Amid a flurry of allegations, longtime owner Zach Ward is abruptly stepping away from DSI Comedy Theater.
Ward announced his decision to take “an indefinite leave of absence” beginning Monday, July 10, in an email to DSI staff after a series of social media posts leveled varying accusations.
One post from a woman who said the theater had become her “home” and that she had developed “a love of the people in that theater,” accuses Ward of an act that “probably” falls into a “sexual assault gray area” in 2014.
While saying, “No. At least, I don’t think so,” to the question of whether she was raped, she added that she is traumatized by the “physically aggressive” experience with Ward, “110% absolutely, yes.”
She said that she is still “scared he’s going to retaliate against me for speaking out.”
Other commenters offered supportive words upon hearing about the incident.
Ward sent a first e-mail to DSI staff saying that he had been made aware of the post and that the two “had a very amicable end to our romantic relationship and continued to be friends for over a year.” He maintained that every sexual encounter between the two had been consensual, but he added that the relationship eventually “deteriorated.”
Ward, in the initial e-mail, said the “false allegations have already taken a toll on my personal wellbeing as well as my business.”
Another female posted that she had dated Ward for approximately six months in 2007 and 2008. She wrote that when the relationship concluded and she began dating the man who is now her husband, “[Ward] started initiating physical contact again (I was a full time employee of the theater at this point) and when I rejected his advances, he showed anger.”
Other accusations say Ward owed apologies to many others involved at the theater, from charges that tips were stolen from a bartender to pay being withheld from a former teacher and the “various stories of women he harassed, intimidated and pushed out of the theater over the years.”
In a second e-mail to staff, Ward said that he had “only ever wanted people to be happy and feel safe.” Ward acknowledged that “the cloud around me has become the largest threat to what DSI stands for: Community, built on positivity, optimism and unconditional support.”
Ward added, “I am genuinely sorry for the impact my relationships and my leadership have had on the theater and our community.”
Ward said that an update on a leadership transition for DSI, “one where Zach Ward will no longer be the owner of DSI,” will be sent in the coming days.
Classes and summer camps underway will continue to be administered by School Director Brandon Holmes, according to the e-mail.
Other programs scheduled for the next two weekends and the “Like a Girl Comedy Festival” have been postponed indefinitely.
While details of the transition remain to be seen, Ward wrote that “I wanted to make sure that my intention to step down from DSI and turnover the theater was clear.”
In a statement issued to WCHL on Thursday afternoon, Ward admitted that “some mistakes” were made over the years, but he denied the allegations as they were put forward on social media. “I am not a sexual predator, rapist nor sexual harasser.”
He continued, “In a matter of hours on the internet I was tried, convicted and sentenced for something I did not do.”
Ward also denied allegations regarding the business operations. “I never took advantage of free labor. No one was ever forced to work for or with me and I did not take advantage of anyone,” the statement reads.
The search is now underway for a new owner of DSI. “Hopefully, I can find someone to own and run DSI,” Ward wrote. “Otherwise DSI will close.”
Both sexual harassment allegations and accusations of a “toxic environment” from business practices have continued to be shared on social media.
Ward wrote in his second e-mail to staff that the update on the future of DSI would be provided by 7 p.m. Monday, July 10.
Photo via Twitter