Misinformed

Today (4 August 2017), the Post-Bulletin published a letter by Rebecca Erickson titled Dissension threatens future of Civic Theatre.

Everyone has a right to share their opinions, but unfortunately, some opinions are formed based on a pieces of information and not on all the facts. It’s important to throw a light on the facts and make sure we understand what is real and what is speculation. Let’s examine Ms. Erickson’s letter and point out some mistakes.

When the Rochester Civic Theatre recently made some governance and personnel changes, a group of theater volunteers who disagreed with those changes formed a group they call Friends of RCT. I know and have performed alongside people in that group, many of whom are skilled actors, musicians, technicians and artists.

The Friends of RCT formed in March, two months before the changes Erickson mentions. The group formed because we felt the long term gross mismanagement of the theatre by the executive director at the time and the board of directors (BOD) as well as various issues regarding sexual harassment and alcohol abuse threatened the future of the theatre. The group attempted to bring the issues to light with the BOD while keeping the issues out of the public eye. These attempts were thwarted at every turn culminating in the removal of voting membership by the BOD behind closed doors and the firing of the artistic director of 27 years who was walked to the door and given no time to collect his belongings.

At that point, it was clear the BOD did not want to work with us, did not understand us, and frankly, did not understand that running a theatre requires someone on staff who knows something about running a theatre. No one on the BOD nor on staff has that minimum skill. Losing member rights, the Friends had left only the ability to raise a flag and begin making the concerns public. Remember – going public was a direct result of actions taken by the BOD.

Like them, I’m an ardent Civic supporter and volunteer. I’ve been following their letters to the editor and online posts. It’s clear they love the theater, and they’re angry. What’s not clear is what their goal is. The Friends group made the decision to boycott the theater, which is their right. But they’re also waging a wide-scale social media and email campaign, urging all volunteers in the area to stay away from RCT and dissuading actors from attending auditions.

Our goals are clear. In the original letter signed by over 150 people sent to the BOD in March, we stated three requests. One was the resignation of the executive director. The other two, including a member meeting at which we could discuss the issues in more detail with the BOD, have never been addressed. Our current goals are available here on this site by clicking Goals above. Ms. Erickson, sadly, like most of those proclaiming support for the current actions of the BOD, has not done due diligence.

The volunteers in the Friends group have no intention of giving their time – something you can never get back – to an organization demonstrably set on making light of the issues, ignoring requests for communications, believing “easier and more economical” with no theatre experience at the helm is the way to run a theatre, and ignoring gross misbehavior until a story appeared on MPR. None of the women who came forward was ever even contacted to say, “we’re sorry this happened to you.” So, yes, those in the Friends group who volunteer feel we cannot support the organization until changes are made.

Some of those in our rather large and diverse group are letting others within their circle know about what’s going on – letting those friends and colleagues make their own informed decisions.

They’re advising patrons to demand refunds for season tickets and they’re asking foundations to withdraw their financial support. If they succeed in what they’re doing, the Rochester Civic Theatre—a valuable asset for the arts community—will be driven out of business.

First, realize who the Friends group represents. We are actors, backstage volunteers, front of house volunteers, set builders. We are patrons of the theatrical productions. We are patrons of the Civic Live productions. We attend Women on Wednesdays and other outreach programs. We are former board members and former board presidents. We are donors. We are season ticket holders.

Some in our group have, when discussing the troubles and issues with their friends, informed their friends they can request refunds and some people have done that. This has not been an official action of our group. There has been discussion on our PRIVATE Facebook group about requesting businesses withhold their support. This was generally felt to be overreaching, and it’s doubtful it has happened. We don’t, however, try to control individuals who call themselves members of the group.

In fact, certain “members” have seen fit to take screenshots of the private discussions, usually when emotions are high, and forward those private communications to the BOD. They’ve made it difficult to let people speak openly, to share important information widely. Democracy, in all its forms, has to cope with such troubles, and so we try to do so.

What a change from the time when theater groups were the champions of arts for all. Some of the Friends have turned against guest director Kathy Keech for agreeing to direct RCT’s upcoming musical. Kathy is experienced, highly respected and incredibly talented; many of the Friends have worked alongside her at RCT, The Rep, and Absolute Theatre. And yet they’re doing everything they can to make her job impossible. Several people who Kathy has contacted about being in the show have declined because they fear repercussions from others in the group.

Opinions about Ms. Keech vary (and, again, such discussions have generally been held in what should have been a private forum). No one questions her capabilities, but we are saddened she chose to provide her support to an organization we cannot currently support.

We have heard from several actors who have been directly contacted about participating in the opening show, Urinetown. They have declined to participate for the reasons stated above, and they like so many others, generally regard themselves part of the Friends. There have been no threats, no bullying, nothing of the kind. It just happens that what the then president of the board called “a small group of individuals” is a quite large group. This fact is still not understood.

I’ve been a volunteer at RCT, on stage and off, for over 20 years. I’m the mother of three, and the Civic is an important place for my whole family. But the Friends say they want “their” theater back and seem to be demonstrating that if they can’t have it to themselves, no one can have it. They forget that RCT is our community’s theater; a community that includes well over 100,000 people.

Many in our group have been volunteers for as long or longer than Ms. Erickson, and many have been dedicating a large portion of their non-work lives to RCT. Many are Joe Saidy Award winners, the award generally given annually for outstanding service to the theatre. Many met their spouses at RCT. They gave so much of themselves because they believed in the mission of producing the best community theatre in southern Minnesota. Folks, that mission is under siege. That mission is being mismanaged into oblivion. It is, in fact, because we want the theatre to thrive, to be available to everyone in our community of 200,000 or more, that we make such a difficult decision to withhold our support until someone recognizes that the current path leads to destruction.

It is not our group damaging the theatre. We cannot – we have no such power. Only the BOD has the ability to turn the Titanic around before it crashes into the iceberg. All we can do is point to the iceberg and yell as loudly as possible to try – so far in vain – to get someone’s attention.

The Friends continue to demand the resignation of the current Civic Theatre board. and I expect they think if that happens the city will turn to them for leadership. The result, instead, will be the death of RCT. That will be the legacy this group of “Friends” will be remembered for.

We have never, as a group, requested the resignation of the entire board. We have requested the resignation of those behind the long string of poor decisions. We have no voting power. There is now no method of oversight. We can only ask.

The city has nothing to do with running RCT. There is no one expecting the city to turn to us or in any other way effect change at RCT. It’s not their job. I have no idea how Ms. Erickson came to this strange conclusion. It’s quite baffling.

The Friends of RCT say they love the theater. What a tragic way they have of showing it.

The tragedy here is the pain being caused by a small group of volunteers – those behind all the missteps serving on the BOD. Many of us have been losing sleep for months over this. Many of us are trying to go to work and do our jobs while the mess foisted onto the theatre by the BOD jolts us to our souls. Many of us continue to attempt to open communications with the BOD even while being met by fear and loathing. We fight for the theatre using the only means the BOD has left us. That we have been so poorly heard is, indeed, tragic.

We continue to reach out. Some newer faces on the BOD and even some BOD veterans are attempting to make small steps toward open dialogue. We can wish they had made such attempts months ago, but here we are. All is not lost, but again, the Friends can only ask to be heard. Real change happens only when the BOD decides perhaps some decisions should be reconsidered.