Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Ignition of the Drama Desk Hysteria

For those of you who are not members of the Drama Desk -- and I'd assume that most or many of you are not -- I cannot tell you what the last few days have been like in terms of my poor, woebegone email box. Ever since Michael Riedel's column came out last week reporting on Tony Phillips' letter about Said Chair -- accusing her of all kinds of things, many of which could be, in the hands of the New York State Attorney General, perhaps legally actionable depending on the bylaws of the organization (which remain under lock and key), the unceasing onslaught of emails that have been sent to me has been awful.

These emails, you see, contain letters of support for Said Chair, and are being sent out by the Drama Desk president, through a surrogate. I mean, letters from this one and that one and this one and that one, all of them going on and on and on in email after email about how terrible it is that Phillips' wrote what he wrote about Said Chair, and, indeed, voicing unstinting support for "beloved" Said Chair and glorifying Said Chair and canonizing Said Chair. But frankly, the more emails I get, the more I think it's The Lady Doth Protest Too Much. If there was no truth to what Phillips wrote -- not even the tiniest sliver -- and if the whole thing is one spurious and slanderous lie, why dignify it with endless emails harping on the fact that Said Chair is innocent of all charges and nothing more or less than a perfect human being?

Yesterday, I finally had enough. I mean, truly, enough. The whole thing is terrible as it is -- what is the Drama Desk leadership trying to prove by bombarding us with these emails?

Of course, what I find interesting is the revelation that a show has to run at least 17 performances before the Drama Desk will consider it for a nomination. That gives the lie to the DD's slogan that it considers Bway, OB and OOB equally. Um, no, not equally at all. Meanwhile, I received from a source I'll keep as anonymous the actual text of Phillips' letter. I'll let it speak for itself. Among other things, though, it does say that Said Chair rammed the 17-performance rule through the DD board. So the question is whether the organization's bylaws demand that the membership be told of such a rule change. If the bylaws do -- or did -- then this could be a matter for legal intervention. Plus there's the whole question of whether Said Chair actually said that there are lots of other things the membership doesn't know about. As a nonprofit, the DD is a public trust. If the public's trust has been betrayed -- and can be proven -- then legal action is necessary. Maybe that's why the DD leadership is hysterically sending out emails.

Anyway, here's the text of Phillips' letter. You decide what to think.

April 15, 2008

Dear Drama Desk Member,

After several years as a voting member, the last two of which were spent as a nominator, it is with regret that I tender my resignation to the Drama Desk. During my years on the nominating committee, I watched with growing alarm as nominating chair Barbara Siegel covertly steered this organization away from its mission of honoring excellence in not just big commercial enterprises, but the totality of New York theater, right down to the smallest off-off Broadway house.

She burned through budgets, time and personnel cloaked in a veil of secrecy not seen this side of the Cold War, and all the while resisting efficiencies as basic as the eeting agenda. Our once a month meetings swelled to two, three, four and five meetings per month and Barbara kept talking, wasting tremendous amounts of time on your dime. I tallied the mounting body count as she squeezed out any form of dissent from the committee and established a voting block Reflective not of the general membership, but rather her own personal taste. The fact that she did this just one season after running the committee into the ground last year is astounding. Now that I find myself among the casualties, I can say that this year's nominations will not be worth the paper on which they're printed.

On March 27, Barbara Siegel summoned me to a 10am meeting with Drama Desk President Bill Wolf. Neither one would say what the meeting was about until I was across the table from them. When I sat down, Bill informed me they were severing my ties to the nominating committee. When I asked why, they both accused me of leaking information from internal proceedings. When I asked for proof, they admitted they had none, but 'just knew it was me.' When I informed them that this is not the way things work in the country I woke up in, they quickly changed their tune. 'It's not just the leak,' Barbara said, 'It's a lot of things.' Again, when pressed for specifics,
they had nothing. I ended this kangaroo court of a meeting shortly thereafter.

I have knocked myself out for this organization over the past two years, seeing on average ten shows a week and keeping the running tally of our shortlist, a document that swelled to over 50-pages last season. I happily shouldered more labor than any other committee members combined, but was assigned this duty two years running because Barbara doesn't believe in cross training. Rather, her agenda is to install people in specific tasks that best further her own agenda, which is not generating a ballot for the membership to vote on, but pulling as much of that ballot into her own hands as possible. Has anyone kept track of the increase in non-voted special awards on her watch?

In an email dated March 19, Barbara Siegel wrote to the committee, "Bill and I each received a call from a publicist at The Karpel Group because he heard we have a new video/projection category and he has a show that he believes fits right into it. Bill and I were both disturbed to know that our internal business had leaked to a publicist. The only way the Karpel publicist could know that we are planning on this category is if one of the nominators leaked the information to him. This new category has not been announced."

The following day, in another email, Barbara released the name of the show, "(RUS)H", and added, 'Neither the show nor its publicist are at all to blame in this matter. This is an internal Nominating Committee issue.' My dealings with Karpel on this show were as simple as sending an email to book it and receiving a one-word confirmation back, so I paid no further attention to the matter. I absolutely did not leak internal information to a publicist.

As I was now sitting across a table from two people accusing me of doing just that, I took out my phone and requested that we call the publicist at Karpel together and ask him what happened. Again, they balked. Bill Wolf finally said it came down to my word against Barbara's and he chose to believe her. Five days later an email went out soliciting member nomination suggestions. Video/projection was nowhere on that form. I'm sorry, but why has this category, which Barbara told us was approved by the board, still not been announced? Shouldn't you, as voters, know what you should be looking for while you're actually seeing it? And shouldn't you also know what category is being killed off to make way for video? And shouldn't you have some say in the matter?

The same day they threw me off, Bill sent around an email to the rest of the committee stating, 'I wish to inform you that, for various reasons and the need for smooth functioning of the Nominating Commitee [sic] going into this crunch period of intense deliberations, Barbara and I met with Tony Phillips this morning and informed him that we were severing him from further service on the Committee. I was also informed that this email went out to the Drama Desk's list of theater publicists. I sat quietly by while Barbara Siegel railroaded nominators off the committee last year, invalidating all the short-listing we did for the entire season and I am not about to repeat that mistake now when not only my reputation, but the integrity of the entire organization on the line. Here's some things you should know: Last season, Barbara Siegel forced two nominators off the committee before the season ended, replacing a third after the season concluded. Her tactics ranged from badgering one of the nominators at his place of employ and scheduling meetings on religious holidays the other was observing. We were all told that these nominators walked off the committee in the crucial week before our ballot was due, but I now believe they were forced out in a secret meeting just like I was.

After what she claimed was their abrupt departure, Barbara demanded that all the remaining nominators write an email to Bill detailing the infractions she perceived on the part of these two nominators, which were essentially holding her to the once a month nominating meeting. She dictated a laundry list of charges to us and also added that we would need to send the email to her first so she could have more input before it was sent to Bill.

As I had already detailed my disappointment to Bill in a meeting about the manner in which I was told these two had departed, I refused to send the email since I felt Barbara's demand to vet it was unreasonable and not the way any other organization operates. I also felt the reasons why these two left went totally unexplored, but Barbara made it clear my continuing as a nominator depended on sending this email. I called her bluff and was reappointed the following year anyway.

That same year, last season, during the overnight deliberations at which our ballot is cobbled together, one show got on for best musical by legitimate vote. Once the best musical category was complete, Barbara took a look at the entire list and told us this show, "Twist" was a "potential embarrassment for the Drama Desk," so she simply replaced it on the ballot with "Mary Poppins." It was at this point that I knew that Barbara Siegel was corrupt and an imminent danger to the integrity of this organization.

But she didn't stop there. This current season is littered with shows that weren't even evaluated by the committee because they didn't dovetail with her own personal aesthetic. There's Justin Bond's show"Luster" at P.S. 122, which was suggested by another nominator and deemed ineligible because somewhere on the P.S. 122 website they'd used the word 'cabaret' to describe the show. It's a good thing Kander & Ebb got "Cabaret" off the ground before Barbara's unusually long term on the committee.

As "Luster" was suggested by another nominator, I went to see it, and didn't find the verboten word anywhere in the Playbill, but I quote from the P.S. 122 website as follows: 'Heat up your winter nights with Ethyl Eichelberger Award recipient and Tony Nominated performer Justin Bond and friends as they serve up a heady mix of Glamour, Gender Queer Cabaret, and Sexy Provocation.' Ask yourself, how the hell would you describe a Justin Bond show? I've struggled with it myself, but because of some desperate marketing, Bond, a perennial nominee, went unevaluated by this year's committee.

When unable to find a single word with which to hang a downtown show out to dry, Barbara resorted to legislation. She proposed and got by the board a new rule: the 17-show minimum. Haven't heard of it? That's by design. After Barbara instigated and saw this rule through board approval, the theater publicists were informed of its existence mid-season. I asked her if she felt that our membership shouldn't also be informed. 'We make a lot of rules the members don't know about', came her reply. She said this in an open meeting.

And when shows increased their runs to make sure they hit the 17-show minimum, they still went unseen. "R(USH)" the show she kicked up such a fuss over regarding the information leak, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. This show cared so much about our award that they went to Equity and got a waiver which is practically impossible—to extend by one show to hit our minimum. They even scheduled this extra performance at 10:30pm so as not to overlap with eight o'clock shows. The result: Barbara remained silent about the extension, yet booked it for herself, only to cancel last minute.

These are not the actions of someone who is operating on the organization's principles of scouring Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway for the best of the season, but rather someone who is willing to exercise an economic apartheid against downtown theater as she tries to single-handedly rechart our course. But let's look at the upside, at least she didn't leak any information, like the fact that a show one of the nominators had recommended was now eligible for consideration and should be seen by all.

I still remember an East Village performer telling me this season that he hadn't paid his rent for three months in order to put on his show. Extending to meet the minimum meant skipping another month's rent, but he happily did it anyway. Sadly, his show also went unevaluated despite recommendations from two of the nominators. The artists that care the most about this award are getting screwed. They are also all working with gay-themed material. You do the math. But it's not just the East Village type skipping rent that's operating on unsound financial principles; Barbara has also consistently demonstrated wild fiscal irresponsibility for a non-profit; calling a record number of nineteen meetings by the time I left this season.

And if you don't think three or four meetings a month instead of one concerns you, consider the 30% increase in member dues accompanying her tenure as chair. And if you don't see another increase to cover this season's whopping expenditures coming like a bus down Fifth Avenue, you're just not paying attention. Barbara Siegel is hell-bent on having your lunch and eating it too. She even purchased a laptop for the organization and gifted it to one of her pets on the committee, who check emails with it during these $28/head minimum lunches.

I could go on, but this letter is essentially to inform you of just some of the dirty dealings she's been allowed to play out season after season. No one ever talks about it after they're forced out and that’s why these gross improprieties are allowed to perpetuate. It's hurting us as an organization and it’s hurting the theater we're supposed to be honoring.

When I met with Bill and Barbara, I told them that even after being accused of something I did not do without any proof, I was willing to put differences aside and fulfill my duties for the season. They still told me to ankle.

I was leaving at the end of this season anyway. I was recently awarded a Goldring fellowship to study and teach at the Newhouse School this June, but they threw me off regardless, more concerned about covering their own hides as they steer this organization away from its mission statement into some wan, doddering second-rate mock of the Tony Awards. I only hope you, as members, don't wait until the general membership meeting to do something about this reign of error. It will be too late. The entire nominating process is broken and needs to be fixed before our reputation is irrevocably tanked. I'd like to leave you with a DD Nom Suggestion: Barbara Siegel has got to go.

Sincerely,

Tony Phillips

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2 comments:

John said...

Wow.

Anonymous said...

Siegal and her co-horts on the Drama Desk should be ashamed of themselves for this 17 performance rule thing, which suggests that the only theatre worthy of the DD's awards is that which is produced under an Equity contract. I expect people who call themselves "theatre critics" to understand the difference between art and commerce, and yet Siegal seems to consider them one and the same. I find that notion both appalling and profoundly disappointing, especially from someone like Barbara whose reviewing credentials are primarily from small theatre and cabaret.

I think Barbara and the other nominators on the DD should be forced to face the participants of all of the OOB theatres in this city and explain to them how their lack of money means that their art can't possibly be worthy of award consideration.