Changing directions

Mention Asheville Community Theatre around town these days, and you’re likely to get mixed reactions.

In late April, ACT’s board of directors asked Peter Carver, the group’s most recent executive director, to resign. Since then some folks in the artistic community — and even some ACT board members and volunteers — have asserted that the theater needs to make some very real changes.

Actually, a need for change is the one thing on which all parties — members of ACT’s board, its volunteers, others in the artistic community, and even Carver himself — can agree. Who and what need to change, however, are issues that threaten to prove far more divisive.

Roger Bargainnier, president of ACT’s board (and current acting executive director), contends that ACT is making the necessary changes.

“Our bylaws are in the process of being modified,” he says, adding that ACT’s incorporation status requires that any such changes be made at the state level. (ACT is a nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) corporation.) “We want to remove some of the barriers to community involvement,” Bargainnier continues, referring in part to a $10 annual fee that anyone wanting to become a voting member of ACT must pay. Although it’s not a huge investment, the fee may deter otherwise interested people from participating in ACT, and Bargainnier wants it removed.

Another change Bargainnier says is in the works is an increase in the number of board members from 12 to 16. He also points to an improved communication network between board members.

“We’re reaching out to other theater organizations in the state and throughout the U.S.] to see how they do things,” he explains.

But according to Carver, if the members of ACT’s board are indeed “reaching out” to other theaters, they’re in for a rude awakening.

“Most theaters have a development committee to raise money,” says Carver. “[ACT] just had one person and myself.” Carver says ACT’s expectation that he bear almost sole responsibility for raising money was a problem from day one.

During his 20 months as executive director, Carver raised roughly $200,000, mostly in the form of grants. Bargainnier — while declining to mention a specific amount Carver would have been expected to raise during that time period — relates that, under Carver’s direction, “the biggest problem was the inability to sustain solid annual fund raising. The fund-raising initiative fell very short.”

“My strengths in fund raising lie in writing grants, not in picking up the phone and asking people for money,” relates Carver. “I got a grant for the Black Box Theater [a small downstairs theater housed at ACT, due to open this fall], and it’s filled with equipment that I got donated, too — I orchestrated that,” he continues. “But those things don’t meet payroll.”

Both Bargainnier and Susan Maley, the board’s vice president and a longtime ACT volunteer, agree that Carver was hired largely as a fund raiser. “Peter’s job description didn’t include the creative side,” says Bargainnier. “But he wanted to do more of that, and he was given some creative involvement.” For instance, Carver helped select the plays to be performed in 2002-2003 season.

“There were [historically] two major jobs: executive director and artistic director,” relates Maley, explaining that the executive director position requires fund-raising expertise.

“The artistic director position was phased out as a paid [position] in 1997,” explains Bargainnier. “Since then, we’ve used guest directors from the community to direct shows.”

What it’s all about?

“I believe [using various local directors] is what community theater is about — keeping the community involved,” says Maley, adding the caveat, “It’s tougher to manage, and you have to adapt to different folks. … They have their own constituencies, their own actors, etc. But we think it’s positive.”

Along the way, Carver says he grew weary of constant fund raising and longed to be more involved in the creative end of things. “I have two master’s degrees in theater; I’m trained to direct plays,” he maintains. After a while, “I told them I didn’t really want to be the executive director there anymore,” Carver admits. “I wanted to be artistic director, and I wanted them to hire someone else to be executive director.”

According to Maley, however, the ACT board has no intention of hiring one particular person to provide artistic direction. “It would be nice if you knew every time that your director was going to do this or that,” says Maley, referring to the concept of a full-time artistic director. “It would streamline things, but I’m not sure that’s what community theater is about.”

What community theater should or shouldn’t be appears to be a key underlying issue in this saga. Bargainnier and Maley share a particular perspective, one with which several of ACT’s board members seem to agree. It’s a perspective, however, with which some members of Asheville’s broader artistic community — and even a few of ACT’s own volunteers — vehemently disagree.

Even within ACT’s board there’s at least some dissension, if Gayle Wurthner is any indication. Wurthner (who’s also a member of the Asheville Film Commission) says ACT needs to change drastically and quickly. For one thing, Wurthner says, “it’s a huge mistake” to bring in different directors rather than have one dedicated artistic director.

“I’ve told Susan and Roger this on several occasions,” she continues. “People go to the theater to see why so-and-so is doing a certain show. … The buck has to stop with someone who is in charge of hiring and firing staff, someone who is in charge of the theater.”

Regarding Carver’s hiring and subsequent firing, Wurthner also has strong opinions. “I met with Peter, and a five-minute cup of coffee told me that he wasn’t a person who would hustle the golf-playing crowd for money,” she says.

Wurthner confronted the board with this opinion after learning they were planning to ask for his resignation and asked why they chose Carver (whose background in the creative side of theater made him a much better fit for the now-defunct artistic director position). She recalled: “They said, ‘We hired him for his youth, enthusiasm, his love of the theater.’ And I told them, ‘He hasn’t changed, and he’s not to blame. You are. You hired him.'”

She agrees with Carver that the board itself isn’t doing enough to raise money. She contends that fund raising is a role the board of directors traditionally fulfills.

“I have a different take on that than everyone else [on the board],” Wurthner offers. “I work in the film industry, and before that I worked for Pittsburgh Community Theater.” Wurthner says that in most community theaters “the board raises the funds. I think the [ACT] board is passing the buck when they say the executive director isn’t raising enough funds.

“We need a managing director who is an artistic director, and the board needs to raise money,” she concludes. (Bargainnier relates that the board has raised some $60,000 just recently.)

Others in the greater artistic community appear to agree with Wurthner’s take. David Linsley, chairman of the Asheville Performing Arts Alliance (APAA) and a sometime-actor with ACT, notes, “The [ACT] board is run by a group of people who won’t take responsibility for raising funds. An executive director’s job, traditionally, is to manage day-to-day activities, not to raise money.”

Linsley has strong words about ACT’s current board, saying its membership doesn’t “reflect a board that knows anything about theater, and because of their presence, the theater is deteriorating.” (The board contains only a few members with theater experience — including Maley and Wurthner. The remainder includes attorneys, business people and a variety of other community members.)

Firing Carver, Linsley says, “was the stupidest thing the board ever did. He was solid gold for ACT.”

Deborah Austin, another long-time ACT volunteer and the former managing director of the theater (the position is now called “executive director;” Austin held the title while the board phased out the artistic-director position), has a similar take. “I think the board thought they were hiring someone who would take care of everything, but one person can’t mount and do all the fund raising. It has to be a team effort,” she says.

In the good old days …

From its inception in 1946 until its policy change in 1997, ACT had a series of full-time paid artistic directors — men and women who guided the creative development of the theater — while an executive director and the board raised funds.

One such artistic director was actor Charlton Heston — now associated more with firearms than with theater — who served from November 1946 through mid-1947.

The last such director was also something of a legend — at least locally: Ralph Redpath held the post from 1986 to 1997, directing scores of plays.

“Ralph directed all the shows with few exceptions, and he was the chief executive officer of the theater,” says Austin, who has been involved with ACT since she was a child. After Redpath left, Austin took over the position. But, she says, “the roles changed in that as managing director, I worked with the visiting directors and was the facilitator between design staff and guest director for continuity.” However, she continues, “There were still artistic decisions that needed to be made — working with staff and with committees when appropriate.”

Considering the turnover in executive directors since 1997 (three in five years — Austin resigned the position voluntarily; Derrick Evans was asked to leave), some wonder if the restructuring was a good thing. Others say the board itself is the problem.

A longtime ACT volunteer (who asked not to be identified) put it this way: “What is needed are people who are involved with and know about theater to run the theater. People who know about putting on good plays need to be on the board — actors, audience members, people who build sets, design costumes, and people interested in marketing and publicizing the theater,” he says.

ACT’s board, the anonymous volunteer continues, is “an organization that is perceived by the public — including volunteers and audiences — as a [group] that runs in its own closed, windows-shut way and cannot be changed. This perception has grown over the past 10 years. What is needed is a complete revolution to change that perception,” he concludes.

Austin agrees, in part. “The board needs to come from a broader cross section of the community — someone from the school system, someone from Parks & Rec, etc. That pool needs to be larger, and I would say that to any nonprofit,” she notes.

“All community theaters around the country are having to look at new ways [to raise funds],” Austin continues, adding that a diverse board has a better chance of reaching out to an increasingly diverse audience. “We are single ticket buyers rather than subscription buyers now, and often we decide to go to the theater at the last minute. No one can count on the subscription base any more.”

Wurthner takes it a step further. “The entire theater needs to be completely reorganized,” she declares. “We need new members on the board, younger and older people — age isn’t the issue — [people] just need to be open to change,” she emphasizes, adding that ACT “need[s] to embrace change rather than running from it.”

In the midst of all the suggestions and complaints, however, remains the 56-year-old Asheville Community Theatre — a theater without an executive director in the middle of a season. According to Bargainnier, who is both filling the vacant position and running the board, “We’re not rushing to [fill the executive director position]. Right now, getting through this season and getting the next one underway are our top priorities.”

Bargainnier himself feels optimistic about the theater’s future. “Yes, we’re having some problems, some cash-flow problems, but any organization owning an acre and a half of property in downtown Asheville is not in dire circumstances. Our base asset — the auditorium — is our big advantage.”


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