Common Myths and the Facts

Myth: The Friends group formed in response to the firing of Greg Miller

Facts: The Friends group formed on March 2, 2017 in response to the pattern of mismanagement and artistic overreach by the former executive director (ED) exemplified by trying to force an intermission into Drowsy Chapperone, a musical specifically written to include no intermission. This became the final straw of mismanagement and personal gross misconduct by the former ED and the failure of the board of directors to attend to their fiduciary duties as required. The petition, demands, and many letters to the board outlining these issues including sexual advances were all kept private with the hope that a resolution could be accomplished out of the public eye. Only when membership rights were unilaterally and secretly eliminated by the board and Greg Miller was fired and treated inappropriately was the decision reached to bring the situation into public view. The board had shown their incompetence, unwillingness to listen, and left the community no other options to effect the necessary change and save the organization.

Myth: Leaving Iowa was canceled because it could not be profitable even if sold out

Facts: This was one of the explanations given to the public about the poorly handled cancelation. Once Greg Miller was fired without warning and immediately walked to the door, the reason for the cancelation was clear: there would be no one to direct the show and no time to find a contract replacement. The tens-of-thousands in revenue left on the table, the already sold seats, the many season ticket holding patrons left on the roadside, were all a small price to pay for the board leadership who believed Greg Miller somehow caused all the problems they faced.

Myth: Greg Miller was behind the Friends group and directing its actions

Facts: The Friends group was formed by a few members of the theatre community in response to the Drowsy Chaperone situation with the thinking that a decade of mismanagement was pushing away the very people the theatre meant to attract. That situation had to change. These community members (who formed the Friends group) were not even part of the cast or crew of this show. (Cast and crew did join subsequently.) Mr. Miller was not informed of its existence until after a Facebook private group was formed and hundreds of people had joined. Staff – including Mr. Miller – were intentionally left out of the group. While some cast members wrote letters to the board to express their dissatisfaction with the handling of the intermission debacle, the many letters written voicing disapproval for the management style, overreach, incompetence, examples of loss of revenue, and many examples of gross misconduct by victims, as well as the petition gaining support of more than 250 community members were all conceived and executed without the knowledge, support, or direction of Mr. Miller. In all, 16 letters were presented to the board on March 14, 2017.

Myth: The Friends group represents only actors or only a small number of disgruntled volunteers

Facts: Volunteers make up the heart and soul of any theatre. They are the most tightly connected to the organization and provide the skills, talent, and human resources without which a community theatre cannot function. They are generally closer to the pulse of the theatre’s heartbeat than anyone, sometimes including staff. That regular volunteers spearheaded the Friends group is not surprising. The group currently consists of actors, crew members, set builders, ushers, musicians, stage managers, and house managers. But it includes patrons, season ticket holders, donors. It has former board members and former board presidents among those who consider themselves part of the group as well as artists who have contracted to choreograph, to direct the orchestra, to direct the vocal talent, and to design the sets and lighting. In short, it is a loose affiliation of people who devote a large part of their lives, of themselves, to making theatre. And it is at its heart a group which has given untold time and effort to attempt to maneuver this ship away from the iceberg with the captain apparently asleep at the wheel. The Friends, then, represent a cross-section of thousands who make up the theatre community in our region.

Myth: The board of directors know what they’re doing and are making good decisions

Facts: With the firing of Greg Miller, the Civic is a theatre run by people who have no experience running a theatre, many of whom have no theatre experience at all, and many who cannot tell you the last time they attended a theatrical production. This fact alone speaks to the competency of the board leadership. No one doubts the board wants the Civic to succeed, but wanting it and doing something intelligent to cause it to happen are vastly different actions. Imagine a restaurant that has no chef, no one who knows how to create a menu that will attract patrons, and which blames its customers for its declining revenue. Only someone who understands what’s lacking and quickly attends to those issues can save the restaurant. The board knew the ED was going to leave in March but didn’t find and hire an interim ED until July. Most organizations would attend to that immediately. The interim ED has no theatre experience whatsoever. There may or may not be a search committee for a new ED as information flow is one-way with the board. Past experience suggests the board leadership will prefer someone with business experience over someone with any theatre experience.

Myth: Past decisions are what they are and cannot be undone

Facts: We are repeatedly told we all must “move forward” and move beyond what is in the past. But bylaws were changed to exclude members and can easily be changed to bring members back. The artistic director position was eliminated, but it can easily be re-instituted. While we doubt Greg Miller would even accept his old position back at this point, well run large community theatres do not operate without the guidance of a strong artistic director.

Myth: Running a nonprofit theatre is just like running any other nonprofit

Facts: Nonprofit organizations do share some characteristics, and such experience within the board of directors is valuable. However, a community theatre is not a food bank or a homeless shelter; it is vastly different from most organizations. Consider the roles of volunteers. A theatre must develop a large network of highly talented artists willing to put aside their outside lives for several weeks or even months at a time. Without them, the organization is not just less efficient or hampered in its mission, it has no product, no offering to the community. It has nothing. Aside from other performing arts organizations, what other nonprofit relies so heavily on its volunteer base? The community need filled by a theatre is also immeasurably different from nonprofits helping the poor, the handicapped, the veterans, the destitute. To administer its mission, it requires leaders who understand how to serve a different, less obvious need and what kind of team is needed to mount such an effort. The leaders must be able to foster a collaborative environment that draws the best artists available, both for several contracted positions as well as many volunteer positions in order to be successful and to create an enterprise which can be sustained financially. They must know what shows exist, what are available, what each requires from the team to produce, what will appeal to the local audiences, what will challenge the audiences and their perceptions, what will serve the mission. These abilities and knowledge may not necessarily reside on the board of directors, but the board must understand such abilities, understand the need for such abilities, and, as a fundamental part of their fiduciary duties to the organization, must ensure such abilities and knowledge are unequivocally met or exceeded by the staff.

Myth: The addition of music and other non-theatre events saved the Civic from financial ruin

Facts: The Civic’s tax forms, Form 990, are publicly available and tell a vastly different story than what we’ve been led to believe. While large events like Americana Showcase brought in decent revenue (expenses are not itemized and so net income is difficult to determine), other non-theatre uses of the space have been less rewarding. Outright space rental has varied between one and sixteen thousand dollars annually, more often at the low end of that scale. Set against nearly a million in overall cashflow, this has not been a meaningful revenue stream. Other events have been free to the public, funded by grants. While laudable and perhaps a marketing positive, they do not tend to the theatre mission and do nothing to help keep the lights on. The former ED did manage to convince City Council to vastly increase the city’s annual contribution to the theatre. This unearned income plus the ticket sales for theatre productions together comprise the vast majority of the Civic’s revenue.

Myth: The Friends want the Civic to drop all non-theatre activities

Facts: Many among the Friends are the most regular attendees of several of these events. They are the ones often dancing at the Patio music events. They attend the Women on Wednesdays events. They object only when non-theatre activities interfere with theatre. When a sold-out show is not held-over potentially bringing in an additional $15,000 or $30,000 because someone rented the space for a couple hundred bucks, the theatre is no longer serving its mission or serving its patrons and community. When events are routinely scheduled to disrupt important rehearsals for a big musical, the theatre is demonstrating a lack of commitment to the art it has been charged to provide. The Friends don’t want to drop these activities, they want a leader who understands how to manage this diversity competently while keeping the core values that brought it into existence always in mind.

Myth: Urinetown attendance suffered because of its name

Facts: Urinetown is a multi-award winning Broadway musical. Other local theatres have had huge success with this show including the Rochester Repertory Theatre and Red Wing’s Phoenix Theatre. Producing great modern musicals such as Urinetown is how the Civic brings new faces into the house, younger patrons who are ultimately its future. It’s a concept understood by theatre professionals and wisely used in recent years. It’s apparently a concept not understood by leaders inexperienced in the field, such as those currently charged with operating the Civic.

Myth: The 2017/2018 season was selected by Greg Miller with shows he wanted to do

Facts: The 2017/2018 season was selected using the process in place for many years. A Play Selection Committee was formed consisting of various interested people from the staff and the community chaired by the artistic director (Mr. Miller). They are given general guidelines for what sorts of shows are needed and generally work in the various slots and how many shows are desired (this has varied from five to eight in recent years). Then committee members read scripts and bring back to the committee shows they believe will work. Staff is consulted, especially regarding the technical aspects of the shows, and a final lineup is determined and presented to the board of directors for approval, usually around October. This allows time to secure rights and begin creating the marketing material needed in spring to kick-off the drive for season tickets and contributions. Since the board only met three times in 2016, they were presented with this season lineup at the November meeting. Minutes for that meeting indicate agreement that the proposal was excellent, but the board would defer voting until further discussion regarding the budget took place. They planned to vote at the January 2017 meeting. There was no January 2017 meeting, however, and no voting on the season lineup was indicated in the February 2017 meeting minutes. (This is just one example of the lack of oversight and general mismanagement which prompted the March letters to the board.) In the past several years, only one person has unilaterally added shows to the schedule without the input of the Play Selection Committee – the former executive director, Gregory Stavrou – and that includes the 2017/2018 season.

Myth: The Friends are responsible for the current casting and box office failures at the Civic

Facts: Volunteers are, by definition, unpaid. They are not employees. The organization they serve can offer only the chance for them to feed a passion, to feel a sense of belonging, to feel a sense of doing something good and giving to others. When the organization can no longer provide those amenities or when it no longer represents the values of its volunteers, they are free to leave, free to find other outlets, other organizations. Patrons and donors give their often limited funds to organizations which provide them value and which they believe are doing great work serving a needed role in the community. When the organization, by its actions, appears to no longer serve that role successfully, they are free to take their money elsewhere. There is no lack of theatre in our region. Actions by the Civic board of directors has left it in its current situation with volunteers, patrons, and donors looking elsewhere to give of their time and money. Only actions by that board of directors can repair the damage. Even then, each of these people, whether members of the Friends or not, has to individually decide if enough has been done, if the Civic can be trusted again to faithfully serve its mission without once again severing the hands that feed it.

Myth: The Friends (and, by extension, the community) must compromise

Facts: Compromise is a good word and, for many disagreements, a worthy goal. Compromise assumes there are two parties in the discussion and, once agreement is reached, the matter will be settled. Compromise assumes both parties can bend without breaking, give something up that will move toward a mutually beneficial conclusion. This community, though, is not one party. While the Friends have spokespersons and try to reach consensus, in the end it is a community of individuals each of whom has their own view of this fiasco, their own set of conditions to be met. For some, the ship has sailed and may never be back in port. Various issues at the heart of this debacle are not bendable – they are fragile glass thus far being thrown about without care. Shall the board of directors be allowed to ignore the victims of abuse because “it happened before I was here?” Should the board president complicit in every bad decision made since March (and arguably improperly voted onto the board) be trusted to suddenly come to her senses and right the ship? Should the board be given a free pass for secretly disenfranchising the members who are the current representatives of those who built the theatre over 60 years ago? Should the Civic “leadership” be allowed to operate the theatre with no theatre luminary on staff? Should the community refrain from laughing when hearing repeatedly, “everything I did, I did for you.” Show us where compromise is possible, where it will not further break the theatre, and it may be considered.

Myth: The Friends group bullied the theatre community into submission

Facts: At every point, discretion prevailed. The only protest by the Friends was for Greg Miller’s dismissal during the time he was allotted to retrieve his belongings from the theatre (during which he was left to stand in the rain 40 minutes before someone showed up to allow him into the building). Urinetown auditions were not picketed. No one showed up to protest during the Patio music events. No one handed out leaflets on opening night. There were no organized protests save the one above. There were joint press releases which were carefully worded to include only facts such as these, and again, only after other means of repair failed or were unilaterally eliminated by the board. Beyond these, the collection of individuals who make up the theatre community act according to their own conscience. The Friends is not an official organization. There are no dues, no code of conduct, no requirements besides a love of theatre and a desire to see the misguided and uninformed direction the Civic has taken be corrected.