion,” Boord says. “That was not a secret.” Boord acknowledges she had a relationship with Guyer for about two years in the early ’90s. “I was young and dumb,” she says.

Gentile says she left the company in 2002 after she discovered Guyer’s chronic infidelity, which sent her into a spiral that eventually led to a suicide attempt. When she confronted Guyer about his affairs, he didn’t deny them. “I think he named off 25 people that day,” Gentile says. Guyer’s messy love life became even more problematic as Shadowbox grew into a more successful and hierarchical institution. Since 2011, Guyer had serious relationships with three Shadowbox performers, Boord says. “It was very difficult to manage because he would go from one relationship and then he would start another, and the pain that goes along with the breakup was here in these four walls,” she says.

Guyer’s affairs tainted artistic decisions. If his latest fling was cast in a prominent role, other performers would cry foul, alleging bias even if other members of the Shadowbox production team were involved in the decision. “Perception is reality,” says David Whitehouse, a member of Shadowbox’s executive team. “It weakened our position because we had to suddenly defend it.” Boord says she’d confront Guyer about his romantic life, but he refused to change. “He would feel like this is the one, and he would make that woman feel like this is the one, and I’m sitting there going, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Both Boord and Whitehouse say they knew only of consensual relationships involving Guyer, but several former Shadowbox employees also accuse him of harassment and predatory behavior. They tell stories of Guyer attempting to cause friction in their romantic relationships, cornering them alone at vulnerable moments and making suggestive comments, such as,

“I love to see you jiggle down the hall,” and, “If you knew what I did to you in my dreams last night, you would be wet right now.” A few incidents:

  • Megan Hargest, who worked at Shadowbox in 2013 and 2014, says Guyer slapped her butt while she was working upstairs in the Brewery District theater after previously making lewd remarks to her. “If he would touch me in that regard, what else could happen?” she recalls thinking. “Do I need to fear for my safety?”

  • Jennifer “Red” Hahn, a singer, keyboardist and actor from 1999 to 2014, says Guyer was “handsy” with her during costume fittings. She also says he cornered her once when they were alone in his office. “I was about to leave, and he put his hand on the door and wouldn’t let me leave and shoved his tongue down my throat. I froze and left mortified.”

  • Debra Capps, an employee from 2001 to 2002, was working in the box office when Guyer grabbed her hips, pressed himself against her (she says he was aroused) and whispered in her ear, “Don’t worry. We’ll do more of that later.”

  • An employee who worked at Shadowbox in the late ’90s and early 2000s says Guyer asked her to reorganize the files in his office. While she was working on the floor, Guyer wheeled back in his chair, spread his legs and said, “While you’re down there.” The employee laughed, but Guyer didn’t move. “I got the hint that he wasn’t joking, and I shut the file drawer, got up and left,” says the employee, who requested anonymity. In another incident, Guyer grabbed her breasts while her arms were raised above her head as she was drawing a timeline on a board. “He looked at me and just started laughing, and he goes, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” she recalls.

  • Another employee who worked at Shadowbox from 2005 to 2009 was alone with Guyer in the company’s Easton theater when he asked her if she’d ever been kissed before by a “real man.” He then pressed her against a wall and forcibly kissed her. The woman, who requested anonymity, pushed him away, fled his office and threw up and cried in a bathroom.

The experiences devastated the former employees. Some suffered nightmares—or “Shadowmares,” as they call them—and felt overwhelmed by grief, anger and depression. Others lost their artistic passion, giving up theater and music because of the association with Shadowbox. “I told my mom when I got back that I felt like I need to crawl in a hole,” Capps says. Hahn started abusing alcohol, her marriage to a fellow Shadowbox performer fell apart, and her physical and mental health deteriorated after she was fired and disconnected from the organization that defined her for 15 years. “I lost my entire identity when I left Shadow,” Hahn says. “I basically felt excommunicated from the church of Guyer.”

Inspired by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in 2018, Hahn started a private Facebook group called #MeTooOutoftheShadows. She invited about 30 former Shadowbox employees to join the group and shared her own tale of harassment. Quickly, others offered their personal horror stories, and within 48 hours, the group had expanded to 41 women. “I think it helped me work through some of my own shame, knowing that I wasn’t the only one who was duped,” Hahn says.

Boord’s upbeat and consistent leadership style is different from her predecessor’s. “I’m a cheerleader,” Boord says. “I’m happy, and I want to take care of people.” The same wasn’t always true of Guyer, who was famous for his lack of a filter and lacerating tongue. While Guyer’s harsh comments would beat down many performers, Boord’s direct but positive style “makes you feel like she’s got your best interest at heart,” Whitehouse says. Adds Eryn Reynolds, who’s been with the company since 2016: “Under Stacie’s supervision, it’s become way less dramatic.”

After learning about the allegations against Guyer in December 2017, Boord tightened the company’s employment procedures and anti-harrassment policies and hired Group Management Services, an employment services specialist, to oversee human resources. Many of Guyer’s accusers say they felt powerless to report his behavior, and Boord wants to encourage her employees to speak up. Boord points to two incidents in which she has activated the harrassment policy since replacing Guyer: once when an inebriated patron got “handsy” with a performer/server and another time when kitchen workers made crude comments to a group of performers. Boord gave the patron a warning after consulting with his victim, who didn’t want to ban him from the theater, and the kitchen workers quit after Boord confronted them about their actions. Reynolds reported the kitchen incident in a staff meeting, and then Boord and her team immediately responded. “They nipped it in the bud, and that’s more than you can ask for,” Reynolds says.

Boord is walking a tricky line. She appears to have the support of both her board of trustees, a relatively new entity that was formed in late 2016, just before Guyer resigned, and the broader Columbus arts community, where she’s earned a significant amount of goodwill with her collaborative approach and community involvement (she’s a member of the Greater Columbus Arts Council board). Previously, the fiercely independent Guyer had refused to allow outside oversight of Shadowbox, but Boord and others urged him to change course, a decision that allowed Shadowbox to begin collecting operating support funds from GCAC, the city’s quasi-public arts agency. Shadowbox board chair Carol McGuire describes Boord as an “accomplished, fair, impartial individual,” and says she and other trustees are confident in her leadership.

Guyer’s accusers, however, remain skeptical. They alerted GCAC about Shadowbox’s troubling history in 2018, but the arts council continued to support the theater company in its next funding round in 2019. That decision occurred even as GCAC withheld money from the Columbus Dance Theatre following revelations of former artistic director Tim Veach’s behavior with two dance students. “If you’re going to make morality judgments, you got to make them across the board,” says Bret Adams, a lawyer who’s beenworking with Guyer’s accusers. GCAC cited “leadership misconduct” as one of the reasons for its Columbus Dance Theatre decision, but Tom Katzenmeyer, GCAC’s chief executive, describes Shadowbox as a “very, very different situation.” He says GCAC had about a half-dozen additional concerns with the dance company, in addition to the police investigation that attracted the most media attention. (Veach was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of providing alcohol to a minor.) Katzenmeyer and Jami Goldstein, GCAC’s marketing chief, also praise Boord’s leadership, saying they’re confident that Shadowbox is a safe place for women today.

Still, Shadowbox critics question whether someone who worked so closely alongside Guyer for so long can really change its culture. While working for the company six years ago, Megan Hargest says she told Boord about Guyer’s harassment. In response, Hargest says, Boord recommended she “let him down easy, make a joke, and he’ll move on.” That answer left Hargest feeling helpless. “If the CEO can harass and do anything to anyone at any time, what standard do you set for anybody else in the company?” she asks. Boord says she recalls her conversation with Hargest as a more general discussion about feeling uncomfortable in the workplace, and that they didn’t discuss Guyer specifically.

What’s more, in a December 2017 email sent to Boord and other Shadowbox leaders, Anne Remy, a former intern with the company, accused another Shadowbox performer who is still with the group of a 2006 assault in the balcony of the company’s Easton theater. Remy alleges the performer ran behind her, put a hand down her pants and inserted a finger in her vagina. Another former Shadowbox employee who was in the balcony at the time corroborated Remy’s story in an interview withColumbus Monthly. Hahn, the keyboard player and singer, also says the male performer assaulted her during a performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the night before her wedding in 2002. During a guitar solo, the performer touched her breast and put a hand down her pants on stage, Hahn says. “Afterwards, he just thought it was the funniest thing ever,” Hahn says. No one in the audience or in the band seemed to notice the incident, Hahn says, and she never told anyone about it until recently. “I couldn’t; he was already in Stev’s graces,” she says, adding that “it was clear that things like that just happened, and they were not to be talked about.”

Boord says she decided to continue to employ the male performer after he denied the assault against Remy and assured her he understood the gravity of the allegation. She says she wasn’t able to get much additional information from Remy about her claim, and that she was unaware of the corroborating witness or the additional incident involving Hahn. “I’ve never gotten a complaint about him,” she says. “He’s so mild-mannered.”

Does Boord believe Hahn, Remy, Hargest and the other ex-employees? “I do believe they’re hurt,” she says. Though she says she hasn’t experienced harassment at Shadowbox from Guyer or anyone else, she welcomes the scrutiny now. She says she’s experienced her share of #MeToo moments throughout her life, starting at 13 with a high school teacher who asked her if she “wanted to screw.”

“Thank God for #MeToo,” she says, “Our industry needed to wake up. I needed to wake up.”

“Are you ready to get funky?” asks Boord, standing at the center of the Shadowbox stage. The audience cheers, but Boord isn’t satisfied. “C’mon, it’s closing night. Are you ready to get funky?”

Dressed in a low-cut gown and silver boots, Boord hosts “All Funked Up,” a musical celebration of groove masters like Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Kool & The Gang on this evening in late January. The program is ending its three-week run, but the crowd is still plenty enthusiastic after Boord gets them going. The vibe is loose and friendly, more like a party than a concert, and it doesn’t take long for the crowd to fill the dance floor in front of the stage after singer Brandon Anderson kicks off the festivities with James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

For her first number, Boord sings Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” belting out the blaxploitation anthem as a video screen above the stage shows the actor Ron O’Neal, who starred as Youngblood Priest in the 1972 film of the same name, in all his mustachioed and leisure-suited glory. A song about an African American pimp and drug dealer seems like an odd choice for a white woman from Marietta, Ohio, but it begins to make more sense when Boord hits its lyrical climax, about Priest’s efforts to turn over a new page.

“Tryin’ to get over,” she sings. “Tryin’ to get over.”

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