Up until a few years ago I had a couple little two-drawer filing cabinets. Inside one was a file of correspondence, emails, memos all relating to my last two years at Seattle Children's Theatre. It was a couple inches thick and heavy. I had gathered all the material as it happened or just after the fact, building up the file and adding to it; letters from the labor relations board, memos to me from the managing director, printed out emails supporting me from HR, others condemning me from various admin personal (couple that were sent to me accidentally). Like I said, it was heavy in terms of weight and emotion. I’m an emotional person, sometimes intensely. At the beginning of April 2004, I took that file from the edge of my desk, along with various cards, notes, name tags, little leaving gifts, shoved them into that cabinet and slid it shut. My father was dying, I had a planned trip to Paris, I was getting a business up and running and I just couldn’t deal with it any more. I was mentally and physically exhausted, but clear. I wouldn’t open that drawer again for years.
The first part of this essay was actually meant to be the only part of this essay. (Five Minutes for Seven Years elsewhere on this blog) I spent seven years at the Seattle Children’s Theatre, and mostly they were pretty good ones at an organization I loved. Except for the last two. I haven’t really told the story publicly about what went on and why I left because I was angry and hurt as hell, prone to be emotional and somewhat bitter about it; an ex-lover spurned and burnt. Seven years, but those last two wrecked my health and nearly my sanity.
Some people may think I’m crapping on SCT, but I enjoyed that place more than almost any other I’ve worked at. We had a dedicated staff; crew, volunteers and the subscribers were the easiest to deal with of the many theaters I’ve worked at. But the reason I stayed for seven years, even when things were going poorly was because of the kids. I love kids, though I have none of my own. I like being around them, talking to them; standing in the back of the theater and hearing their laughter was a tonic on bad days. Seeing their wonder and joy at the magic theatre could bring made so many things worthwhile.
When They Say Non-Profit, They Really Mean Non-Profit
When you work in a non-profit, and I don’t care whether it’s in the arts, medicine, sciences or a charity there is always a feeling of mission, of a cause. We bind ourselves together to fight for this institution, this cause that is greater than us. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, proud to work in and for that cause. Much is expected of us; hard work often at odd hours, late nights and weekends at pay lower than comparable jobs elsewhere. A constant state of stress and panic as everything needs to be done now and deadlines are forever looming. A daily rush to get things done superseded by the rush to get the next thing done. Then turn off the lights and start it all over again in the morning, but it’s probably morning already. In fact, it’ll probably be just a couple hours until you’ll have to turn those lights back on.
How? Why? What’s the trick? The trick is caring. If you don’t care, you don’t last very long in that atmosphere. A year or two tops I would think. It can be punishing and not on just you but on your life outside the organization, on relationships, friends and family. It helps to have a partner who is also in a non-profit, who is also in a similar situation, who can understand. Like a teacher. Otherwise, they will think you’re crazy. No, really, they will question your sanity and dedication to an organization that is not the least bit dedicated to you. They probably should. Only those in the restaurant business really understand what’s it’s like to be in the restaurant business, only those in the arts really know what it’s like to be in the arts, only a teacher can understand what it’s like to be a teacher… Only those in a non-profit can really understand…
Meanwhile at SCT
As I relate in part one, I was hired in 1997 to work as House Manager at the Eve Alvord, the smaller of the two venues at SCT, the other being the Charlotte Martin Theatre. I had been managing a video store for a couple years, producing short plays I wrote at New City Playwrights Fest and the Belltown Theatre Center, but hadn’t been auditioning much for other people. Well, I now needed a somewhat steady job, and SCT was offering that. The pay was, well, low even for non-profit but the work seemed interesting. I would be working with and around kids, which at the interview was thrown up as a caution but as I said, I love kids; I would rather talk to most kids than the majority of adults I run into. I looked forward to it.
The admin staff and crew really didn’t know what to think of me when I started, well, no one did. I brought enthusiasm and a ton of energy into the position. The kids inspired me as I tried to make the job my own, stumbled mightily the first few days. I screwed up more than once trying to find that balance between getting the kids into their seats (with the help of my two to three person staff) and trying to make the experience more than just “Hey you, sit here.” I also had a staff usher I hadn’t hired who loved to give me free advice usually in the form of “The old house manger didn’t do it like that.” I met with resistance from some staffers and crew, but won a lot of them over, no not all but enough. My first month or two was rocky but after people figured out what I was doing (or just got used to me) I was fine.
I took over as Assistant House Manager in the Martin on the weekends within a few months. I ran around, took tickets, closed and opened doors, flicked light switches for intermission, helped in concessions (I decorated many bags of pre-ordered goodies with Batman drawings), lugged boxes of programs around and made a point of getting to know as many people as I could, backstage to box office. Doing that many shows, that quickly, one after the other on the level what was expected is a hell of a lot of work for everyone and SCT had a great staff, many of whom had been with the theatre for years working long days season in and out. The crew saw me as part of admin and an alien in their space, to admin I was something of a visitor with no office presence except to pass through. I was between both worlds really, and a native to neither. Yeah, it’s a bit late when I’m writing this…
More Than a Little Silly
After the interview for the Seattle Times detailed in the first part, things began to shift. I was the face of the theatre, for good or ill depending on how you looked at it. I took that responsibility seriously, and tried hard to instill a sense of fun in the place beyond just the shows. I wanted people to be excited about coming to the theatre even if they weren’t all that excited about the latest offering. The staff needed to be friendly and welcoming, the lobby needed to be fun. As soon as people walk in the door they should feel excited, they should feel at home. I would joke with the kids, talk to the parents and subscribers and try to be as open as I could be. At times, I was probably more than a little silly. Being so visible and yes, popular with the subscribers and even donors made me a target for more political players, as I would find out.
The problems came when the longtime Managing Director stepped down from his post, and then the Associate Managing Director left. This left a void in management. An Acting Managing Director came to help run the theatre during the search for a new candidate. Gone were the people who hired me and coming on was someone new who didn’t quite get what I did. The first thing the AMD did was consolidate power: everything would be run through her office. This became micro-micromanaging so minute it was done via microscope and tweezers.
Being House Manager at SCT, (then Front of House Manager) was a fun job, and as you do in jobs where you’re overworked and stressed, I bonded with the rest of the overworked and stressed. I became very protective of my staff, because if I wasn’t who would be? When SCT management shifted, I got a lot of grief for trying to protect them from what I felt to be capricious new rules and sudden policy changes. I would get the edict, argue my case if I felt the changes unnecessary or hurtful to service, be told to basically ‘do it our way’ and then implement as much I could without impacting service or hurting my crew. But I get ahead of myself.
How to Not Fire Someone
The new management did something I hadn’t seen before in a non-profit; they tried not to fire anyone. I don’t mean that in a ‘let’s keep this person on’ kind of way. No, they didn’t want to outright fire anyone; they wanted to make you so miserable you would quit. I saw this happen to friends. What they would do is create a new position either under or over you. Then, shift most of your responsibilities to this new person while knocking you in performance reviews. One department head was told she could keep her title, but all authority would now be held by the new position and the new person management had installed. It was a humiliation strategy, make their life hell and they will ‘fire’ themselves. I saw it several times before I left, and was there the day they decided to get rid of half of the crew. Many of the ‘non-renewed’ were the founders of the union and some had been there nearly two decades.
Why did they do things like this? There were a few reasons guessed at, but the one that stuck out was an incident with a member of the booth crew in the Eve Alvord theatre. They decided to fire an operator who refused to work with another crew member who had shown up visibly ill. (This is what you do in non-profit when there is no one to take your place on a crew or cast, you just work sick and hope for the best) This crew member had a breakdown panic attack and had to be taken to the hospital. While this person was being loaded into the ambulance, SCT management was drafting the letter to fire them. They bypassed the agreements they had signed and were contractually obligated to follow and delivered the letter to the hospital. That ended up a lawsuit SCT lost and a rumored 40,000 payout (plus having to pay a replacement for the entire season). Now, the lesson to take away from that would be ‘follow your agreements’, at least you would think. What SCT learned is don’t fire anyone, make them quit by creating a hostile work environment, but not so that they could sue. Fire them, but not really. It was pretty insidious, and the longer you tried to fight against it, the more it ultimately hurt only you.
It boiled down to control. SCT had something of a loose feel at the time and the AMD sought to change that by taking control of everything. Staffing cuts were the norm, I went from five paid ushers for school shows (two for the Alvord Theatre, three for the larger Martin) to just two total to pivot back and forth between the theatres. I was told this was happening in a meeting, where I was also asked to give up one of my days off. I said it might be hard to stay under 40 hours but was told that wouldn’t be a problem.
"Anything to help the theatre.”
That's is actually what I said; "Anything to help the theatre." I meant it too. This staffing change meant as soon as one theatre was seated, we all rushed to seat the other theatre, hoping nothing went wrong in back in the first. As soon as that theatre was seated and the show under way, the first theatre was ready for intermission. When that was over the second theatre was hitting intermission, and so on until the shows were both over. By that time, the next group would be showing up. Repeat. It was busy but workable, unless a problem happened.
Of course a problem happened! Now I tell this story to give a sense of the kind of “trouble” I was causing. We had a certain actor in some of the shows at SCT who didn’t like me, at all. Well, I never expected universal acclaim, and there are times when I don’t care for me either, but this person really didn’t like me and took every opportunity to complain to management about me. I was too enthusiastic, I was inappropriate, too slow, my staff was too slow, etc. By all accounts he was actually a decent guy, except when it came to me. In fact I heard he did a pretty good, if mean, imitation of me. The incident in question involved a couple rowdy kids in the audience during a school show.
It happens. We used to keep an usher in the house to monitor the kids and head things like that off, but with cuts there just wasn’t anybody left. In fact there was maybe 20 minutes in the second act when I could step into the house and check on the audience. Well, this day we had a couple kids that caused a commotion that this particular actor noticed. Instead of contacting me so I could talk to the offenders, he tried to take care of it himself after the show by confronting the teacher and students involved. They complained about his manner, the actor complained about me not catching it, the stage manager complained about the situation and I was held accountable for the problem.
The Situation and How to Get It
The AMD confronted me in the lobby (I was never in my office, didn’t have the time) where I was with the Alvord house manager supervising a few hundred kids as they made their way to the buses.
“What can we do about this situation?” She asked
“Hire more staff. With the cuts I just don’t have the people anymore.”
Her eyes widened a bit, mouth open. She turned to the other house manager
“What are you going to do about this?”
“I’m not going to tell you anything different from Tom. Hire more staff.”
She walked off.
“I’m going to hear about that.” I said.
I didn’t know it until later, but I was now being slated for the non-firing treatment.
Damn, Now I’m going to have to write part three of a one part essay.