This is part the last. Previous parts were "Five Minutes for Seven Years", "Anything for the Theatre", and "How Long Can You Take It". Collect them all!
As I said in a previous part: fighting against the ‘non-firing firing’ was useless. They wanted you gone and they will make your life miserable until you leave. As you stand outside it, you can be objective and think ‘Oh, that poor person! Why don’t they just walk?” I’ve always believed in justice. Unfairness gets to me. I think comes from being a little brother. When my older brother Charlie put my head into a wall my mother didn't punish him, she told me I should have just stayed away from him. Being smaller and weaker I didn’t have much say. So I fought back, even when I got my butt kicked. Which I did. A lot.
So I decided to fight. I loved the Seattle Children's Theatre, and I loved my job. How bad could it get? I figured it would be worth it in the end.
The Subscribers Are Restless. And They Want to Talk to Me.
To make more revenue in a theatre there are only a few things you can do: raise ticket prices, or add more seats. SCT raised prices slightly, and added more seats. In the Martin, there was really only one place to add seats, right in front of the stage. In a holdover from the original Woodland Park Zoo space the Martin had floor seating. These were carpeted tiers in front of the stage that the kids (sometimes parents) would sit on. This was very popular with the kids who loved getting up close. It would also require policing to keep them off the stage itself. They would lean against the edge of the stage during performance, resting their heads on their arms. While adorable it can be dangerous to actors and the kids themselves. Another problem was that the parents would use it like the playground at the drive-in (does that date me?) You sit in the back and send the kids down to play in front of the screen. Parents would save a seat in addition to having them sit on the floor. Well, we counted those seats on the floor as well, so now one kid had two seats. Adding actual physical seats would solve that, but would take away some of the charm.
The new seats were going to be installed during the downtime between shows. I liked the tiers but could understand taking them out. As we already counted those seats on the floor, I figured the pickup in seats would actually be negligible. The problem I had were the way the seats were to be installed. The Martin has a stage with wings on the sides that reach out into the house. You can walk right onto the stage from the side entrance house doors. The new seats were installed without side aisles, from the edge of the stage reaching across to the other edge of the stage. If using the side doors (which was a subscriber perk, they got in early that way) you now had to go sideways though the seats or if people were sitting there, across the stage and jump down. When I heard what they were planning to do, I brought this problem up; I’d worked there now six years and knew that’s what would happen. I was told aisles on both sides would mean at least six seats gone and didn’t I know how much that was in lost revenue? No, but I knew from fines and lawsuits that could result from access problems.
And it became a problem the first day we had an audience. People couldn't get to their seats. Many subscribers walked across the stage and jumped off to get to their seats. Many more complained to me. Now this is the bad part of being the ‘face of the theatre’; everyone knows me so they come to me with problems they have with theatre policies. My position at the time, as admin told me, was tenuous and they’d let me know my opinions were unwelcome. We also had complaints from actors and the stage management about the problem. I was told to solve it by putting more ushers on the sides of the stage to stop people. Didn’t work, the subscribers got more frustrated, which they took out on me and my staff, but only me if I could help it.
It took a combination of a board member complaining and a threat from the fire marshal to get the problem solved. A board member had taken their family to the show that weekend and had problems not only getting to their seats down front, but out of them as well. When intermission came, the only way out if you were down front was to either go all the way up the stairs to the back doors, or if you wanted to use the closer side doors, you had to climb through the seats or hop up on stage. Many people, not realizing there wasn’t an aisle jammed themselves into the corner trying to get to the side door. A couple times I had to reach in and pull out a kid who was in danger of being crushed. This board member was not happy and complained to the Manager Director. They were listened to. We also had a fire marshal as a subscriber who saw this happening, and told me, “I’m not on duty right now, but you need to get this fixed, this is a problem. I’ll be back to officially inspect it, and it had better be fixed.” I put that in my report. The problem got fixed, Sort of.
Now We're Up to Code. I Hope You’re Happy
I recommended taking out six seats from both sides, leaving an aisle two seats wide. They took out seats from one side; house left the door nearest the restrooms, and then only took out three. So we had one small aisle, on one side of the house, one seat wide. It worked okay, but still jammed up, and people were still hopping up on stage. The Managing Director called me into the theatre to show me the new aisle with a ‘hope you’re happy’ air. I even got to hear about the loss of revenue because of those missing three seats. It was all my fault.
As the season ended, I was told I had to go to a meeting about my position. This meeting would concern whether I would be invited back or not. I was not a “team player” as this seat crisis so obviously showed. At this point I also had to deal with my new boss and former assistant “Jeff” following me around the theatre questioning my every movement.
I was under orders not to go over 40 hours. This had not been a problem when I was working 40 hours over five days. As part of cutbacks, I was asked to give up one of my two days off. This day off was causing a problem because they had to pay a replacement to take over one day a week. When hired I was told to take two days off to save my sanity. Now, saving money was more important than my sanity. With the 40-hour edict, I now had to fit my now 48-50 hours worth of work into 40 hours. It wasn’t easy or pretty. I was still expected to help other departments with their events, still needed to be available to help set up and break down events, supervise renters, and do the usual 10-11 shows per week in the Charlotte Martin Theatre, plus help as much as I could with the Alvord shows.
More than once I would hit 40 hours during a show. I now had a choice; stop what I was doing and walk out the door (since my assistant was now my boss, I didn’t have an assistant manger to help) leaving my responsibilities or stay and get a lecture and threats. I wasn’t about to walk out without someone to hand responsibilities off to, so I would stay. And get yelled at. The stress was getting to me, as I’m sure was hoped. I was losing weight and my temper was getting shorter. I would turn in my time sheet, with hours now marked as to which department I was working for and get threatened about not being paid for the hours worked. One day a friend in marketing approached me with a question:
“Hey, did you know “Jeff” was up here asking about you?”
“”Really? What for?”
“He was asking if you were really working for us on Saturday. I told him of course, why would Tom lie? He said he was checking all your hours.”
Is Tom Lying Now, or Was He Lying Then?
It was true, he had gone to every department I had listed and asked if I had actually been there, working. That was the way he put it. “Is Tom actually working these hours?” I was. Of course I was. This undermined me with the other departments, spread confusion, and basically called me a liar. So to sum up: I’m stupid, I'm a liar, I don’t know what I’m talking about and now I had to argue why I should be allowed to continue in my position for another season. I said to “Jeff”:
“Tell you what, you have more than enough info, make your decision, let me know.”
They didn’t want to fire me; they wanted and needed me to quit. I gave them the power to fire me. They balked. I was invited back for another season. “But it was a close thing.” “Jeff” told me.
I didn’t care, I had won. For now.
New Season, Last Season
As Fall came, after working for the drama school summer programs and special projects, I was back for my seventh season, my seventh year at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. It started badly. I was once again informed that I was just barely tolerated, and this year had better be different. No more going over 40 hours, I had to do everything I was told regardless of how I felt about it, and there was a movement to replace my show introductions with a recording or at least change what I said. Evidently I was too amusing and went on too long. I could have gone back to the original speech, which was several lines longer and very formal. But I didn’t.
Remember when I said the way a theatre could increase revenue would be add seats or raise tickets prices? I said SCT did both. Here’s where the other part of that story comes in, and another reason I was being told to shut up.
SCT had one ticket price for the seats in the Charlotte Martin. They now instituted section seating, with different prices for different sections. There would be two sections: A & B, the A section was the first ten rows in the center and the sides and B was everything else. This was a huge change. Before it was general seating, buy a ticket, sit anywhere you like. This was bigger than just raising prices and was not going to be popular. When shown a mock-up of the season brochure I saw that there was no announcement of the change in policy until the renewal form in the back. With no real incentive to get your renewal form in early (like better seating) many subscribers didn’t look past the play descriptions to the form and would just wait until the telemarketers called. This means they would probably end up with B seating, and it would be the first they heard about it. They would not be happy.
I suggested putting a box or a sticker on the cover announcing changes and with a page to consult: ‘Big seating changes! See Page #30 for details!’ I was ignored. So, what happened? Well. During the last show or so of the season, telemarketing begins for the upcoming season. The brochures had been sent out weeks before, so those that didn’t wait got the slightly more expensive A seating, which quickly sold out. When the telemarketers told subscribers they were in section B, it didn’t matter it was a fairly small theatre. They were used to sitting anywhere and now they had section B!? Since WHEN? WHERE IN THE BROCHURE WAS THAT?!!
Well, you can see how that went. The next decision, while understandable, made it worse. Since the telemarketers were getting abuse, they were told to stop telling people they were going into section B. In fact, they were told not to mention sections at all! Problem solved! Do you see the new problem? The responsibility for telling people that there’s been a big seating change is now on me, or the FOH staff, which because of cuts and ”Jeff” telling me he’s now too busy being my boss to help me anymore is still me. The person who said this problem would come up is now going to have to take the heat for the decision he said would be a problem in the first place. And because not every subscriber is coming to the first show, I will have this problem for months.
Hire Whomever You Want; As Long As It’s Him
But I get ahead of myself. First, I have to hire a staff. Well, I have to be told who to hire. I wanted to come back two weeks in advance of opening day to place ads for staff, clean, stock everything and get ready. I’m told no, I’m being wasteful. I can come in one day early. “Jeff” will pull resumes for me and I can do my hiring from those. I tell him I can hire my own staff; I have standards to uphold and know what I’ll need. I’m told tough. I still managed to get some decent people, ones either I already knew and asked to apply or returning ushers. Except… except for the other house manager for the Alvord Theatre.
I was handed a resume and told this was the person. Just the way I was forced to ‘hire’ “Jeff”. His resume showed one brief theatre job, at a small college theatre as a house manger. I know those jobs; you open and close doors, nothing like being in charge of a theatre for a major organization with a both a paid and volunteer staff.
“Really? What else you got?”
“There were other resumes, but this is the one you’re going with.”
“(Muttering) I don’t believe this…”
“You have a problem?”
“Yes. I have standards to maintain.”
“Maybe your standards are too high, ever think of that?’
I was allowed to call the guy in for an interview. This was a job where you’d be on your feet a lot and have to move fast in an emergency. You have to be personable, able to talk to people, able to speak to a crowd and keep a dozen balls in the air at the same time. And not let it show. I met the guy. He had at least 300 pounds on me. Just because a person is large doesn’t mean they can’t move, but this guy didn’t move quick at all and told me up front he didn’t like standing much. And he mumbled. Even during the interview he seemed bored and not alert. This did not look good.
I told “Jeff” of my problems, he told me hire him, now. Okay I said, but I could not and would not vouch for him. This hire was on him. I would have to train him though, and be there for his first shows to help and observe.
“No, you can’t do that, you’ll go over 40. You go over 40, we won’t pay you.”
“So I should just throw him into the job and hope he does okay?”
“He’ll be fine.”
“You come in then.”
“I’m out of town, and it’s not my job.”
“It’s your job if you’re Audience Services Manager. It’s what I would do.”
“Which is why you’re not Audience Services Manager. He’ll be fine.”
Yes, I went in to help. I knew I was screwed if I did, it would only add to the many problems I already had with admin. I couldn’t leave my volunteers in the lurch, and the cast and crew needed to know if things didn’t go right I was there to fix it, at least this time. I just can’t half ass a job and if I let this guy sink, it’d be on me and I knew it. Hey, I didn’t want to hire the guy and I thought he’d be horrible but I wasn’t about to watch him fail. Maybe he’d surprise me, but I doubted it.
He didn’t surprise me. Once he found out the office in the Alvord had a counter and window with a sliding door that opened on to the lobby he sat in his chair and talked to the volunteers through the opening, like he was a cashier. The complaints from the volunteers, the crew, the cast and even the audience started almost as soon as I walked out the door that first night. He would use his office chair to scoot around the lobby, relied on the volunteers to train themselves (they started coming to me over in the Charlotte Martin to learn what was happening in the Alvord that evening) the only time he’d leave his chair was to go on stage to mumble the announcements. And then there was the time the crew complained that he stole birthday cake.
The Adventure of 1/4th of a Birthday Cake
Seems they had a large sheet cake backstage for a crew member’s birthday all ready to cut into after the performance. This house manager wandered backstage during the show when the break room was clear to use the microwave, saw the cake, picked up the knife and cut himself a piece. A big piece, literally one fourth of the cake. And he was seen leaving with it. Of course, they all came to me with this. I passed it on to “Jeff” who passed it back to me with a “you hired him” comment.
BTW, they didn’t pay that four hours of overtime I used to train the guy. I filed with the National Labor Relations Board about it. They sent an ‘investigation letter’ to the Managing Director, who said I was a troublemaker and didn’t deserve to be paid. The NLRB said since I wasn’t anonymous they were closing the case. Welcome to the Bush administration.
It was time, past time really, to see Human Resources. I hadn’t gone before because we never had one before. We had a very nice young lady set up as our very first HR person. I was her first customer. I sat down and we talked. When my assistant was hired to be my boss, I had sent a memo to the Managing Director, Artistic Director and a couple others about it. Never got an answer, but it put me high on the crap list. First thing she asked me was what the reply was to the memo… and we went from there. I was scheduled for a half hour…an hour and a half later I finished. She sat with her mouth open most of the time. She immediately set up a meeting with her, the Managing Director, and me. She didn’t understand what was going on, but she was going to help.
I felt better. I really did. Frankly, in our meeting she noted I wasn’t the only one having trouble. Morale was low, in fact it sucked across the board. Everyone was worried about their jobs, watching some of their friends getting the same treatment I was getting, and stressed to the limit. So, I went ahead with a morale-boosting project. We now had a staff break room in our new scene shop. This was an attempt by management at boosting morale. My idea was to do something fun. I gathered pictures of old TV and movie stars, ones that I had the actors sign specifically to SCT. I got Gilligan, the Professor and Mary Ann, Batgirl, Mike TV from Willy Wonka and a bunch of others and put them on the walls of the break room. All at my own expense of course. I got a lot of questions about them; how did I get them, did I actually know them (some) and when were more going up? People stopped by to check them out so it worked a bit, at least it was a distraction. They all disappeared after I left the theatre, no idea what happened to them.
The Meetingest Place on Earth
Our HR person followed through on the meeting with the Managing Director. I laid out the problems, starting with “Jeff” and his position. I was told I was considered, but was turned down because of unspecified ‘problems’.
“Well, we can’t go into that really, but it’s in your file.”
“Can I see the file?”
“Well, no, it’s confidential.”
“Well, if it’s costing me a job, I think I have the right.”
“No. Anything else?”
“I think I found out what I need to know.”
Our HR person asked me if I was sure.
It was no use., but a nice try. Our HR department didn’t last long. She tried, but I think having a title and no actual power to affect change frustrated her. She left and the department left with her. I went on to endure meetings that were basically called to tell me how terrible I was, to talk about replacing my show intros with a recording done by someone else (which happened for one show. I actually got a lot of complaints and questions from the audience about it. As I said I would, but I wasn’t believed. I was told it was my ego) but mostly to talk about my attitude. Evidently I had attitude to spare.
Meanwhile: Back in the Lobby
Remember the seating changes? The A & B sections? Well, lets jump back a couple months of humiliation to the start of new season. The subscribers who ordered over the phone are now arriving early for their first show all innocent and expecting to grab their usual front row seats. Now they’re being told they’re in Section B, up the stairs, now they’re asking “What? When did this happen?”
Now they’re asking for me.
I don’t like being yelled at, well who does? I especially don’t like being yelled at for something that not only isn’t my fault, but that I saw coming like a train behind schedule. I have been a house manager in several different theatres. I have been swung at, puked on, cried on, sexually harassed, shoved into a wall, and told I was a horrible person who lives only to kill people’s dreams (that was a fun night) but I’ve never been yelled at as much as I have those two months of telling people that the world has changed and no one let them in on it. They were angry and upset. They arrived early to get the seats they always had before and were told no. Now they had a bunch of disappointed kids they had to explain theatre polices to.
After a couple weeks of subscribers yelling at me admin stationed a person in the lobby to hear complaints. Not to help really, just to listen. The problem with that was subscribers wanted to talk to someone they knew, and they knew me. One gentleman describing himself as a Physician and Surgeon and a Long-Time Subscriber (who had a least a foot on me) jammed his finger into my chest and told me how I was ruining his children’s lives and he would talk to his friends on the board about me. Well, I needed more enemies. I was running low.
I was fighting, trying to meet more and more arbitrary rules. I was getting emails of meetings, notes on what I was doing wrong, questions about my hours nearly every day. I printed these out and added them to my own file of headache. At this point, I was making sure I wasn’t going over hours by only doing only half of what I used to do. No more helping out other departments, staying late to clean and fix things that broke, do paperwork and answer emails. They kept sending more and I didn’t have time. I used to answer them at home, but I refused to do that now. No more working from home. They wanted me off the clock so I made sure I was far off it. I had to hustle out the doors, sometimes asking my staff to put things away for me so I wouldn’t go over that 40-hour line.
About fixing things. The old facilities manager was a good guy and I would help him out by changing light bulbs and fixing things around the theatre myself, like broken seats. You see in order to get the theatre built on time some corners were cut to save time and money. One of these was the bolts what held the seat of the chair to the back. It was always the one on the right that would snap. It happened so often I ordered a box of replacement (higher grade) to fix them. With the new time limit that now had to stop. The seats kept breaking, but I didn’t have time, or the inclination to help “Jeff” to fix them. I would inform him they were broken, and tape them off. He said he was too busy. The crew complained about this as well, trying to figure out what he did all day. At first they complained about the broken seats to me. After I told them where to direct their complaints, we made a game out of it to see how long it would take before they got fixed.
He Can’t Put the Bolt in the Hole
Turns out it was a long time, next door to never. Time to follow me around and check up on me, but not time to put a bolt in a hole. These are things we find important. I had over five seats taped off at one time and it started impacting revenue with so many unusable. Finally, I snapped the other bolt off a seat (cheap things, remember) and dropped it off on “Jeff’s” desk with a note. The seats got fixed after that.
The meetings are still going on, this next time over the ‘seat incident’. Well, it was scheduled before my shift. If I went, I’d have to pull a gun on Peter so Paul wouldn’t go over. I was tired, bone tired, I had lost 16 pounds from the stress of dealing with the nonsense (I’m hitting mostly highlights here, there was a lot more crap I'm not even going into). I’m not a big guy and that much off my frame did a number on me. People were asking if I was ill. I was getting stress migraines, wasn’t able to eat much. I refused to go to the meeting. It was nonsense. If they had something to say, just say it and stop jerking me around. I skipped it.
I came in at my regular time, did my shift. I was sent an email to come to a meeting at the manager’s office at 3pm. I didn’t get it but was told about it. Again after my shift when I'm off the clock. No. I’m off and I’m going home. The announcement came. “Tom Stewart, please come to the managing directors office”. I went home.
I broke my promise that night and checked my email. There was an email from the Managing Director, demanding I be in his office the next day, detailing how I was being written up for these infractions and all the other things I was doing. At this point, I was written up for everything. It said a bunch of other things, outside the bounds of professionalism I thought. I forwarded it to a good friend along with a few other documents. Am I crazy? Am I making too much of this? Am I blowing things out of proportion? My friend had worked FOH in several theatres; I respected his opinion very much. He said that this was horrendous. No, I was not crazy, at least, not in that way.
Why Are You Still There?
“But Tom,” He wrote back, “why are you still there? You’re sick, we’re all worried about you, you’re so stressed you can’t eat or sleep… Why are you still fighting? They don’t want you there and you can’t win. You really lost the minute they decided to get rid of you.”
Why was I still there? I had reasons, but I couldn’t even remember them. I had packed up my office weeks before as I knew I would have to. This was it, I was done. I was too tired to fight anymore. There was no one left to turn to. I started typing:
‘To whom it may concern…
I would have to talk to my wife and some friends, but I was gone. I put copies of my resignation in the various mailboxes, had a friend post a copy on the crew bulletin board, sent a notice out to my volunteers. The staff threw me a party in the rehearsal hall, with a cake and a few short speeches. I got a presentation of a homemade plaque with bits of each department added to it. Everyone told me they were sad to see me go. And yes, the people who were pushing me out the door came to have some cake and make sure I was gone.
As I crossed the lobby for the last time, “Jeff’ said he would need my keys. “Sure." I said, "Here, catch!”
Threw them without turning around, over my shoulder. I heard them hit the carpet. He missed. That made me smile.
SCT had a big anniversary celebration a few years back, I was invited, but I didn’t go. I was criticized for not showing, as I was a big part of people’s experience there, so I was told. I walk by now and then on my way to other places. The people who made the edge of my time there so miserable are gone but I remember. Now, these essays can remember for me.