Sam Rush discusses dismissal from Smith College, future of New Century Theatre

  • Sam Rush, seen here in the play “Building the Wall” last fall at Northampton’s Academy of Music, hopes the Valley program he co-founded, New Century Theatre, will have a future. Gazette file photo

  • Sam Rush, seen here in the play “Building the Wall” last fall at Northampton’s Academy of Music, hopes the Valley program he co-founded, New Century Theatre, will have a future. Gazette file photo

  • Sam Rush, seen here in a 2017 “mashup” between New Century Theatre and the Happier Valley Comedy Troupe, hopes NCT can continue in the future. Jon Crispin/Valley Advocate file photo

  • Sam Rush, at left, in a New Century Theatre production from 2012, “Quality of Life.” Rush has served as the program’s artistic director for 20 years, and he has also been an actor and director with NCT. Jon Crispin/Image from New Centuty Theatre

Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sam Rush has compiled an impressive résumé as an actor, director and theater producer. A co-founder of Northampton’s New Century Theatre, he has served for 20 years as artistic director for the summer theater program, which since 1991 has been a staple in the Valley’s arts scene.

However, last month Rush wrote on NCT’s website that there would be no 2018 season. The announcement came in the wake of his firing late last fall from his position as the Smith College Theater Department’s program and publicity manager.

That dismissal, Smith officials said at the time, was for what they termed “allegations of serious violations” of the school’s sexual misconduct policy regarding relationships between faculty/staff and students.

The subsequent resignation of most of the members of NCT’s board of directors, plus uncertainty about sponsorship for the program this year, led Rush to say NCT will be on hiatus in 2018, with the future of the program also uncertain.

But in a follow-up interview and exchange with the Gazette via email, Rush, of Northampton, said he’s hopeful NCT can rebound in the future — possibly under new leadership — and that he and the organization can rebuild the community’s faith.

“It all comes down to trust — a trust and a belief in the work of the organization itself,” he said. “Moving forward may look a lot like starting over, or at least trying to take steps to rebuild that trust.”

“In the end it will all come down to the community and the audience that we serve,” Rush added. “Will they continue to support our organization? Or, will they, like some, assume the worst because of the initial press articles?”

Rush also apologized for his actions at Smith, saying he deeply regrets what happened.

“Specifically, I was fired from Smith in November for violating their Gender Based and Sexual Misconduct policy under section Section IV, entitled ‘PROHIBITED RELATIONSHIPS BY PERSONS IN AUTHORITY.’ This prohibits ‘Romantic involvement or sexual relationships between staff ... and college students, even if consensual.’ ”

“I deeply regret this single prohibited relationship which led to my dismissal,” Rush said. “I am truly sorry for any pain that the individual involved may be feeling.”

Smith College’s decision to make his firing public, he added, has made it difficult for him to seek employment, and his current focus is “finding ways to support my family,” which includes his wife, Cate Damon, and their two teenaged children.

Future prospects

Meanwhile, Rush has thought about how NCT might rebuild its board of directors (he remains a member of the panel himself), and in the coming year, he said, “I hope to speak with past [NCT] sponsors to see how they will feel moving forward.”

Part of this work, he added, is getting legal advice on possible paths for NCT.

More importantly, he said, he has spoken with a number of people who have been involved with the program over the years — actors, directors, acting students, audience members — who have encouraged him “to work to save NCT and have volunteered to help. I have spoken to several people who have already told me they would be willing to serve on NCT’s board.”

What his own role with NCT might be in the future remains unclear. Rush said it’s too early to say who might lead the program in his place — or if that would happen — but he believes any future director should be someone “who has made the Pioneer Valley their creative home.”

“I would like to remain involved, but I also have to find the next generation of artistic leadership,” he said.

Northampton playwright and libbretist Harley Erdman, a former NCT board member who resigned from the panel following Rush’s dismissal from Smith College, said he would not consider rejoining the board “even if new leadership emerges. I've moved on to other things.”

Jack Neary, the veteran playwright, director and actor who co-founded NCT with Rush — the two met in 1981 at Mount Holyoke College’s Summer Theatre Program — said he has not talked to Rush about returning to NCT (Neary’s plays have been produced there over the years, and he’s done occasional acting and directing with NCT).

Neary now lives in southern New Hampshire, though he is currently performing in a production of “Guys and Dolls” in the Majestic Theater in West Springfield.

In an email, he suggested Rush has built a strong following in the region that should continue to serve him and NCT: “Certainly Sam has engendered good will in the Valley, and has worked diligently to make NCT a strong artistic contributor to the area.”

Rush said despite the fallout from his dismissal from Smith, as well as NCT’s uncertain future, he remains committed to an organization into which, he says, “I have put my heart and soul … for 27 years.

“A theatre company has a duty to present work that speaks to the world we live in,” he wrote. “I believe NCT has an opportunity to address our current challenges through the work that we may choose to present in the future.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.