‘This is the way the world is’: North End Studios founder accused of sexual misconduct

‘This is the way the world is’: North End Studios founder accused of sexual misconduct
Ben Bergstein at the North End Studios’ Winooski location in January 2019. Photo by Oliver Parini

It began with lewd comments about her body. 

At a 2016 community dinner in Burlington’s Old North End, Vermont Performing Arts League President Ben Bergstein approached Mellisa Cain, she alleges, and remarked on her breasts and weight. “It was enough that it made me uncomfortable,” Cain said. 

But she tried to shrug it off.

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As the event wound down, Cain began washing the dishes. Bergstein came up behind her, she recalls, and pressed his body against hers. “He started rubbing up against me,” she said. “I was floored — absolutely floored.”

Ongoing harassment followed that first encounter, according to Cain, an educator and community organizer. At one January 2019 neighborhood planning assembly meeting in Burlington, Bergstein groped her breasts, she said. Cain described the alleged incident to a friend soon afterward in text messages reviewed by VTDigger. 

The friend responded, “Solidarity on Ben. I had to literally scream at him for touching me before [he] finally stopped, but now he still makes comments on my appearance.”

Cain and her friend are not the only ones with stories of sexual harassment and abuse by Bergstein, who for decades has run events and community spaces in Burlington and Winooski, as president of the performing arts league and director of North End Studios. 

VTDigger has documented allegations of sexual misconduct against Bergstein spanning a decade. Eight people VTDigger interviewed, including three former employees of the performing arts league, described being sexually harassed by Bergstein, often at the workplace or at public events held by North End Studios. Five said Bergstein groped them or kissed them on the mouth without consent. Others described unwanted touching and verbal harassment. 

VTDigger, which does not name survivors of sexual misconduct without their permission, granted anonymity to Cain’s friend and others who say they were harassed by Bergstein.

Previously undisclosed court records obtained by VTDigger also show that, in 2016, Bergstein was the subject of an investigation by the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations concerning the alleged sexual assault of a young woman. The case was never prosecuted.

Bergstein’s conduct has come to the attention of local officials and organizations over the years, VTDigger found. 

The city of Winooski met with Bergstein to discuss the alleged harassment of a city employee in July 2019. The Champlain Housing Trust, too, was notified of concerns about Bergstein’s conduct by a Burlington city councilor more than three years ago. Both continued for a time to allow the performing arts league access to community centers in Burlington and Winooski, though they have since barred him from the properties.

Bergstein turned down multiple interview requests for this story. “I am following my lawyer’s advice not to comment at this time,” he wrote in a text message to VTDigger when asked for comment on the allegations.

‘It made me feel powerless’

Cain says she tried for years to make others aware of her experiences with Bergstein. She talked with friends. She told local officials. But, she says, it felt like “screaming into the wind.” Nothing came of it. 

“It really made me feel powerless,” Cain said. “It was extremely hurtful.”

Then, earlier this year, things began to change.

At the end of January, Cain and several others approached the city of Winooski with allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct against Bergstein. For two years, North End Studios — an arm of the performing arts league that Bergstein manages with his wife, April Werner — had been operating out of the city’s O’Brien Community Center. The group wanted Winooski to take action. 

Ben Bergstein and April Werner at the North End Studios’ Burlington location in November 2016. Photo by Oliver Parini

The city’s response to the allegations was swift. In a public letter delivered to Werner on Feb. 4, an attorney for the city warned that if Bergstein’s alleged misconduct were to continue, Winooski would terminate the league’s lease for the O’Brien Center. Bergstein has since been barred from city property. Werner, however, remains executive director of the league and co-director of North End Studios.

The Champlain Housing Trust, too, has discontinued the league’s management of an event hall at Burlington’s Old North End Community Center. Both the trust and the city of Winooski, however, were tight-lipped about the scope of the complaints they received about Bergstein.

Bergstein’s attorney, Paul Volk, rejected the allegations raised by Winooski as “anonymous assertions” lacking “the when, where, how and who” when first reached by VTDigger. Volk did not return a request for comment on the additional allegations raised in the story.

Details confirmed by VTDigger align with those the city of Winooski outlined in its Feb. 4 letter. The document details a lengthy list of alleged transgressions by Bergstein, including: “unwanted/prolonged hugging and massages; unwanted groping of breasts and touching of other body parts; multiple instances of unwelcome kissing on the mouth; unwelcome requests for dates or romantic relationships; inappropriate staring at body parts, including breasts and backsides; and unwelcome comments on bodies, weight, physical appearance, and diet.”

“Such conduct is unacceptable in properties owned by the city of Winooski,” the officials concluded, and constitutes “a violation of the Vermont Public Accommodations Act.” The city requested an immediate solution.

‘He has a monopoly’

Bergstein, now 76, launched the Vermont Performing Arts League with Werner in 1978. At the time, the nonprofit oversaw a dance company, as well as the program “FolKids,” which brought Vermont children overseas to perform folk dances. For years, the program trekked across the globe — to Estonia, Japan and Scotland — from one festival to the next.

Since 1986 the performing arts league’s annual flagship event has been the Vermont International Festival, a three-day event at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex. One year the banner slung over the entrance declared: “Welcome to the world.” That world was managed by Bergstein and Werner. The festival cemented the couple’s reputation as a powerhouse in local arts. Gradually, they began building out their work.

In 2007, Bergstein and Werner opened North End Studios in Burlington. The project began as a North Winooski Avenue studio space that the couple rented out to artists and community organizations at a low cost. It gradually became an organization of its own, under the umbrella of the Vermont Performing Arts League.

Bergstein and Werner offered what was an increasingly scarce commodity in Burlington: affordable real estate. For local artists or organizations that needed space — for galas, rehearsals and performances — there were few options but North End Studios. As a result, the studios quickly became a refuge of sorts in a gentrifying city. Before the pandemic, folk musicians, tango dancers, tai chi instructors and other artists sashayed through the space. Local theater troupes staged shows, and neighborhood organizations held potlucks. 

“He has a monopoly on all these rehearsal spaces in town,” said Trisha Denton, an artist and longtime theater director for Very Merry Theatre. Denton says she cut professional ties with Bergstein several years ago, after observing behavior toward young people that she found inappropriate. But it was often challenging to find alternative space, she said.

The farmworker advocacy group Migrant Justice stopped holding its annual fundraiser at North End Studios several years ago, after women reported feeling uncomfortable with Bergstein’s conduct, according to Program Coordinator Marita Canedo.

Even as allegations against Bergstein stacked up, North End Studios continued to expand. In 2017, Bergstein and Werner began managing the event hall at the former St. Joseph’s School, a Champlain Housing Trust property. In 2019, Bergstein and Werner struck a deal with the City of Winooski to move much of North End Studios’ programming to the O’Brien Community Center.

Increasingly, North End Studios catered to immigrant and refugee communities in the Burlington area — providing space for community events and, more crucially, access to resources and potential business. 

In some cases, Bergstein and Werner served as a bridge between these communities and governmental entities. When, in April 2020, the Vermont Department of Health was launching a Covid-19 informational campaign for youth in immigrant communities, the agency contacted Bergstein. Though Bergstein told the department that his nonprofit was “more of an arts organization,” he agreed to help lead the effort, according to a background document on the project obtained by VTDigger.

North End Studios’ move to the O’Brien Center in Winooski cemented this connection. “We’re expanding in part to help our refugee and immigrant families meet their social and community needs,” Werner told Seven Days in 2019.

Yet, it was Bergstein and Werner who ran the show.

‘I have to talk to you about something’

On November 4, 2016, a young woman sat down for an interview with a detective from the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations. Her testimony, summarized in a sworn affidavit obtained by VTDigger, formed the foundation of a police investigation into Bergstein for sexual assault.

The age of the young woman, identified only by her initials in the affidavit, is unclear, though her testimony indicates she was not yet 21. She had first met Bergstein when she was around 8 years old, she told the detective. In August 2016, she began to see him more frequently.

Following an event at North End Studios, the young woman said Bergstein brought her to a bar and bought her drinks, even though she was underage. When they returned to his studio, he stripped naked to give her a massage, she recalled, describing the incident to the detective as a “weird moment.” 

The two continued to interact. At times, the young woman was uneasy. She sent Bergstein a Facebook message that October detailing some of her concerns. “I have to talk to you about something,” she wrote. “I don’t feel comfortable with kissing you … Hugs and kisses on the cheeks I can accept but on the lips makes me feel uncomfortable. It made me end my night on a sour note.” Bergstein sent a thumbs-up emoji in reply. 

Then, on the night of Nov. 2, the young woman went to Bergstein’s home, she said. It was late and she was visibly drunk — “falling” all over the place, she said. She was anxious about a health diagnosis she had received that week, she told the detective, and had been drinking. She and Bergstein spoke for a while, she said, and after a time, Bergstein laid her down on the couch, removed her leggings and sexually penetrated her. 

She was shocked, she told the detective, and did not say anything.

The young woman’s therapist later told the detective that she had appeared “completely distressed” the next day and told the therapist Bergstein had assaulted her, according to the affidavit. He advised her to go to Hope Works, an advocacy center for victims of sexual violence — ultimately leading to the investigation.

The detective obtained a search warrant to record phone calls with Bergstein, but the case was never prosecuted.

The Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations denied VTDigger’s requests for additional documents from the case file, which include forensic evidence. When VTDigger contacted the lead detective on the investigation, CUSI Director Richard Weinisch wrote back that the detective would not be available for comment — nor would “any other representative from [CUSI].”

VTDigger was unable to reach the young woman.

‘It was physically and emotionally suffocating’

Ben Bergstein
Ben Bergstein at the North End Studios’ Burlington location in November 2016. Photo by Oliver Parini

The eight people who spoke with VTDigger described harassment and abuse that took a similar shape: unwanted touch and comments, non-consensual kissing. Often, they felt they had no recourse in the situation — particularly given the influence Bergstein carried in Burlington.

Sidney Durmick arrived at North End Studios as an intern in 2015. She was 20 years old, a college student, and, she recalls, “at odds with any idea of professionalism, in the outward-facing sense.” The job, in the studios’ cramped office on North Winooski Avenue, appealed to her. She worked odd hours and all-night shifts, immersed in community arts.

Durmick saw Bergstein, at first, as a mentor. She admired his vision for low-barrier, vibrant community spaces: “He did want to create an environment where things could grow and people could grow something,” she said. It was this, she said, that made his misconduct “that much harder for me to recognize.”

Vermont Performing Arts League employees say they experienced frequent verbal harassment. “He would say he wanted to take our relationship to the next level, that he was very attracted to me,” Durmick said. Other times, Bergstein told her he was worried she would “become fat,” due to the time she spent sitting at a desk in the office. (Dated personal notes that Durmick kept in 2018, and which VTDigger reviewed, describe both of those comments.)

Then there were frequent hugs and “pecking kisses,” Durmick said, and other unwanted touches. “I remember having heightened spatial awareness to recognize when Ben was near me,” she said. “I was definitely uncomfortable.”

Courtney Smith, another former employee, also recalls Bergstein commenting on her body. “He made a lot of comments about my posture,” she said, which became an excuse to touch her inappropriately.

Smith, too, arrived at North End Studios when she was 20. She spent the summer of 2019 working for the organization as an events assistant and, in her words, “the person who schlepps things around.” That September, Smith said, she approached Bergstein to raise concerns about feeling objectified at the workplace. 

“He basically took me by the shoulders, breathed in my face, and ended up saying, ‘I don’t know what has or hasn’t happened to you, but this is the way the world is. You need to stop being so sensitive,’” she said. (VTDigger reviewed text messages Smith sent a friend that day describing the conversation.)

It was the “final straw,” she said. She left within weeks. 

“It was physically and emotionally suffocating,” another former employee said of her experience at the league. 

The former employee submitted an unemployment insurance claim to the Vermont Department of Labor after leaving the job years ago. The 58-page case file, which VTDigger obtained, includes her allegations of sexual misconduct and contains several letters from friends who described hearing of the harassment firsthand. 

“Having an employer attempt to hug and kiss me, touch my back and shoulders, get me angry and then say, ‘I like it when you get fiery,’ and grabbing my arm and telling me he wishes to keep me around him 24/7 … are not experiences that create a positive and productive work environment,” the employee wrote.

A friend of hers also confirmed to VTDigger that she had discussed the harassment at the time: “It was ongoing and it was very difficult for her,” the friend said.

Ultimately, the Department of Labor denied the employee’s claim for unemployment benefits — and her subsequent appeal — on the grounds that she had not properly informed Bergstein that she had found the behavior inappropriate before departing. The department did not dispute the pattern of behavior.

All three employees who spoke with VTDigger said they felt they couldn’t address or elevate their concerns within North End Studios. Aside from Bergstein, the only other person in charge was Werner, his wife — who four people interviewed by VTDigger said had witnessed Bergstein’s misconduct toward them and brushed it off. (Werner declined to comment for the story after multiple interview requests.)

There was, Durmick said, “very little space for a complaint that would go beyond their eyes and ears.” 

According to Durmick, Bergstein offered her favors — moving furniture, lending tools — that were difficult to turn down. She was a renter in the city, living on scant wages. It made her feel like she was “indebted to him for my life here,” she said. “It was difficult to have more agency with Ben. I would often just go along with what he was saying or doing.”

Some, like Cain, felt forced to continue working with Bergstein over the years. In other cases, his harassment left people isolated.

“I don’t go to that building, and I don’t go into the studio itself, really for anything,” one woman told VTDigger. “My friends’ theater performances were there, and I didn’t go, and different bands that I wanted to see — all sorts of stuff.

“I’d say, like, I’d love to go,” the woman said. “But I just can’t go there.”

‘Everyone knew’

Years before Winooski made the allegations public in February, concerns around Bergstein’s conduct had come to the attention of community leaders.

Sara Moore, then a Burlington city councilor, said she had a conversation with Michael Monte, CEO of the Champlain Housing Trust, in late 2017 or early 2018 — she cannot recall precisely when. The trust had recently inked a management contract with North End Studios to oversee the event hall in the Old North End Community Center.

By that time, Moore had heard firsthand accounts from two women alleging sexual misconduct by Bergstein. She was concerned that he was continuing to manage community spaces in Burlington, at times on the city’s dime.

Moore said she shared those concerns — and the nature of the allegations with Monte. He informed her, she said, that unless the women came forward, there was little he could do.

“I’m not sure how hard I pushed back,” Moore said. But what she does remember clearly, she said, is telling Monte: “That’s exactly how this stuff perpetuates.”

When first approached by VTDigger, Monte said the Champlain Housing Trust’s decision to terminate its management agreement with Bergstein was based solely upon the allegations brought by victims to the city of Winooski. “We have had no complaints directly regarding our space,” he said. 

When asked if he had been aware of concerns prior to this year, Monte said, “It would be really wrong for me to comment one way or the other about that … if we had anything specific, we would have taken action much sooner.” When pressed on what concerns may have warranted action, Monte said, “Nobody came to us and said, ‘As a result of Mr. Bergstein’s management of this property, we have concerns about any misconduct.’”

North End Studios in Burlington on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Champlain Housing Trust informed other tenants of the community center on Feb. 11 that it was discontinuing the Vermont Performing Arts League’s management contract, according to an email obtained by VTDigger. Bergstein, Monte wrote, would also be barred from the Old North End Community Center “effective immediately.”

When Cain brought her concerns to Winooski this January, it was not the first the city had heard of Bergstein’s conduct.

On July 24, 2019, the city’s community services director, Ray Coffey, had a meeting with Bergstein, according to records obtained by VTDigger. The meeting, Winooski City Manager Jessie Baker confirmed, was held to address concerns a city staff member had raised regarding “unwelcome touching” by Bergstein and “to make clear [the city’s] expectations for moving forward.”

This employee was not one of the eight people VTDigger interviewed for the story. But Smith, who was also employed by the performing arts league at the time, recalled Bergstein telling her about a similar incident at work that summer.

“He recounted the story to me basically in the same breath as me telling him not to touch me,” she said. 

Cain also brought her concerns to Burlington City Councilor Max Tracy in 2018, which he confirmed to VTDigger. At that time, she told Tracy she didn’t want to come forward publicly but wanted him to know that she found Bergstein’s behavior troubling. 

Tracy explained that he felt their conversation was held “in confidence.” 

“I didn’t feel like I could have a conversation with him or others about it without including information that would have been revealing for her,” he said. Tracy told VTDigger he was not aware of a broader pattern of harassment.

“I don’t think anyone felt comfortable coming forward — at least this is what was told to me — because so many people in the community know [Bergstein],” Moore said. “It felt like a power imbalance.”

Looking back, Cain says she regrets not speaking out publicly years ago. But it was a daunting prospect. “I didn’t want to be scapegoated,” she said. “I didn’t know whether others were willing to come forward.”

Yet, she’s also frustrated that the burden rested upon her to speak out. “Everyone knew,” she said. “And no one did anything.”

‘Totally shocked’

The Vermont Performing Arts League’s future in Winooski remains unclear. For now, the O’Brien Center lease stands — and the league has made clear it will fight to keep it.

Hours after the city of Winooski sent its initial letter to Werner, she responded with a sharp denial. “We are totally shocked by the claims described in this letter, and dispute their truthfulness entirely,” Werner wrote in a Feb. 4 email obtained by VTDigger. The couple’s lawyer, she advised, would be in contact.

On March 4, Robert Scharf, an attorney for Bergstein and Werner, informed the city that the organization had removed Bergstein from any “operational or teaching role” at the O’Brien Center. Bergstein also remains subject to a no-trespass order issued by Winooski for all city property.

This action, along with a new “comprehensive policy on harassment and discrimination” adopted by the league, would cure the default in the lease, Scharf concluded, “if a default had ever existed.” (The organization, he emphasized, had thus far found “no evidence” that supported the misconduct allegations.)

A March 11 email from Scharf clarified that, should any staff find Bergstein on the property, they must “notify the Executive Director” — currently, Werner.

In response, Winooski wrote that it would halt immediate efforts to terminate the lease, though the city warned that it had a right to do so “in the event of ongoing or new breaches.”

Some in the community, however, have begun advocating for the city to cut ties with the league entirely as a result of the allegations. In a response sent to seven different community members who wrote letters to the City Council about the issue, Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott wrote that the city was “prepared to take strong action” should more information come to light. 

The Winooski City Council, wrote city manager Baker in a statement to VTDigger, plans to meet with the league in executive session next week to discuss the lease. “The City of Winooski condemns sexual assault and harassment of any kind and takes reports of such very seriously,” she wrote. “The safety of our community is paramount.”

Hillary Gombar is one Winooski resident who remains concerned, and has been working with Cain and others to make the community aware of the allegations. She sees the O’Brien Center, she said, as “the heartbeat of Winooski.” It’s central to the city’s youth and family programming. “It’s supposed to be a safe place for youth to be,” she said.

Cain, too, wants to see further action. But even so, she feels like things have shifted. 

“This has been five years, at least for me, that this has been going on,” she said. “Finally, something’s happening. And, hopefully, this will be the end of it.”

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A native Vermonter, Katya is assigned to VTDigger’s Burlington Bureau. She is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in political science with a double minor in creative writing and Arabic. She was a contributing writer for the Indypendent in New York, an assistant editor at the Boston Review and a writer for the Scoop News Group and Morocco World News in Rabat. 

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