Conversations around the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter have been difficult to untangle from one another in our communities lately, at both the macro and micro levels. Emotions are running high on both, and any time or energy spent on one can seem like it is taking focus from the other. And the considerations involved in each are inextricably linked as well. There is no justice without health; there is no communal well-being unless we are all free.
Our local theaters are not immune from these contentious conversations, as recent events at Old Creamery Theatre revealed. The close timing between the posting (and subsequent removal) of a Black Lives Matter support statement by the theater’s artistic core, and their firing a few short weeks later, with little productive communication in between, has left the Eastern Iowa theater community seeking answers and understanding.
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Katie Colletta and Keegan Christopher entered their eighth and seventh seasons this year, respectively, as part of the theater family at Old Creamery in Amana, taking on the roles of co-interim artistic directors in January.
Over those years, they had served in countless different positions at the theater, from intern to educator, and, “little by little,” Colletta said she “just worked my way up.”
Christopher, who grew up in Missouri, followed Colletta to Iowa after the two met at Millikin College, in Illinois (Colletta’s home state).
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d end up living and working in Iowa,” Christopher said. But, he continued, “I love Old Creamery Theatre with my whole heart.”
It came as a shock to the pair when, on the afternoon of July 2, the entire staff of the theater (save the general manager, Pat Wagner) received termination emails and were expected to vacate the building immediately, with the caveat that they could set up a time in the following weeks to return, supervised, to gather any belongings left behind.
“It’s not a furlough, it’s not a layoff,” Colletta said. “It was a termination.”
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“We knew this in March,” said Old Creamery Theatre Board of Directors Vice President Debra Brooks.
Brooks explained, as Colletta and Christopher had said as well, that the theater had applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding in March, but it would only last for a few months.
“The PPP bought us some time,” Brooks said. But, “the writing was on the wall by June 30.”
The theater, which was founded in 1971 in Garrison, Iowa, and which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary season next year (if the virus abates), had been in dire straits coming into 2020 already. More than 80 percent of its budget comes from ticket sales — “We have no donor base,” Brooks said — and those had not been good in 2019. A $119,000 budget deficit coming into the year had increased to $145,000 by the end of June.
“I’m not a finance person,” Brooks said, “but even I understand when you’ve got huge expenses and no income, you can’t employ people.”
Brooks said that the executive board was following the advice of a financial advisor that they hired in June when they chose to terminate, not furlough, the staff. The advisor, she said, informed them that the staff might not be eligible for unemployment if furloughed.
“Everybody in the arts is hurting on a grand scale,” Brooks, who teaches voice lessons and has lost that business to COVID-19, said. “I understood what they were going through … I love the staff and I saw how hard they were working. We gave it the old try to keep them on as long as we could.”
Ultimately, despite the June 30 expiration of the PPP and the admonitions of their financial advisor, the executive board made the decision to delay the termination a couple of days, into July, Brooks said, so that they could make sure staff received another month of benefits and their allotted vacation time.
Although asked the question several times, in several different ways, Brooks did not offer a clear answer on why the staff’s termination could not have been served earlier, with two week’s notice, rather than effective immediately.
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“We were all very realistic that by the time the summer ended and the good weather left, we would have had to be furloughed,” Colletta said. “My question for the [executive] board would be, if we knew this was going to happen, why not inform the [full] board in a timely fashion in order to wrap up loose ends? … There were children who logged onto the computer Monday morning [July 6] expecting a camp.”
Colletta and Christopher were confident that the money coming in from fundraisers, summer programming and grants was enough to float staff salaries through the summer. Songs to Make You Smile: A Virtual Cabaret was a series of two fundraising events this spring that brought in a total of $23,000 for the five organizations that participated. And summer programming seemed to be headed in the right direction.
“I never thought we would be doing parking lot theater,” Christopher said of the drive-in concerts and productions the company staged, “… but I was so impressed with the number of people who came out.” There were over 700 for the first concert, he said, and “we were seeing ticket sales starting to climb.”
Brooks said it was not enough.
“June alone was the most expensive month we had,” she said, “and income did not come close to it.”
The decision to invest in a summer programming schedule, Colletta said, had been approved by the theater’s programming committee. On raising the proposal at a meeting of the committee, Colletta said, “the consensus was … ‘Great, go for it! Let’s see what happens!'”
According to Brooks, such decisions “normally go through program development and then are approved by the board.” She said, “I saw that those things were planned … but I thought, ‘maybe there’s something [financially] I don’t know about.'”
The theater received an Iowa Arts and Culture Emergency Relief Fund grant in early June. Christopher and Colletta believed that it would have provided enough funds to support staff, but Brooks stated that the $14,000 grant amounted to only a week and a half of full staff salaries.
For the board as a whole, the dire immediacy of the numbers was as surprising as it was to the staff. According to Brooks, the responsibility for informing the staff of the impending situation lay with the theater’s executive director, Ashley Pirsig Shields (Shields did not respond to questions sent by Little Village). But, “the board elected to have the executive board deal with the day-to-day,” she said. They were updated at regular monthly board meetings, but not beyond that.
Heather Gierut, who has been on the board for four years, serves as the marketing chair. She said that on Monday, June 29, a meeting was scheduled for 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 2. “That was the only information we were provided or hint that we would need to have a harder conversation about the financial stability of the organization until we have further understanding of how COVID would impact the theater the remainder of the year. However, within that timeframe, we had been doing shows at the theater that were socially distant — they were moneymakers.”
Conversations about ongoing programming and the opportunity for Old Creamery to be a family-friendly form of alternative, socially distant entertainment had left her hopeful, as did the encouraging ticket sales.
“It kind of came as a shock that we were not sustainable enough at the time to endure the remainder of the year, from a financial perspective, and had to let all of the staff go. Our meeting was about a half an hour long, with questions from myself and Jennifer [Bradley, who resigned from the board immediately following that meeting] as to, ‘What does this mean for the staff?’, ‘Why are we keeping on the … staff that we’re keeping on, and not the executive director?’,” Gierut said.
“It was a really tough pill to swallow,” she continued, “And to be perfectly honest, a really short amount of time to make a decision.”
That decision, to terminate the staff, “was not a unanimous decision,” she said.
Gierut called out a “lack of transparency and lack of communication” from the executive board that she said had been an issue over the duration of her time with the theater.
“I believe that had we had a transparent, inclusive conversation with the entire board before the executive committee made the decision that they did, there could have been alternatives, or alternative solutions proposed; I think that there would have been more conversation around opportunities for grant funding. … Granted, I understand where we were financially in the organization. I just think that had we had a more inclusive conversation, we could have come up with alternative solutions at least through the summer — because people are looking for entertainment options. … We don’t know what our financial position could have looked like, had we actually had a discussion with more than five people,” Gierut said.
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To its executive board, Old Creamery’s decision to let the theater’s staff go was only ever a question of when. To Brooks, and as the board phrased it in the email, the termination was due exclusively to COVID-19.
But those in the theater community that have rallied around the Old Creamery staff in the weeks following the termination saw something else.
Colletta and Christopher were very careful with their words over the course of a joint hour-long conversation with Little Village.
“Everything that we are saying is our truths,” Christopher said. “We are just wanting to make sure that the story as we see it is in the picture for all to see.”
That story, as Colletta, Christopher, Gierut and the many community members who have reached out since the firing see it, began not with the COVID-19 pandemic — which the co-interim artistic directors believed the company had a chance of weathering together in tact — but with the June 10th response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) uprising that Colletta, Christopher and Shields co-wrote, cosigned and posted to the theater’s social media and website.
“The racial tensions in the country had come to a boiling point,” Colletta said. “The whole world, it seemed, was standing up and making statements … The theater community as a whole began to take a hard look in terms of casting and in terms of treatment [of actors of color].”
“We as a company must have a diversity statement,” Christopher said.
So, as the artistic core of the theater, Christopher, Colletta and Shields crafted what Colletta called “not just a statement, but an action plan” for how the theater could address its role in perpetuating systemic racism.
The BLM statement, signed only by Christopher, Colletta and Shields and not purporting to represent the views of others, read in part: “The truth is, Old Creamery Theatre does not have a history of inclusivity and diversity, and its leadership and staff over the years have reflected this as much as the stories told (or better, untold) on its stage. Words like ‘family-friendly,’ ‘marketable,’ and, worse yet, ‘our audience isn’t ready for that,’ have been used to avoid telling stories and make casting decisions that might upset the status quo.”
The three sent the statement to the board before posting it, but neither requested nor waited on permission to post it. This, according to Brooks, was a breach of protocol.
“The board is in charge of doing those kind of decisions, and they didn’t even check with the board,” she said.
Colletta notes that, although there can be no direct parallel to this specific moment, she has over the course of various roles in the theater posted to social media without clearing the messages through — or being reprimanded by — the board. But in this case, the response was swift. By later that night, the executive board (without, Gierut said, consulting with the full board, several of whom had expressed appreciation for the statement) requested that the statement be removed from both social media and the website. Christopher, Colletta and Shields complied — by the following morning, it was gone.
“I don’t think there was any objection to it” in terms of content, Brooks said. In fact, the executive board appointed a committee to start work on a revised statement, from the board instead of the staff. “Absolutely, Black lives matter, and people matter,” she said.
But dissent was there, whether Brooks was aware of it or not. The morning after the BLM statement was posted, Christopher received an email from a member of the executive board — who he declined to name — threatening to resign if the statement was not removed, and demanding that all of the equipment they had out on loan to the theater be returned. Christopher did return it, by the following day, June 12. The executive board member has not resigned.
“Ashley had invited all the board to come out to have a conversation about the letter that had been written and posted … I thought that that was really awesome, but [the executive board] had canceled it,” Gierut said. Entirely unaware that a committee had been formed to address it, she and other board members implored the executive board to call a meeting to discuss the letter; the meeting was set for a weekday afternoon — a departure from their usual meeting time — and many board members couldn’t attend.
“The following Monday [June 15], I wrote a letter to the executive committee … stating, ‘Here are all the things from a marketing and business perspective that we could encounter if we don’t release a statement.'” She expressed her concern that removing the letter already had the potential to send a negative message to patrons and actors. “Really, in my mind, the only reason that we would take something like that down would be if there were a disagreement of perspective.”
Her email did not receive immediate response. Two other board members asked for a meeting as well, with no response.
“It’s not just for the executive committee to decide,” Gierut said.
On June 17, Gierut received a phone call from Brooks, and she said she finally felt heard with regards to the urgency of the matter. However, follow-up wouldn’t come for another two days, with a letter from board president Peter Teahen, asking for more time. He also mentioned, she said, that “the number one priority was ensuring the viability of the theater moving forward.”
Brooks concurred. She said when the BLM response was posted and other board members were attempting to communicate about it, “That’s when the financials hit us.” Many of the people on the committee formed to craft a new BLM response — something Brooks said “has always been the plan of action” — were tied up in figuring out monetary and staff concerns.
The continued delay, in the time since the July 2 terminations, has been due to the “distractions” that have arisen in the wake of the removal of the statement, including assertions of a sheriff’s vehicle parked outside the theater the day staff was terminated. (“When the last car left the building, the officer left,” Christopher said, asserting that their lot is not a typical spot for speed traps. “Sometimes they do park out there,” Brooks said, stating that she had “no idea” about the vehicle’s presence and that it was not at the board’s request.)
“All I can do through all this is to be kind to people I care about, even though there are things being said that aren’t true,” Brooks said.
The “distractions” also came in the form of an enormous outpouring of support from the community regarding the BLM statement. Several Old Creamery patrons and former actors reached out to Little Village directly expressing their support for the terminated staff and their belief that their termination was inextricably linked to the statement. A letter-writing campaign was established immediately after the statement’s removal by an Old Creamery alum, resulting in at least 15-20 letters of solidarity, which Brooks said the board have taken under consideration.
It is not clear how a concerted community push to address the Black Lives Matter uprising would be a distraction for the committee tasked with doing just that.
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Colletta has no regrets about the posting of the BLM statement of support.
“I feel that I as a human have been pushed because of the statement,” she said. “I loved my job, but it was a job. But the work of being a better human is never done.”
“The work of being a better community is never done,” Christopher added.
But over the course of managing the BLM response, communication deteriorated, seemingly irreparably. Christopher and Colletta, as co-interim artistic directors, had been in the habit of collaborating with the programming committee. But a July 1 meeting of that group, scheduled on June 20, did not include them.
“It was my understanding that the Artistic Directors would be a part of the process of selection of 2022 in tandem with the Development Board,” said new programming committee member (and Little Village contributor) Diviin Huff. She, along with the two other committee members LV reached out to — three of the four visibly BIPOC members, as shown on the theater’s website, where they are the only committee named and visually represented — was invited to join in mid-June, after the BLM statement and its removal. “It’s a team effort as I have come to understand it. … It was not brought to my attention that some people would not be joining us until after our official first meeting on July 1.”
Colletta and Christopher also stated that after receiving a Zoom invite for a July 2 meeting with the board, Shields reached out by phone to every member of the board, and was rebuffed. The staff ultimately decided not to attend that meeting, as they were trepidatious following a meeting Shields had with the board regarding the BLM statement in June, which had left their executive director “visibly shaken,” Colletta said.
“We were never able to communicate with them, which for me made it doubly sad, because these were people I care about,” Brooks said of the staff’s decision to forego that call.
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“We’re at a different moment in history now,” Colletta said. “I just want Old Creamery Theatre to have this discussion [about BLM]. … As a professional theater, it is the company’s moral responsibility to have this dialogue.”
Gierut expressed concern for the future of that dialogue, stating, “It appears, by this decision [to terminate] … that the executive committee no longer intends to release any sort of statement, or to continue the [BLM] conversation that Ashley, Keegan and Katie have started.”
“In the end, the board is responsible for the company’s well-being,” Christopher said, a statement Brooks echoed. “I just don’t believe,” he continued, “they had all the information possible to do that in the best fashion, due to a lack of communication.”
“It is my opinion,” Colletta said, “that the timing of the PPP money running out provides a very convenient strategy for them. … It feels to us that the termination and the Black Lives Matter meeting are linked.”
Speaking of their hopes for the future, Christopher said, “It is my sincere hope that through all this, that the community will come together, and be better for this.”
For Colletta, “I hope that the board will choose to hire a person of color to the artistic team in our absence.” (Brooks said that she could not speak to the personnel question of whether any of the staff were eligible for rehire or would be approached to resume their roles once health concerns are alleviated.)
Speaking from the programming perspective, especially given that Old Creamery is currently in talks with Coe College to establish a presence in Cedar Rapids, Huff stated, “Theater, historically, is a very white space. Most plays have a majority of white characters playing to a majority of white audiences. A goal is to have more people of color on stage and coming to enjoy shows. We would also like to see younger people coming to the theater. Time will tell in terms of commitment to embracing diversity of artistry and impact. We will see how sincere the theater and theatergoers are to having and embracing broader perspectives. I have high hopes that people are ready to embrace more of the human experience.”