Former performers talked Thursday about an intimidating environment at DSI Comedy after social-media posts about alleged harassment and sexual assault led its founder to step down.
Zach Ward, owner and artistic director of the theater at 462 W. Franklin St., plans to turn over daily operations to someone else on Monday. Some shows, including the Like a Girl Comedy Festival later this month, are postponed, but school director Brandon Holmes will continue to run the summer camps and classes.
If he can’t find someone to buy and operate DSI, Ward said, the theater company he founded in 2001 will close.
Former performers and students, in Facebook posts this week, have accused Ward of mistreating women and workers, and creating a climate that favored some performers over others and discouraged them from taking jobs at other venues.
“The false allegations have already taken a toll on my personal wellbeing as well as my business,” Ward said in a statement posted online.
The strongest allegation was posted by a woman who said Ward pushed her against a table at the theater a few years ago and began having sex with her. The woman said it happened so fast, she didn’t say anything, but later approached Ward to talk about it.
When he tried to have sex with her a second time, she resisted, the woman said in her Facebook post, portions of which were published in an interview with Indy Week.
“He had many excuses,” she said. “His divorce was horrendous. He was abused growing up. He was poor growing up. Many women had wronged him. He was very misunderstood. Managing a theater is hard. Being a single father is hard. Somehow, I ended up in a headspace where I felt incredibly sorry and sad for him.”
Efforts to reach the woman who accused Ward have been unsuccessful; it is The Herald-Sun’s general policy not to name alleged victims of sexual assault.
Ward acknowledged having a romantic relationship with the woman but said it was consensual and their friendship continued for over a year. He’s made mistakes and taken responsibility for them, he said, but the story is false.
“I am not a sexual predator, rapist nor sexual harasser,” Ward said Thursday afternoon in an email to The Herald-Sun.
“I never once forced myself on her or pressured her into anything. Any contention to the contrary is simply not true,” he said. “I am not victim blaming or shaming, however I have not been afforded an opportunity to defend myself against her baseless allegations. In a matter of hours on the internet I was tried, convicted and sentenced for something I did not do.”
Chapel Hill and Carrboro police do not release information about individuals who aren’t charged with crimes. The departments have no records of incidents or investigations involving DSI Comedy’s Chapel Hill location or its former location at Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro.
Another former performer Katie Mayo posted that she had a consensual relationship with Ward in 2007. Ward wanted to keep their relationship a secret and also date other people, Mayo said, but would become possessive if she dated someone else. Ward ended their relationship after six months, she said.
When she started dating her now-husband, Ward told her to stay away from him and started making advances toward her again, Mayo said. When she resisted, Ward asked her why she was still at DSI, she said, and her all-girl group eventually went from performing several times a month to once every few months.
She left in 2009 because she was slowly being pushed out, Mayo said. She didn’t speak up before, because she felt “a lot of insecurities, shame and embarrassment” about the relationship, she said. Several women have contacted her with similar stories since she wrote her post, she said.
“The reason why I haven’t said anything all these years is it just sounds like, oh, he wasn’t a very good boyfriend,” Mayo said. “But there was a power dynamic at play, and there was fear on my end that if I didn’t continue to keep this secret and continue to keep him happy that it was all going to be taken away from me.”
PT Scarborough, who was with DSI from 2003 to 2014, said he left after becoming frustrated with the trouble that Ward would bring on himself. Moving to Franklin Street made DSI “too big for its britches” and added to Ward’s stress, Scarborough said. He later learned about things going on behind closed doors.
“This happens a lot in improv communities and in other theaters,” he said. “If you do start dating, theaters like this, we don’t have an HR [department], nobody is protected by any kind of rule of law, so when the relationship ends ... she is outed in a way. She becomes the victim in the scenario.”
Ward said he tried to address allegations of harassment and potential discrimination that were raised when a group of DSI performers left last year. The theater implemented a Harassment and Discrimination Policy, created a community advocate position and brought a human relations professional in.
He ran the business the best way he could for 17 years, he said.
“Were mistakes made? Sure, as there are in any business. Yet, the business survived,” he said. “DSI did not and does not make money. Frankly, it has been everything I can do to keep DSI afloat. All of the allegations regarding the business are false.”
The system set up in 2005 differed from companies in other communities that asked performers to pay directors and for rehearsal spaces, he said. Instead, a combination of dues and volunteer hours helped subsidize the costs.
“I never took advantage of free labor,” he said. “No one was ever forced to work for or with me and I did not take advantage of anyone.”
Women in entertainment and comedy expect some exploitation, said Wynton Wong, an intern from 2013 to 2015. But she learned later from other gigs that DSI Comedy took it to an extreme, she said.
Working at DSI was uncomfortable, with students working long hours for free on top of paying $50 in dues every two months, she said. The theater also would take 30 percent of the tips they earned from bartending, she said, instead of splitting it among the people who worked the door and serving customers.
Wong said she never heard about any women being sexually assaulted or harassed at DSI, and actively pursued mentorship opportunities for UNC students while she was the UNC Student TV station manager. She asked the current station manager to end those ties after reading the posts, she said.
Vinny Valdivia, who started the Facebook conversation, and another former student Kate Harlow said DSI was a different place after Ward left in 2011 for Boston, where he was the managing director of the nonprofit ImprovBoston. He returned to DSI Comedy in 2013.
Ward controlled everything, from who got to perform to where performers could market their talents, said Valdivia, a former DSI teacher and associate producer. It created an abusive environment where performers were intimidated into seeking Ward’s approval and treated like bad people if they left, he said.
The scene improved briefly but significantly when Ward left and Paula Pazderka took over, Valdivia said. He heard about possible sexual harassment and decided to leave after Ward returned, he said. He now works for a Raleigh comedy theater, where the environment is more friendly and supportive, he said.
Valvidia said he posted the Facebook message, because he felt the need to get people talking.
“Everybody that knew didn’t want to say anything, because they didn’t want to stir the pot. They still have friends at DSI; they just felt bad,” he said. “But after hearing stories from people and knowing all this stuff, I couldn’t be quiet.”