The Playgoer: Actor Rebellion

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Actor Rebellion

The actors of Chicago's American Theater Company have up and left, in protest of changes proposed by their new AD. Apparently what once was an actor-driven (and actor-founded) tightly woven ensemble has become just another 501(c)(3) with a Board.

The Trib's Chris Jones reports:

In many ways, this parting of the ways is an extreme manifestation of the tensions that can exist between longtime ensemble members who come and go—but also have strong (and emotionally intense) views on their theater—and the visions of those formally charged with day-to-day artistic leadership, especially when that leadership is new. Such issues often intensify when it comes to the choice of material, the selection of directors, and which ensemble members are hired as actors.

American Theater Company now has an annual budget of about $1 million. A majority of the board of directors has lined up behind Paparelli, who was hired about 18 months ago, said member Jeff Morof, a Chicago attorney.

"The bottom line is, we brought PJ in a year and a half ago, and we knew he had a different artistic mission and wanted to diversify the company," he said. "The board has made it very clear that this is the direction in which we want to go. Change is never easy."


The unhappy ensemble members now have to form their own, separate organization in a different building from the one many of them helped construct, with their own hands, on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and West Byron Street.
Maybe this is a naive question, but...How do a bunch of actors who founded the company get overruled by their own board of directors?

In Jones' telling, the AD may have some worthy goals in changing the company--such as culturally diversifying the acting ensemble and play selection. But still, kinda makes you wonder whether you and your actor buddies really want to start your own theatre. (Or maybe the problem is being too successful.)

Reminiscent, by the way, of the last days of the old Jean Cocteau Rep, whose core actors splintered into the current Phoenix Theatre after the new leadership morphed it into the current Exchange.


RLewis said...

JCR was the first group that came to my mind, too. But to address your, maybe rhetorical, question... If the company goes belly up owing half-a-mil' $, it's the Board members that creditors will go after, not the actors.

If the actors cared so much about the company, why aren't several of them on the Board? Why couldn't the company By-laws dictate a number of individual actors and a number of individual community folks be on the Board at any given time?

Control of the organization is in the paperwork, and evidently those actors were around when the documents were originally drawn up and voted on. I'd be interested to know if those actors abdicated responsibility at the time because, well, they're actors.

Anonymous said...

In order to get certified as a 501 c (3) nonprofit, and enjoy the tax breaks and contributions that go with it, you have to have a board of directors. Common practice is to attract business and legal professionals to the board--people who may have access to money, political types, and in many cases--such as attorneys and CPAs--are required to perform a certain amount of pro bono work a year anyway. After 25 years, no doubt, many of these people also came and went.

The number of people on a board is also often governed by the organization's charter... and changing it requires a vote of the board... you see where this is going. You either stack the board with the entire acting company and leave no room or incentive for people who can help you on the outside--or you have fewer actors.

I don't think the actors "abdicated responsibility" because "well, they're actors." That was unnecessarily snarky, and is sadly par for the course with the kind of disregard reserved for stage actors these days.

If they literally constructed the building and have maintained a connection to the place for a quarter-century--not to mention kept the place going that long under Equity contracts in a major city and are leaving a $1 million budget behind them... that sounds like a hell of a lot of responsibility to me. I'm sure the ensemble has a lot of fans who will follow them... so I'm sure this is not over, and I hope they are vindicated.

RLewis said...

No one said don't have a Board - just diversify it. The founders could have written the By-laws/Charter anyway they wanted, and companies change them all the time. Why didn't they?

As a stage actor for over 25 years myself, I've met too many of them for there not to be some truth in my snark. But do you really believe that this is true:
"You either stack the board with the entire acting company ...-or you have fewer actors." ????

You can't find some middle ground of a Board that has some of both artists and local citizens? Please.

At least I have the balls to not post it Anon'. How is someone supposed to believe you?

Personally, I'm all for the actors in this matter. They should go on to have a better company without that Board. But if the actors did all the work you say, and didn't get it in writing, then who's really to blame? I hope they'll know better next time, or cop to being just Actors.

Anonymous said...

If you choose not to believe an anonymous post about how non-profits are formed, then you can do some work of your own--or let your balls do it for you if you prefer--and verify my input or disprove it. If not, then let's chalk it up to your having asked a question and I replied to it.

I post anonymously because like a lot of other blog readers, I have become acquainted with some of the people in this industry--sometimes the people mentioned on this site--and feel it is safer to comment freely this way.

As far as this topic, you're right. There should have been a stipulation that actors-- and founding actors at that--must be on the board. That said, as you must know after 25 years, an actor's life is seldom lived in one place. Many of the performers there worked around the country, and may not have been present enough to attend board meetings and vote on particular issues. Or they were simply outnumbered. In a city like Chicago actors need help to get attention and donations. I don't know the specifics in this case.

What I do know is that a good attorney or CPA wouldn't find it appealing to work pro bono on behalf of folks who head straight to the testicles when called out. I doubt many actors would either. But I'm sure you're a nice guy.

99 said...

I have to say, in my experience, having actors/artists be a percentage of the board is no protection from this sort of thing. Depending on the theatre, the community, and the mission, you can have nominal artist board "members" who are absentee or otherwise less than engaged. It's also possible for board members to sway artist members to agree with their thinking. Sometimes I think there's a benefit in going a totally different route than the traditional 501(c)3 and not having a board, or having the board be solely composed of a core (possibly even a revolving core) of artist members and keep your standard board types at a safe distance. The imperative tends to be "Don't let the wacky artists near the till! They'll spend all of our dough on art...and we don't want that!"

PeonInChief said...

It's been true for a lot of years now that nonprofits have sought to diversify their boards by electing or appointing business people, fundraisers etc. to help raise money for the organization. Unfortunately it's also true that sometimes the board becomes dominated by the money people and, because they control the organization, they can then make whatever changes they want. It happened to Pacifica a bunch of years ago and it's likely to become more common as the current crisis deepens. Nonprofits have to be very careful not to lose control of their boards, as these have legal control of the organization.