On Boycotts, Vendettas, Grudges And Principles: The Unethical Theater Group And Me

Over the weekend I attended a local theater production at the behest of an old friend who was involved in it. I did so with great hesitation. You see, several decades ago, I directed a show for this company, an old and popular community institution. Not only was I treated as miserably as I have ever been treated by an organization in my life; my cast and staff were abused as well. I encountered perpetual arrogance, nastiness, pettiness and hostility, all of which is common in the theater world and especially the amateur end of it, but not on this level.

I would enjoy itemizing the particulars of my indictment against this organization, but it would be an indulgence, and would necessarily lengthen the post. I’ll just note that the fact that an African-American member of my cast and her family were harassed more than once by the venomous seniors running the company like their own private East Germany was not an indispensable part of my conclusion that the company was  a special gift from Hell. I would have come to the same conclusion even if the group hadn’t been racist as well as venal, exploitive, dictatorial, mean, incompetent, vindictive, and stupid.

So I attended the show, which was not bad at all, though I felt like Jeff Goldblum making a visit to Jurassic Park. (The tickets were comped: it I had to pay a cent for them, I would not have gone.) My last time in that building—the group owns its theater facilities–I vowed not only that I would never return, but that I would take every opportunity to undermine the company’s strength, viability, reputation and existence. I had, too, until I attended the show. I take pride in the fact that I have warned many previously naive artists away from getting involved in the group, and I have kept many theater-goers away as well. It is my theatrical Moby Dick, I suppose: to the last I’ll grapple with it; from hell’s heart I’ll stab at it; for hate’s sake I’ll spit my last breath at it.

During the performance, which had its boring and annoying features, I found myself reflecting on this state of mind. Is it ethical to hold a grudge that long and that strong?

It certainly can be, to be sure. In cases like this, however, I believe that staying the course is a matter of integrity.

You see, I granted due process with this damnable company before I became set in my course. After my production closed, I sought–and was granted!—a special meeting with the board of governors to lay out my grievances and recommendations. It was me and about thirty hostile little theater bureaucrats. The meeting lasted more than an hour, most of it consisting of me talking, and when I was done, there was no rebuttal, no apology, no acknowledgment of wrongdoing or admission of mistakes. Here was the most striking statement made to me by a high ranking official:

“Well, even if everything you say is true, we have no trouble finding plenty of people who want to work here anyway.”

My head didn’t explode as easily in those days. I responded—this is from memory—in measured tones:

That’s exactly what I have observed. This organization knows it can get away with abusing and exploiting actors and artists, because artists will endure almost anything to be able to practice their art. So you have  professional theater length runs of more than 20 performances, and share none of the profits with the actors, who create your product. You treat them with disrespect (actors could only enter the building through the equivalent of a servant’s door in the back; one of my actors, an older man, was refused entry through the front door when he was caught in a downpour and a thunderstorm, and told, “You know the rules!”), you undermine their artistic efforts, and your rationalization is “We can get away with it!”  So far, you have.

Well, the fact that people allow themselves to be mistreated doesn’t excuse those who mistreat them. Unethical cultures become unbearably corrupt when they reach the point yours has, when bad habits and bad ethics become institutionalized, and those who operate within such cultures start regarding them as benign and acceptable because the organization thrives under them. Such cultures will not reform until they cease to thrive, so I will tell you here and now that from this day forward I will make it my mission to do what I can to reveal the rot that is this theater, to expose it for what it is, and to erode its influence and reputation in the community. Fair, responsible, ethical people will do the right thing because it is right; organizations like this one will only do the right thing when it becomes too expensive and dangerous to continue to do the wrong things it has been doing.

And I left the meeting.

I did have one excellent opportunity to be a special thorn in the group’s side. Several years later, a director of my acquaintance called me and asked for assistance. The company had forbidden her to cast a black actress in a role usually played by a white woman, and having heard that I had confronted the group’s board once before about its racism, asked if I would intervene.

Boy, did I. I sent a registered letter to the board, hand delivered, that informed them that I was prepared to file an affidavit and a complaint with the Virginia Civil Right Commission, and to challenge the company’s non-profit status. I also said that I would be calling several local journalist contacts, including a columnist at the Washington Post, and offering an exposé about the rampant racism in the oldest amateur theater organization in the region. They had 48 hours, my letter said, to allow the director to cast the show as she saw fit.

And I reminded them of my earlier pledge. “You know I’m not bluffing,” I wrote. “I will enjoy doing all of this. Please give me the chance. Miss the deadline. Please.”

A few hours before the deadline, I received a terse phone call informing me that the matter had been resolved.

I eagerly await my next opportunity.

34 thoughts on “On Boycotts, Vendettas, Grudges And Principles: The Unethical Theater Group And Me

  1. “Is it ethical to hold a grudge that long and that strong?”
    It is ethical as long as they continue doing what they are doing. If sometime they manage to completely change there ways then it is time for you to stop holding your grudge.

  2. Holding grudges purely for self interest is only harmful to the holder of the grudge.

    However, there is a significant difference between holding a grudge and a rational reason for not gracing another with your presence or skills. In fact, doing business with unethical organizations enables them to continue their unethical behavior.

    • I agree completely with Chris’ comment. In 2014 I retired rather than work for the lying, narcissistic idiot who had fooled enough people to get elected as our county sheriff. For the past four years I worked (with numerous others) to expose his incompetence, dishonesty and criminal activity (how he managed to avoid prosecution is another long story) and in this year’s election cycle we backed a candidate who defeated him in the May primary. Although several of my friends often urged me to “let go of my grudge” against this individual, I don’t consider my efforts as holding a grudge, but as a continuation of my service to my former agency and the community, via political means rather than professional ones.

      • Exactly. I retired for similar reasons but I did not seek to undermine my superior until I was pressed to defend a business associate in the press. At that point, I simply stated the facts as I saw them. He in turn responded with attacks on me even though I was no longer associated with the college. It took 5 years but eventually he was ousted as president but I had little to no impact on the board’s decision. I was merely a casualty of his reign.

  3. I once worked with a local community theatre group. Those of us who did so were called “volunteers”. I served in many capacities, actor, ‘techie’, stage hand, stage manager, assistant director, lights and sound. I was finally asked to become sound chair, after complaining vociferously about a sound system powered by a 6-channel Sound Blaster sound card, of which they were using one (1) channel. Sixteen speakers, one channel. Fixed that up, with an extensive re-wiring, then got a chance to play Bob Ewell in Mockingbird…in which they refused to cast the only black community member ever to audition for a part at that theatre, and she was good. When it was over, I resigned as sound chair and told them I would never darken their door again. I was invited to speak to a BOD meeting. In part, I told them:
    ” You have called yourself a “Civic Theatre”, and you are not. If you were, you would not exclude 1/3 of the community. What you should do is change your name to “Rich White People’s Theatre”. I then walked out of the meeting. I subsequently left that city and have not been back.

      • It gets worse…they also hired a “Guest Director” who wanted to turn it into a comedy. I played Bob Ewell, and about halfway through the run, he wanted me to actually grab the kids arm and twist it. I refused, of course. Figured next he’d want me to actually try to stab Scout.

  4. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Sometimes circumstances leave you unable to take revenge, in which case you have to let go…until fate presents you with an opportunity to take it. Of course the way to handle revenge is often not to need it in the first place, by challenging bad behavior when it comes up. I also swore I would never again put up with disrespect I didn’t have to, which is why I sometimes butt heads with other posters here.

  5. As long as you keep checking to verify they have not ceased to continue the crappy behaviors that caused the grudge, I think you’re okay. If you miss that some noble soul cleaned house five years ago and you still hold a grudge for the institution, that is a harmful to you grudge. I declined involvement in a mostly volunteer stage operation once and was ever glad of it later. Volunteering at a library is more rewarding.

    • Indeed. My house is like a mini-library…I love books. I have been known to go to garage sales and berate the owners because some of the hard-covers they were offering were dog-eared. Have they never heard of BOOKMARKS?

      • I hear you. But I am also speaking as a reformed dog-earer. Once upon a time I looked upon a book solely as an object to be read and cherished.

        Now, of course, as a bookseller and the brother of a book collector, I realize that books are a sacred trust, not to be folded, spindled, or mutilated.

        On the gripping hand, as a bookseller and a reader — I realize that a pocket paperback generally exists to be read. If it’s one of my favorite authors, I can bear with equanimity the concept that my reading it might diminish its resale value. MMPBs are a commodity — sacred to be sure in that they afford the gift of reading — but still almost fungible.

        Now first edition paperback originals……..

        • You’d love my paper-back collection…984 books, including about half of Heinlein’s work. And I can proudly claim that each and every one has been read, either by my beloved departed wife or me.

          • Digging through my mmpbs not much that’s both interesting and not well loved.

            Got a signed Ringwold but it’s a recent edition. The older copy I had signed and personalized and gave to my mom.

            *dig* *dig* Have a signed Sassinak, a 1968 Moon is a Harsh Mistress but since it came out in ’64 and isn’t signed… Some Australian editions of the Paksenarrion books and a signed soft-cover omnibus.

            It’s usually the hardcovers that I get signed and keep safe.

            • Not too many signed books here, although I own probably 1,000, ranging from junk fiction to “coffee table” books about castles and aviation to high scholarship (all conservative, of course). Now, if you want to talk signed CDs…

              I envy a bandsmate from college who managed to arrange a meeting with Pennsylvania author Lloyd Alexander (the Prydain series) before he died.

              • No signed CDs, just books. I like meeting the authors, I like getting the chance to fangirl a bit. I actually squeed when Sarah Monette signed my copy of The Goblin Emperor.

                • Book signings are far fewer than concerts, and usually across the river, though I did go to, of all things, a cookbook signing in NY because a friend REALLY wanted a book signed by a certain chef/author. You should have gone to the MD Ren Faire in 2015 when Diana Gabaldon was there.

                  I will admit to ah, acting the foolish fan a few times, I almost fainted when I got a big smackeroo from UK crossover singer Katherine Jenkins.

      • I keep a old pencil in the mug by my desk doo-dads. Every time I come home with a load of library books (I like to take out a mini-library so I have a good choice) I take the pencil out and put it next to whichever book I’m reading first. I get to use the pencil every so often: there are more people than ever who think they have a right to deface anything they get their hands on — especially when there’s that inviting white space around the margins that just soaks up the lead, and of course they are consummate spellers, grammarians, editors and critics.

        So I turn the pencil bottom up and lightly rub the nub of eraser over the vandalism, over and over, until it disappears, considering what I would do if I caught up with one of the Little Miss Markers (the librarians all agree men don’t usually sully books – they do other, secret, unspeakable things I am not told about.

        I always have a new pencil around to substitute when the tin circle holding the stub threatens to scrape the surface [Never use those hard red rectangular sort; they just go right through he paper, making a worse mess]. Sometimes – after rubbing through miles of underscores and scribbles – I consider finding one of the In The Act and, just once, mind, using the pointy side of the weapon to tattoo their

  6. Jack, for the record, even in print you do a pretty good Captain Ahab…not Gregory Peck, of course, but pretty good.

  7. How do you square your position here- to “make it my mission to do what I can to reveal the rot that is this theater, to expose it for what it is, and to erode its influence and reputation in the community”- with your firm opposition to boycotts?

    If you simply were withholding your own patronage there wouldn’t be a parallel, but what is a boycott except an effort to expose a perceived wrongdoing by a company in an effort to harm it?

  8. One thing about pissing someone off, you never know when they might decide to exact their pound of flesh. Back in school we all knew that if we sassed one another or gave each other grief, there would be hell to pay on the walk home. One guy who I had turned in for taking my gym lock and not giving it back attacked me five weeks later while walking home from the library. One time I went after someone who had a penchant for taking my hat and playing keep-away with it six weeks later and gave him a bad concussion. Usually I exact my revenge with my pen or with settlement authority now, but if someone got me mad enough I wouldn’t hesitate to go after him now.

  9. Jack, my wife holds grudges until they die of old age, then has them stuffed, mounted and placed on the mantle.

    Nice to know she’s not the only one…

  10. I’m a stubborn cuss, known for holding grudges. I know whereof you speak: There are people toward whom I still hold malice for misdeeds done many years ago, and with whom I have not spoken in decades.

    Having said that, I would say that wiser men than I have argued that such ongoing ire is unproductive and unethical. No matter how frustrating, or how deep the wounds they have caused, you are better off judging such people by their current behavior, and laying aside their foul activity of years ago.

    • You are also well within your rights to tell them to go to Hell or into oblivion if they don’t believe in Hell, or to hurt them when the opportunity presents itself. I still don’t understand why I have gotten facebook friendship requests from guys who were not just people I didn’t particularly like, but bullies who targeted me when I was a kid. In that case the “block” button is my friend. I have nothing to say to them, and they have nothing to say that I want to hear, although, like Mark Twain, I will be quite happy to read their obituaries.

  11. Did you ever do any of the following:
    1. Give someone grief about his/her appearance, weight, height, etc.
    2. Give someone grief about his/her family background or relatives.
    3. Give someone grief about his/her intelligence or competence.
    4. Give someone grief about his/her religion or color.
    5. Play a practical joke on someone to embarrass him or her, such as propping a bucket of water against a half open door.
    6. Trip someone or push him or her on the stairs.
    7. Take a treasured possession from someone and refuse to return it, maybe even dangling it just out of reach or playing catch with it.
    8.Take an article of clothing from someone and do the same as #7.
    9. Deliberately invade someone’s personal space by painful touching short of actually attacking them, like “snapping” an ear.
    10. Attempt to frame someone for something he/she didn’t do.
    11. Deliberately reveal embarrassing facts about someone.
    12. Pretend to be someone’s friend just so you could let them down later
    13. Pretend to be interested in someone just so you could embarrass them later.
    14. Accuse someone of being gay because he was insufficiently athletic or otherwise fell short of your idea of masculinity.
    15. Shadow someone, waiting for him to make a mistake so you could pounce on it and hold him up to ridicule.
    16. Film or photograph someone without knowledge, in the hopes of capturing something embarrassing.
    17. Attempt to harass someone into starting a fight.
    18. Physically assault someone you disliked.

    If you did any of the above to anyone, don’t blame him if he refuses to have anything to do with you or eventually pays you back. Payback’s a bitch, but if you did any of the above just so you could feel better about your own pathetic existence, or have a laugh at someone else’s expense, you deserve whatever you get.

  12. “Well, even if everything you say is true, we have no trouble finding plenty of people who want to work here anyway.”

    In other words, never argue with success, just like a moviemaker defending a movie that was garbage but made a ton of money.

  13. “A few hours before the deadline, I received a terse phone call informing me that the matter had been resolved.”

    Did the director confirm that they let her cast the desired person?

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