BackStage Backbiting at Lexington’s Actors Guild

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When Vic Chaney left Actors’ Guild on Monday, April 20, 1998 fourteen  years of tradition walked out the door with him. The company was going on, but artistic director Chaney and fellow staff members Kim Goudace and Robert Parks Johnson would not be part of it.

 


 by Linda J. Dimon

How did it come to this?
A founding member of AG, and the one most people in Lexington associate with the company, is asked to resign. The collective under which the company operated since its conception in 1984 is dissolved. Rumors swirl in the artistic community about a callous board of directors who ousted Chaney and took his company away from him.

Putting together this story, to borrow an analogy from one of the people involved, was not unlike the old fable of the blind men describing an elephant. One, feeling its stout legs, declares, “Ah, an elephant is like a tree!” Another, touching the elephant’s tail, shouts as surely, “It’s just like a snake!” And so it goes, until each has had his say, and not one of them alone is correct.

So while there are many parts to this drama, only two things are perfectly clear: there are no absolute angels in this scenario, and the conflict at AG has been building for some time.

The Collective vs. The Board
Under AG’s collective structure, three full-time paid staff members and four part-time staff members had equal votes in the company’s artistic and business decisions.

“AG was formed by a group of us who mostly came out of UK…graduate students and undergraduates… who wanted a new type of theater-one not so traditional,” said AG founding member Ralph Pate. “As we grew, we got to the point where we knew we couldn’t handle fund raising and grant writing and things like that, so we decided we needed a board.

“That was a big debate because we were setting budgets and making policies ourselves, and we were afraid a bunch of people would come in here and not like our structure and change it. That’s when the staff wrote the bylaws. We thought, if we are going to turn this over to the board, we wanted to make sure the collective structure would be kept in place. No one could say, ‘this isn’t working’ and change it.”

At a meeting of the arts community Sunday, April 26, board member Janice Kuperstein, responding to a comment that the collective worked “beautifully” throughout its 14 years, said the collective structure no longer worked.

“We did our research on this. We talked to several former staff and board members. The collective was not working ‘beautifully’ all of the time or even most of the time. The right collective could have worked…Appalshop is a wonderful example…but a successful collective is one where everyone pulls together and everyone’s responsible.

“For 14 years the structure has worked for the company, but maybe it doesn’t work anymore.”

Although the board’s problems with AG’s collective structure only became public in April, AG immediate past president (1996-97) Dr. Richard Neil said problems with that organizational model began much earlier.

“I was on the board three years, and financial accountability is something the board has had to deal with for at least four or five years that I know of, so this issue didn’t just suddenly come up. There were always questions about the collective as an organizational model, even as there were always positive things about the way the collective worked.

“Financial accountability becomes an issue when a company has a great abundance or a great lack. Either situation tends to point out the weaknesses of an organization, and when a company grows, you can’t have a collective of seven people reviewing every detail on a day-to-day business. It’s just not efficient or productive.”

If a non-profit company is in financial trouble, Neil said, it is then in danger of not serving the community. Thus the board can not only demand greater accountability, but because of its nonprofit status, it might be argued that it must do so, perhaps by firing those deemed responsible, or restructuring to change job responsibilities and positions.

For the first time in its history, AG’s board has done both, perhaps because ultimately, if a company can’t pay its debts, its board members must or the company will go under.

“Members of any board are financially responsible for the debt a company incurs, period. That’s why they’re there, to assure the rest of the community that someone is accountable. In the case of AG, from what I understand, there was short-term debt that had become long-term debt, which is something you never like to see.”

However, Neil does not consider AG to be at risk.

“I personally hold a note from the original loan to the company,” said Neil, “but to me, it’s a reasonable investment. And I’m not alone; there are many people in Lexington who hold similar notes and believe strongly in AG’s mission, to produce contemporary, compelling theater for the region.”

Chaney remains a staunch supporter of the collective and the original intent of the company. Chaney is good friends with Neil and both say they worked well together when Neil was board president, but Chaney thinks some of those now sitting on the board know little about the company.

“Most of them have only come to one or two shows and they know nothing about theater. There are four lawyers on that board and there are a lot of loopholes [in the bylaws]. They know what’s going to happen: nothing. Are people going to fight it? No. It’s extremely frustrating, to take something from zero to a $225,000 budget and then have to leave it. The ‘collective isn’t working’ excuse is just a convenient scapegoat. The ballet is having [equally public] problems, but no one’s talking about throwing out the hierarchy.”

AG currently has 14 board members. Only four of those-Linda Bark, Melani Bruner, Janice Kuperstein and Raymond Smith were named earlier than last July.

“Clearly,” Neil said, “it helps if the members have experience serving on boards, and non-profit boards in particular, but there is nothing that keeps anyone in the community from participating in what AG does.”

The Finances
“To say the company was financially failing is wrong,” said Guodace, “because the company was in worse financial position the day I arrived. When we did Angels in America last summer, we went over budget, and I told two board members, but we had an almost entirely new board come on in July, so I don’t know who knew what.

“We had a budget, we had a plan in place to make up the shortfall through the season, but there wasn’t any room for error because we’d already cut expenses to the bare bone. But then box office fell off this year, as it has nationwide, and the Pauper’s Ball didn’t make as much money as we thought it would.

“[So] at the beginning of March, I went to the staff and said, ‘we can’t pay the bills.’ We were about $10,000 short on operating expenses and then we had some long-term obligation come due, which brought [the deficit] up to about $20,000.”

Derik Mannon, general manager of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, said he finds it difficult to believe no one at AG was directly accountable for finances.

“My situation is different, because I’m not sitting on productions year round or getting money in year round and disbursing it, but if I were $20,000 short or even $10,000 short, I’d better have a good reason for it. $20,000 of a $225,000 budget is pretty significant. I can’t imagine turning over an income statement for the festival saying we were $10,000 short. I don’t think I’d have a job any more!”

Actor Joe Gatton wonders how such a seemingly strong company could be in trouble. “I find it difficult to believe all this happened in just a six-week period. They find out there’s going to be a shortage in March, and then just five weeks later the collective’s been dissolved. I just wonder, why did they decide to act so fast? The money that’s short-that’s a pittance really.”

Board president Melani Bruner, who has served on the AG board four years, said that while hindsight is always 20/20, “the board sees now that we were being told eveything was okay, but obviously it wasn’t. I missed one board meeting, and when I cam back we were being told of this shortfall. We had six days to get a loan in order to make payroll. We have no assets; we rent the building we’re in…

“Angels was a wonderful show; it neeeded to be done. I’m not an artist and I wouldn’t even attempt to say how it should have been done, but I think technically things could have been done differently to keep costs down. It ran way over budgt, and then when box office fell behind our expectations…”

Former technical director Robert Parks Johnson’s said agreed that the company had been aware of its financial problems for some time.

“As soon as we saw what we spent on Angels, we knew we wouldn’t see black ink until February. It’s not about money; it’s about people. I think the board is trying hard not to say, ‘these people fucked up.’”

Behind the Scenes
Technical director Johnson was about hired three-and-a-half years ago; business manager Goudace about two-and-a-half. Both went to the board on separate occasions to discuss the problems they were having in working under the collective structure.

“I went to the board,” said Goudace, “not because of the financial situation, but to tell them that I thought the collective was not working and that I could not work in a collective structure anymore.

“The main problem was that if a decision was made, not everybody on the staff had the experience or education to understand what the best solution was. If the money situation were entirely my responsibility, then if something went wrong, I could fix it or take the blame if I couldn’t. But what do you do when you tell everyone you’re short and no one does anything about it and there’s no one to blame?

“When an arts group has problems, there’s never one reason,” said Goudace, “but I think our problems were different than [those of] other theater company’s of the same size. To say that staff fighting was involved is almost trivializing it. We were speaking-but only two of us-always in different combinations, were speaking at any one time. There were very few words exchanged…had there been actual knockdown, dragout fights it might have been better; it might have cleared the air.”

Although Robert Parks Johnson said that any time a group puts on theater, it must work as a collective, he agreed with the board’s decision to dissolve that structure for the company.

“I went to the board because it just wasn’t working anymore…the structure and makeup of the personnel. We were dysfunctional. We’re talking about three people who walked into a building each day and did not speak. I and my colleagues did a bad job. Every year we face a hump: we run out of money. Some years we sell early-bird subscriptions; this year, the staff decided to devour each other. The board made a decision that this could not be salvaged; I’m not at all convinced they were wrong.”

Chaney thinks otherwise. It was not the structure of the company that was at fault, he feels, but that of the people who comprised it.

“If two of the seven people in the collective do not believe in the collective, it makes it hard. To praise the collective and then go behind the scenes and say it isn’t working, that isn’t right. When both Kim and Bob were hired, it was made very clear what the collective was and how it worked. Everybody makes it sound like communism, but everybody had they own jobs. People were responsible, but people would not always take responsibility.”

Chaney said that when Goudace announced the budget shortfall, he was taken completely by surprise. “I was just stunned; we all were. That was the first I knew we were in that much debt. Now suddenly we’re short and then Kim doesn’t come to the next two staff meetings.”

It was then that Chaney asked the staff members to vote that Goudace be asked to resign. The majority voted to do so, but the board, when informed of the staff’s decision, refused.

“They said there was not enough evidence to fire Kim,” said Chaney. “They told us to make the collective stronger and anyone who couldn’t make it would be weeded out.”

“I told Janice [Kuperstein] the day Blues for an Alabama Sky opened that I didn’t know if I could continue working at AG anymore. I was tired of being in conflict. But we still managed to get work done. The ballet stopped, but we continued to go on.”

The Board’s Move
Chaney said that the board’s decision to ask him to resign was “shocking.” He and Goudace were set to apply for a grant at LACC on Monday when he got a call from board member Mark Simon Sunday night.

“He told me, ‘the board will represent AG at LACC tomorrow, and we’ll meet with you Monday night.’ I truly thought they would ask Kim and Bob to resign. I walked into the meeting Monday and seven board members were present. Melani Bruner fired me in about two sentences. ‘We really appreciate all the hard work you’ve done over the years, but the collective isn’t working and you’re responsible for it. We want your resignation.’

“It was the most surreal, cold experience I’ve ever had. They told me I’d get two weeks severance and when I asked them, ‘what plans do you have for the company?’ they just said, ‘we have made arrangements.’

“I left thinking, what have I done to deserve this? I haven’t embezzled or murdered or lied or sexually harassed anyone…We had help coming in; we were working on surveys; we were working to reform and restructure the collective. We knew we needed help.”

Given his long history with the company and that history’s abrupt termination, the bitterness he feels is obviously still fresh.

“I try to treat people right; I try not to hurt people. I feel like asking Deb Shoss, ‘Deb, if you wanted a theater company, why didn’t you start your own?’ I don’t feel like I was treated with respect. I think it made a difference that nine of the 14 board members had only been on the board eight or nine months. They don’t understand theater or the theater community. AG as we knew it…that company is over.”

Newly named producing manager Deb Shoss says, however, that there has been no “coup” at AG.

“Members of the board first approached me the Wednesday before the firings and asked me, ‘would you consider a change in the way things are done at AG, and if so, would you be the person who would have responsibility for the financial and artistic side?’ They wanted one person who communicated to the board on every level.

“They wanted me to step in as interim director for the rest of the season. I told them that was ridiculous and certainly unrealistic-that the new season hadn’t even been named yet, so anyone they hired for next season would be left with whatever season the interim director named. They came back and asked me to sign a contract for one year; so if they don’t like what I’m doing I’m out of here at the end of the season anyway…I took this job because it was this or close this theater… I have no intention of being up here alone for very long. But, I am the one who has the final responsibility.”

The Reaction
The board’s decision surprised most people in the artistic community. The consensus is that the board acted too quickly in dissolving the collective structure and ousting Chaney particularly, and, rationally or not, many are angry that they weren’t made aware of the problems earlier or at least be made part of the restructuring process. Also, the board’s reluctance to talk to the press left too much to speculation.

At the meeting of the local artistic community on Sunday, many voiced their concern.

Actor Joe Gatton stated,”I find it hard to believe that this is all about people fighting. Theater people are always fighting. If we don’t have drama, we’ll create it. It seems if you’re going to let people go…do it after the season’s over, not on the closing weekend of a play with two more left to go in the season. They don’t hire an interim director; they just announce suddenly that this is all done.”

Chance Theater founder Bo List, who moderated the meeting, wondered if Actors’ Guild still deserved the support of the local theater community.

“I know Actors’ Guild always had a vision. I want to know of it now that there’s going to be one component of it that’s honest and true to the vision. If not, do I boycott it and so take responsibility for the artistic community?”

Actor Billy Breed, who refused to participate in his scheduled one-man show at AG in protest, wondered about the future of the arts in Lexington.

“Things like this really make we wonder, do I want to stay here? Is there really support for theater in Lexington? Or do I take the plunge again, go somewhere else and start over?”

For local arts groups to make it, Joe Ferrell of Phoenix Group Theater said, “we’ve got to find ways to support each other. We’ve got to support everything, all the arts, to survive at all.”

Most of the talk that Sunday, however, centered on worries about Chaney.

“I’m concerned about what happens to an organization when its founder leaves,” said Trish Clark, a Lafayette High School drama teacher and artistic director for this year’s Shakespeare Festival. “It’s like a death. I want to give Vic due respect. He’s someone who came forth in this community as a soldier for the arts. I want to know that the board made a good decision.”

Ferrell and AG crew member Karin Whitmore echoed Clark’s concerns.

“Vic spends 14 years building a theater and in the blink of an eye, he’s gone,” said Ferrell. “My question is, what happens to Vic? He created this and now it’s taken away from him…all that blood and sweat and tears.”

The Board’s Side
The board is surely at fault in one area: For forgetting-or worse, perhaps not even realizing-how tightknit, loyal and talkative the artistic community can be. But Kuperstein said the board’s decision was neither hasty nor callous.

“Our first response,” she said, was to ask, “How can we fix this financial problem? We were working with the staff to solve these problems, but we were hearing from each of the three individually…getting numerous complaints from each about the others…and two of them were telling us the collective wasn’t working.”

The board and staff kept quiet about the internal problems, she said, “because we wanted this to work-we wanted to keep this in-house, to work on our problems and fix them.” Eventually, though, it became apparent that the current staff could not surmount their difficulties.

“Our fear was that we couldn’t be ready for next season if we don’t make decisions now. We wanted AG to survive and thrive, and [the decision] hurt some people, but it hurt us too. Vic was extraordinarily committed to the collective structure. If you really believe in that, is it fair to ask one person to lead in that role [of restructuring]? We struggled with this. Nobody was excited about doing this.”

The board told Chaney it would make the grant presentation to the LACC themselves, Kuperstein said, because of the problems the staff was having.

Kuperstein said that although some of the board members met with Shoss the both the Wednesday and Saturday before Chaney and the others were asked to resign, no definite plans were laid at that time.

“We left the meeting Saturday night still not knowing what we would do. No decision was made that night, so the board met again Sunday. I can’t stress enough what an incredibly difficult and emotional decision it was…but our mission will remain the same. Deb Shoss has a vision. She’ll make AG better than ever. But it’s not like we’re annointing a dictator and walking away; nor do we plan to micro-manage the company either.”

This, despite the fact that ousting the collective and firing the founding director at AG is seen by many in the artistic community as evidence of both-prompting difficult questions about just what role a board is to play in arts and non-profit organizations in this town. Recent weeks seem to indicate that they have become very skilled at firing staff (and micro-management), while sidestepping the responsibility for the very reason most organizations consider boards a necessary evil: fundraising.

Board president Melani Bruner said that while she still considers Chaney to be a friend, “as president, that’s part of the commitment you make. It wasn’t an easy thing for anyone. We were as emotinal about it as the staff. We understood how hard this would be on Vic. But Vic couldn’t part with this structure and he-as well as Kim and Bob-couldn’t continue in it. The personnel problems fanned the financial ones. This was the board’s main goal: to keep the company going. We didn’t want to lose sight of our responsibility.”

The Future
Shoss was quoted in the daily paper as having plans to build AG into “a regional theater on par with Actors Theatre of Louisville” and “to establish audience development programs.” Reaction was swift from those already involved in Lexington theater.

“What about artist development?” asked Pate. “If there’s all this money to develop an audience, then pay the actors more. Actors at AG are paid more now than they ever were, but it’s still community theater with a bonus. Actors here cannot make a living acting. Actors worked for AG because it was a little more cutting edge, a little more risk taking. They need plays that will help them develop as professionals, not more Neil Simon revivals.”

“It’s nice to say you’ll turn AG into the next ATL,” said Mannon, “but the situation here is totally different. We have a population of 250,000. This city cannot compete with a city of over one million people. There needs to be a level of reality and maybe an attitude of, not make it bigger, but make it better.”

When asked about her comments, Shoss said she has no plans to make AG into the next ATL at this point. “I’m not a fool; I know what it would take to get there…ATL might have entered the picture because I worked for Jon Jory when he first started at ATL; I think the paper made a few leaps that I didn’t make.

“But this town could support a professional resident company on a different scale. We want to pay actors more; the whole point is not to lose people to other cities, so they can stay here and make a living here. We’re going to do fabulous plays; we’re going to have fabulous directors.

“I’d like Vic to be a part of it, but obviously, I’m not going to call him now and he’s not going to call me…maybe after some time has passed. I hope people will look at all sides of the story, because AG has to be a viable place to work in this town… Our mission will not change, nor will our respect for Vic, nor will this theater’s spirt of collaboration.”

AG past president Richard Neil said AG’s current situation is not so bleak as it seems. “Things may be bad now, but they’re still far better than they were last year, and the years before that. Right now the community is faced with a change. AG isn’t what it was, certainly, and sometimes boards grow quite distant from the day-to-business of a company and don’t realize what effect their actions will have on the community…It will be interesting to see how Lexington responds to one of its non-profit organizations.”

If the board didn’t fully understand the effect its actions would have, Kuperstein said there’s no going back now.

“I know some people will take a wait and see attitude; that we’ll have to prove something to you. And I’m glad, because we will prove it…but others we’re asking to take a leap of faith with us. Everyone says this hurts the artistic community, but we’re a part of the artistic community too, aren’t we?”



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