by Tony Adler
In response to news that the board of Theatre Building Chicago has fired longtime executive director Joan Mazzonelli, TBC cofounder Ruth Higgins has sent an open letter asking for the board's resignation. Here's the letter. For the full story, see Deanna Isaacs's column this week.
An Open Letter to the Theatre Building Board of Chicago Board of Directors
(Arthur Don, Melissa Giovagnoli, James Groth, Sally Reuking, David Riley, Gabrielle Stormo, Craig Wilson)
As the co-founder of Theatre Building Chicago, your recent action regarding its staff causes a great deal of concern. My thirty years of work for the company, starting in 1969, provides me with in-depth knowledge of this unique arts service organization. More than most theatre companies, the mission of this one has always been to provide opportunity to artists, administrator and other companies, as well as to develop new works, especially musical theatre, since 1984. This unique status and mission has presented some conflicts over time, but for 33 years, Theatre Building Chicago has been true to its mission. Changing the top management is not easy and needs careful
consideration. However, the method and motive for so doing should in the end, benefit the company and community.
This is not to say that Joan Mazzonelli should not at some point be replaced. No one is irreplaceable. However, both the method and motive for leaving the organization without a capable leader should be examined. Boards of Directors are there to serve the organizations, to be stewards or overseers, to insure that the
mission to the community is well served.
The fact is, Theatre Building Chicago is remarkably stable; made more so by the competent management of Ms. Mazzonelli. The organization has had a succession of strong leaders, the first Byron Schaffer, Jr., followed by myself, followed by Joan. The strength of management in each case was tied to a fortunate combination of ability, personality and sense of mission. The last 20 years of John Sparks' involvement as Artistic Director is also an example of this. Stability in the arts is tied to sound management and an understanding of the art form.
Therefore, on behalf of the many artists, companies and individuals who benefit from Theatre Building Chicago the following points are presented for serious consideration for you who have been entrusted with the viability of the organization.
First, funding sources are very important in filling the gap between earned and donated income. Stability is weighed heavily in deciding who will get funding. Giving to a company that is leaderless with no plan in place is not reassuring. In this respect, is your decision a responsible one?
Second, the general state of the economy does not bode well for making significant changes in the way the finances are distributed. Knowing the balance of this distribution (which has not changed significantly since my tenure), the idea of subverting services to a full subscription of audiences for new, unknown musicals, is naive
and unrealistic at the most basic levels, and raises serious questions about how much the Board understands. Nothing about this decision seems to have taken these factors into account. One wonders how these facts address responsibility on your part.
Third, the biggest annual event of the year will take place in late August. What kind of message does disposing of the organization's leader at such a time send to the staff, artists, companies and supporters? Morale in a small organization is a very important part of what makes things work. In that respect, can you defend making such a decision?
At present, this Board is deficient in at least three board members, according to the by-laws. Also, one of you clearly has a conflict of interest as a member of the workshop and a direct beneficiary of its program. In addition, this member has a personal partner and two business partners who now make up a simple majority on this board.
These conflicts of interest also lead to a questioning of who might really be the beneficiary of this decision.
For all its longevity, Theatre Building Chicago is still fragile. Like all small and medium-sized arts organizations, its future is to tied ideas, ideals and good people who make sure that the necessary work gets done. It does not take long for such organizations to fall apart. What a travesty to have 33 years of work become a parking lot, or a, what? What is the ultimate goal of here? The Board's given reason for firing Ms. Mazzonelli just doesn't properly address
the future of the organization or its major asset.
There is a proposed plan afoot that would all allow the organization to re-build its Board, as well as a commitment from caring citizens willing to help do that. In the end, Ms. Mazzonelli will be dealt with fairly and with dignity. Please, for the good of all, step aside and allow those who understand how things should be done, to get on with it. Your immediate resignations would facilitate this organization to continue its service without jeopardizing the work of
so many. Make a responsible decision.
It is my sincere hope that many other artists, supporters and members of the general community will reinforce this request.
Ruth E. Higgins
Co-founder, Theatre Building Chicago