Arts » Performing Arts

It's the Art, Stupid

It's high time Rep's board learned its lesson

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Artists and administrators at Charlotte Repertory Theatre are never fired. With amazing frequency, they resign. Since 2000, when Rep board chairman Michael McGuire announced that the company was on a quest to win a Tony Award within five years, resignations have come in waves.

First, after taking Rep from deep deficit at his arrival to having cash reserves of $37,096 on March 15, 2001, managing director Keith Martin was replaced by Matt Olin and the company's first full-time development director, Anne Lambert. Martin's artistic partner, company founder Steve Umberger, was dispatched after the following season, replaced by new producing artistic director Michael Bush in July 2002.

Within the next 17 months, all three of the newcomers had resigned. Olin and Lambert triggered the second wave of departures last August, leaving jointly, reportedly frustrated with their powerlessness under Bush. Soon afterwards, Rep clipped Bush's artistic wings. They pulled the rug from under a scheduled co-production of Hamlet and shortened the runs of all remaining 2003-04 mainstage shows, including a production of Jar the Floor that was about to open with TV star Suzzanne Douglas and Tony Award-winner Gretha Boston.

Bush's ability to attract big-name stars and collaborate with other companies was completely undermined by the board's panic attack. So Bush resigned last November, feeling as betrayed as Olin and Lambert had been.

Rep's revolving door continues to spin so fast it looks like a blur. On February 15, the rumor I'd heard that McGuire was stepping down as board chairman was confirmed. "Mike McGuire will be rotating out of the Trustee Chair position at the end of this fiscal year," Rep press representative Chris Jensen told me.

Two weeks after delivering the good news, Jensen herself was gone, replaced -- temporarily -- by former PAC prez Judith Allen. As of April 6, Patti Miller is Rep's new director of marketing and communications. If you're keeping score, Debbie Fitts is now managing director, and Patrice Bennett is the new development director.

Amid this dizzying turnover, you wonder whether it's even possible for Rep to learn from its recent tribulations. Surprisingly, there have already been numerous signs of systemic change.

None of the five mainstage productions recently announced for 2004-05 will be a musical. Four of the five will be plays that can boast Broadway or Off-Broadway premieres since 1996 -- compared with none during the entire Bush Regime. So Rep is making an effort to return to the recent repertoire that was its bread-and-butter under Umberger. After bobbing and weaving with their scheduling in three of their last four seasons, Rep is also determined to deliver their upcoming subscription exactly as described in their brochure.

Hiring Bennett within six months of Lambert's exit indicates that Rep is more aware of the importance of having a high-powered development director on staff. Not having a development director on board during the 2001-02 season was cited by Fitts as a major reason for the mountainous debt that greeted Bush at the start of Fiscal Year '03.

What Fitts and Rep keep glossing over is the dominant role played by the $110,450 shelled out to the search firm that brought us Bush for less than 17 months. That expense loomed large in the $203K financial hole Bush inherited and failed to climb out of, and it looms just as large now as Rep tries to plow Bush's vacated salary into an accumulated deficit that climbed to over $300K by the time he resigned.

It's no secret that Rep's board has been a big part of the company's problem. After screwing over Bush, Broadway credentials and all, the same way they screwed over Umberger, Rep's board is giving no indication that it will be any more welcoming or cooperative toward a new artistic director. Rep's tyrannical treatment of their artistic leaders is just one reason why attracting dynamic new candidates figures to be a formidable challenge.

Truth is, Rep hasn't done searches well -- or quickly -- and it remains doubtful whether they intend to mend their ways. Last time they hunted for a new chief, Rep chose eight board members for their search committee and zero staffers. Compare that with the search committee at Children's Theatre, which included six staffers and two board members, and you have to conclude that Rep's trustees have an ingrained disdain for theater professionals.

We've received no response from Rep on the composition of their current search committee, which is scheduled to begin their nationwide search this spring, which, as best we can tell, is now. Nor is there any apparent rush, five months after Bush's resignation, to install a new artistic director while continuing to reap the proceeds of the AD's unpaid salary.

Once begun, the search will take 6-9 months, Fitts disclosed back in December. By the time a new artistic director arrives, Charlotte Rep's 2005-06 season may be all but decided. So a new artistic director may not be making a personal imprint at Booth Playhouse until the 2006-07 season.

And what about Rep's five-year plan to win the Tony Award? Fuhgeddabouddit. The current five-year plan at Rep aims to retire their current deficit, largely the creation of the board's chronic meddling and micromanagement. Not a very artistic goal.

It's long past time that Rep's trustees learn the chief lesson of the rollercoaster ride they began in 2000. Entrust the day-to-day operation of Charlotte Repertory Theatre to a professional staff that knows how to make it a viable theater operation. And let that happen sooner rather than later.

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