The owner of DSI Comedy is taking an “indefinite leave” from the Chapel Hill theater amid allegations of harassment, sexual misconduct and unfair work practices.
In an emailed statement this afternoon, Zach Ward says if he doesn’t find a buyer, the theater “will likely be no more.”
The announcement comes after several current and former DSI participants have taken to Facebook to discuss a “toxic” environment at the Chapel Hill institution, including a post from a former student and patron who described an allegedly troubling sexual encounter with Ward.
Grace Baldridge Carnes says she penned the post after she heard from others who described being taken advantage of or intimidated by Ward, a driving force of the Triangle’s comedy scene and founder of DSI and the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. Ward, in an email sent Wednesday evening to the DSI company and forwarded to the INDY in response to the newspaper’s request for comment, denied the allegations and announced that shows this week would be postponed “so our staff and performers can ask questions and reset.” (DSI’s show calendar currently shows the next scheduled events on Tuesday.)
Carnes’s post on Tuesday night marked three years since she says Ward pushed her onto a ping-pong table in a dark room in what she writes may best be described as “a sexual assault gray area.”
Here is the Facebook post.
Here is how Carnes described the incident:
On July 4, 2014, I went to the Chapel Hill fireworks show and walked to DSI afterwards. It was a Friday night… a Diplomat night. As folks left to go to a bar, as per norm, Zach asked me to hang back and wait for him as he closed up the theater. Everyone left and it was just the two of us. He asked me to come upstairs to help him find his wallet. I’d never been upstairs (where his office was), but didn’t think anything of running upstairs with him to grab his wallet.
When we got to the top of the stairs, it was pitch black in the room. I couldn’t see anything and I’d never been up there, so I stayed back towards the top of the stairs. He didn’t turn on any lights, but I assumed he was looking for the light switch or just feeling around his desk or something for the wallet. After a minute or so, I felt him grab my hand and pull me further into the room and push me against what felt like some kind of table. (I later learned it was a ping pong table.)
He started kissing me hard and all I can say is that I was startled. Not bothered or horrified or upset or traumatized. Just startled. Within a matter of seconds, I felt something entering me. It actually took a few thrusts for me to even realize that his penis was in me and that we were having sex. The room was pitch black and I never heard his pants come down or a belt unbuckle or anything. And I was wearing a dress with no underwear on, so he didn’t have to pull down my pants or anything to get access. I guess what I’m saying is it all happened so fast. And while it was happening, I said nothing.
I don’t remember a lot of details after that. I do remember that afterward, I went outside and he quickly followed me and threw himself down on the ground in the street. It was scary and I didn’t know what was happening and I ran out and pulled him up. An hour later or so, he sent me a Facebook message that simply read, “That happened.”
In an email to the DSI company, Ward wrote that he would step down from his role effective Monday. Classes and camps will be administered by school director Brandon Holmes.
“I have heard those who say that I hurt them,” he wrote. “I am sorry. I have only ever wanted people to be happy and feel safe. I recognize now that, at least for a lot of people who participated in that conversation, some of whom I (sadly) haven’t seen for over a decade, the cloud around me has become the largest threat to what DSI stands for: Community, built on positivity, optimism and unconditional support.”
In an email he forwarded to the INDY, Ward says he is “shocked and confused” by what Carnes wrote.
Carnes’s post and an earlier post on the Facebook page of former company member Vinny Valdivia have prompted stories of a “toxic” environment at DSI where threats, coercion, and intimidation were widespread. Commenters who say they worked with Ward while he was managing director of a Boston improv theater have chimed in, saying they witnessed or heard about similar behavior.
“I realized that if I didn’t put my experience out there, then I would feel responsible if other young women unknowingly ended up in similar situations,” Carnes told the INDY. Carnes took classes at DSI and was a patron of the theater for about a year and a half but was not a company member.
Carnes says she told a coworker at Duke Psychiatry, where she works, about the incident the next day. She also says Ward pushed her against a wall on two other occasions, screamed in her face during a class, and became “physically threatening and intimidating” when, in the summer of 2015, she started dating a performer at a Raleigh theater. Carnes says she never divulged the full details of what had happened with Ward to DSI leaders; she says she feared retaliation and didn’t know what good it would do, given that Ward is the owner and director of the theater.
“I felt no need to go to the police, because I did not feel ‘raped,’” Carnes told the INDY. “I mainly felt confused, and I also blamed myself for perhaps confusing him somehow about my own motivations and what I wanted, because I never explicitly said ‘no’ or ‘stop.’ … Even now, I remain confused about what took place, and I honestly believe it is in the realm of possibility that Zach genuinely interpreted the situation differently than I did. I still have no interest in police or court involvement—I only have interest in Zach finally seeking help through intensive therapy.”
Valdivia, who began as a student at DSI in 2010 and went on to become an associate producer, says he left the company, along with several others, in 2016. Commenters on his thread have said performers didn’t receive tips for working shifts at the theater, were told they couldn’t perform elsewhere, or were denied stage time.
Valdivia and Carnes say they began receiving messages from others who, as Carnes wrote, “are too afraid to speak out about all sorts of experiences with Zach, sexual and monetary and otherwise, in which they were taken advantage of/intimidated/threatened/etc.”
“And for that reason, I cannot and will not ever stop speaking out and warning others that they should stay as far away from Zach Ward as possible,” she wrote.
DSI Comedy is tagged in the public post, but in an email, Ward says he didn’t see it until friends alerted him because he had blocked Carnes on Facebook after their “relationship deteriorated” and, according to him, she sent him “increasingly agitated” messages. (Carnes denies the two were in a relationship).
“The post describes a sexual encounter in a manner that includes completely fabricated details leading a reader to believe that a sexual assault occurred,” Ward wrote. “I can understand how those not familiar with the relationship between me and Grace would, based on that post, believe that it was a one-night stand with allegations that literally make me sick. These are not allegations that I take lightly. They are serious and they are absolutely false. The sexual encounter in the Facebook post simply did not take place as Grace described.”