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John Manfredi and Suzi Regan, Performance Network Theatre, Ann Arbor

Backstage Drama

What happened at the Performance Network Theatre?

by Davi Napoleon

From the August, 2014 issue

In May, Erin Sabo, executive director of the Performance Network Theatre, arrived at a meeting of the theater's board of directors. They wanted an accounting: what does PNT owe? Sabo's response wasn't reassuring. The theater owed around $300,000, and the staff hadn't been paid for a couple of weeks. The IRS and vendors were resending bills. And Detroit Edison was about to turn off the lights.

The board voted: they would darken the theater before DTE did. The next morning, the board told staff members to clean out their desks. By three o'clock, they had changed the locks, and nobody at PNT--not even the cast of Richard III, scheduled to perform that night--could enter the building.

Why did the theater close so abruptly? A couple of years ago, PNT threatened to shut down, and supporters came through with donations. Why didn't the board put out an SOS this time? Two grants that would generate $40,000 were expected the week after the decision to close. What happened?

As the news spread through the theater community, theories abounded:

  • The large-cast production of Richard III was bleeding money. Cast members had offered free tickets to Facebook friends. Several board members had personally guaranteed loans and donated funds. Were they reluctant to put up more cash?

  • PNT's artistic director, David Wolber, had announced plans to move to Los Angeles at the end of the season. Carla Milarch, associate artistic director, was set to replace him. Did the board, which had removed Milarch from the executive directorship two years earlier, want a different leader? "The board was talking about firing Carla since I got there," says former publicist Marissa Ann Kurtzhals, who joined the staff in 2012 and bailed because paychecks became irregular.

  • If they were trying to oust Milarch, was it because she has been hot-tempered or difficult to work with? Or because she is a strong woman, doing what a man would be applauded for doing? "She's a very intelligent woman and arts administrator
    ...continued below...

    and artist, and she had been there for fourteen years," says Kurtzhals.

  • Did they want to dump Sabo, who was hired to get the theater out of debt? Staff members told board members that Sabo was unresponsive when they asked when they would be paid.

  • Was the board, which is ultimately responsible for the theater's financial health, at fault? Keith Paul Medelis apprenticed at PNT from 2009-10, when Milarch was executive director. He says the staff was small, which meant apprentices pitched in, working long hours for low pay, "upwards of eighty hours a week," on tasks they weren't always trained to do. "I didn't even know how to use a drill, and I was building sets that people had to stand on several feet in the air," he says. And Medelis contends that the board looked the other way when senior staff were stretched as well, leading to "sloppy business practices."

  • Or was what happened inevitable, the fault of an anti-arts culture? "I do believe that everybody involved put their heart and soul into making the Performance Network a success," says board member Gene Dickirson, adding that other area theaters struggle, too. At best, ticket sales cover 50 percent of the cost of running any not-for-profit theater; the rest is subsidized by public and private grants and individual donations. With national and state funding down and audiences dwindling, theaters are floundering throughout the country, with frequent reports of closings. PNT lost state funding this season, and after major supporter Pfizer closed, it fell deeper into debt.

  • The cost of fixing a burst pipe this winter was also mentioned as a cause, but those in the know say the minor disaster actually helped the impoverished theater. More contributions poured in than were needed to fix the pipe--though not enough to fix a leaky budget.
The board didn't consider bankruptcy. Milarch convened a meeting to plan a proposal for reopening and rally support. There, she explained the theater used new money to pay old debts and was stuck in a vicious cycle. "We take subscriber revenue to pay old debts, then we've got to find money to produce the new season." Unhappy with the results of this approach to finance, she called for careful planning and complete transparency, so that funds would be raised before they were spent, and the public would have access to all financial information.

Dan Walker, artistic director of PNT until 2003, was at the meeting and joined with Milarch, submitting a proposal for reopening. They would do fewer plays with smaller casts, cut half the staff, and eliminate extra programs; Walker would design the sets himself.

But that's not how it went down.

Another Mountain to Climb

In 2010, John Manfredi appeared at PNT in K2, a play about two men who climb a mountain and lose some of the equipment needed for both to get back down. Some say the mountain he'll climb now is even more treacherous. For while Milarch and Walker were preparing their proposal, so too were Manfredi and Suzi Regan, who has acted and directed at PNT and in top theaters throughout the country.

It was their proposal the board accepted. Milarch and her supporters felt blindsided--they'd had no idea that other proposals were being solicited. But many in the theater community had predicted that PNT could not convince former donors and patrons that financial responsibility could be assured without change at the top. Manfredi is a tough businessman who has managed several professional theaters in the area, acted in and directed professional productions, and runs a company that, among other things, builds sets.

Manfredi and Regan say they can pay off the debt within three years and are setting out to reassure subscribers with letters, emails, website posts, and social media. "We'll send up smoke signals if we have to, to let these people know we're taking care of the problem," says Manfredi, PNT's new executive director.

Like that of the Milarch-Walker contingent, their plan calls for cutting expenses by doing shows with small casts and simple sets. But Manfredi and Regan also plan to do more to make money. "Hard financial times are not times for contraction but for expansion," Manfredi says, explaining that with diverse offerings there are opportunities to generate revenue. They will do a full season of plays. They will offer classes for children and adults, taught by some of Michigan's top theater talent. There will be meetings, retreats, and workshops that give writers a chance to develop their plays. And they will partner with nearby universities, organizations, and theaters. "It does take a village," says Manfredi.

New works are in the mix, including plays by local favorite Joseph Zettelmaier and by Annie Martin, a playwright with a complex understanding of people whose works are often simultaneously hilarious and deep. Comedies? Dramas? Musicals? Traditional or experimental? It's anybody's guess. "We're not cutting ourselves off from anything that's good," says Regan, artistic director. "We'll say 'yes' to everything. We're creating a space of possibility that gives us a place to dream, where people feel they can be part of the process."

This month, Milarch is developing plans to open a new theater she's calling Theatre Nova. PNT's new leaders are busy reconnecting to local donors and subscribers, and retrieving corporate and public grants that were lost in the shuffle.

PNT will launch its new season September 21 with Driving Miss Daisy. Meanwhile, they're bringing in Williamston Theatre's production of The Big Bang. The two-person musical is about trying to raise money to do a musical.     (end of article)

[Originally published in August, 2014.]


On August 30, 2014, E Caffery wrote:
Were Milarch and Sabo asked to comment? These "theories" are serious allegations, and the proper thing to do would be to allow them to respond.

On September 1, 2014, John Hilton wrote:
Both Sabo and Milarch were contacted for this article. Sabo didn't choose to comment; Milarch's views were included throughout the story.

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