My abuser was exposed, yet he’s still one of the most powerful men on Broadway.

Court Watson
Mar 20 · 14 min read
Court Watson and the man, ca. 2001–2002.
Court Watson and the man, ca. 2001–2002.

When I was in college, a famous man took advantage of me. As the #metoo movement burst wide open, I thought that multiple stories about him would come to light. I was genuinely surprised when only one did. Buzzfeed published an article about another man’s story, and how his harassment and assault at the hands of the same famous man caused him such pain that he left the business he loved, and was forever changed. I was changed too, and surprised that Buzzfeed ran the article with only one man’s story. In my industry, I now know that the famous man has a reputation for inappropriate behavior towards those working under him. The Buzzfeed story exploded onto the scene, and then, like so many others, it just faded away. Perhaps the timing was off; the man had recently been the head of an important organization in our business, but the article didn’t appear until after he was no longer on national television once a year at a major awards show. However, the man has had no fewer than one Broadway show running for the last twenty-five years. If you are reading this, and in any way involved in American theater, you already know who the man is.

Within a week after the article was published, I wrote to the Buzzfeed journalist and we spoke about what happened to me. I gave him multiple contemporaneous witnesses to pieces of my story. After sitting on the topic for a year, his editors decided not to move forward with a follow-up article. It is unclear to me whether more men came forward with stories or if I was the only one. When Buzzfeed dropped the article, the journalist put me in touch with an editor at American Theatre Magazine. It seems they were going to partner with the New York Times, perhaps on a story about patterns of abuse in the theater industry. I repeated all of my story to this editor, along with witness contact information. The editor said that they passed it along to someone at the Times, which decided not to run the story at all. I was told, “there’s not enough to go on.” Both journalists recorded my statements. I am certain that what I write here is consistent with what I told them. And yet, none of my witnesses were contacted to verify my claims.

I worked under the man for four summers in college at a summer theater, learning design. My business is one of the last with a codified system of apprentices and masters; masters in my field often have a team of younger assistants, learning the ropes of our profession. I did indeed learn a lot from the man. I can quote maxims that he taught me. I learned how to create a character onstage with scenery and costume design. I learned a great deal about detail, style, fashion history, garment making, and how to use color to direct the eye onstage. I also learned how to be gracious and charming when needed, and a shark when required. One of the hardest lessons I learned is how to avoid allowing myself to be put in risky situations, but I did not learn that until I was already in one.

As a mentor, the man had great power over me. I looked up to him, and when he rewarded me with praise, I felt special, as if my talent and abilities were the reason he wanted to be alone with me. I considered him an icon of Broadway design. I was inspired by his work when I was a child in the audience at the summer theater where we would eventually meet. He designed the second Broadway show I ever saw, and holds more awards for his work than any other designer in our field. In my world, he is indeed a famous man.

Over the course of three summers, the man gave me more and more attention, going farther and farther each summer, building trust and closeness. I was invited to parties at his home. I was offered alcohol, definitely before I reached the legal drinking age. Trips to New York were dangled with offers of rewards for good behavior and potential future jobs. With his power, I was sure that he could have had any man he wanted, and I presumed I was too thin, too gay, to actually be his type. There were rumors that he preferred well-toned young straight men.

My first summer, there were swirling allegations of sexual harassment that actually involved the man’s associate. When the man heard of this, he called my entire department into the executive director’s office and screamed at us that “in the American theater, there is no such thing as sexual harassment. No jury in America would find someone guilty of sexual harassment in our business. We’re all pimps and whores!” Those words are seared into my memory as if he said them yesterday. He actually said that, as the executive director’s mouth dropped, but she remained silent. She resigned at the end of the season, possibly connected to this incident, possibly not. I gave her name to both journalists to corroborate my recollection.

That first summer I worked with the man, I turned nineteen years old, and I looked younger. He asked me my age, maybe the first time he spoke to me directly. He was delighted when I told him, and he shook his head and winked, saying “No, you’re not. You’re a fifteen year old boy!” And he flitted away. At the time I was flattered and charmed by his eccentric flamboyance. Now that we have a shared understanding of “grooming,” I know this is where it started for me. Within a week, I’d called my mother from a payphone to check in, and proudly told her this story. She chuckled, but was unsettled. Even though this was literally twenty years ago, she remembers. I gave her contact information to both journalists. She was never contacted.

The next summer I was rewarded with a promotion and a pay raise. It was made clear to me that the man had been consulted and was responsible for my increased responsibility and compensation. The man was more present that summer, and I was invited to weekends at one of his vacation homes, where, still under age, I was given too much to drink. One of his New York assistants, easily twenty years older than me, took me to an upstairs bedroom and we had sex, which I did think was consensual the time. I was mortified the next day when the man licked his lips as he recounted what his assistant had told him about our encounter, in grotesque detail. It was as if the assistant had given me a test run.

My direct supervisor was also at the vacation home and saw my distress. She warned me to take better care of myself. She knew the rumors of the man’s behavior and was concerned for my welfare. I’m sure she remembers it even though we are not in close contact. I was able to find her contact information and provided it to both journalists. To my knowledge, she was never contacted.

The third summer I worked with the man, I was regularly invited to his home to set up for and attend lavish parties, with countless mint juleps in antique silver cups. Halfway through the summer, I became old enough to legally drink alcohol. I was dazzled by the posh guests at his parties, including actual royalty. The man had recently won additional major awards. He was on top of the world and deigned to include me in his glittering universe of celebrity and fame. I was dazzled.

Bruce Weber, who has since been accused of sexually harassing multiple male models, had recently photographed the man, and he was in a new limited edition book that sold for hundreds of dollars, well out of my price range as a college student. The man casually told me he had several copies, and he’d sign one for me. He mentioned that they were kept in his upstairs bedroom. I knew I was tempting fate, but took note. Shortly thereafter, I was at a small party a block away from the man’s house. He showed up and gave me special attention. I was deeply flattered.

After several drinks, the man invited me back to his home for a chat about my future and maybe a complimentary expensive signed book. I was not in any way sober, and someone at the party suggested I call it a night. They were trying to look out for me. Instead, the man helped me to his porch. More drinks were poured.

I had been drinking and the man was not drinking; there was no way for me to consent to anything. I remember him exposing his genitals to me on his porch. I remember being guided up the steep stairs to his bedroom, and being told to keep quiet as the man’s mentally disabled sister and her elderly nurse were in the house and asleep. I remember the man telling me that he “had a rubber” and we should use it. I do not recall if we did.

I remember his pasty fleshy body under me. I do not remember if either or both of us reached any kind of climax. I do remember seeing multiple copies of the notorious Bruce Weber book on a shelf by the bed, but I got dressed and left as quickly as possible. I’m sure I was disheveled, and too drunk to drive. I ambled back to the other house alone, and multiple people there saw what shape I was in. Someone was kind enough to drive me back to my apartment. I know exactly who the host of the party was that night, but have not reached out to her in years.

Did I think at the time that what happened was consensual? I am not sure. Was I flattered by the man’s attention? Absolutely. Was I disgusted at what had happened? Definitely.

The following year, I was a senior in college. A master designer was brought down from New York to lead a seminar. I was given a private interview with him where he encouraged me to consider graduate school in New York. I proudly told him of my years of work with the famous man, and he grimaced. Without saying anything unkind, he asked, “Are the rumors true? About the boys?” I was mortified. Not only did I realize that there were rumors in the big city about the man, but that I was not unique. Our community quietly whispered about stories that were similar to mine. I did not confide my personal story to the master designer. After the Buzzfeed article appeared, I reached out to him twice to ask if he recalled that moment, and he never replied to me.

While I did work with the man for one further summer, that night in his bedroom was the last time we were ever together alone. I thought I must have somehow disappointed him. Or maybe he had less power over me now that I had been accepted to a prestigious school in New York and he no longer needed a tempting offer to get me to the big city.

When speaking with the journalists at Buzzfeed and American Theatre Magazine, they asked if there would be a record of a complaint against the man with the company where we worked, but there would not have been. The earlier comment in the executive director’s office made it clear to me that it would fall on deaf ears, so I never complained to anyone in authority at the organization. There is, however, clear record of my four years of employment there. To my knowledge, neither journalist followed up to confirm my four-year employment.

After graduating from college and graduate school, I never sought work from the man, and I did not tell many people what had happened between us. About five years later, I was assistant designing a Broadway show. Costumes for Broadway shows are handmade in one of several shops in New York City’s Garment District. It is not uncommon for the biggest names in design to be in shops at the same time as the shops work on multiple productions preparing new Broadway shows simultaneously. In 2008, our design studio was in one such shop. I had heard that the man would be in the shop that day, and I basically hid in a back office so as not to encounter him. At one point, I needed to go to the bathroom, and the man nearly ran into me in the hallway. He grabbed both of my shoulders and said, “My! Don’t you look great. You’ve finally gone through puberty!” He winked and continued on his way. I’m not sure he even remembered my name or where he knew me from. This was the first time I had seen the man in person in five years.

I was deeply shaken and went back to the office to try to collect myself. My supervisor had seen what had happened and checked to be sure I was okay. I was not okay. I did not go into much detail, but enough for my supervisor to be disgusted with the man’s notoriously inappropriate behavior. My supervisor made sure that I did not cross the man’s path again. I was surprised by how shaken up I was, and I left work early that day in spite of pressing deadlines. It was the first time I’d really stopped to think about how I felt about what he had done to me. I gave my supervisor’s name and contact information to both journalists. He was never contacted.

Afterwards, when the man had his portrait unveiled at Sardi’s, the theaterati restaurant in the heart of the theater district, the man’s associate, from the vacation home encounter, invited me to the ceremonial party. Perhaps I was trying to convince myself that I was able to move on from what had happened years earlier, so I went. I did not encounter the man personally, and I do not know if he saw me there or knew that I had been invited. I was proud of myself for not being too rattled to attend. This man’s presence in the theater world was just a fact of life, and I made an effort to teach myself to be okay with him being around if I wanted to survive in my field, even if I never wanted to work with him directly. To me, it felt like a victory that I could attend his party without breaking down. Now that I know I am not alone, I wonder how many other people there were coping with the same feeling.

When #metoo stories started popping up on Facebook, I wrote a brief post, not mentioning the circumstances, but acknowledging that I too had a story. I was surprised when no one named the man. Years later, when the Buzzfeed article came out, many people in our business knew about it and discussed it; they weren’t shocked by the allegations against him, but that there was only one accuser. There was a flurry of activity on a closed group page for people in my industry. My supervisor, who had kept me safely hidden in an office a decade earlier, checked on me to see if I was alright.

Another friend who knew more details of my story began taking screen captures of the comments and shared them with me. One was from a former college teacher of mine. She had taught me to sew and at the time had taken it as a point of pride that her lessons had landed me a job working with the man. She wrote on the board that one of her students had told her, back in 2002, of a very similar story to the man who had told his story to Buzzfeed. I had not been in touch with her for years, but I found her information, and contacted her. I needed to know if she was talking about me, or if the same thing had happened to yet another one of her students. She confirmed that I had told her my whole story. I have no memory of having told her what had happened to me. She agreed to allow me to share her contact information with the journalists to verify my contemporaneous account. She was never contacted.

I also recovered the screen captures of the board comments and shared them with the American Theater Magazine editor. I provided my friend’s details to verify the screen captures. She was not contacted.

I was unnerved by a gnawing pain that my not speaking up at the time had enabled the man to possibly continue his behavior and hurt other vulnerable people. I felt responsible for anyone he took advantage of after not saying anything to management at the time.

After speaking to the two journalists, I attended a Broadway leading lady’s memorial service at the gargantuan Gershwin Theatre. When I saw the man seated in the row in front of me, my heart raced. I shifted in my seat so there was no way he could see me. Again, it disturbed me how much it bothered me to be in his proximity. The Buzzfeed article had already come out, and I didn’t want him to approach or speak to me. I had already spoken to the first journalist and didn’t know if my story would be published or not.

When I heard that the New York Times and American Theatre Magazine would not be moving forward, in spite of my verifiable stories, I was devastated. I spiraled into a depression that lasted several days. It was like a visceral punch to my stomach that wouldn’t go away. Not having space to tell my story pained me nearly as much as coming to terms with what happened to me.

I posted an impassioned Instagram story, without naming names, and several people, friends and strangers, reached out to offer support. I am grateful for their ongoing kindness. The publisher of Falo Magazine reached out to me privately, and asked if I would be willing to write something for him. I’m grateful for the space to be taken seriously, and heard. I am also thankful for his patience, as this has indeed been difficult to write.

All of this begs the question as to why I am going public now. Why public? Why now? Initially, I wanted to use the man’s name, and remain anonymous. That would have been easier with the backing of a major news company. Maybe only two of us have now spoken out about his behavior, but I am confident that there are more of us who he took advantage of. I am certain that speaking out is the right thing for me to do.

Do I expect an apology from the man? No. Do I want to pursue legal action for what he did to me? No. Do I want to be congratulated or called ‘brave’ for going on the record? No. Do I want attention? No, not for something that is so personal and so painful.

Do I want to be honest with myself and my peers in my industry? Yes. Can I allow myself to remain silent any longer? No.

It has taken years to process what happened to me. It has been a journey to know that it is indeed not my fault. Thanks to all who hear this, and a special thanks to those who speak up and speak out with their own stories, whether about this man or others who have mistreated people who look up to them. This behavior should not have been tolerated twenty years ago, and it cannot be tolerated now.

As we are finding is often the case, powerful people play by a different set of rules. Other powerful people cover for them, making excuses for them. The same thing is true of creative people. People allow geniuses to get away with bad behavior that would otherwise not be tolerated. They are forgiven for treating people inhumanely. This must stop.

The man is indeed a genius. He is also a predator.

Court Watson

Written by

Artist and Theatrical Set & Costume Designer www.courtwatson.com

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