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Behind the curtain: Internal drama puts Civic Theatre's future in jeopardy

Behind the curtain: Internal drama puts Civic Theatre's future in jeopardy

Long-festering disenfranchisement is sparking a revolt by volunteers and other stakeholders that threatens to undermine the the mission of the Rochester Civic Theatre just as the organization looks to move forward following the loss of two key leaders. 

In less than 24 hours, an open letter expressing a lack of confidence in the organization's leadership has attracted signatures of more than 250 people, many of whom are outraged over the board's decision to fire longtime creative director Greg Miller.

“For many of us, Greg was the first face we saw at the [Civic Theatre], the face we associated with the quality of its productions, and the glue that kept our community together," the letter says. "The significance of his loss cannot be overstated.” 

Miller was let go by the RCT board on Monday following 27 years of employment, during which time he oversaw the direction of over 100 performances. Board chair Heather Holmes said Miller's termination was a result of the board's decision to eliminate the full-time position of artistic director. Moving forward, she said, the role will be a contract position, "allowing more flexibility and opportunity to invite guest directors to the theater."

In an interview Tuesday, Holmes said the board empathizes with the group of volunteers. But ultimately, she said, the board did what it felt was best for the organization moving forward.

“I can appreciate that this small group of individuals is very close to their former artistic director," said Holmes. "So when we’re making decisions as the board for the benefit of the organization as a whole, that can sound very sterile ... and when it’s somebody that you care about, that can make emotions run high."

But while Holmes downplayed the potential effects of Miller's departure, other individuals involved with RCT told us the board's abrupt decision could jeopardize future productions.

“There are at least 200 volunteers who will never work there again," said Jerry Casper, a former board member and current theater director at Rochester Community and Technical College.

Tommy Rinkoski, a veteran volunteer and performer at RCT, has become the de facto leader of the group of stakeholders challenging the organization's board. He told us he has already heard from people who have backed out of future roles with the theater.

“If nothing changes, you will probably end up seeing a seriously diminished pool of volunteers willing to give their time," he said. 

Problems started early

Miller's departure comes just weeks after the resignation of his former boss — and workplace rival — Gregory Stavrou, who left the organization this spring citing health issues. (He suffered a heart attack in late December.)

According to multiple accounts, the two men had a rocky relationship during the ten-plus years they worked together. Stavrou had originally been hired to manage the business end of the theater, leaving the artistic direction in the hands of Miller. But over time, Stavrou began to assert more and more control over other aspects of the theater, sources said, creating tension between himself and those responsible for putting on performances.  

Despite the strained relationship, Stavrou said they were still good years for the theater. Attendance went up, the organization's finances stabilized and the theater began to broaden its mission to include more music and cultural events, such as the popular "Women on Wednesdays" series. 

"Anytime people work together, there will be different points of view," Stavrou told us in an interview Tuesday. “Sometimes we disagreed about priorities, but that’s just the way it goes when you work together with someone."

Miller could not be reached for comment due to a nondisclosure clause in his contract. But others close to the situation said Stavrou displayed a pattern of bullying and aggressive behavior toward volunteers and staff, including Miller. 

The tension boiled over earlier this year following a dispute over the direction of a production, in which Stavrou challenged Miller and his crew on what outsiders would view as an insignificant detail. But by that point, the discussion among volunteers had shifted — from backstage chatter to a unified call for action.

By March, a letter signed by 150 people calling for Stavrou's resignation or termination was presented to the board. Less than a month later, Stavrou announced his resignation from RCT.

"Frankly, I just checked out," Stavrou said, noting that he had already started discussing his departure with the board months earlier. 

Holmes, the board's chair, told us Stavrou's decision to resign was voluntary and not a result of the group's letter.

“There had been a conflict [between Stavrou and volunteers] for the ten years Gregory Stavrou was there, to my understanding," said Holmes. "I wasn’t there to see it, but there was an understanding that there was a conflict and had been for a number of years, [but] nothing to the point of concern.”

Stavrou's influence

During his tenure as executive leader, Stavrou sought to consolidate control over the organization by stacking its board with individuals he felt he could influence, said Casper, a former board member with decades of theater experience. 

At one point, Stavrou even began directing the meetings, a role usually reserved for the board's chair. Casper said the dynamic created an environment where there were no checks and balances, and put board members — especially those outside the executive committee — in a position where they could not question Stavrou.

Ultimately, Casper believes it was Stavrou's lingering influence that may have led to the termination of Miller. 

"The board was frustrated that Miller caused volunteers to stand up," said Casper, who left the board earlier this year.

In addition to concerns over Stavrou's management style, the board also fielded complaints over the years about his personal behavior — both within the walls of the theater and in the community. Multiple sources told us Stavrou had a pattern of public drunkenness and frequently made inappropriate advances toward female subordinates.

“It’s kind of been an ongoing thing,” said Melanie Ellsworth, a former volunteer for the theater. “Everybody knows that he says inappropriate things to women.”
 
Ellsworth was the stage manager at RCT during the fall of 2008 for a show Stavrou was directing. One night after rehearsal, Stavrou and his wife took Ellsworth out to dinner, then invited her back to their home for drinks. When his wife left to get the car, Ellsworth said Stavrou leaned over and told her, “Melanie, I’d love to make love to you but seeing as I’m the director and you’re a volunteer, that would be inappropriate.”
 
Later that evening, when Stavrou opened the car door for her, she said he tried to kiss her. After this encounter, “I didn’t want to be left in the same room with him,” Ellsworth said.
 
Ellsworth told us she took her concern to the board of directors and decided to confront Stavrou with the assistance of a board member. "All I wanted was an apology and that’s what I told him,” she said. “I told him ‘I don’t feel good working with you.’ ”

Stavrou denied the incident ever occurred. Ellsworth said she has not volunteered with the Rochester Civic Theatre since.

When asked about concerns over his personal conduct, Stavrou told us, “People will say what they want to say.” 

Holmes, who has served on the board for five years, said she was aware of the allegations against Stavrou. However, to her knowledge, there were no formal inquires conducted into any of the alleged incidents.

"There were a number of allegations that were put together and shared in an open letter to the board back in March, and again it’s allegations, so there wasn’t a lot of weight put into that," she said. 

What's next?

The unrest created by recent events at RCT comes as another local cultural institution, the Rochester Art Center, tries to recover from a series of damning media reports and staff layoffs. 

Put together, the turmoil casts a dark shadow over two prominent institutions located within one block of each other. 

For the theater to recover, it will need to reestablish trust with its volunteers, season-ticket holders and the community at large. 

One place to start, according to those we spoke with, would be to reestablish voting rights for members. Breaking with decades of tradition, the board recently voted to strip members of their ability to weigh in on key organizational decisions. 

As the group of stakeholders wrote in their open letter:

"We requested more transparency, accountability and an opportunity for our voices to be heard; they reduced transparency and removed membership entirely."

Written by Sean Baker and Madison Conte

Correction: A prior version of this article misstated when Mr. Casper resigned from the board. He left the position in 2017, not 2016.

Cover photo: Creative Commons

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