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.