Off the Boards

IS THERE SUCH A thing as Mad Board Disease? In an eerie replay of the events of January 1994, when the board of A Contemporary Theater dismissed artistic director Jeff Steitzer, the trustees of On the Boards, winding up their first season in ACTs old building at the foot of Queen Anne Hill, dropped their pilot of 14 years, OTB artistic director Mark Murphy, along with Sara Pasti, the companys managing director of three years standing.

Steitzers firing, at a time when ACT was enjoying both financial and artistic success, sent the organization into an artistic tailspin it still hasnt entirely pulled out of. The consequences of Murphys Monday afternoon dismissal at a similar point in OTBs 21-year growth curve are likely to be considerably more direfor OTB, its audience, and for the Seattle performing-arts scene in general.

In the press release issued by the OTB Board 24 hours after the bloodbath, the firings were presented as purely administrative, the releases language is classic Organization-ese, as in a move to provide the strong, consolidated leadership . . . and to fulfill the promise of its new facilities. . . . The leadership positions of Artistic Director and Managing Director will be eliminated as they currently exist. The changes come after six months of organizational development and analysis of structures and issues for growing organizations.

People familiar with the inner workings of OTB say that there has been intermittent friction between Pasti and Murphy since the former was hired in April 1996. Preparing OTB for its big, expensive move from its old, shabby, rented quarters at 14th and Fir in the Central Area to its own completely remodeled state-of-the-art performance space, Pasti worked hard to bring new blood (and new money) onto the OTB board. According to some members of the staff, she also worked hard to build a wall between Murphy and the newly recruited board members, while vigorously promoting herself as possessing the ability not only to administer but also lead artistically.

Around six months ago, the board had come around sufficiently to hire a consultant in organizational developmentJohn Runyon of the Leadership Group, which specializes in business organization. The Group had been recommended by board members who had seen their work with KCTS and the Henry Gallery. The process, reliably reported to have cost upwards of $20,000, involved extended interviews with Pasti, Murphy, and other staff members (some of whom declined to be involved). Despite the elaborate procedure, staff assumed that it was intended only to reduce friction between the organizations two top people, so Mondays dual firing shocked everyone involved.

In a Monday interview, the boards official spokesman, Dave Roberts, gave a somewhat more concrete rationale for its actions, saying that members felt uncomfortable having to listen to and evaluate competing ideas about the organizations proper future course. We came to the conclusion that it was important for the board to have a single place to look for leadership, he said. Among all the press releases platitudes can be found a different motivation, voiced by board vice president Jerry Fulks: to bring in larger audiences to two theaters.

The release includes the obligatory nod from board president Lorna Jordan to Murphys tireless pursuit of the group's artistic vision, which has helped OTB grow into a cornerstone of contemporary performance for both the Northwest and the worldwide arts community. On Monday, the message was less fulsomely delivered. Murphy was told to leave the building immediately and not return. Shortly thereafter, the staff was informed en masse that anyone sufficiently upset by the development was welcome to follow him.

SINCE MONDAY, MURPHY has declined to speak to the press. Members of the staff say his silence was coerced by the board, which offered him a derisory separation package, to be paid in installments over a year, with future payments to be denied and previous ones to be repaid should he speak to the press.

Pasti appears to be under a similar gag order, but has agreed to remain in her job through September while two board members appointed by the executive committee, Merrill Wright and John Kuchar, assemble a multi-disciplinary search committee to recruit candidates for the position. We will look for a person who has demonstrated leadership and has the artistic vision to present challenging new performances to Seattle audiences, Wright said. I think with our new building and sound finances, we will be able to attract many qualified candidates.

Hardly anyone familiar with the realities of cutting-edge performance presentation agrees with Wright. Murphy is internationally known and respected for his intelligence, dedication, taste, and willingness to take long chances on new artists and new work: chances that have paid off like a user-friendly Las Vegas slot machine in OTBs first season at the new building, in which more than two-thirds of the work presented did not yet exist when Murphy agreed to present it.

Such individuals cannot be replaced; without Murphy, On the Boards is a building, not an artistic institution. The OTB board is devoid of a single artist or amateur knowledgeable in the arcane and mercurial area of contemporary performance art. In firing a proven leader with no clear artistic program or specific replacement in view, they hazard the entire future of the institution on a hunting expedition for unknown quarry in unexplored wilderness. So bizarre does the firing seem to professional observers here and elsewhere that some believe the board must have a far more specific agenda for change than it has admitted.

Others are less sanguine. This is what happens when boards start thinking they can steer an institution like On the Boards, one veteran presenter-producer in the field says. They always hire a management consultant to tell them to do what theyve decided to do anyway. They always have a bushel of plausible rationalizations for their actions. And they always, always adopt Wile E. Coyote for their role model, rushing right out into space and not looking down until its too late.

In its consultations, the board also failed to contact perhaps the most important constituency of all for the long-term health and survival or the organization: the artists who, with Murphys encouragement and OTB financial support, have spent years developing their work there, from first vague notion to polished final form.

Murphy had hardly left his office on Monday before artists like Hansonartists with long, productive relationships with On the Boardswere spreading the word, sharing their outrage, and planning a response. Thursday, May 6the opening night of Rennie Harriss Pure Movement company (in new works co-commissioned by Murphy)is certain to be the occasion of some attempt on the part of the artists associated with and sympathetic to Murphy and On the Boards to communicate the intensity of their feelings. One local artist who hasnt worked at On the Boards in years summed it up thus: I think it is important to communicate to the board as firmly and clearly as possible that, upon mature consideration, we have decided that if we are forced to choose between Mark Murphy and the OTB board, we must regretfully ask for the latters resignation.

You can register your own response to the events detailed in this story by accessing the On The Boards Web page at and clicking on the link to OTBs message board Aftertalk.

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