A breach of trust
From the outside, New Epic Theater's production of Medea seemed to have everything going for it. The young company had consistently garnered critical praise in the Twin Cities Theater community, rising quickly from being a breakout hit at the Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2014 for the production of the lost Tennessee Williams script One Arm to becoming the very first theater company to win an Ivey Award for a Fringe production in 2016 for their production of Now or Later. In between, they landed on numerous "Best Of" lists from local publications for other productions and began to attract well-established Equity actors. In fact, New Epic's Medea would feature Mark Benninghofen (Star Tribune's Best Actor of 2016) and Guthrie veteran Michelle O'Neill. The version of Medea that they had chosen was a new, modern retelling of Euripides' story by Rachel Cusk that had originally been commissioned by the Almeida Theatre in London. It was a much-anticipated show, and as three-year-old small theater companies go, New Epic seemed to be doing well for itself.
Then, just before opening night, New Epic Theater sent out a short message:
"Yesterday, the company made the difficult decision to cancel their production of MEDEA. All tickets purchased online will be refunded. We apologize for any inconvenience."
Hot on the heels of that announcement, the Star Tribune dropped a bombshell: "Twin cities actor blows the whistle on unsafe theater production". The article detailed the cancellation of the show after a walkout of the cast, instigated by Benninghofen over an incredibly unsafe set. The details sounded bad: an uncompleted pool of water with an untested rain effect on the stage, next to exposed electrical circuits. The cast had not seen it until just two days before opening, and they were expected to wade barefoot through it throughout the show. Benninghofen consulted with Actors’ Equity Association, some of his fellows in the theater world, and the fire marshal. In the end, he and O'Neill called the production to a halt.
Joseph Stodola, the Artistic Director of New Epic and the director of Medea released a statement:
"It came to our attention yesterday that the proximity of technical elements to a rain effect that was to be used during the performance created an unsafe and unacceptable environment for the actors. Therefore, the production was immediately shut down. Thankfully, no one was injured. We are grateful to Mark Benninghofen for looking out for his fellow actors."
Soon after, New Epic Theater's website disappeared, replaced with stock animation of ocean waves and a message that says "We're under construction. Please check back for an update soon." Rumors circulated through the theater community that New Epic Theater had dissolved. No one from the company made any statements other than the one provided to the Star Tribune. As of this writing, almost two weeks later, no update has appeared.
After reading that article from the Star Tribune, I got the feeling that there were big parts of the story missing. As a long-time producer of theater and a former artistic director of a small company, I know that bad things can happen in tech--especially when dealing with unusual elements like water--but I have never seen a situation where one technical problem in a show could cascade so quickly into its cancellation. In normal circumstances, the technical feature that isn't working is fixed or removed, but that appears to have not even been an option offered by anyone.
In my old theater company, we had a term for this: a "floating apple". It's a stage effect that would look really cool on stage, but wouldn't actually contribute enough to the final show to be worth all of the effort. As an artistic director, part of my job was to watch out for floating apples, to learn to discern between what was most important to the success of the show and what was flashy distraction. Had I been working with a Guthrie-sized budget, you can bet that I would have had stages constructed entirely out of floating apples; but given the limited resources of a small theater company, I realized that the most important thing contributing to the success of a show was the people involved. Anything that took away from that was not worth it, regardless of how incredibly cool that effect would have looked.
As a theater producer reading about this show’s untimely end, I found it unbelievable that a company would willfully chase a floating apple into the grave, like Captain Ahab maniacally pursuing his white whale. That just doesn't happen. So, what was I missing?
We should all take note
To dig down into all the details and understand the situation as best as possible, I spoke with multiple people—both in person and via email exchanges—who were involved in this particular production and in previous New Epic Theater shows. Quoted in this article, you will find Craig Johnson and Kathryn Fumie, actors in the canceled production; another actor from Medea who wished to remain anonymous; Adam Qualls, a former company member of New Epic Theater; another company member who wished to remain anonymous; playwright Christopher Shinn, the Pulitzer Prize finalist who wrote Now or Later; an actor from a previous New Epic production who also wished to remain anonymous; an anonymous theater technician who was able to see the Medea set in person; and Mary Kelley Leer from the Lab Theater, where Medea was supposed to perform. Each of the links above provides access to the full transcript of our conversations. (One person I spoke to asked that the full transcript of our conversation not be shared.)
I also reached out to the Managing Director of New Epic Theater, James Kunz, who declined to comment. New Epic's Artistic Director, Joseph Stodola, originally agreed to an interview for this article, but canceled our appointment the day it was scheduled, saying "We have a lot of logistics to work out right now."
Speaking to these people led me to understand that the problems which brought about the cancellation of Medea started well before the day that the actors walked into the Lab Theater and saw the set. Despite the critical acclaim garnered in its short life, New Epic Theater seems to have had a consistent history of bad practices and deception that virtually guaranteed an incident like this would occur eventually.
I don't say those words lightly. I fully understand that this article may have serious repercussions for the artistic careers of some people. However, I feel that it is best to bring all of this into the light for the betterment of the entire theater community of the Twin Cities. I can't help but think of last year's drama at Profiles Theatre in Chicago where years of broken promises, bad working conditions, and unheeded safety concerns—coupled with awards and critical appraise—allowed a company to stray way across the line from untrustworthiness to full-on abuse. While I don't think that New Epic Theater reached the levels of dangerously unprofessional behavior exhibited by Profiles, we should still all take note when these boundaries are crossed.
The point of this article is not to condemn a company or make a pariah of any individual. Rather, it is for all of us to learn from what went wrong and figure out how our community can have better practices in the future. I'm trying to create as honest a post-mortem as possible; whether what happened to Medea is the result of incompetence, indifference or ill will is beside the point; the fact is that we all have it in our power to help make sure that another situation like this doesn't happen again, and it is incumbent upon all of us to exercise that power.
"A breach of trust"
In a Facebook comment about the closure of Medea, actor Craig Johnson noted that "earlier instances of breach of trust" led to the final impasse. The anonymous actor from Medea that I interviewed told me that the show had "a lot of trust issues from the beginning." A company member I talked to told me "there was just a lack of trust in the room." Kathryn Fumie said, "there was such a breach of trust on a bunch of other fronts, this was just the culmination of all the other things, like it was the thing that tipped it over the edge." The concept of "trust" came up an awful lot in interviews. How was the trust between the company and the cast lost so thoroughly?
According to the unnamed actor, issues of safety were raised early on in rehearsal, concerning the movement of set pieces: "A big part of the show was that there was, you know, like a refrigerator and big pieces of furniture that us in the chorus had to move on and off stage without wearing shoes. And throughout the entire rehearsal process, we were all—we were all women—we were all vocal about 'I don't feel comfortable about this." Kathryn Fumie concurred: "There were very simple implements, tech-wise, that could have been added to the things that we were moving… right up until it got canceled, really, no implements were given to us to help us."
As the cast went into tech, they received a surprise. According to the anonymous actor:
"Michelle O'Neill, who was playing Medea, so she had known for about a month ahead that she was going to be playing this role, and he came to her with some script edits, and she was like, 'I'm fine with this. You've got the rights from Rachel [Cusk], the playwright, to edit this, right?' And he said, 'Yeah, of course.' So, the entire time, we had been told these cuts were happening; but something didn't feel right to Michelle, and she asked him several times during the rehearsal process, 'Did you get the rights to cut the script?' and he kept saying 'Yes, yes, yes.' And then it wasn't until Tuesday, our Tuesday of tech, that they went and had a lunch, and she was like, 'You have to tell me. Did you get the rights?' and he would skirt around the question, 'Did you get the rights to this?' and, eventually, he admitted, no, he did not get the rights to cut the script. I mean, it was major parts of the script that he had cut or edited."
Kathryn Fumie told me the same story about unauthorized cuts. Former company member Adam Qualls said that his limited part in the production involved going through the script and giving "some suggestions to make it sound less overtly British, since the actors wouldn't be doing a dialect. Things like changing 'mum' into 'mom,' 'bloody' into 'fucking' or 'goddamn,' 'starkers' into 'stark naked,' etc." Qualls, who is also a member of Actors’ Equity, stressed that he himself did not make changes to the script, but merely provided suggestions at the request of director Joseph Stodola. He said he did not know if they had permission to make changes. "My failure to demand more transparency about this is one of the many regrets I have about this whole venture," he said.
After this was discovered, O'Neill demanded that the cuts be restored, since this was a violation of the rights New Epic had secured. This led to a cancellation of part of tech and to actors being given new lines, scenes and even whole characters. According to an actor from the show:
"I know that I was brought in and asked to play another role that had been cut out. So, Tuesday night, we were getting more script that I had never seen before. I thought the script that we had was the script, because they gave us the edited version."
Some in the cast already did not trust the safety of the show. Others no longer trusted their director to be truthful to them. Now, in the middle of tech, they were being asked to rework large portions of the show after an already tight schedule. The rehearsal period before tech had only been two weeks. (Kathryn Fumie stated that New Epic told her it would be "quick and fierce".) The set was incomplete. A problem with the lights cycling and flickering ate away even more tech time, and, according to the technician I spoke to, New Epic did not have anybody involved in the project with the experience or knowledge to fix it. Tensions were already running high, and now, with very little time left, the cast was confronted with an issue that not only threatened the show, but seemingly their safety.
As Adam Qualls told me, "I'm not sure any accommodations to fix the safety issue would have done any good at that point. I think that for some of the actors, the safety issue was a straw/camel's back situation."
"There were no plans written out"
Mary Kelley Lear from the Lab Theater told me that there had not been any technical problems with the three previous New Epic productions at the Lab (One Arm and Doubt in 2015 and Coriolanus/The Normal Heart in 2016), and that "the Lab’s practice is to hold production meetings well in advance of load in so that there are no surprises." She also told me that New Epic had their permission to install the rain effect and pool, that live rain effects like this had appeared in the Lab before, and that the Lab's standard oversight was provided for the production. When I asked what that oversight was, she responded, "Safety is always a concern, and has never (thank goodness) been a problem. No one intentionally sets out to create unsafe working conditions, and when they occur they are always corrected."
Craig Johnson said that Stodola had shown the cast a set rendering featuring the pool. Kathryn Fumie said that she had seen a floor plan of the set, but was surprised at how big the pool was when she saw it under construction. Everyone I talked to connected with the show confirmed that it was not completed before the cast walkout two days before opening. According to Craig Johnson:
"It was the typical tech: some things were ready, other things, like the pool, were not. To my knowledge, there wasn't a tech director, but the crew was laying plastic and screwing it to the platform. I noticed lighting instruments and electrical cables beneath the downstage edge of the pool. It struck me as concerning, but I had no idea what the finished piece would be or how it would be used."
Fumie said that many other things in the set, including a wall that was supposed to sit upstage, were not completed at this time, either. There was a promise from the production team that they would work overnight to finish the set, but it did not happen. The other actor I talked to said, "they were so behind on everything, tech-wise, that we didn't even see what that pool and that water effect was going to look like until we walked in on Thursday morning." At no point during rehearsals did they actually work with water. Cast members described the pool as being built from plywood and a tarp, held down with drywall screws. The technician I spoke to clarified that the “pool” was actually a long platform covered with plastic sheeting, onto which a rain effect using real water was intended to fall. The technician said the rain system was “a hose suspended in the air (grid height, same as the lights) with small holes poked into it.” They described the rigging to me:
“It was run very poorly - there were random loops that would restrict the water flow, it wasn't remotely straight in almost any direction, AND it was 'attached' to the grid by using lighting c-clamps. Said c-clamps were only finger-tight - any theater electrician can tell you that's not safe.”
By this technician’s assessment, water falling onto this platform would have spilled over to the stage floor, probably shorting out the series of ground-mounted, unprotected fluorescent tubes that were placed immediately downstage and possibly causing significant water damage to the stage. In the technician’s opinion, “The situation would be akin to putting a household floor lamp near a backyard kiddie pool, plugging it in, and telling the kids to have fun.”
There are safe ways to achieve the rain effect New Epic was after. The technician I spoke to referenced the Guthrie’s recent production of The Bluest Eye, which also had live rain on stage: “[The Guthrie] clearly spent a lot of time figuring things out, and probably did a number of tests and experiments to reach that point. By comparison, calling the rain effect in Medea slapdash would be giving it too much credit.”
It is debatable as to whether New Epic’s design was tested before final construction began. Given the breakneck pace at which the company was attempting to mount this production, and the apparent lack of technical expertise on hand, this is not surprising. It is a telling sign of a lack of planning, a lack of resources, and unwarranted confidence.
Adam Qualls, in describing Joseph Stodola's approach to design, said:
"I think his mind is brilliant but not always realistic. His aesthetic tends to have pictures that appear very minimalist from the audience's vantage point, but might require a lot of complicated, unseen logistics to achieve...There were certainly safety concerns addressed in past productions during tech, and it was always because of a lack of money, time and resources to execute his often complex vision properly and safely. But I feel like these issues were always taken into account and adjusted to a point that the actors were comfortable with by opening."
Another company member that I talked to told me that Stodola, who doubled as director and set designer for all the company's shows, was consistently vague about set designs and how they would be built. He said, "I never, ever once saw an actual set plan drawn anywhere for anyone to work off of… It was nothing, there were no plans written out." He also told me:
"Every project that I've worked on with the company, there was some large-scale moving set piece that was intended to be implemented, and when push came to shove, it just was impossible to build. There wasn't even enough premeditation to get the set piece into the building, let alone get it built in time. Or who was gonna build it? I don't know, like, there was nobody in the room but us actors and a director and a stage manager. There was no crew to build things coming down from the ceiling. And that happened with every project that I worked."
When I asked if they had considered hiring a technical director or a set builder, he described a postmortem for a previous show in which that issue had been raised:
"Just starting off, having a technical director was on the top of the list, just having somebody to think about all of the stuff so that the director wouldn't have to be in charge of building the sets during tech week and could actually focus on directing the show. And that didn't really happen before Medea."
When I asked why, he answered "I don't know." He would later tell me that New Epic hadn't had a company meeting in ten months.
Kathryn Fumie said of the construction of Medea, "It was surprising to me that the amount of people that were there to help was so sparse". According to the technician I spoke to, New Epic had a few young volunteers on hand who seemed to be acting as the techs for the show:
”It is my opinion that the youth of these technicians meant they lacked experience, and may not have been aware of the problems that were being created. Joe S. seems to have a particular 'style' that he wants (in general), and he may have simply told people to do tasks without informing them of other happenings that would directly affect the execution of those tasks. There doesn't seem to have been any independent designers or technical directors working on this show.”
A lack of resources. A desire to build something big and amazing. Every leader of a small theater company is intimately familiar with the tension between those two realities. It is not uncommon for companies the size of New Epic to run up against these problems; but in this case, they seem to have been exacerbated by an extremely short production period that didn't allow room for mistakes. Without key technicians and designers in place, even small technical problems can quickly become insurmountable. If there was a production plan for Medea, it was built on the premise that nothing in theater ever goes wrong. The volunteers they had were unable to help, because, as the company member said:
"Nobody had any idea about the design of the play or the implementation of the design, and, so, if you weren't in the room, you had no idea what was happening. And, even if you were in the room, you maybe had a clue, but the only clue you had was where the next board needed to be drilled."
"Completely uninformed about anything"
That lack of communication from the top permeated everything the company did during Medea. Even as tensions were mounting over the restoration of the unauthorized cuts in the script, the cast was never informed entirely as to what was going on or why there were suddenly more lines and less attention being paid to advancing tech. Kathryn Fumie told me: "Never once, never once, did Joe Stodola address us as a cast at all. And it was other people in the cast and on the production team at that point stepping up."
The anonymous actor from the show was even more blunt:
"You know, when people are assuming that it was, like, the entire production team, Joseph is the production team. There is no one else. He designed the lights and the set, and he's running everything. So, any of these things that have happened where there have been lies or things that were not clarified, it was Joseph."
In many discussions about this incident that I have seen online, someone has asked something along the lines of "Where was the stage manager?" In a typical production, the stage manager would be the one communicating with the entire cast and crew about changes and problems such as these. However, several people I talked to were quick to defend the SM. The anonymous New Epic company member told me:
"The stage manager was completely uninformed about anything that was going on that would have impaired the safety of the actors or anybody working on that stage or the audience, and, had she known that anybody was in danger at any time, would have immediately put a halt to the process and made sure that everybody was safe and felt safe before it proceeded any further."
The anonymous actor from Medea concurred:
"She's really good at what she does, but she's young. She just graduated from college this month, and she's not Equity. I think she's getting the points together or whatever, but she is still pretty new at this, and so she went into this, you know, and asked the questions of, you know, "These things that you're trying to do with the water and the lights, we're good to do this, right? You've got the certifications and you've got them approved and everything?" and Joseph was telling her, "Yes". So, she just went on trusting that her director was telling her the truth and then left it at that."
"The most important thing"
In a video for a Kickstarter campaign to fund the original production of One Arm Joseph Stodola stated "The most important thing to me is that these artists get paid for the amazing work they do."
However, as the Star Tribune article noted, actors in New Epic's 2015 production of Doubt were issued checks that bounced. This was not an isolated incident. An anonymous actor I talked to, who was in previous show with New Epic, spoke of signing a contract for a $500 stipend, only later to receive a $150 check in the mail two months after closing with no explanation. The anonymous actor from Medea that I spoke to said, “I had heard that there were some people who it either took months and months to get paid, or they did not get paid."
Playwright Christopher Shinn told me:
"Joe never secured rights from DPS [Dramatists Play Service] for [Now or Later], which I had no idea of till I saw that the production did not appear in my royalty payments. It took MONTHS of attempted contacts both via myself and my agency to get him to pay. When he finally responded to our emails, he claimed that the Fringe production was merely a 'workshop' -- this, after winning an Ivey for it. Months later the royalties were finally paid, after much hectoring from CAA [Creative Artists Agency] and my enlisting our mutual friend as well."
One company member I interviewed said that he had always been paid what he was promised in the past; but in certain circles, New Epic was becoming known as company that did not live up to its financial promises.
The technician I spoke to said that in the run up to the show, New Epic Theater had been reaching out to numerous professional techs in the Twin Cities, offering them a job on the show. According to this source, none of them accepted, because “a number of them had previous bad experiences with Joe Stodola.” While researching this article, several different people contacted me to say that they knew a lighting designer in town who did not get paid for a previous show. In a small, specialized community like lighting design, word gets around fast, so it may not be surprising that Medea did not have a theater technician on hand to advise them of the proper way to handle the electricity and water.
When I asked the anonymous actor from the show if they would be paid for Medea, the response was:
"What they've told us is that we are going to get half of our pay… because we had fulfilled half of our contract. We did, like, three weeks, and the other three weeks we did not. Because of other financial considerations… while we did walk out, it was because the company broke their side of the contract of doing things that were illegal and unsafe."
I asked Kathryn Fumie the same question:
"I fully intend to be compensated for the contract that I signed. I did not breach contract, and I see no reason why I would not be paid my contract in full. There's been a little bit of radio silence as to those, that particular demand, but it hasn't even been a week yet, so I just, I'm just waiting to see."
Medea was funded in part by a successful $10,000 Kickstarter campaign. According to Kickstarter's guidelines, if a funded project fails to happen, all funds must be returned, though Kickstarter gives itself an easy out by saying "Kickstarter doesn't issue refunds, as transactions are between backers and the creator." Some backers have reported on Facebook that New Epic has offered funders the option of either having their money returned, or letting it remain with the company to cover expenses. With too many refunds and none of the expected ticket revenue, the money to pay the actors may simply not be there.
"An entirely unprofessional way"
Bounced checks weren't the only bad practice that was starting to make professionals wary of working with New Epic. I first contacted playwright Christopher Shinn, because I wanted to find out if the company had also made unauthorized cuts to his show. The full, published version of Now or Later is 75 minutes long, but New Epic's production fit into an hour-long Fringe slot, cutting one of the characters to shave off about 20 minutes of run time. Before I had a chance to ask Shinn any questions, he told me that working with New Epic was "incredibly frustrating." He said he had allowed the cuts, but only under certain conditions:
"I agreed to this because Joe wrote he wanted to 'produce the entire piece in a full production, and... this iteration is really just the first step.' I also indicated I did not want the 'cut' play reviewed -- I wrote 'if the Fringe production isn't reviewed and you'll be restoring [the character of] Tracy to a later production, I could get on board.' He replied 'The fringe production will not, in fact, be reviewed, and it is exactly our intention to restore Tracy to a later, full production.'"
When reviews of the show started coming in, Shinn contacted Stodola to remind them of their agreement, but reviews continued to show up. Of course, it's impossible to entirely stop reviewers from attending a performance, but companies can take steps to discourage them. I contacted the Minnesota Fringe Festival to see if New Epic had stated in its press language that their production of Now or Later should not be reviewed. They were not able to find such a statement in their records.
After the show closed (and before it was discovered that New Epic had not paid for the rights), Shinn tried to stay in contact with Stodola to track the progress of the full remount, but he said that Stodola "failed to respond to or acknowledge emails I sent asking about his progress in making this happen." New Epic never announced any plans to remount the full version of Now or Later. Shinn told me, "Ultimately I believe he lied to me to get me to do what he wanted. If he wasn't lying, he was failing to keep me in the loop on various things in an entirely unprofessional way."
The anonymous actor who talked about getting only $150 of his promised $500 stipend for a previous show told me another story of broken promises. Part of the reason that he didn't raise a fuss about the pay disparity was that he had been promised that New Epic would remount a longer version of the show soon. He also talked of an instance of sexual harassment from another cast member, which he agreed to put aside because of how much he believed in the project. No more communications came from New Epic after his paycheck finally arrived, and the actor was surprised when the remount came and went without him:
"They re-did the production without me, using the same blocking and moments I had helped to create, even implementing a few ideas I had… that we hadn't been able to employ at that time. What I thought would be my pay off- a more fully realized production with a great collaborative team- was given to somebody else, without even a mention to me of what was transpiring.”
This actor said it was "the only time I've ever felt completely screwed over as an artist."
While researching for this article, a lot of people contacted me to give second and third-hand accounts of various other bad encounters with New Epic Theater. It proved to be difficult, though, to get the actual people who were affected to go on the record. In discussing this, longtime Fringe technician Jenny Moeller told me, "I’m not surprised that no one wants to talk. It’s hard as a freelancer to feel that you can be honest about bad experiences without ramifications to your career."
This is a sad state of affairs. When any company exhibits bad practices, and people feel discouraged from speaking up about them, the bad practices don't just stop on their own. Over time, of course, rumors can spread through communities, and those in the know can take avoidance measures, but without an open and honest community that is willing to believe and support people who come forward with legitimate complaints, and with a constant stream of new, young artists coming to town, problems tend to continue until they reach a breaking point.
Members of Actors' Equity Association have an outlet. When I approached AEA for comment on this story, their new Communications Director, Brandon Lorenz, sent me a statement reminding all their members to be proactive in contacting Equity about problems:
“As soon as Equity learned about the safety concerns from our members, we got involved. The takeaway for actors and stage managers is that if you see something that raises a safety concern, let us know right away. We can’t protect you if we don’t know there’s a problem. We know that in this industry, unique situations arise all of the time. Actors' Equity is here to ensure employers live up to their responsibility for the safety and well-being of actors and stage managers at every turn."
For non-union artists, though, it can feel much harder to be heard. I went to Leah Cooper, the former Executive Director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival and the Minnesota Theater Alliance, for advice about this. She acknowledged the problem:
"In a small town, and a small industry, the real danger is not so much getting fired by the people an artist blows the whistle on; it’s the gossip that sometimes portrays whistle blowers as 'difficult,' which keeps them from getting hired by other people. Unfortunately, the law can’t really protect artists from that."
However, while Cooper was still at the Theater Alliance, she helped put together Performing Arts Human Resources Toolkit Series (PARHTS), a training program dedicated to teaching small arts organizations how to better handle their human resources. All of the resources gathered during that series are archived online, and they’re a great resource for every theater company that's looking to improve its practices. Cooper directed me to the page about conflict. At the bottom you'll find a section about whistleblowing, which includes a great sample policy from HUGE Theater that can serve as a guide for theater companies that want to do better.
We should all want to do better.
"There's a big difference"
When Joseph Stodola canceled his interview with me, he sent this statement:
"On May 11th, issues arose involving our planned water and rain mechanism and its proximity to lighting onstage. Although this individual problem could have been solved before opening night, trust had been lost. I take responsibility for that. Therefore, the decision was made to cancel the production. I'm sorry to the cast and crew that this project ended the way it did. I am grateful to those who have supported us during this difficult time in the life of our company."
I really wish that Stodola had sat down for that interview. Without his side of the story, what I have left to work with is mostly a long list of grievances against him and his company and a single statement full of arts world twists on "mistakes were made."
There is one sentence in that statement, though, that gives me some hope for his future: "I take responsibility for that." If he means it, it's a good first step to restoring trust. But it's just a first step.
In an interview with Kendra Plant at Artfully Engaging Stodola said:
"I want to talk about the importance of challenging theater. I believe too often audiences come to the theater only expecting entertainment or enjoyment. I think those things are valuable, but I don't think they're the only things theater can do. Often, theater that is challenging isn't done because it seems too 'risky.' I hope audiences will encourage this risk by stepping outside of their own comfort zones for a chance to have an experience that means more."
That's a laudable goal, one I myself have championed here at Minnesota Playlist many times. But, as the anonymous company member from New Epic said to me, "There's a big difference between pushing boundaries artistically, which I find really, really interesting, and pushing boundaries ethically. And it's really easy for somebody to blur those lines."
From my experience as a producer of theater, I get that. When you're striving so hard to make this beautiful thing you conceived in your mind come to life, and you're suddenly faced with a problem, it is incredibly tempting to make easy choices that superficially satisfy people in the moment or that simply get them out of your way, just so that you can get on to your next big thing. When you're the leader of an organization, you quickly discover that managing people is the most difficult part of your job. It's easy to fall into viewing those people as problems that get in the way of your innovation. There is not a single bad practice that New Epic Theater engaged in that I have not seen practiced by another company in town. That's not surprising. We are all afflicted with the same longing for greatness and the same lack of resources. There are plenty of opportunities to make bad, easy choices.
Those bad, easy choices always catch up with you, though.
In this case, nobody died. Nobody got hurt. But a lot of work, a lot of good will, and a whole a lot of great potential was wasted. It could have been a lot worse, but it was certainly not good. One way or the other, the company will be paying for it. As Adam Qualls told me "I'm certain New Epic cannot survive this loss either financially or in reputation, and will dissolve in the immediate future."
In this industry, we live and die by our ability to bring people together. Kathryn Fumie told me "I find that theater companies that do really great work also have the capacity to gather people around them." It's not enough to be an individual talented artist in this field. It's not enough to have your own great vision. You must have the willingness to find people with their own talent and their own vision and the humility to respect that and support that. It takes planning, it takes empathy, and it takes a certain amount of letting go of yourself and allowing the people around you to shine. It is a thing that is not easy to do, but it is worth it.
Or, as Craig Johnson told me, "The whole situation really underscores how much trust we put in one another when we do a show. And the responsibility we have to honor that trust." It's a responsibility we all have, and I'm trusting all of you out there in the theater world to make the right decisions as we go forward from this. If you're an artist that has been affected by the bad practices of a company, speak up about it. If you're a company that has an artist come to with a complaint, listen to them. Take the time to make things better before they get disastrously worse. Make a plan and find the people who can help carry it out. Trust them to do it. I know you have a lot of other things you need to worry about, but you can do this. I believe in you.