Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Man Who Didn't Come to Dinner

My NCJ column is out, which includes a section with the above title.  In this space I will include portions of it together with some additional material I couldn't go into for reasons of space.

First, though a little Ferndale Rep timeline for the past three executive directors:

Marilyn McCormick
Marilyn McCormick, an actress and refugee from Hollywood who got involved in the Rep in 1982 or so and became president of the Board of Directors, was named Executive Director in 1996.  She served in that capacity through 2007.  She announced her retirement early that year, and so she completed the season while the search for a new exec was underway.

As the result of a national search, Ginger Gene became the exec in 2008.  Coincidentally she was, like McCormick, originally from western Pennsylvania.  She had worked in various capacities mostly in the southern states, and came directly from Washington, D.C. where she completed her Master of Arts in Arts Management degree at George Mason University and worked with the Washington Stage Guild.
FRT's production of Cabaret--Ginger Gene's last as director

All was still smiles in public as late as August 2012, with the announcement of the new season. Beti Trauth's story in the Times-Standard quoted Dianne Zuleger (though not GG) who noted that Gene's play selection for the season was approved by the FRT board of directors.  

But just a few weeks later, Trauth was writing "It's curtains for Ferndale Rep's producing executive director."  Ginger Gene's contract was not renewed, after (the story said) a period of discussion with the board.  The board would not give reasons for the curtain falling so abruptly and unceremoniously.  Ginger Gene was gone.

Her season however remained intact except for the final show scheduled: the Sondheim musical Assassins was dropped, and Victor/Victoria was added.  Ironically, it would be the only show the new exec director would direct.

For that last GG-designed season Dianne Zuleger and Greta Stockwell took over as interim directors.  A search (perhaps national, certainly regional) with a quick turnaround was launched, with Zuleger as the point person receiving the applications, with a deadline of November 2012.

In May 2013 Brad Hills was announced as the new FRT exec. He came from Bend, Oregon where he had been the executive artistic director of Innovation Theatre Works for about five years until it folded.

 In an interview with Beti Trauth, he said that he found that FRT "had separated itself from the community" and many former supporters had turned away. He felt that  FRT should be "a reflection of this community."  To that end, he said he was instituting thematic seasons, and the first theme was to be "Family, Friends, Ferndale!"  This was to be the 2013-14 season, beginning with Our Town, The Music Man and The Man Who Came to Dinner--a drama, a musical and a comedy all dealing in some way with small towns.  

Victor/Victoria was Brad Hills' directorial debut at FRT--
and his swan song.

Hills directed the last show of the 2012-13 season, Victor/Victoria.  He was scheduled to direct the musical Spamalot in March.  The new season started with Thornton Wilder's Our Town.  But even before the second show, The Music Man opened in late November 2013, the FRT board of directors fired Hills.

 Beti Trauth again had the story, in the Tri-City Weekly.  Again, the board would not comment on the reasons for this even more abrupt end. It's usually implied that legal entanglements are why personnel decisions aren't discussed in public.

Hills however wasn't so reticent.  In a post on the Humboldt Theater Community Facebook page he touted accomplishments that included improving season ticket and sponsorship revenues, beginning new programs,creating a fundraising campaign and that he had "uncovered vast bookkeeping errors and restored credibility to our financial systems."

In a recent email interview, board member Dianne Zuleger repeated that they could not comment on either the board's reasons or Hills' assertions. "I CAN say that we have several board members with advanced degrees, executive management experience and/or experience running a business, so the decision was not made without some intelligent consideration..."

Matching up those two statements, and without suggesting wrongdoing, I don't know that I need to meet a shadowy figure in a parking lot to suggest that "follow the money" in some form or another might be a fruitful approach in ascertaining what happened and why.

However, changes to the Hills-designed season suggest that play selection was also involved.  As noted in the previous post, The Man Who Came To Dinner was the first casualty, though the exact relationship of that cancellation to the Hills' firing is uncertain.  But the rest of the season seems currently in flux.  Hills had originally scheduled Spamalot to open March 7 and run through March 30.   Now directed by Carol Escobar (with Dianne Zuleger remaining as music director) it is slated to open March 14 and run through April 6.

Hills had added two plays under his "Stage Two" programming--same stage actually, but shorter runs and cheaper prices.  They were Backwards in High Heels opening April 17 and Spitfire Grill opening July 17.  The last "mainstage" show was to be Dixie Swim opening June 5.  All three of these plays are likely gone.  Spitfire Grill has already been replaced by a musical version of The Wedding Singer.

According to Zuleger: “The board is in the process of mapping out a sustainable business plan to ensure that FRT continues to produce quality, worthwhile live entertainment that appeals to older and younger generations alike.” Technical repairs to the theatre are underway, and the duties of executive director are being divided among board members and volunteers for now, and maybe for longer. (For example, Greta Stockwell is acting as Producer for Spamalot, doing what the exec director normally would do.)

"Once we determine the best option that allows the theater to remain financially viable, we'll be recruiting locally for at least one position," Zuleger said.  No new national search of the kind that brought Gene from Washington, D.C. and Hills from Oregon is contemplated. Given what happened to the last two people who pulled up stakes and moved to Ferndale, the attraction to applicants might be questionable anyway.

Some folks who have been around here longer than I have allude to FRT's historic habit of chewing through executive directors and unceremoniously throwing them away.  I happened to hit a period of stability, during Marilyn McCormick's 11 year run.  That she'd already been involved at FRT for more than a decade when she was hired as exec is something that has probably occurred to the current board.  But will staying local be the answer?  Stay tuned.  Once again, the real drama in North Coast theatre is offstage.

No comments: