Nan Barnett’s Essay on the Death of Florida Stage and the Personal Fallout

Nan Barnett, managing director of Florida Stage, has written an essay for American Voices New Play Institute, revealing both the devastating and transformative effect the closure had on her life as well as the first extensive insider’s account of how it occurred.

The article published at howlround.com on Sunday reaffirms that the staff at Florida Stage had proposed fiscal and marketing plans to continue operations while the administration stabilized the finances, but that a segment of the board of directors declined to continue.

Reached while on the road, co-chairman of the board Richard Abedon Sr. said he had not seen the essay and that he would read it. When the contents were described to him, the only thing he took issue with was he didn’t recall seeing a marketing/financial recovery proposal. Citing poor ticket sales for the summer show and weak subscriptions sales, “there was just no way to keep it going,” Abedon said.

The essay is reprinted here with her permission and that of the website that published it, HowlRound which is the online journal of the institute based at Arena Stage in Washington D.C.  This article originated from “HowlRound.com” at http://howlround.com. HowlRound: Journal of the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage. Feedback and noise, voices and discourse on the state of new work. HowlRound.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

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By Nan Barnett

I have become one of those people.

After years of telling people that I was the luckiest former actor I knew, that I loved going to work every day, that I was living my childhood dream, that I had the most amazing partnership in the business, that I couldn’t imagine doing what I did anywhere else, after nearly twenty-five years, it was over. Florida Stage, my life’s work, my definition of myself—“Hi, I’m Nan Barnett, from Florida Stage”—suddenly, completely, poof—gone.

I was very proud of the story of our growth, of the work produced, and of the artists and artisans that we worked with as we grew. We had begun bringing unknown plays to the “cultural wasteland” that was Palm Beach County in 1987. Five seasons later, with a subscribership that regularly topped five thousand or more annually, we moved into a jewel box of a theater—an intimate 250 seat, three-quarter round modified thrust. We were committing to developing, and producing, three to five brand new plays per season with playwright participation. The rest of the forty-plus weeks of the season were dedicated to subsequent productions of work recently premiered elsewhere.

From the beginning, I took great pride in the care that we lavished on people and plays. My vision of a theatrical life was rooted in my Southern childhood of family, hospitality, and the camaraderie that went into the “I’ve got a barn, your mom has some lipstick” sort of creative process. I married an actor who felt the same. Our home became the site of countless cast parties, twenty-plus years of “orphans” Thanksgivings, thousands of provocative discussions, and five theater-family weddings. Talented and successful writers and directors, designers and actors stayed at our house, ate my husband’s cooking, and asked after our son by name. It added up to a life I loved.

Florida Stage became the largest regional theater in the nation producing exclusively new and developing work. We were living the dream of creating issue-driven new work for the American canon. The staff was amazing: skilled, smart, creative, and dedicated to the company and the idea of new work. Our audiences, who clamored for dramas and discussions, were constantly reminded that they were a part of the growth of plays that the rest of the country would be seeing next season.

We became known for premieres, but we also loved getting to work on the second or third production with a playwright. William Mastrosimone, Lee Blessing, Israel Horovitz, Michael Hollinger, Aaron Posner, and David Rambo, among others, brought us their work so they could have another look. I was part of the team that developed the Continued Life of New Plays Fund for National New Play Network, which cemented my beliefs that there were some really wonderful writers working in the regions that deserved a place at the national table, and that work during subsequent productions was vital to the long-term success of new pieces. One of my greatest joys was to see plays that Florida Stage had premiered or had a hand in—Tom Gibbon’s Permanent Collection, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days, Steven Dietz’ Yankee Tavern, Carter W. Lewis’ Story-Telling Ability of A Boy, Jeffrey Hatcher’s Ella, Christopher McGovern’s Backwards in High Heels, and many others—sweep across the country.

We created our 1st Stage Festival, a week-long round of rehearsals, discussions, readings, and events. Seventy percent of the plays involved reached full production within two years, many of them on our stage in their first incarnation. Horovitz, John Guare, Frances Sternhagen, Michael Bigelow Dixon, Mastrosimone, Nilo Cruz, Todd London, Laufer, Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Liz Engleman, Marco Ramirez, Marsha Norman, Dietz, and many others came to play, along with thirty or more South Florida artists and our staff each year. It was a blast.

We were one of the most well respected organizations in the country because of our commitment to developing and producing new plays and our dedication to those who made them. We were the favorite of our audience, our community, and our artists.

We may have been some or even all of these things.

But now, what we are is history.

Our rent and overhead in the plaza by the ocean steadily increased over the nineteen years of our time there, and facility costs were approaching 20 percent of our annual budget. After the Madoff scandal rocked the philanthropic community of Palm Beach County to the core, wiping out foundations and individuals, we evaluated our situation. We made a decision, and took refuge in the black box of a beautiful, welcoming performing arts center, cutting our expenses drastically and moving into the heart of the community. It all seemed perfect.

Until it got tough. Our wonderful subscribers weren’t happy with the location (it was eight miles away) or the new space. The new audiences were coming in, but not fast enough to fill the million dollar hole we had dug for ourselves between losing 15 percent of our old subscribers and 37 percent of our performances in order to fit the first season into the existing schedule of the center.

The board went through its own changes. We lost several of our most charismatic and passionate cheerleaders to the recession, retirement, or death. New board members (and there were several great ones) floundered while the remaining trustees sought their footing in the new location. Our three-step plan of raising $500,000 for the move, $1 million for a cash reserve and $1 million for an endowment—a total of $2.5 million in two and a half years, to be completed by the end of the 25th Anniversary—went out our beautiful new third floor office windows after the first goal was met. We were without a trustee to lead the effort, and the development staff was scrambling to help make payroll. For the first time in the history of the organization, we struggled with cash flow for months on end and couldn’t pay our bills.

As my father was very ill, I attended the May finance committee meeting via phone. There was no mention of impending doom. Back in Florida for a staff meeting one week later, I shared that I felt that Florida Stage had turned the corner. Although we’d be tightening our belts once again, and the next few months were going to require some real sacrifices, we already had more sponsorships committed for the next season, our twenty-fifth, than ever before. We had received word of significant gift increases at the national and local level. Foundation gifts were on the rise. A large estate gift from a much loved former trustee would be the catalyst for renewing our efforts to meet our endowment goal. The board leadership had been invigorated by a conversation with the CEO of the center, who had challenged them to take on the fundraising efforts needed to secure the future of the company in our new home. Yes, the summer show was selling slowly, and subscriptions renewals were down, but there was money in the bank and pledges due that would see us through. We were making headway on the debts, changes to the physical space in response to some of the audiences’ issues, and there was an innovative marketing campaign on deck for continuing to grow audiences.

Three hours later, with an action plan for the upcoming quarter in hand, I went to lunch with a few board members. It quickly became apparent that they weren’t interested in my proposals, or any discussion of the future. I asked if something had been decided that I was unaware of and was told that we were going to meet with an attorney to look into our options. There we were joined by the executive committee of the Board of Trustees. On the advice of attorneys who specialized in not-for-profit bankruptcies (isn’t that a funny phrase?) without the input of the contracted financial consultants or the staff, the committee determined to recommend to the full board that Florida Stage be no more.

My sister called to say that our dad was running out of time. I needed to come home.

At the end of the day I was in a meeting with the board treasurer and my producing partner of twenty-four years, preparing the timeline, a plan of action for the announcement, and pulling together the information they needed for a press release and the staff discussion. While still trying to get my head around what had happened, I said “I may be delusional, but…” intending to reiterate my request for the time to look into other options, to mount a campaign, to seek advice from others in our industry, and gather information. My partner reached over and patted my arm. “You are delusional,” he said.  “It’s over.”

I was told to pack my bags, go home, and be with my family—the final graceful act of Florida Stage, which had been renowned for how well it treated its employees and guests. On Friday, thirty-seven minutes after my son and I arrived at the family farm, our dad, my beloved Doc, peacefully departed our world.

The full board was sent an email and asked to vote. They never met face to face to discuss the situation.

We closed, as scheduled, the world premiere of Carter W. Lewis’ The Cha Cha of A Camel Spider, an astounding piece, beautifully produced, about the Muslim American experience, the rampaging corporate mercenaries filling the Middle East, slam poetry, and the power of Led Zeppelin, on Sunday June 5, 2011. And on Monday, while I was at my dad’s funeral, the staff was told that Florida Stage had ceased operations. The fact that I didn’t have to be there was, I think, Doc’s parting gift to me.

At least one board member found out that we were no more when a shocked employee changed his Facebook status to “formerly employed at Florida Stage.”

I know that my life changed that day in more ways than I can count. That I changed. And I know that what I am now is one of those people.

I am one of those people who are unemployed. Who are uninsurable. Who didn’t save for a rainy day. Who spent their entire career with a single employer that no longer exists. I am one of those people who neglected their family and friends, their health and their relationships, for something I believed in and loved, something so secure and consuming and important—and, as it turns out, so very easily ended.

I am now one of those people who are not distinguishable from the crowds of former employees of theaters that have declared bankruptcy, those companies who didn’t pay their royalties, who dumped their staff without warning, who left actors without a show. One of those people who moved into a new space and very quickly closed, had their Equity bond revoked, has had their company car repossessed, and was served with a court summons during dinner. I am one of those people who, despite years of pouring everything I had into making Florida Stage successful, couldn’t stop its failure.

I have become one of those people who gets talked about—with concern, hatred, disgust, empathy, in that way that I have talked about others’ failures, wondering why they didn’t? Or what if they had? I have been made fearful by others’ failures. Failure equals loss, and loss—be it of a parent or a relationship or of a dream—is hard and awful. In the failure of others we see how close we are to losing it all, too.

I have become one of those people I never thought I’d be, one of those people you think you’ll never be, one of those people that any of us can become at any time.

I have also become one of those people who has taken it on the chin, gotten up again, and kept going. Who has been shaken to their core. I’ve become one of those people whose teenage son has held them while they cried. Who has had friends and family loan them money, give them plane tickets and a weekend in the country, surprise them with a drink, a meal, a visit. I have learned to say thank you to offers of help and to accept these gifts with a sense of pride instead of shame, because I have, would and will do the same. I have become a person who has time for her husband, her best friends, old acquaintances, new projects, herself. I am now one of those people who have gratefully taken stock of their network, who has updated her resume, and set up a lovely home office. I have become one of those people who has given glowing references, packed folks off to grad school and new jobs, and helped celebrate astounding career tangents.

I’m working at being happy to be one of those people who used to produce very high quality new work at a really wonderful theater with amazing colleagues and extraordinarily talented artists. One of those people who had a hand in spinning plays and people across the landscape of the American theater.

I am one of those people who helped bring, and hopefully will continue to help bring, new works to life. And it looks as though one of those new works is going to be me. An older, wiser, smarter, prouder, stronger me.

And I am okay with that.

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2 Responses to Nan Barnett’s Essay on the Death of Florida Stage and the Personal Fallout

  1. Pingback: Nan Barnett Takes Exec Director Post at Atlanta’s Actor’s Express Theatre | Florida Theater On Stage

  2. Pingback: Breaking News: Nan Barnett Named Exec Director At National New Play Network | Florida Theater On Stage

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