Former American Conservatory Theater Instructor Files Racial Discrimination Suit

The Geary Theater, home of ACT in San Francisco. (Google Street View)

Stephen Buescher, a former instructor and artistic team member at American Conservatory Theater, alleges in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the San Francisco theater company created a racially hostile environment and systematically discriminated against black artists, faculty, staff and students.

The complaint, filed by Oakland civil-rights firm Medina Orthwein LLP, alleges American Conservatory Theater (ACT) subjected Buescher and other black instructors and students to “racial profiling, tokenism, exploitation, racial casting, disparate treatment and retaliation.”

The complaint accuses former Artistic Director Carey Perloff, who ceded the role to Pam MacKinnon in 2018 after 26 years with ACT, of explicitly refusing to advance black artists because “black plays don’t make money.” It goes on to say black students were forced to play subjugated roles and “costumed to look like minstrels and mammies” in addition to being instructed to act “more ‘ghetto’” while enduring racial epithets from white actors.

Stephen Buescher.
Stephen Buescher. (Courtesy photo)

Treatment of students at ACT, the complaint alleges, involved “segregated youth programs” where minority students were surveilled and “treated like criminals” while white youth went relatively unsupervised and were given door codes. Buescher himself was “physically denied entry to ACT theaters on numerous occasions” by white theater workers, according to the suit.

ACT Director Melissa Smith, according to the complaint, dismissed collective statements from conservatory students concerned about insensitive casting, as well as Buescher’s concerns about racial inequality throughout the institutions. After Buescher took his objections to the ACT board in a formal letter, the suit says he was ostracized and deprived of resources in retaliation.

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The complaint alleges retaliation including withholding of pay and credit on ACT productions.

The suit says Buescher, who has extensive credits on ACT productions, was forced to resign last year. For most of his ten years, he was the only black member of the faculty and artistic team.

“We are deeply saddened by the legal complaint we received from Mr. Buescher this morning,” ACT said in a statement to KQED. “As a former valued member of the [ACT] faculty, Mr. Buescher significantly contributed to the success of the institution, so much so that we made multiple efforts to retain him.”

The statement acknowledges Buescher raising issues with the board “that were inconsistent with our values,” but doesn't address any of the complaint’s specific allegations. ACT’s statement goes on to list institutional changes such as hiring a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant and a new human resources director as well as revising its grievance system and rewriting job postings. (In addition to MacKinnon replacing Perfloff as artistic director, ACT also replaced their interim executive director last year with Jennifer Bielstein.)

The complaint seeks relief measures including a court order requiring ACT to implement programs remedying the hostile work environment, reinstating Buescher in his position or paying in lieu front benefits, and compensatory and punitive damages plus attorneys’ fees.

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