Boise Contemporary Theater Leadership Responds To Blistering Letter From Former Director
There's a bit of real-life drama at Boise Contemporary Theater.
In late June, BCT announced that its founding director, Matthew Cameron Clark was leaving that role. Nearly two months later, Clark sent out a lengthy letter to BCT patrons saying that he was ousted by a Board of Trustees that Clark described as "disrespectful," "misinformed" and "rooted in secrecy." Within hours of Clark's email, the letter had been widely circulated among patrons and other members of the public.
Morning Edition host George Prentice spoke with Will Fowler, chairman of the BCT Board of Trustees and Ben Burdick, BCT's new producing director about Clark's accusations.
You can read Matthew Cameron Clark's full letter to BCT patrons below:
Find reporter George Prentice on Twtter @georgepren
Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio
AUGUST 19, 2019
An Open Letter from Matthew Cameron Clark
"Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write 'Burn This' on it.”
Dear BCT Family,
This is personal. This is the truth.
First, know that I am deeply grateful for the twenty-three years I spent as the Founding Artistic Director of BCT. It was an extraordinary privilege to share stories with this community. The screams of laughter, pin-drop silences, sudden simultaneous gasps of surprise or recognition, and the open-minded, open-hearted conversations I shared with you in that theater are among the best moments of my life. Thank you for all of it. It was an honor and a damn good time. I’m not done telling stories, but I am done being the artistic leader of BCT.
Second, know that it was not my choice to leave, and the way I was dismissed by the BCT board of trustees, under the leadership of Will Fowler, was deeply disrespectful, rooted in secrecy, and indicative of this board’s fundamental failure to hold BCT in trust as a benefit to our community.
If you’re interested in the details of what happened, read on. If not, I don’t blame you. Thank you for all your support over the years. We built something truly special together. And you will be hearing from me again as I find and create new ways to tell stories here in the City of Trees and beyond! You can stay in touch with me here.
So, what happened?
In a surprise meeting on Friday, June 14 it was explained to me that the Board had made the decision to eliminate Dwayne Blackaller’s Position as Associate Artistic Director. Managing Director, Ben Burdick was given the same news immediately afterwards. Neither of us was consulted, nor even informed of this proposal prior to that meeting.
To understand how that could happen and be a surprise, you should know that over the past two years during Will Fowler’s term as board president it had become standard for the trustees to meet regularly behind closed doors, excluding the staff. I made it clear to Will many times that I respectfully disagreed with that choice, believing that secrecy sews doubt, prevents collaboration, and undermines trust, especially in a non-profit organization that belongs to this community, not to the Trustees. It also seemed an odd choice to be discussing the operations (not the oversight, but the actual operations) of a professional non-profit theater company without anyone in the room that had any theater administrative experience at all. But that was the way Will chose to run the board of BCT.
It was also explained to me that this “reduction in force” was not a reflection of Dwayne’s performance as Associate Artistic Director, but instead a difficult decision driven by limited resources and the need to hire a Development Director. I agreed that hiring a professional fundraiser was a priority, but those two positions are not, of course, mutually exclusive. In fact, at that time, the draft version of the budget for the new season included salaries for Dwayne and a new Development Director, while still projecting a surplus of more than twenty-thousand dollars. There was work yet to be done, but I was certainly not under the impression that eliminating a full-time employee from our already understaffed organization was on the table.
Will handed me the paperwork to fire Dwayne and asked me to co-sign and deliver it. I took a deep breath. Of course, I believe Dwayne’s contributions to BCT were extremely valuable. The Theater Lab program he created, the Children’s Reading Series he brought to life, and the 5X5 readings and mainstage productions that were elevated by his work as an actor, director, playwright and consummate collaborator were all evidence of his profound value to BCT. I expressed my disagreement with the board’s decision and the process by which it was made. But believing that they saw this as a financial decision, I saw it as a solvable puzzle. I asked for a few days to consider my options. I was forbidden from discussing the situation with Dwayne, then given until the following Monday to respond to the board’s directive.
I spent the weekend raising money. On Monday, June 17, I wrote a letter to the BCT board letting them know I had raised and contributed enough new money to cover Dwayne’s salary and benefits for three months. I asked that we be given those three months to better communicate Dwayne’s value to BCT, then we could make an informed decision about the staff structure together. I knew that the result might be the same, but at least the process would be more inclusive and complete.
I heard nothing in response except that my proposal was being discussed in a meeting to which I was not invited. Then, one week later, I was invited to another meeting with the executive committee of the board, where I was immediately fired for “insubordination,” because I had not carried out Dwayne’s firing. I took another deep breath. Within the week Ben was named Acting Producing Artistic Director, which means all of my responsibilities were added to his already overcrowded job description.
In recent months the board had already pressured Ben to fire John Adkins from the Box Office and to restructure and reduce Janevieve Robinette’s position as Finance Director, forcing her to seek work elsewhere. So, Ben, whom I adore and respect, is now, as I understand it, one of two full-time employees at BCT. And with one year under his belt, he has been there the longest. The staff has been gutted.
It seems absurd because it is. There have certainly been disagreements over the years about programming. I butted heads with a few Board Members and a couple of the past Managing Directors about the artistic direction of the company. But BCT stayed true to its mission, those who wanted a different kind of company departed, some of them angrily, and the theater continued to grow. Ben and I had built a great relationship and the company was doing extraordinarily well. Last season, like the season before, ended with a surplus and set another new sales record, not just in tickets sold, but dollars earned too. Sold out performances were becoming the norm. Ticket sales had grown by 50% over the past five years. So, if these were business decisions (Dwayne’s firing, and then mine) the board was ignoring a lot, including the results of our programming.
In the end, I think Will Fowler and the other members the BCT board believe they are doing the right thing. I imagine they have a vision for a more mainstream theater company that takes fewer artistic risks, something quite different from what you and I have built. Unfortunately, they have isolated themselves from outside opinions, including those of the staff, the professional theater community, and the audience. I believe this isolationism is dangerous to the wellbeing of BCT. Secret meetings and uninformed micromanagement might help protect the egos of board leadership, but they are not serving Boise Contemporary Theater well at all. Our vibrant community is growing quickly and I believe that other non-profit organizations and their trustees should take this to heart: transparency and collaboration are necessary for good governance.
Thanks again for all you did to make the last twenty-three years possible. My hope is that BCT can survive this sudden instability and thrive into the future. Dwayne and I are both moving on toward other adventures that we look forward to sharing with you.
I wish Ben, the staff, and the artists of BCT all the luck in the world.
Matthew Cameron Clark