British Columbia

Vancouver kids theatre cuts ties with artistic director after bullying, harassment allegations

Vancouver's Carousel Theatre, which specializes in productions for children, has cut ties with its artistic director and is promising other changes following allegations of a toxic work environment by dozens of former staff and crew.

More than 60 ex-staff and contract workers from Carousel Theatre pen letters detailing toxic work environment

Actors allege the Carousel Theatre for Young People was a toxic work environment, where people were bullied and harassed. (Carousel Theatre for Young People/Facebook)

A Vancouver theatre company specializing in productions for children has cut ties with its artistic director and is promising other changes following allegations of a toxic work environment by dozens of former staff and crew.

More than sixty people wrote letters calling out the Carousel Theatre for Young People  — a popular theatre group known for its productions of Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh — for being an abusive place to work, characterized by a culture of bullying and harassment perpetuated by some of its leaders.

Facing backlash on social media and an online petition calling for improved working conditions, the company says it "mutually agreed to part ways" with its artistic director Carole Higgins. It's also pledged to restructure its leadership team.

"We will be working to rebuild a theatre that is inclusive, creates opportunity, and provides a safe place for everyone," said the company in an official statement posted to its website.

Carousel's productions are geared toward young children to help develop emotional literacy.

Toxic work environment

Workers began publicly voicing their experiences at the theatre company after Carousel issued a statement speaking out against racism and oppression amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.

In a public Facebook post, BIPOC actor Kaitlyn Yott detailed her experience on a production of Peter Pan where she says she was pressured into performing stunts and ignored when she would voice concerns over her safety. She said her requests to bring in a stunt director were denied.

"...I ended up severely injured in both of my knees halfway through the run. I was barely able to walk and I was in excruciating amounts of pain," she wrote.

Since then, a petition calling on the company to improve its working conditions and leadership has generated more than 400 signatures.

Former Carousel contract workers Dani Fecko and Kayla Dunbar have been urging ex-staff and contractors who were bullied or harassed to speak out.

More than 60 people have written letters to Carousel's board detailing negative experiences at the company, Fecko said.

"We would be used against each other," said Fecko. "Inevitably, in every production, there would be one staff member or one artist that was the scapegoat for everything, and would be pulled out and bullied. There was a lot of bad mouthing of each other to each other behind closed doors. There was a lot of manipulation."

Fecko says many contract workers were afraid to voice their concerns to management out of fear of not being hired back.

"I always knew that was happening, I just never knew how bad it was," she added.

The Carousel Theatre for Young People puts on productions geared toward young children to help develop emotional literacy, according to the theatre's website. (Tim Matheson/Carousel Theatre for Young People/Facebook)

Calling for change

Dunbar and Fecko say they aren't satisfied with Carousel's statement, noting that there is no specific apology within it.

"There's still a lot of work to do and it is very frustrating that there hasn't been accountability taken by the board, or by Carole," said Dunbar. "The public hasn't been told how [Carousel] is moving forward."

The pair are scheduled to meet with the Carousel board president on Wednesday to discuss how to create a more inclusive work environment. They're are calling for the theatre to provide a healing space for those who have endured bullying.

"That means bringing in facilitators and mental health support for people to come and heal and get used to being in that space again in a safe way," said Fecko.

Fecko says the organization remains a cornerstone for Vancouver's artistic community, and plays a crucial role getting young children acquainted with theatre. The pair are also calling for a committee of artists and industry leaders to guide the theatre going forward.

"We want that work to keep going ... it's a vital piece of this community," she said.

CBC News tried to contact artistic director Carole Higgins on Sunday, but has yet to hear back from her.

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