Court Watson recalls hearing once that William Ivey Long was "a tornado made of chiffon." How lucky was he, Watson thought, as just a college student, to have the chance to learn from the very best in the business — a true legend in Broadway costume design.
Here was a man who created the indelible looks for a generation of theater shows: The sultry, sexy look of Chicago, with all those fishnets and silky black garments cut up to there. The bubble-gum brightness of Hairspray, with its teen dreaminess and feather-trimmed frocks. Most recently, a re-creation of iconic outfits worn by the Princess of Wales: a meringue-like wedding dress, floppy bow ties and power shoulder pads for Diana: The Musical. The show is having a splashy rebirth as Broadway tries to emerge from the pandemic: It began streaming on Netflix on Oct. 1 and will have its opening night in New York this Wednesday.
But Watson and another man named Michael Martin say that while they were under Long's tutelage — working as college students at a summer production in North Carolina called The Lost Colony, a show with an outsize influence within the American theater community — Long sexually abused them both.
Additionally, NPR has unearthed a 2002 lawsuit and related materials against The Lost Colony, filed by a former employee, that includes several other serious allegations of sexual misconduct against Long. Some of those accusations have impacted Long's most recent work: He and the Diana team parted ways last year, not long before the musical was filmed.
Watson says that Long had sex with him while Watson was drunk and could not consent. Martin, who first came forward publicly in 2018, alleges that Long touched him inappropriately on about 10 occasions. The accusations in the lawsuit include Long allegedly compelling one young man to have sex with another at Long's direction while a board member watched and forcing the man to allow Long to perform oral sex on him.
In a lengthy statement to NPR prepared by his lawyer, Pearl Zuchlewski, Long "emphatically denies" both Martin's and Watson's allegations. He also says that he did not know about the 2002 suit until the summer of 2020, but that those accusations are also false.
While Watson's and Martin's allegations go back about two decades, they each say that the climate of #MeToo over the past few years has changed the conversation around sexual misconduct and power dynamics,and propelled them to come forward. They both also say that the atmosphere at The Lost Colony was one in which they felt they couldn't assert themselves — and that Long was so revered there that there was no point in trying.
Moreover, they believe that Broadway (and theater overall) hasn't really grappled with how to ensure the safety of performers, artists and workers, despite some very public reckonings in the film and television world.
A friend to the stars, from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Anna Wintour
William Ivey Long moves in rarified — and powerful — circles. Between 2012 and 2016, he was the chairman of the American Theatre Wing, the organization that gives out the Tony Awards. During his time leading ATW, he coaxed Vogue Editor-in Chief Anna Wintour to help glam up the Tonys — a foray that drew celebrity influencers like Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski. For a certain generation of New York socialites, Long has been a staple presence; he was a confidante of Jacqueline Onassis. His joyous, fanciful creations have also been seen on Gisele Bündchen and Mick Jagger.
For decades, young designers in particular have clamored to work with him, either at his workshop in New York or at his longtime summer "home," The Lost Colony. It's an outdoor theater production in North Carolina's Outer Banks that has become a training ground for young actors and designers, many of them still in college, who prized their chances to work alongside Long for the season, knowing he could either make a career or kill it.
The two men who have come forward to NPR, Michael Martin and Court Watson, were college-aged actors and designers working at The Lost Colony between 1996 and 2002. Martin, now a freelance writer in California, first made his allegations to BuzzFeed News in 2018. Watson is now a successful set and costume designer based in New York whose work spans Broadway, opera houses and theme parks.
Martin, who'd been involved in theater since the age of 5, says he was ecstatic to join The Lost Colony in 1995. "It was great," he remembers. "I was an actor technician, which basically meant I played extras and appeared in the crowd scenes, and then we would move set pieces around and help out with the production elements. I was really proud of myself for having snagged a theater job early on, when I was just 20 years old."
Martin says that for him and his peers, working at The Lost Colony "was like an ongoing audition to work with William Ivey Long in New York" and that for a lot of college and grad student-aged workers, "it really felt like this was their first foot in the door."
Martin says that Long's fame — and his family ties to The Lost Colony — seemed to intimidate others at the show. Long's parents met there. His father studied with Paul Green, the original playwright of The Lost Colony. His mother played one of the lead characters, Queen Elizabeth I, for years. As Long grew up, the family spent every summer working at The Lost Colony, which is produced by the nonprofit Roanoke Island Historical Association (RIHA). From 1994 until 2019, Long oversaw its design. (The show was suspended in 2020 because of the pandemic.)
By the time Martin joined the cast, Long had already won two Tony Awards, "and even the director was deferential to him," Martin says. "On top of being Broadway royalty, he was Outer Banks royalty." About a decade later — soon after Long became the awards' chairman in 2013 — The Lost Colony won a Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre.
Long was also feted in the style pages back in New York. A 2006 New York Times Magazine profile titled "William Ivey Long Keeps His Clothes On" noted the designer's "very big brain and even bigger personality" and breezily mentioned his propensity for "kissing everyone — gay women, straight men — smack on the lips."
He made Vanity Fair's "International Best Dressed" list in 2015. The next year, a feature in the same magazine approvingly noted the North Carolina native's nine houses and the fact that Long's family were "direct descendants of one of the Virginia Colony's 17th-century royal land grantees."
A throwback tourist spectacle — and proving ground for aspiring actors
Michael Martin loved how much action was involved with his actor-technician gig at The Lost Colony. "There were these big, grandiose crowd scenes, and people giving rousing speeches about colonizing the New World," he says wryly. "And then you would put body paint on and become a 'Native American,' attack the English settlement, get shot by a fake arrow, and then wash your paint off and come back as a colonist later on. It was a fun thing."
The show is a throwback tourist spectacle that celebrates the first English settlement in North America, which seems to have vanished by 1590. Recently, the production has been criticized for putting non-Native actors in redface and for not ensuring historically or culturally accurate depictions of Indigenous people. In June 2020, the show's producers publicly pledged to "establish dialogues with Native Americans." This year, the show hired a Navajo/Tlingit Alaskan dancer as associate choreographer, and its most recent casting call specifies several roles for Indigenous-identifying actors and musicians.
Martin says in retrospect, he understands criticisms of the show. But at the time, he was thrilled to be part of it, like many aspiring actors who came before him. Over the decades it became a hub for theater kids to spend their summers, often on breaks between college semesters, working alongside seasoned professionals. Alumni of the show include Andy Griffith, Colleen Dewhurst, Lynn Redgrave, Chris Elliott and the late NPR newscaster and Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! judge and scorekeeper Carl Kasell. During the era that Martin and Watson were there, The Lost Colony was a hothouse where those younger workers would learn their craft during the day, perform six evenings a week and party late into the night — not just with one another, but with their older colleagues and mentors.
Court Watson joined The Lost Colony at age 19 in the summer of 2000. According to Watson, Long "acted like a celebrity," traveling in and out of the show's venue in Manteo, North Carolina, with an entourage of assistants and often in the company of theater notables who were spending time with Long at one of his many country homes.
When Watson returned to The Lost Colony in 2001, he says that he was promoted and given a pay raise. At a party held at one of Long's homes that second year, the still-underage Watson was given plenty of alcohol — and one of Long's assistants, Watson says, took him to a bedroom upstairs, where they had what Watson believed at the time to be consensual sex. (The assistant has since died.)
The next morning, Watson says, he and other Lost Colony workers, including several of his colleagues from the show's costume shop, gathered for what Long dubbed "a big plantation-style" group breakfast buffet. "As he's spreading butter on his biscuits," Watson recounts, Long "starts going into graphic detail about what I had done — I thought privately — with the assistant the night before. I, of course, was red in the face. I think I burst into tears. On reflection, I think I was basically being given a test run." Watson believes that Long recounted this episode within earshot of several people, deepening his embarrassment.
The worst episode, Watson alleges, came the next season in mid-August 2002. Watson says that Long had sex with him after getting the 21-year-old extremely drunk. In conversation earlier that summer, Long had mentioned to Watson that he had been photographed for a new book by fashion photographer Bruce Weber and that he had several copies of the book. On the night in question, which Watson says was on or around August 18, both men attended a party near Long's home. After Watson had consumed several drinks, he says, Long invited him over to get a copy of Weber's book. Watson adds, "I don't recall William drinking at all in any incident I ever had with him."
As Watson remembers it, as he and Long left the party together, "At least one person said, 'Maybe you've had enough for the night, Court.' " Watson went with Long anyway, and he says that Long served him even more alcohol at his house. Watson says that while he was sitting on Long's porch drinking, Long exposed himself to Watson, and then led him upstairs, where the two had sex.
Watson now believes that the incident was not consensual, given his inebriation and the fact that Long was his supervisor and was poised to have huge influence over his burgeoning career. He says that immediately afterward, he was ashamed and humiliated by what had transpired.
At the time, Watson felt as though there was no one at The Lost Colony who would take him seriously — "William had all the power," he says. "He was the most famous person on the island."
Shortly after returning to college in the fall after his alleged assault, Watson told one of his professors at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond what had happened; the professor, who works in the industry and asked to preserve anonymity for fear of reprisal, corroborated Watson's account to NPR, as did one of Watson's family members to whom he told the story in later years. (The relative has asked to remain anonymous due to challenging dynamics within the family.)
Watson published a personal essay about his allegations on Medium in March 2020. (Simultaneously, Watson's same essay appeared in a Brazilian gay art magazine called Falo.) The essay did not include Long's name or identifying details, and Watson pixelated Long's face out of pictures of the two together. But for those in the theater community, it was pretty easy to suss out who Watson was referring to. "My abuser was exposed," Watson began, "yet he's still one of the most powerful men on Broadway." For reasons that Watson says he still doesn't fully understand, his Medium essay didn't attract much attention until that July — when, he says, it went viral within the theater world.
Michael Martin felt singled out before he says Long touched him
Michael Martin, the man who first publicly accused Long in BuzzFeed News, says that in his experience as well, Long's predatory behavior deepened over multiple Lost Colony seasons. In retrospect, Martin says, he should have seen a red flag when Long offered to promote him from actor-technician to property master for his second season in Manteo.
"I hadn't submitted a portfolio of design work," he says. "I hadn't done anything significant with the design of the last season. But someone from the production team pulled me aside and said, 'William wants to promote you. He wants you to work in props — he's seen a talent in you and wants to foster it.' " (In the BuzzFeed News article, Long denied having anything to do with promoting employees at The Lost Colony, and said that he did not promote Martin. In her statement to NPR, Long's lawyer said that he "categorically denied" all of Martin's allegations.)
From then on, Martin remembers, Long made a point of singling him out. "He made long, lingering eye contact with me," Martin says. "He would say things like: 'Oh, there's my special little assistant,' or 'There's the guy we picked from the chorus to be part of our production team.' He really made me feel like he was my mentor."
Martin says that there was also intense pressure to socialize with Long in the evenings. "He would have some sort of lingering touch on you," he says, "and then say, 'You really must come to dinner tonight.' " Martin says he always shrugged off the invitations. "But later," he continues, "someone else would say to you, 'You have to go, you're not going to miss this opportunity, are you?' It was a system of constant pressure that was fostered by the people who worked with him. But then at night, you'd go to parties where people were drinking, and they would regale each other with war stories about what a creep he was."
Martin says that soon, "lingering touches on the shoulder" progressed to more and more inappropriate physical contact on about 10 occasions. "I'd be working on something and then suddenly, someone's behind you, scratching your back, and you turn and see it's William. Or the hand on the shoulder slips down to the middle of your back. And then if you don't shrug him off, it drifts down even further. And eventually, he was playing with my underwear band."
Martin says that at first, Long's touches and sexually charged comments happened in private settings. But then, he alleges, Long became bolder. "He started doing it in front of other people, saying things like, 'I liked your work better yesterday, but then again yesterday you weren't wearing a shirt.' He would say that in front of my entire props staff."
Martin remembers how dejected he felt. "I realized that the only thing I could say back is 'I quit,' and you can't quit because it's your first job and it's your dream," he says. "I didn't have any reference. I just was like, 'I guess this is the world you're walking into, buddy. I guess this is what a job is, that the boss gets to be a total creep.'"
A friend who was also working at The Lost Colony at the time says that she remembers how despondent Martin seemed and the conversations they had that summer about his worries. "He would just sit alone on the dock and stare out at the water," she recalls. "It was such a contrast to his usual boisterous, comedic self. And I remember him really wrestling with, 'Am I going to have to sleep with William?'"
Another friend of Martin's at The Lost Colony in 1996 also saw how his demeanor changed over that summer, morphing from outgoing to withdrawn and often red-eyed. He says that at the time, Martin did not explain to him what was going on, but that several years ago, as the #MeToo movement began spurring public conversations about sexual misconduct and power dynamics in arts and entertainment, he learned of the alleged incidents between Long and Martin. (When called to corroborate Martin's story, this person, who has asked to remain anonymous for fears for his professional reputation, told NPR that Long also came on to him several times that summer, sidling up to him and putting his hand on the young man's knee as well as making promises to make introductions for him in the arts world. He says that he wound up asking a couple of other friends to physically shield him from Long when they saw him coming.)
On the most alarming occasion, Martin alleges, Long slid his hand down under Martin's clothes to his bare buttocks. According to Martin, Long was praising him for the care and detail with which he had painted some props. At first, Martin says, he was thrilled to be receiving positive attention for his actual work on the show. But then, he recounts, "William slid his hand down the back of my pants. He was squeezing my ass while he was pointing out some texture that I had painted. I was just so wounded — with one hand, he was groping me, and with the other, he's pointing out something that I did well."
Finally, Martin says, he confronted Long one on one. According to Martin, he told the older man that he had crossed boundaries and that if he touched him again, he would sue Long for sexual harassment. At that point, Martin says, one of Long's assistants entered the room. Martin says that Long quickly deflected the conversation, and said something along the lines of "Did you tell me you were exhausted? Do you have too much work? Can you not handle the workload?"
Martin says that he went to someone high up in the production for some advice after that interaction. "She was very supportive," he recalls, "and she never at any point indicated that she didn't believe me. She said that she'd heard the rumors and seen the behavior with her own eyes. But she was also very good at making me come to the realization that I was at the beginning of my career, and that if I sued The Lost Colony or brought a formal complaint against Mr. Long, that would follow me around for my career — that I might be damaging myself way more than I could damage William."
What happened after Martin first made his allegations to BuzzFeed News in 2018 may have confirmed that analysis. His accusations induced a few ripples of chatter on social media — mostly among the Broadway community and alumni of The Lost Colony — but didn't garner much other public reaction.
Soon after reading Martin's account, Court Watson tried to come forward publicly as well. "I didn't want Michael to be left alone out there," he says. "He was very brave, and I felt it was my duty to come forward too." Watson approached several media outlets with his own story, but he says none followed up.
Long went on to nab two Tony nominations in 2019 for his work on Beetlejuice and Tootsie, and began creating the costumes for Diana: The Musical.
After leaving The Lost Colony, Martin lost interest in working in theater — his passion since childhood. He returned to Florida State University for his senior year, but he says he became so depressed that he dropped out before graduation.
A lawsuit contains explosive claims against Long and others
Martin didn't sue Long or the show — but someone else did, just a few years later. Another Lost Colony worker, a production manager named Mary Elizabeth Stewart (later Beth Butler), filed a lawsuit against the producers of The Lost Colony, RIHA. Stewart claimed sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation, among other complaints. The suit, which was centered on Long's behavior, was filed in U.S. district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in January 2002.
In a series of potentially explosive allegations, Stewart's suit claimed that between 1999 and 2001, multiple people working at The Lost Colony reported to her that Long had sexually assaulted or harassed them. Those accusations included forcing one young man to have sex with another man at Long's direction, while an RIHA board member watched. The same man claimed that Long performed oral sex on him against his wishes, and that Long also tried to make him find "young boys with whom Mr. Long could engage in homosexual activity." Despite the nature of the allegations, NPR could not find any record of a police report or criminal charges ever having been filed.
The suit also said that Long took "sexually revealing and inappropriate photographs" of RIHA employees for a Men of The Lost Colony calendar he was putting together, as well as other nude photographs of RIHA employees. Additionally, Stewart claimed, her own husband at the time was sexually propositioned by one of Long's assistants, with the intention of having Long watch. According to Stewart's suit, when she went to the RIHA leadership and board to complain about Long, she was fired.
In a response filed with the court, RIHA denied most of Stewart's allegations but did admit that employees had complained about Long's "abusive behavior."
Stewart's suit was settled in 2003. The terms are unknown, but there were no apparent repercussions for Long and his career until nearly two decades later.
When NPR asked about the lawsuit, Long's attorney, Pearl Zuchlewski, responded that "RIHA never informed [Long] of Stewart's claim." She added that Long "was very disturbed by the RIHA's lack of transparency and failure to involve him in a resolution of Stewart's false claims." She added that Long had only learned of Stewart's accusations in 2020: "Having lost confidence in the RIHA, he resigned from The Lost Colony."
The current RIHA board chairman, Kevin Bradley, declined to be interviewed by NPR. As part of a written statement, Bradley said that the current leadership learned of the allegations against Long in the summer of 2020, and immediately began an investigation. When it concluded, Bradley said, "We agreed that Mr. Long would cut his ties with the production ... While the investigation did not corroborate specific allegations, it raised serious concerns about the workplace environment. We were determined to do the right thing about these allegations."
Michael Martin heard about RIHA's investigation in July 2020 when Bradley sent him a lengthy text, which NPR has viewed, informing him of the investigation and apologizing for "the pain" that Martin had endured. Months later, Bradley told Martin that Long had resigned, and that there was a new creative team in place. To Martin, it seemed like Bradley was eager to give the impression that this problem was now behind The Lost Colony.
There was no public acknowledgement of Long's departure from a show that had so loudly and proudly claimed its decades-long association with the famed Broadway designer.
Pearl Zuchlewski asserted that the RIHA investigation "exonerated [Long] and there has never been a finding of wrongdoing by Long at RIHA or anywhere else." In response, RIHA's Bradley told NPR: "That statement is not accurate."
The American Theatre Wing conducts its own investigation
It turned out that it wasn't just RIHA investigating accusations against Long. The Tony Award organization, the American Theatre Wing, had begun its own as well. But both Watson and Martin say they had reason to doubt the seriousness of that endeavor.
Martin says that he was not contacted by the ATW investigators. Instead, he reached out himself to Curley, Hurtgen & Johnsrud LLP, the law firm that ATW had hired to conduct the investigation, to ask why he had not been interviewed. In an April 2021 email exchange obtained by NPR, the lead investigator, Charles Fournier, wrote to Martin: "We had assumed that everything you had to say about your experiences with Mr. Long was in the BuzzFeed article ... If that is not the case, and you have additional information you would like to share with us, we would be happy to talk to you."
Fournier also told Martin in that same email exchange that "although we have been retained by the American Theatre Wing to investigate certain matters concerning William Ivey Long, you have been misinformed about the scope of that investigation."
They did interview Watson, however. Watson says it was he who informed the investigators that RIHA had started its own investigation of Long, and that Long had left The Lost Colony. Watson says that the ATW lawyers seemed to be surprised by both of those developments. Neither ATW nor Fournier responded to multiple requests for comment by NPR.
Meanwhile, as the two investigations into Long were progressing, he was at work on his newest Broadway show, Diana: The Musical — but questions about his behavior were being raised there as well. A current Diana cast member told NPR that multiple Diana performers approached the show's production team with concerns about Long last summer. According to this cast member, the Diana performers did not know about Watson's allegations or the 2002 lawsuit — they went to the producers only knowing about the BuzzFeed News article containing Michael Martin's accusations.
In a written statement, the producers of Diana told NPR: "Last summer, we were made aware of certain narratives about William that reference or republish claims of inappropriate sexual conduct that allegedly occurred in North Carolina 20 or more years ago. We feel strongly that all alleged victims should be heard. We have no knowledge of any sexual misconduct by William presently or at any time in the past, and we know that William categorically denies these claims. Nevertheless, William and the producers mutually agreed that he would step away from the production in order to address them in his own way."
As part of her statement to NPR, Zuchlewski wrote: "Watson's blog and the disclosure of the Stewart case generated a social media feeding frenzy while Long was designing costumes for Diana: The Musical. In an attempt to protect Diana from undue (albeit false and defamatory) publicity, Long asked the producers to permit him to step away from the production, and the producers agreed." Diana will continue to use Long's costume work.
Long declined to tell NPR if he had any projects lined up past Diana.
The costume designer questions his accusers' credibility
Along with her written statement to NPR, Zuchlewski provided copies of an undated letter that Martin sent to Long that Long believes was written in 1997, and another one from Martin seeking Long's professional advice, written a few years later.
Zuchlewski also included copies of three friendly Christmas cards Watson sent to Long between 2001 and 2003, as well as a 2015 email Watson sent to one of Long's former assistants, in which Watson noted "just how much I learned, and am still learning from him [Long]." If these men were so traumatized by Long, Zuchlewski argued, why did they stay in touch with him?
She also questioned the personal credibility of both Watson and Martin, pointing to provocative social media posts from both men.
In response, Martin says, "It was the late 1990s. Back then, I didn't really have a language for what had happened to me, and a lot of people encouraged me to keep up the contact no matter what. I feel like in the 1990s, this culture of victimization was really normalized. And I was looking for work as an actor. I felt like he had already put me through a nightmare experience, and I was hoping for a silver lining to the whole situation."
Watson says that he sent holiday cards to Long out of "professional courtesy" to his former mentor. "I was trained to send out notes like that at Christmastime and for opening nights," he says. "And as more time went by, I realized that what had transpired [between us] wasn't right." Watson adds that what he wrote six years ago is still true: he learned a ton from Long — teachings that he still incorporates into his own work — but that didn't mean that Long hadn't also taken sexual advantage of him.
Zuchlewski also wrote to NPR: "Neither Martin nor Watson ever brought their complaints about Long to any local, state or federal human rights agency nor did they file a state or federal judicial action. In Watson's case, he and Long are members of the same union, but, to our knowledge, Watson never invoked the union grievance process. Instead, both Martin and Watson choose to air their accusations against Long in the media where they cannot be challenged by any objective fact finder."
Watson says that in July 2020, he did indeed complain to their union, United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829 IATSE, but that according to union rules at the time, no action could be taken because the alleged incidents occurred more than 60 days prior. (As of July 2021, the union revised its rules to extend that period to 365 days for allegations involving harassment, discrimination and bullying, Local USA 829 told NPR.)
It's true that neither man went to the authorities or filed suit against Long. Both Martin and Watson say that at the time, though, they felt as though Long was unassailable, and there really wasn't much public conversation around sexual misconduct in the gay community two decades ago.
'There is no such thing as sexual harassment in the American theater!'
Court Watson was particularly chastened by something that he says occurred his first summer at the show, after rumors spread about an alleged misconduct incident involving others (not Watson or Long) at The Lost Colony. According to Watson, Long gathered his team together, and shouted at them: "There is no such thing as sexual harassment in the American theater. We're all pimps and whores!"
Watson's recollection of this incident and Long's alleged words were corroborated to NPR by one of his colleagues at the show that summer who was also present at that meeting. (That person declined to be named due to current connections within theatrical design.) Long wrote to NPR in a statement that Watson's recollection of those statements "has no basis in fact and lacks credibility."
Long added that he did not call any meetings at The Lost Colony in his capacity as production designer, and "I never would have opined on the viability of a sex harassment claim. At the time, it was not a topic of much discussion ... I am focused on art and design, not daily gossip."
Long also asserted that the "pimps and whores" line that Watson recalls from that alleged meeting was something that Watson had "wrenched" from the song "Class" in the musical Chicago ("There ain't no ladies now/There's only pigs and whores ... ")
But for Watson, that conversation, as he remembers it, points to the culture of The Lost Colony. Both he and Martin emphasize that it was a culture that specifically enabled and protected Long — and was toxic to them as rising young creative people.
Martin says that he isn't sure why his accusations went for the most part unheard back in 2018, but he suspects that it was partly due to a deep desire among the theater community not just to shield a particular man, but the whole art form, from criticism. Another factor, he says, was perhaps a concern — especially back in the 1990s and early 2000s — that speaking up about abusive behaviors may have meant outing LGBTQ people against their will. "But getting rid of a cancer can only help theater thrive," he says firmly.
"In no instance is it acceptable for someone in a position of authority to take advantage of someone younger, someone who's new to an industry," Watson says. "It wasn't OK 20 years ago, and it is certainly not OK now. And it is not OK to make allowances for certain people because they have some exceptional creative or artistic ability. That's not a pass."
They both hope that a new time of reckoning has arrived.