Women say ex-Rochester theater executive sexually harassed them

Former Rochester Civic Theatre Executive Director Gregory Stavrou
Former Rochester Civic Theatre Executive Director Gregory Stavrou speaks at a benefit for the theater on Sept. 24, 2016.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

It was the night he tried to put his hand up her skirt that Katie Hawley said Gregory Stavrou went too far.

Hawley was a 19-year-old volunteer at the Rochester Civic Theatre in 2010 when Stavrou, the theater's executive director, and his girlfriend invited Hawley and her male friend, another theater volunteer, to an upscale restaurant in downtown Rochester.

Over dinner, Hawley said Stavrou told her she reminded him of an old love with nice legs. "And then he wanted to see my legs, and started reaching his hand up my skirt."

Disgusted, Hawley and her friend began to leave but then paused, worried Stavrou and his companion were too drunk to drive. Instead, they drove the pair to Stavrou's home, where Hawley said Stavrou's propositioning continued. As Hawley and her friend helped Stavrou inside, she said Stavrou suggested group sex.

"He tells his girlfriend, 'Take them upstairs and seduce them,'" Hawley recounted in an interview last month. She said she kept the incident quiet for years because she didn't want to jeopardize her place at the theater.

Stavrou left the theater this spring after nearly a decade as its executive director, citing health reasons.

His resignation, however, came shortly after six people, including Hawley, told the board they had been subjected to unwelcome sexual advances from Stavrou over the course of his time there.

One of those complaints came from someone who had already told the theater's board about Stavrou's unwanted sexual advances in 2008.

Rochester Civic Theater volunteers protest the theater's board in June.
Rochester Civic Theatre volunteers protest the theater's board on a rainy afternoon, June 12, 2017. Volunteers say they're unhappy with how the board has handled a number of personnel and policy issues in recent months, and want the current board leadership to step down.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

The complaints — some anonymous — surfaced only after an internal dispute about whether the theater's latest production should have an intermission boiled over, angering many of the community volunteers the theater relies on to function.

As anger over the theater board's oversight gained steam, MPR News interviewed these six people and one more who said they personally had been subjected to unwelcome sexual advances from Stavrou. All of them were adults at the time the encounters with Stavrou took place.

Stavrou, 60, has not responded to numerous attempts by MPR News over the past six weeks to reach him by email and telephone, and through friends and family members. His only available comments come from a 2011 email response to a complaint saying, "I believe in a transparent, candid, respect based work environment."

Gregory Stavrou danced with long-time theater patron Jean Dain Waters.
Former Rochester Civic Theatre Executive Director Gregory Stavrou danced with theater patron Jean Dain Waters at a benefit held in 2015.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

During his nearly 10 years as executive director, Stavrou was praised by supporters and critics alike for lifting the theater's visibility at a time when it was struggling financially. He was in charge in a period when the theater received a total of $1.3 million in government grants.

When he departed the theater, Stavrou declared his tenure a success.

"It's been a good nearly a decade," Stavrou told Rochester's KROC radio in April. "I've gotten a lot of good work done. And I'm really looking forward to what new leadership will bring to the theater."

But many theater volunteers MPR News interviewed said in that decade Stavrou became well-known for going too far with the theater's female volunteers and staff.

Hawley said she noticed Stavrou's advances toward women shortly after he started working for the theater in 2008. She was 17 at the time. She and others say Stavrou gave them alcohol at theater events though they were underage, and that he had a habit of touching female volunteers.

"There was a lot of close contact, face-rubbing, arm-grazing," she said. "And it became a thing where people would just say, 'Oh, that's just Gregory.'"

Elizabeth Brophy kept her experiences with Stavrou quiet for the same reason as Hawley — she didn't want to risk her position in the theater.

Brophy worked for the theater's youth program for seven years. She said she changed the way she dressed and behaved to stop Stavrou's unwanted touches and comments about her body.

She said Stavrou forced an unwelcome kiss on her lips at a theater party in 2012 when she was 23. It left her aghast.

"I'm thinking, 'You're my boss, you provide my paycheck, I don't want to make a scene that would affect that, but you did just grab me and kiss me in public,'" Brophy said in an interview. "What do I do here?"

The Rochester Civic Theater benefit on Sept. 24, 2016.
The Rochester Civic Theatre benefit on Sept. 24, 2016. Even former Executive Director Gregory Stavrou's critics credit him for raising the visibility of the theater at time when it was struggling financially.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Unwanted sexual advances in theater are "such an accepted practice," said Leah Cooper, founding director of the Minnesota Theater Alliance, a nonprofit that works with and advocates for theaters across the state.

Sexual harassment goes unchecked, she said, because salaried directors and administrators have all the power, and actors, who work on contract, have none. It's rare for someone to report harassment to those in charge.

"Every actor knows that if they upset a director, that director is not going to hire them again," Cooper said.

At least one former theater staff member said she's frustrated it took so long for allegations of Stavrou's behavior to surface.

Marann Faget owns a custom clothing and costume shop in Rochester. Her tenure at the theater overlapped with Stavrou's for two years.

After she'd left the theater, her path and Stavrou's occasionally crossed. She said that during one theater-related event, Stavrou leaned in, grabbed her arm and aggressively demanded a kiss.

Faget said women doubt they'll be taken seriously and fear being savaged if they speak up.

"I'm a 56-year-old woman. They'll look at me and say, 'Oh, yeah, like Gregory is going to try and kiss you,'" Faget said. "You get raked over the coals."

One Rochester Civic Theatre volunteer did come forward after receiving an unwanted advance from Stavrou.

In 2008, shortly after Stavrou started working for the theater, volunteer stage manager Melanie Ellsworth informed three board members — Kate Bender, Lynne Drumm and Sharon Tennis — that Stavrou had suggested a sexual encounter to her. He was married at the time.

Those board members asked Ellsworth, who was 23 years old at the time, if she wanted to confront Stavrou, and some accompanied her when she did.

"He completely denied everything," said Ellsworth, who now works for a division of Minnesota Public Radio. "To have someone tell you that your experience didn't happen makes you feel crazy. You can't go forward from there if someone is in complete denial. There's nothing you can do."

Bender worries now that she and her fellow board members didn't do enough.

Ultimately, they followed Ellsworth's wishes to drop the issue, Bender added.

"If Melanie wanted to do something, go completely to the board and say, 'This is what happened ... these are the facts,' I would have supported her completely," Bender said.

Bill O'Brien, a Minneapolis employment lawyer, said the board should have launched a formal investigation.

"The notion that you were going to ask the complainant to confront the person they are complaining about is horrible protocol. Absolutely horrible," said O'Brien, who has no connection to the Rochester Civic Theatre complaints.

Launch a formal investigation is exactly what Stavrou's prior employer, a Twin Cities arts organization, did when an employee complained Stavrou harassed four staffers. Shortly after the investigation concluded in early 2006, Stavrou left the organization, which MPR News has agreed not to name because it involves sensitive personnel information.

Two years later, in 2008, the Rochester Civic Theatre hired Stavrou.

His background check and references yielded nothing "untoward," said Sharon Tennis, who served as the theater board's president then. She said she personally addressed any complaints brought directly to her. She declined to describe exactly what complaints were brought to her or how she addressed them.

Tennis did not respond to questions about whether she knew Stavrou was investigated for sexual harassment at a previous employer.

Tennis also fielded a complaint from volunteer Jonathan Allan in 2011. He wrote Tennis to say that Stavrou's behavior was inappropriate and he warned Stavrou could put the theater "on the losing end" of a "sexual harassment lawsuit."

In an email response to Allan, Stavrou apologized, writing that a comprehensive meeting with Tennis identified "follow-up processes and expectations." He also disputed some of Allan's statements as "factually incorrect, personally hurtful and offensive in the extreme."

It was a year later that Brophy said Stavrou kissed her on the lips.

In March of this year, as the dispute over whether the spring play should have an intermission reached a fever pitch, theater volunteers unleashed a flurry of complaints about Stavrou, including previously unreported — and in some cases anonymous — harassment accusations.

Those who filed complaints say no one from the current board spoke with them.

Board president Heather Holmes said the board took those complaints seriously, although she added that she found it odd that complaints dating back years suddenly surfaced because of the intermission dispute.

"They were anonymous, and as far as allegations go, we review and investigate all allegations that we have the ability to do so with," Holmes said.

Holmes declined to say more, saying she can't legally discuss personnel issues.

Stavrou, she added, left the theater in better financial shape. "He was one of the reasons the institution in the past decade had come out of the red."

A decade later, however, former board member Drumm wishes the board had done more to address Stavrou's behavior.

After she became aware of Ellsworth's complaint about Stavrou's sexual proposition in 2008, Drumm told Stavrou never to let it happen again.

"He didn't cross his heart, he didn't swear on his mother's grave or anything," Drumm said, describing the interaction. "He was just like 'OK, OK...'"

Now, she said she's realizing his behavior never stopped.

"I'm hearing from more, and more, and more women who have stories," Drumm said. "I had no idea it was that widespread. They just quit volunteering."

MPR News reporter Marianne Combs contributed to this report.

Editor's note: The Rochester Civic Theatre's incoming board president is Kay Hocker. She is also regional manager for Minnesota Public Radio in Rochester.

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