UPDATED: 11 a.m. June 3.
Two new projects from Brian Clowdus — one in metro Atlanta, another in Virginia — have drawn strong pushback from Atlanta theater artists who claim that he was emotionally abusive, racially insensitive and fostered unsafe working conditions during his decade as founding artistic director at Serenbe Playhouse.
Atlanta-based singer, actor and educator Lilliangina Quiñones was among the first to raise concerns about Clowdus via social media last year as the Black Lives Matter movement gained new visibility. Others then echoed her thoughts. “In Atlanta, we are a tight-knit community, and we know what happened, but not everybody does,” Quiñones says. “What I’ve seen over the years is that he used very young, very impressionable people who were trying to get their foot in the door in the industry. What scares me is that he’ll continue that model.”
In the wake of the allegations, the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture & the Environment — which oversees the playhouse — took the extraordinary step of shutting down the company. In a June 2020 statement, it said it had “suspended all operations, laid off the staff and [would] begin the work to rebuild a new, equitable, welcoming and diverse playhouse.” The company had also faced financial challenges in Clowdus’ final two years.
“The Serenbe Playhouse board was very protective of Brian and his vision, so part of the problem was that we didn’t know what was going on internally, and we were often not told the truth,” Serenbe Institute board chair Deborah Griffin told ArtsATL at the time. “They hid liabilities from us that we didn’t know about.”
Now Clowdus has announced plans to stage two new productions through his for-profit Brian Clowdus Experiences, launched near the end of his playhouse tenure. He says he plans a fall production of The Salem Experience at an as-yet-unidentified spot in metro Atlanta. Blue Toad Hard Cider in Roseland, Virginia, planned to do Oklahoma! in August with Clowdus directing but canceled it when Atlanta theater professionals filled the cidery’s Facebook page with protests, urged it to investigate Clowdus and not to work with him.
A May 21 announcement from Brian Clowdus Experiences now puts Oklahoma! at Mount Rouge Farm, also in Roseland, with run dates of August 19–September 5. Clowdus recently announced that James O’Keefe, the founder of the controversial far-right activist group Project Veritas, will play the lead role of Curly. O’Keefe has no verifiable theater credits.
Julie Trammel is scheduled to play opposite O’Keefe as Laurey. The Atlanta native was Maria in Clowdus’ 2019 production of The Sound of Music and was in his 2018 production of A Christmas Carol at Atlanta’s Wren’s Nest
Clowdus has yet to share details of The Salem Experience, although he’s using the tagline: “You Wanted a Witch Hunt . . . You Got One.”
“For every piece of hate mail I receive, there are 10 emails of excitement and support,” Clowdus said in a statement he emailed to ArtsATL. “People who actually know me, know the truth of these allegations. There might be people who don’t want to work with me anymore, but there is a whole set of audience members and actors who are eager to support not only me but a movement that acknowledges entertainment is not only for the liberal elite. I reiterate my commitment to diverse casting, and I encourage everyone to see the show. In a time where our country is so divided, I think art has the power to unite. I will use my personal experience to fuel my return to the Atlanta area and, based on my inbox, tickets are going to sell very well. Even if you hate me, curiosity always seems to kill the cat.”
Clowdus left Serenbe Playhouse at the end of 2019, has since relocated to Panama City, Florida, and rebranded himself as a Trump-supporting Republican. He’s attended pro-Trump rallies and took to Twitter to voice his approval for the Trump administration and question the results of the 2020 presidential election.
He was photographed at a Trump rally in Dalton earlier this year with Jake Angeli, the shirtless QAnon “shaman” who was arrested following his highly visible participation in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Clowdus, who has declared himself a candidate for a seat in the Florida House, has created GOProductions, with the tagline “A Grand Ole Production Company,” under the Experiences umbrella. Announcing its creation on Twitter in October, he described it a company “specializing in theatrical experiences for GOP events and conservative communities, employing conservative artists.”
Serious allegations from actors, staff and crew about Clowdus’ behavior first began to surface six months after he left Serenbe and continue to bubble up.
Quiñones remains dubious about Clowdus’ latest plans. “I think the way he used ‘witch hunt’ in the marketing suggests that he has absolutely zero remorse about his actions and that he intends to continue business as usual, which included dangerous and abusive conditions for actors, crew and staff,” Quiñones says.
Numerous Serenbe alumni have detailed instances of dangerous conditions and racial insensitivity.
Serenbe’s 2018 staging of Titanic, for example — the one with the famously “sinking” ship — called for cast members to spend time in a pond and sent actor Robert Wayne to the hospital. Bacteria in the water caused his mosquito-bitten leg to swell and, eventually, a quadriceps tendon burst, Wayne says. He was hospitalized for nine days, in a nursing home for two weeks and then on antibiotics. He lost six months’ of work.
“It nearly killed me,” says Wayne, who won a Suzi Bass Award for his work as Herr Schultz in Serenbe’s 2017 Cabaret. “Given what so many people have reported that [Clowdus] did, I don’t think it’s a good idea for him to be at the helm of something. His artistic vision was always what was paramount — that and getting media attention.”
Wayne says the playhouse’s management team reached out to him during his illness but that he didn’t hear from Clowdus.
An actor in 2018’s The Little Mermaid “wasn’t given (union-mandated) assistance connecting to a zipline,” according to a Twitter post from actor-singer Galen Crawley, a 2015 Suzi Bass Award winner for Mary Poppins at Aurora Theatre. “He fell eight feet onto a lower platform. Thank GOD he didn’t fall the 30 feet to the stage.”
Shelby Folks, a Serenbe apprentice seen in Evita, Secret Garden and Carousel in 2015–16, says she shared her opinions about working conditions there and was not invited back. “Brian was a master at gaslighting — making you feel small and useless but then acting like you were crazy when you confronted him,” Folks says. “That was my experience with him after I left and during my time there. I could not speak out for a long time because he convinced me that I was the problem.
Quiñones posted on Facebook a list of microagressions she experienced while working on Serenbe’s Ragtime in 2019. They included — but were not limited to — Clowdus allowing extra uses of the N-word in dialogue and centering the piece around the experiences of the White women characters instead of the Black characters as written.
According to Chris Brent Davis, who music directed Ragtime, an actor was rehearsing a scene for which he was not off-book and unknowingly added extra uses of the N-word. Brian did not allow stage management to correct the mistake. Instead, he spurred the actor on, provoking anger, and more uses of the N-word, until he felt the scene had reached the stakes it needed.
“There had not been a space created where the use of that word was taken very seriously,” Davis says. “It was a very tense rehearsal — and there was no chain of command to discuss this. Brian asked us all to go through his assistant, an apprentice, with questions rather than through him.”
Quiñones also has publicly detailed memories of racist jokes being told in rehearsals for A Christmas Carol at the Wren’s Nest.
Tara Moses, who directed The True Story of Pocahontas at Serenbe in 2019, described her experience there as unusual from the start. In a Facebook post, she said that numerous White staff members commented that the actor playing the title character looked too White to be Native American, so her image wasn’t used in marketing materials as was common practice.
She said that she was told by the stage manager that the production was put on the schedule because it would “look good to do a Native show.” The True Story of Pocahontas used the Native perspective on the story, which is vastly different than the version popularized by Disney. After the first run, according to Moses, Clowdus sent her an email that insulted the playwright’s work, asked that she add in “happy songs” and made a comment that the actress wasn’t sexy enough. “If he read [the] dramaturgical packet he would have understood just how racist, colonial, and sick it was to ask an actress who was portraying a ‘child’ that was kidnapped, raped, and murdered to do those things,” Moses wrote.
During rehearsals, Moses expressed concerns about the safety of the tree built for Pocahontas to climb and about setting audience expectations through culturally conscious marketing — specifically making sure that children did not come to the show dressed as Disney’s Pocahontas or wearing Native costumes, and learning why that would be racist. She says that Pocahontas’ production director told her that she could have safety rails or audience education but not both. She chose the safety of her actor.
Moses, a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Muscogee Nation, filed a complaint with the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.
In Serenbe Institute’s 2020 annual report, Griffin said the nonprofit had formed an Artistic Values Task Force that included aggrieved workers and theater community thought leaders.
“Amid serious complaints from former actors, staff and crew, we began the difficult job of reviewing our employment practices with a focus on racial and gender discrimination as well as unsafe work practices,” she wrote. “Our guide was the information we received from the brave people who came forward with their stories as well as feedback we got from [the task force]. Through many difficult and painful meetings, we began to see a new way forward . . . [and] emerged with inspired new ideas of how to move into a new era of equitable and professional operation.”
The report says a new version of Serenbe Playhouse will be unveiled in 2021.
Plans continue to stage “Oklahoma!”
Atlanta theater artists quickly began to respond on Facebook to Blue Toad’s initial announcement that it would stage Clowdus’ version of Oklahoma!.
“Please do some research and rethink this decision,” stage manager Ellen Curry (a onetime Serenbe production manager) said in a representative post. “The amount of abuse he has done both individually and collectively to the Atlanta theater community is insurmountable. I would hate to have artists in other communities suffering on his behalf, as well.”
Blue Toad initially answered some of the Facebook posts, saying it never had and never would support racism and hate, was trying to collect feedback from personal experiences and requested direct emails. Later it announced it was not proceeding with Oklahoma! but that the production would be staged elsewhere.
ArtsATL reached out to Blue Toad representatives several times by phone and email and received a generic response. “We had been looking for theatrical performances much like our friends at Wintergreen Resort, when they had The Sound of Music,” the email said. “This performance was embraced by our community not only as attendees but many participated as actors and stagehands. Our company, after speaking with many and resort leadership from this performance in 2019, felt that this partnership with the Brian Clowdus Experience would be 100 percent the right direction. We heard nothing but great reviews from actors, audience members and local partners in Nelson County. However, as we announced it on our media platforms we heard feedback from around the Southeast, and with this we have decided not to move forward with Oklahoma! on our farm.”
Mount Rouge Farm’s May 21 Facebook post announcing it would host Oklahoma! has not provoked a similar firestorm, but Atlanta artists have talked about picketing and have shared their concerns with Concord Theatricals, which licenses the rights to the show.
They’re unimpressed with Concord’s response. “Way to completely disregard my concerns and the concerns of so many theater artists,” wrote playwright Quinn Xavier Hernandez, in one of 50-plus follow-up posts. Skye Passmore, a member of Atlanta Theatre Artists for Justice, described the response as “milquetoast” and urged Atlanta theater companies to step up. “While you’re planning your seasons for the return of in-person productions,” he wrote, “take this response from Concord Theatricals into account.”
Atlanta theater artists are organizing an email-writing campaign aimed at Concord and discussing other strategies, according to multiple Facebook comments.
Galen Crawley, part of the playhouse’s 2013 cast of Hair, says working at Serenbe was easily the worst professional experience of her life. She has no interest in going out with picket signs though, and prefers another approach. “I think it’s so important to warn artists away,” she says. “Before we get to the point of him staging this, I want everyone to know to stay away from this guy. He is dangerous.”
Folks thinks there will be some response from the Atlanta community, whether physical or behind the scenes, and has pondered whether she’d join an on-site protest. “There has been talk that we don’t want to feed the fires,” she says. “He feeds off of attention and craves drama.”