Earlier this month, Free Street Theater, that venerable hub of peace, love, and self-actualization, posted a set of "FAQ's About Our Transition" on its Facebook page, including an all-caps assurance that "OUR DOORS ARE OPEN." It looked more than a little desperate. The "transition" in question was the abrupt request for artistic director Ron Bieganski's resignation, March 21, followed by the exit of creative director Anita Evans two days later. Less than two years after a triumphant 40-year anniversary celebration, Free Street had been purged of its core artistic leadership.
Bieganski—passionate, prickly, and generally known as the beating heart of Free Street's celebrated teen-mentoring program—had been there 26 years, Evans almost 16. Nearly all of Free Street's 18-member primary ensemble of teen actors elected to follow them out and are working with them to try to launch something new. The only remaining full-time staff member is administrator Mica Cole, who was hired two years ago and promoted to executive director in December.
Headquartered in a Pulaski Park facility and supported by Chicago's After School Matters program and other donors, Free Street teaches writing, acting, and "life skills" to hundreds of kids annually, and performs for hundreds more. (A satellite ensemble led by Nick Stockman at Little Village High School is said to be unaffected and is scheduled to open a production, Damaged Psyches, in the Free Street theater May 6.)
Neither Cole nor Free Street's current board president, Peter Handler of the Driehaus Foundation, is commenting except to say that Bieganski's departure wasn't related to the difficult fiscal year Free Street just completed. The administration's official position is that it has a confidentiality policy that "prohibits the disclosure of any information about personnel matters." The board president who presided over the fireworks, Esther Grimm, quickly retreated to a mere board seat when matters blew up, and let Handler, who's been on the board longer, take the heat.
Bieganski's under no such constraint and, clearly still shaken, he blames a difference in philosophy about how Free Street should be run for the split. For most of the last six or seven years, he says, the organization has been collectively managed by Evans, himself, and the managing director, who until two years ago was Bryn Magnus. Collaborative management was congruent with Free Street's overall ethos of working together, creating "something like family." But when Magnus moved to New York and was replaced by Cole, Bieganski says, "that collective running of it started to fall apart." Although Cole—a DePaul Theatre School grad who'd been director of education at Writers' Theatre—was a onetime Free Street ensemble member herself, the collaborative chemistry wasn't the same.
Founded by local legend Patrick Henry in 1969 to perform theater in underserved neighborhoods, Free Street morphed over the years into job training and—especially since Bieganski became artistic director in 1995—youth mentoring. Its annual budget of roughly $400,000 is 95 percent dependent on grants and donations. In the recent tight economy, about 25 percent of that funding disappeared. Last December, informed of a looming deficit, Bieganski took a pay cut and Evans dropped to half-time status. At about the same time, he says, the board changed the management structure "from a collective to something more top-down."
Bieganski says he came to the theater the next working day after Free Street's latest production closed and was met by Cole, Handler, and Grimm, who took him to task for using an ensemble member as a babysitter one evening a week, and particularly for having let her stay overnight during a snowstorm. "They said I put the institution at risk by having an 18-year-old girl whose mother I've known for more than ten years babysitting at my house," Bieganski recalls. "They said there was the illusion of possible impropriety. They said that was one of the things that showed that I lacked proper decision making. I remember going, did you talk to her mother?"
The babysitter's mother, Anna M. Long, a teacher and former Free Street board member, was one of a number of people who wrote impassioned letters to the board protesting Bieganski's ouster. "If this was a legitimate course of action," she asked, "why wasn't I the parent notified, why wasn't [her daughter] questioned?"
In a phone interview Long said she gave permission for her daughter to stay the night with the Bieganskis rather than try to get home during the snowstorm. "I've had three children go through the Free Street program; my kids have grown up under Ron. He's been a mainstay of my family. In fact, my son stayed with him for a month about three years ago when he was a senior in high school."
Evans was with the ensemble for a rehearsal March 22 when Cole announced that Bieganski was no longer working there. "The kids were saying, 'He wouldn't just leave us,' and some of them were crying," she recalls. After asking a lot of questions that she says went unanswered, Evans put up a new Facebook page for the ensemble. At 3:30 PM the next day Cole sent her an e-mail saying, "I am assuming that you are resigning from your position at Free Street. If that is not the case, please e-mail me today by 5 pm." Evans says she didn't see the e-mail until midnight.
"It's so sad to see Free Street sever ties this way," Evans says. "This has fractured so many people, it hurts my heart."
Bieganski says he's "not perfect," and one person did complain last year after he yelled at a group he'd taken to Thailand for chancing a risky ride on a pickup truck. "But to my mind nothing I've done is a fireable offense," he says.
"I've never had health care; I don't have a retirement plan. I've passed up raises for years. To allude that I've put them into some kind of dangerous thing by pushing the boundaries to create family, it makes my stomach sick." Given the lack of transparency and the abruptness, he adds, "there's rumors out there."
"But the youth are here, the families are here, and we're going on to create a company that is even closer," Bieganski says. They're gearing up to found a new theater organization, "of, by, and about youth," he says. They've put up a website, newensemble.weebly.com, and a launch event is slated for Tuesday, May 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 PM at Temple Gallery, 1749 S. Halsted.