Arts and Humanities
2:53 pm
Tue July 16, 2013

Ex-Kentucky Shakespeare Employees: Former CEO Brantley Dunaway Abusive, Financially Irresponsible

Credit Mathew McFerren/Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Kentucky Shakespeare CEO and producing artistic director Brantley Dunaway resigned Monday, a week after it was revealed his wife and Kentucky Shakespeare actress Madison Dunaway requested and received an emergency protective order against him, alleging domestic abuse.

The action led to the abrupt cancellation of the remainder of the company's run of “Twelfth Night” in Central Park, which Madison Dunaway was starring in. But former employees and documents obtained by WFPL attest to a longer, deeper history of employee abuse and potential financial mismanagement within Kentucky Shakespeare. 

The Play's the Thing

The mid-run cancellation of “Twelfth Night” was unusual—“the show must go on” is a foundational principle of the theater world. When the allegations of domestic abuse surfaced, so did documents outlining former employees' allegations that Dunaway had been verbally abusive and inappropriate toward employees and financially unreliable since he joined the organization in 2010—allegations the board of directors heard last August and did very little to correct.

Former employees described for WFPL the allegations laid against Dunaway.

Dunaway regularly screamed at and insulted them in the workplace, they say. He fostered a work environment that was “inappropriate and sexually charged," they say.

A former administrative employee told WFPL that Dunaway slapped her rear end; a contract employee says Dunaway shoved her.

Several employees also allege financial abuse. They say Dunaway had them babysit his children on company time while he attended work functions. They say he used the company credit card for personal expenses. They say he also used company vehicles inappropriately and had his own clothing dry cleaned under the company's account.

At the time, the company was in debt (as it often was in summertime), and Dunaway was soliciting donations to keep the organization afloat and end the persistent debt cycle that had long-plagued this, the nation's oldest free Shakespeare in the park program.

These issues were among a long list of concerns presented last summer to Allen Harris, who is now chairman of the board, but was chair-elect at the time.

Harris summarized his conversations with frustrated former employees in a meeting of the board's executive committee on Aug. 16. The committee then discussed these issues with Dunaway, who admitted to some and denied others. The committee recommended Dunaway retain his position under an improvement plan that was to be put into place. The full board agreed.

“None of us on the board were pleased to see those issues, and we wanted to make sure they stopped,” Harris told WFPL on Tuesday. “We felt the best thing for us to do at the time was to give him a second chance to correct and improve his behavior.

“Part of the reason why the resignation was tendered this week is because after his administrative leave was begun, people came forward to us with additional allegations. We confronted him with those, and the result of that meeting was his resignation.”

Credit Kentucky Shakespeare

Dunaway spoke with WFPL Tuesday and declined to comment on any employment-related matters at this time.

Harris says he feels the measures the board took over the last year in response to these allegations were sufficient to ensure a safe workplace for employees, given what the board knew at the time.

“We did what we felt was best given the information we had presented to us,” Harris says.

Last Summer: Allegations of Improper Conduct

Board minutes from the August 16, 2012 meeting show the executive committee addressed two primary areas of concern: management of staff and improper use of company funds. No lawsuits were filed.

“Because it’s one person’s word against another, we haven’t been able to substantiate anything, but there have been allegations in the past, yes,” says Harris.

WFPL spoke with eight former employees of Kentucky Shakespeare who worked in a variety of administrative and production roles, full-time and contract, at different times between 2010 and this year. Many of the allegations in the board’s executive committee minutes from August 16 were echoed by multiple sources.

According to their accounts, Dunaway verbally abusing employees was a daily occurrence.

One of the former employees is Charles Allen. He worked for the organization in marketing and development from 2010 through May of 2011. He says Dunaway was often verbally abusive to him and to others in the office.

He describes one incident that began with Dunaway “berating” him over fundraising issues. Things quickly escalated.

“I specifically told him I did not want to have a conversation when he was raising his voice,” Allen says. “He followed me into my office, leaned over my desk, screamed into my face.”

"We were joking about something. He turned around and lifted his hand very high and slapped me on my butt." - Danielle Ferry

Allen goes on to describe a string of profanity Dunaway unleashed.

Danielle Ferry worked for the organization as the office manager, and her tenure overlaps with Allen’s. Ferry also says that there was a pattern of Dunaway being verbally aggressive with staff members, using profanity and raising his voice to her and others.

Dunaway even became physical, Ferry says.

“We were joking about something. He turned around and lifted his hand very high and slapped me on my butt,” Ferry says. “It was enough that it stung for the rest of the day. I had a handprint on my butt.”

Another former employee told WFPL she heard the slap and Ferry’s reaction.

Allen says Dunaway would frequently excuse his actions by saying, “It’s theatre,” a position Dunaway repeated when these actions were brought up in his discussion with the executive committee last August.

“That was his blanket response for anything regarding his behavior that anyone else found objectionable,” says Allen.

'A Pattern of Belligerence'

Former summer production employees say in their experiences as professional theater contractors, the workplace environment under Dunaway’s leadership was unusually volatile—beyond the typical “temperamental artist.”

“He has a pattern of belligerence, a hair-trigger temper, and my own experience with him in the park is that he could be violent,” says one contract employee who worked multiple summer seasons.

She recalls paying for materials out of her own pocket when production funds were not available in the financially troubled summer of 2012, and Dunaway shoving her from behind while giving her a long-awaited reimbursement check.

“I was in complete shock. I could not believe the man laid hands on me,” she says.

“He was never physical in any way before that,” she clarified. “There was a lot of verbal abuse I felt toward myself and other staff members. In fact, it was almost a running joke in the office about who was going to get dragged into the woodshed and screamed at that day. You could hear him screaming at people across the office on a daily basis.”

She points to the organization’s high staff turnover over the last three years as another abnormality.

“In other organizations or with other directors, you might have a personal thing with them or you don’t get along, or whatever. But when you look at the numbers, we all cannot be wrong,” she says.

“[In three years] I think there were four education directors, multiple business office people. He never had the same production manager twice. He never had the same stage manager twice. It wasn’t just one department or one area, it was across the board,” she adds.

She, too, met with board chair Allen Harris after the incident in the park. She says at the time, she felt hopeful the board would do something about her concerns.

Financial Management Concerns

The allegations made last August also included concerns about financial management of the organization. At the time, the organization was in debt and had serious concerns about its ability to move forward, with Dunaway and Harris appealing directly to the community to fund the 2013 summer season in advance.

Last summer’s season in Central Park was characterized by pleas for financial stability, with staff members deferring payment at times so actors could be paid per their union contracts.

The organization emerged from last summer's financial struggles in February with funding secured to produce the summer season, thanks to sizable contributions from philanthropists Christy Brown and James and Marianne Welch. The organization is currently pursuing an ambitious goal of creating a revenue-generating “destination model” festival, launching as soon as next summer, that will include ticketed shows.

Under Dunaway’s leadership, the financial rescue was good news for the struggling organization. But for an arts nonprofit walking a tight margin, former employees say Dunaway wasn’t frugal when it came to his own convenience. More than one former employee described a pattern of unusual financial practices during this precarious time of debt reduction and stabilization.

One example came from Danielle Ferry. Part of her duties as office manager in 2010 included paying bills and issuing checks on behalf of the organization. But Ferry says Dunaway would ask her to babysit his children and pay herself for that work from the company account.

“I babysat for him twice,” she says, adding that Dunaway told her to “cut yourself a check and put it as a stipend.”

“He said the reason was it was an event he had to go to for Kentucky Shakespeare, therefore he felt the childcare should be paid for by the company,” Ferry explains.

What the Board Heard Last August

When the executive committee met on August 13, 2012, to review concerns from former employees regarding Dunaway’s leadership, members had a substantial list of interpersonal and financial concerns that they asked Dunaway to explain, including:

  1. Dunaway fostering an inappropriate and sexually-charged workplace

  2. Dunaway’s verbally abusive behavior toward employees

  3. Dunaway using employees to babysit, paid for by Kentucky Shakespeare

  4. Dunaway often refused to provide itemized receipts for expenses

  5. Dunaway using company accounts, transportation and credit cards for personal use

(The document is posted here, along with excerpts.)

The executive committee met with Dunaway on August 16 to review the complaints. Minutes from that meeting show Dunaway explained that he considered himself “a compassionate friend” of his employees, though he admitted to having a temper and making inappropriate jokes in the office.

Dunaway admitted to using company funds to pay employees to babysit his children while he attended work functions, explaining that his wife Madison had become a “face of the organization,” implying her attendance at events improved fundraising and networking, which justified the expense.

“It wasn’t anything we approved ahead of time,” says Harris. “At the time we learned about those things, we accepted that as the explanation and made him stop that policy immediately.”

Dunaway had explanations that apparently satisfied the board for all allegations of interpersonal and financial impropriety.

The Board Takes Action

The executive committee minutes reflect that discussion regarding Dunaway’s fitness to lead appears to have come down to concerns over whether dismissing him would strain donor relations and whether or not Dunaway accurately understood the company’s precarious financial situation. The committee put together a list of recommendations for new procedures, and proceeded to the full board meeting.

The full board called for a vote to retain Dunaway in his position as CEO, which passed 11-2 on Aug. 16.

Discussion recorded in the minutes of the full board meeting is minimal; one board member who voted against the motion to retain wanted the record to reflect her “distrust in Mr. Dunaway’s leadership,” while another said he voted in favor of retaining Dunaway because he “believes that things can change.”

Board Chair Allen Harris says the board implemented new procedures to “try and at least eliminate the possibility, or the appearance, of impropriety.”

Those changes included requiring Dunaway to complete a personnel management training program. Harris says Dunaway took management courses at the University of Louisville.

“I don’t know the titles of them, but I saw the documentation related to them,” says Harris.

Going forward, at least one member of the executive committee would be involved in the hiring of new staff.

“Because there was some concern that perhaps there were personality conflicts as part of what was going on,” says Harris.

When asked if past allegations look different to him in light of the emergency protective order taken out against Dunaway last week by his wife, who was working on contract with Kentucky Shakespeare at the time, Harris says that while it is concerning to wonder what might have been true in the past, at this point, none of the allegations against Dunaway have been proven.

In response to concerns regarding what the board’s executive committee meeting notes called “improper use of company funds,” the board agreed to require two signatures on all checks over $300 and the panel agreed to hire an outside bookkeeping service to handle all financial transactions and to prepare monthly financial reports.

When Dunaway renegotiated his employment contract with the board a few months later, he received a $20,000 raise, bringing his annual base salary to $92,000.

The stage for 'Twelfth Night.'
Credit Erin Keane/WFPL News

Effective Measures?

According to another former employee who started working for the organization in October 2012, Dunaway's leadership style didn’t significantly change after the August meeting. This employee resigned in March.

Like Ferry, she also paid bills and ran payroll, so as of the end of March, the organization still had not hired an outside bookkeeper. Checks over $300 were not regularly signed by two people, she says.

Harris says the board believed they took sufficient measures to oversee the organization’s finances last August. Check co-signing was only in place for “several months,” Harris says, and the organization has been unable to find a certified accountant bookkeeping service it could afford.

The employee who resigned in March says Dunaway’s practice of having employees care for his children while on the clock continued, and she issued checks to at least one fellow employee who claimed babysitting time on her timesheet.

While she was never asked to babysit Dunaway’s kids, she says one of her paychecks from fall 2012 included hours he had her work at his home assisting his wife, who was recovering from a surgery, with personal matters while Dunaway attended a work function.

She says when hired, Dunaway seemed eager to hear her suggestions for saving money for the struggling organization. But when she questioned Dunaway about on-the-clock babysitting and other spending habits—including Dunaway charging hotel rooms to the company after late-night charitable Bingo sessions because he was too tired to drive home—she says he did not welcome the input.

“We had a long conversation about how what he does with finances is his business, and I needed to keep my mouth shut,” she says. “He said, I’m going to use company funds if I have to do something for work. If I have to go to a function and I need to use a babysitter, I’m going to pay the babysitter from Shakespeare.”

“I’m a single parent, and I had to work Bingo [for the organization] every Saturday night,” she says.

The pattern of verbal belligerence also continued, she says.

“One minute he’s laughing and joking around, the next minute he’s yelling at the top of his lungs. He curses,” she says.

“He totally went off on me one night at Bingo, was in my face. I thought he was going to hit me. He called me stupid,” she adds.

Harris says these new allegations, including the babysitting, were never brought to the board’s attention.

“Had we known about it, we would have put a stop to it,” says Harris.

Wait—Shakespeare Plays Bingo?

Charitable bingo is a popular fundraising event for nonprofits, including the Louisville Orchestra and the Kentucky Opera. Dunaway started running a weekly Bingo night every Saturday at Bingo City on Breckenridge Lane this year.

These nights brought in just under $40,000 by the middle of April, according to board records. This was a coup for the organization, which finally seemed to be on the financial upswing, though fifty percent of the first quarter bingo proceeds would have been spent on Dunaway’s raise.

Harris says he volunteers at Bingo occasionally, and says the organization modeled its efforts on other nonprofits’ approaches.

“It’s projected to net about $100,000 profit by year end,” says Harris. “We were very pleased to get that opportunity, and it’s something we can certainly use to build going forward.”

But the bingo operations may not have been properly managed. Documents obtained by WFPL show that teaching staff members were paid “show stipends”—the amount usually paid for performing in the schools on school days—to work Saturday night Bingo shifts, and they were told to report “administrative duties” on their timesheets for the hours. Leesa Moorman, general counsel and acting director of licensing and compliance for the department of charitable gaming public protection cabinet, says her office would consider Kentucky Shakespeare's actions “a questionable practice.”

Kentucky law says “No person engaged in the conduct and administration of charitable gaming shall receive any compensation for services related to the charitable gaming activities, including tipping."

State Charitable Gaming Commissioner Marty Hammons says charitable Bingo workers must be volunteering their time, even if they work for the sponsoring organization in another professional capacity.

“If those facts were reported to us, we would open an investigation and ascertain whether there was a violation of the compensation statute,” Moorman says.

Harris says he was unaware that Bingo workers were not all volunteers.

“We’ll look into it as best we can,” says Harris. “There’s nothing else I can say at this time.”

Looking Back, and Forward

Brantley Dunaway was the third head of Kentucky Shakespeare in five years. He joined the organization as producing artistic director and CEO in 2010, following Anthony Patton, whose tenure lasted 13 months. Long-time producing artistic director Curt Tofteland retired in 2008.

The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is the oldest running free Shakespeare in the park company in the United States. The organization produces free outdoor productions in Central Park and a year-round educational program that includes school tours and summer camps.

Dunaway came to Louisville after a stint in Hollywood, serving as a co-producer of the 2007 film “Love in the Time of Cholera” and acting in walk-on roles on the soap opera “General Hospital” and the television drama “Criminal Minds.” Before that, he served as artistic director of the New Denver Civic Theatre in Colorado and the Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts, organizations that appear to no longer be producing original shows. He directed theatrical productions in Denver, Los Angeles, and other markets as well.

Harris, who served on the board at the time but not on the search committee that hired Dunaway, says he is not aware if the board had conducted a background check on Dunaway. But he says they were impressed with parts of Dunaway’s resume.

“His connections with the entertainment community nation-wide were things we were impressed by. And the vision he articulated in his interviews was something we were impressed by as well,” he says.

That vision, of a revenue-generated “destination model” theater festival, might not ever come to pass for Kentucky Shakespeare. Harris says he thinks the next CEO should articulate his or her own vision.

The board has met with a local candidate for interim producing artistic director, and Harris says they hope to finalize an appointee by the end of this week. Another national search might not be in the works.

“Our initial focus is not going to be national, because we recognize the need to stabilize the company as soon as possible. There are some excellent candidates in Louisville,” says Harris.

“We’ve actually received multiple expressions of interest from folks, which is really heartening. It’s nice to know so many people in the community are interested in the health of our organization and anxious to help,” he adds.