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Broadway costuming legend accused of sexual assault in civil suit

Costume designer William Ivey Long in New York City in 2016. Long is currently facing a civil lawsuit accusing him of sexual assault.
Theo Wargo
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Costume designer William Ivey Long in New York City in 2016. Long is currently facing a civil lawsuit accusing him of sexual assault.

In Nov. 2021, NPR reported on allegations of sexual abuse against one of Broadway's most revered costume designers, William Ivey Long.

The creator of the look of shows from Chicago to Hairspray, he is a six-time Tony winner and past chairman of the American Theatre Wing, the organization that gives out the Tonys. Long also oversaw the design of The Lost Colony, a summer theater production in North Carolina, for a quarter century. NPR corroborated allegations that Long abused two men who worked on The Lost Colony when they were college students.

On Wednesday, one of those men, New York City-based set and costume designer Court Watson, filed a civil suit against both Long and the Roanoke Island Historical Association (RIHA), the nonprofit that produces The Lost Colony.

In the suit, which was filed in New York State Supreme Court, Watson says he faced "repeated grooming, sexual harassment, and ultimately rape at the hands of Long, with support from Long's associates, and RIHA — all of whom worked in conjunction to systematically perpetrate and cover up the sexual abuse being committed at The Lost Colony."

Watson, who worked at The Lost Colony between 2000 and 2003, filed his suit a day before the New York Adult Survivors Act is set to expire on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. The one-year act has allowed alleged survivors of sexual abuse to file civil claims past the normal statute of limitations.

In his suit, Watson repeats the accusations that NPR reported two years ago. They include the allegation that in 2002, Long had sex with Watson when he was drunk and could not consent. (At the time of that alleged incident, it might not have been recognized as a crime under North Carolina law.)

On Wednesday afternoon, Long's attorney, Pearl Zuchlewski, said that she was unable to comment because she was unaware of any developments prior to NPR's request. In 2021, however, she said that Long "emphatically denied" all allegations against him.

RIHA's attorneys did not respond immediately to NPR's requests for comments Wednesday. Long supervised the design of The Lost Colony from 1994 until 2019; after RIHA leadership learned of the allegations against Long in the summer of 2020, the designer and the nonprofit agreed that Long would "cut his ties with the production."

In NPR's previous reporting, RIHA said it conducted its own investigation against Long in the wake of learning of the accusations, adding: "While the [RIHA] 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."

Watson's lawsuit includes a claim that in 2008 — years after the alleged rape — he encountered Long in the hallway of a New York City costume shop. He alleges that Long grabbed him by both shoulders and touched his face, "saying words to the effect of 'My! Don't you look great. You've finally gone through puberty!'" Watson says he was left shaking with anxiety — and in this lawsuit, it is noted as an alleged incident of "forcible touching." The suit also includes a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against both Long and RIHA, due to Long "sexually assaulting him, forcibly touching him, and humiliating him."

Watson's suit includes as support a 2002 lawsuit filed against RIHA by a former Lost Colony production manager named Mary Elizabeth Stewart. Her suit incorporated several other serious allegations of sexual misconduct against Long between 1999 and 2001. In her suit, Stewart stated that multiple people working at The Lost Colony reported to her that Long had sexually assaulted or harassed them, and that RIHA took no action against him; she also asserted that when she went to RIHA leadership and the board to complain about his behavior, she was fired.

Stewart's suit was settled in 2003; NPR has not found any record of a police report or criminal charges ever having been filed in reference to the allegations Stewart included in her suit. In 2021, Long's attorney, Pearl Zuchlewski, told NPR that "RIHA never informed [Long] of Stewart's claim," and said that he only learned of her suit in 2020. Long emphatically denied the allegations included in Stewart's suit.

In a response filed with the court pertaining to Stewart's suit, RIHA denied most of Stewart's allegations but did admit that employees had complained about Long's "abusive behavior."

According to Court Watson, he and RIHA had been working for months on a settlement but RIHA shut down those talks last Wednesday — about a week before the window to file such suits is set to close.

In a written statement to NPR about his suit, Watson said: "I'm disappointed that even after quietly parting ways with my abuser, the Roanoke Island Historical Association is still choosing to protect him. Despite their months of delay and bad faith, I look forward to public accountability, and want to keep the door open for other survivors to tell their stories. In my own work I will continue to advocate for safe, respectful, diverse spaces where creative risks can be taken without harassment or abuse."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.