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What's Their Motivation?

Why 23 members of the 24-year-old American Theater Company ensemble walked.



Late last month, after 23 of 28 American Theater Company ensemble members—including three founders—announced their mass departure to form a new theater, citing "administrative and artistic differences," ATC's artistic director PJ Paparelli offered an explanation of his own. In an interview reported by Chris Jones on his Chicago Tribune blog, Paparelli said, "Our title says that we're an American theater, and that has to include Americans of all races, ages, and sexual orientations. That means you have to make the programming multicultural. That shift was difficult because when you only have four or five shows a season, that means fewer opportunities for some."

The implication that the ensemble might be too old, white, and hetero upset the departed, including actress Tania Richard. "To frame it like that dismisses the positive things we were able to accomplish," she says. "I'm not old, I'm black, and I had a ten-year relationship with the company before I joined as an ensemble member. The fact is ATC has always been open to diversity, and has participated in multicultural projects for a long time." According to Richard, the real issue is the loss of the company's traditions of collaborative decision making, free expression, and ensemble sensibility.

Paparelli joined the company 18 months ago, after three years as artistic director at Juneau's Perseverance Theater, the only professional company in Alaska. He looked like a rising star. In 2007 he'd staged the world premiere of Yeast Nation, by Urinetown creators (and former Chicagoans) Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, and Columbinus, a play he cowrote, had earned favorable reviews in New York and was about to be produced in Chicago by Raven Theatre. Paparelli had a reputation for engaging younger, more diverse audiences, and word is that the ATC board, which was about to embark on a capital campaign for a new building, thought he'd be an asset to that project. The ensemble interviewed him and were initially enthusiastic. He talked about collaboration, members say, and they thought that meant he'd work with them.

But in his first year at ATC, Paparelli disbanded a season-selection committee made up of ensemble members, and discontinued their regular, year-round readings of plays under consideration. "Everybody understands that the artistic director has to make the final decision," Richard says, but there was a growing sense that ensemble input was unwanted.

A late change in this season's lineup was a bone of contention. Paparelli had initially scheduled Yeast Nation for the spring slot, but then put it off until next season and—in a decision that mystified many in the company—substituted Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with out-of-towner Nick Garrison in the title role.

"As soon as we heard that," recalls former ensemble member Casey Campbell, "we tried to think of any show that could work better. Hedwig is basically a one-person show and we're an ensemble company. And it's about a drag queen in Berlin. How does that apply to our mission of [asking] what does it mean to be an American?" But according to Campbell, all of their suggestions—as well as a request that at least one show during the upcoming season celebrate ATC's 25th anniversary by showcasing the ensemble—"met with a brick wall."

Paparelli stormed out of a January meeting at which ensemble members offered these ideas and complained about a lack of timely communication from him. After that, Campbell says, they got letters from the board advising them of a six-month moratorium on ensemble meetings, during which they were each to "reassess their relationship and commitment to ATC" and "honestly decide whether they support the Artistic Director and his artistic vision." The letter went on, "Such support is a requirement for continued Ensemble membership." Any member "who will not be a constructive participant in the realization of our shared vision, should request Emeritus status."

Board president John Goldstein didn't return calls for this article.

"There had been no warning," Richard says. "Later that day we learned that three of the long-term ensemble members—Kate Buddeke, Stef Tovar, and Gwendolyn Whiteside—were told they should step aside. They refused, and soon after we were informed by the board that PJ had told them he could not work if [the three] were still in the ensemble."

In late February, without regard to a dismissal procedure added to the theater's charter at Paparelli's insistence, Buddeke got an e-mail saying "the board has decided that you shall no longer be a member of ATC's Ensemble, effective immediately.... [I]t is our decision that this action is necessary for the future of the organization."

Buddeke is still incredulous. "I've been there 22 years! What do you mean, I'm out?" She says for the past six weeks she's made efforts to communicate with the board and PJ, to no avail.

"There were absolutely no grounds for asking those members to be removed," says Richard. "The board took everything PJ said as law and never came to the people he was talking about. It meant none of us were safe. If we disagreed with PJ we'd be asked to leave." Richard says that was the final straw.

Paparelli's predecessor, Damon Kiely, now an assistant professor of directing and acting at DePaul, says, "If you hire an artistic director, they choose the season. That's one of their main jobs." When he was at ATC, producing shows that included a radically reenvisioned Oklahoma!, Brett Neveu's American Dead, and a coproduction with Teatro Vista called Living Out, Kiely says, "There was a committee, and we looked at stuff all year long. But eventually there needs to be one neck to wring, and that neck was mine." Still, he adds, "My understanding was it's an ensemble-based theater. You're walking in the door knowing that, so you're looking for a way to work with that ensemble."

"You can form a theater company around a mission or around a group of people," Paparelli says. "When I came in I didn't change the mission. I interpreted the mission straight on, that we will produce new and American plays that ask what does it mean to be an American. I didn't come here for a group of people, I came because the mission was exciting and important. What's unfortunate is that some of the ensemble looks at that through 'how do I fit in?'

"I think the board feels very strongly about the mission and the vision and feels that it's not just the ensemble's theater, but it's all of our theater collectively—and that was a shift, because I think the ensemble feels very strongly that it's their theater. And frankly, that's insulting to people on the staff, people on the board, and our audience members. A theater company is the sum of all of its parts."

The dissident artists have reclaimed the name the theater was founded under in 1985, the American Blues Theater, and are making plans to mount two 25th-anniversary shows next season. Actress and former ATC artistic director Carmen Roman says she and her fellow walk-outs are "regrouping and knocked out by the tremendous support we're getting from the community," including theaters that want to partner with them.

ATC—which now basically consists of a bigger-than-ever staff (including executive director Michael Thomas Newberry, hired by Paparelli), a building, a board, and a million-dollar budget—will hold its annual fund-raiser April 30. The theme is "Chocolate & Pearls," and they're hyping the $200-a-ticket event as a celebration of "24 years of creating professional, ensemble-based theater in Chicago."v

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