As more and more comes out about the breakup over at Lincoln and Byron, the more it looks less like a dysfunctional marriage and more like a microcosm of a huge swath of problems facing many companies, blown up and put on display.
Reading Kerry Reid's excellent take in Performink, two items caught my eye. Both were failures via email. I know email has become a primary form of communication for many of us. There are some things that should never be done via email. Last fall, I got a pretty good reminder of one of them: Policy Changes.
Militant Language was by far the most difficult show to get up that I have ever produced. It took quite a toll to be honest. Now, it was a script I believe in from a writer whose talent is huge; an incredible cast--each person's work I am eternally fond of; a director who, in time, I firmly believe has the potential to be one of the greats in the city.
It started to go downhill from there. Finding a space, even a non-traditional one we were looking for, was proving difficult. Interest in the Iraq War was waning--no one seemed to want to see films or plays about the war. Then the economy imploded. Fundraising was rocky at best. We weren't meeting any of our benchmarks. Some of them were so far from being met, you could barely see them through the fog.
I had a tough choice. I could try to keep a lid on it and hope it didn't implode (which worked so well for Wells Fargo, Lehman Bros and AIG) or I could be open and honest with everyone involved and let them know what was up. I rightly went with being honest.
I walked into a room full of artists I respect and had to tell them essentially: we don't currently have the money to put this show you're rehearsing up. None of our planned funding has come through and if we don't raise it by the end of the month we'll have to pull the plug.
It was a tough thing for all to swallow, myself included. I think if it were a different set of circumstances, we would have leaned more heavily towards postponement. However, the last show Juan had begun to direct for Halcyon had been pulled. For last year's Alcyone Festival, one of the planned productions was La Hija de las Flores (The Daughter of Flowers) by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. It was to be presented in Spanish with projected super-titles. There aren't many actors in the city who can perform in classical Spanish, the Goodman was doing their Latino fest, a couple of actors over-committed themselves and then bolted from Hija. There was no way to recast so we had to pull it.
The last thing I wanted to do was pull the plug on Juan (again) and the cast whose work I love. We needed help. It was not the world's biggest morale boost, but the cast and our company rallied, and in a short span of time, we were able to raise the funds through small contributions, program ads and a bowl-a-thon that DeRante graciously put together. Due to the cast and crew's hard work and dedication, (far and above what is normal) the show got up and had a great opening. Things were back on track.
Houses were light at first, and we had to cancel a couple of performances. Our cancellation policy was: if there are less than six paying audience members, the cast can choose whether or not to perform. It's a pretty widespread policy with small companies, so Jenn and I had never really questioned it. A couple of things happened, and we heard negative feedback from someone who had made plans to come to a show that was canceled. After talking to folks in and around the show we decided to change the policy.
If there are any paying customers who have traveled to the performance space and want to see the show, we need to perform the show for them.
Instead of the cast choosing, the audience has a say. I sent the change in policy via email and my plan was to talk to the cast and crew that night before the show. I just had to pick up Tony Jr. and head over to the space. When we got there, Tony Jr. threw a fantastical two-year old tantrum. We had to go, and I wasn't able to talk to the cast until later. The cast was incensed. They felt disrespected and thought we didn't care what they felt. They had done all this work to help get the show up and tempers flared as they felt we were taking advantage of them.
The policy change is very much for the better. It gives more respect to the audience who has trundled through the city to go see a show. During The Other Shore there was one night that three women were the only ones there for the show. I asked them if they would still like to see it. They said yes, and enjoyed it so much, they then came back again to see it with more people. The Other Shore ended up being the highest attended production we've done to date. Those three women were telling everyone they knew about the show. I know because when I asked folks at the door how they heard about it, a lot of folks said the same thing.
Back to the Militant cast . . . they were incensed. Threatening to walk. I got many angry emails and a couple of calls. It would be 24 hours before I could talk to the cast in person. That was a long 24 hours. Once I was able to talk to the cast, apologize for the change, and explain the rationale, things were somewhat smoothed out and the show went on. Over time morale seemed to pick up.
I screwed the pooch. They weren't angry about the change. In fact, some of the cast told me they completely agreed with it. They were pissed off about how they were told. They were incensed that they were notified via email instead of being told to their faces. I think it is the single biggest mistake I have made as a producer. I should have told them first, then followed it up with an email to confirm it. I had meant to talk to them before I had to take Tony Jr. home that night, but I shouldn't have hit send until I had talked to everyone about the change in person.
Normally I know better. I knew better then, but I was running late and I didn't think too much of it. I'd just talk to them that night in person and things would be fine. I f-ed up. In doing so I took a rocky road and instantly turned it into a tempest. It is something I won't do a second time.
I thought of this when I was reading Kerry's article. There is a reason staff and ensembles shouldn't talk to board members about policy. That is for times when folks might try to convince them to overturn a leaders decision and undermine their ability to run an institution. An ensemble member emailing board members to try and override programming is an email fail.
The second email I noted--Good Lord. The board dismissed an ensemble member via email? Sweet jebus, I thought to myself, a few months ago the cast of Militant Language was threatening to walk because of an email I sent out about changing the cancellation policy. The board of ATC dismissed an ensemble member of 22 years via email? Holy email failure. . .