Monday night, Theatre Puget Sound interim director Zhenya Lavy and all but one member of TPS's staff wrote a letter demanding the resignation of the company's entire board. Lavy claims the board has been acting "in secret" and also "outside the scope of their authority." The one member who didn't undersign the demand was Shane Regan, TPS's membership programs associate and an apparently beloved member of the theater community. He was fired the same night the letter went out.
Since then, the board has suspended Lavy for firing Regan without first consulting them, and claims in a statement that Lavy is no longer acting or speaking on TPS's behalf. But that doesn't stop her from speaking for herself.
I talked to Lavy and other parties directly involved with this internecine theatrical drama. Nobody's happy—not the board, not the staff, not Lavy. Regan, however, is taking the termination in stride.
Until Monday night at around 6 p.m., Regan had worked at TPS for six years. He handled facility and membership duties for a while before eventually taking charge of the Unified General Auditions program, the website, and the growing but not at all lucrative Gregory Awards.
Regan says he's not entirely sure why he was fired, but admits he and Lavy have conflicting working styles.
"I’m much sloppier with my work. I get stuff done, but I’m not trained like some people are to be a program manager," he told me. "She was more into someone who had official training."
He said he was, unsurprisingly, never approached about undersigning Lavy's call for the board to resign.
The termination doesn't seem to have damaged his spirits much.
"The amount of messages and support I’ve received is amazing. It’s hard to feel sad right now," he said. "I love TPS and the community, and I want us all to work out. Right now I’m just taking a mid-week day off and just chilling."
TPS board member Shawn Belyea dismisses the claims Lavy makes in the letter.
"I wish I could understand the complaints against the board, but I honestly don’t," he said. "A lot of them are fictitious, a lot of them are extreme examples of tiny things that we’ve been working on together."
His story goes like this:
The board is all volunteer, and their main job is to oversee the executive director, Belyea says. On April 1, the board fields an e-mail from Lavy demanding they end their search for an executive director, install her in that position, and guarantee her a certain salary. If they don't meet those demands, then she walks May 5. They have until April 7 to respond.
On April 7, the board refuses her demands and says they think "a diverse search for a new TPS director would be best for TPS."
Fast-forward to the evening of April 17. The board is due to meet but gets word of "an ambush" waiting for them at the meeting. They decide to cancel the official meeting because of this supposed "ambush" and instead, have the search committee meet elsewhere and the transition committee meet at the TPS offices with the staff.
During that stretch of time, the board receives Lavy's demand for them to resign and news of Regan's termination. They are flummoxed.
Josef Krebs, a consultant with Scandiuzzi Krebs who has worked in theater for 15 years, says it's "highly unusual for any executive to attempt this kind of maneuver." He adds that such board coups never work, and that "a CEO who isn’t on the board just doesn’t have the legal standing to make this kind of request."
Lavy disputes the characterization of these events as Belyea outlined them to me, and says her letter to the board and her decision to let Regan go are two separate issues that should not be conflated.
The board, according to Lavy, should not have been surprised to hear the news about Regan. The first conversation she says she had with board president Karen Lund before she was brought on in September included some discussion of a need to "take a close look at Shane," as well as an agreement that one of her jobs was "to clean up certain personnel problems."
She claims she never requested to be installed as the "permanent director" but rather "a limited term / direct temp hire," which she thinks would be necessary to stabilize the company. In her view, the current executive search timeline would drop a new director into the chaos of the organization's fall season. That timing would not set up the new ED for success.
Lavy paints her ultimatum to the board—that they make her executive director or else she leaves May 5—as a matter of survival. In September of 2016, Lavy started working at TPS as the deputy director under longtime executive director Karen Lane. Lavy took the job as interim director following Lane's departure that November. But even after working there for a few months, Lavy claims the board hadn't yet outlined a clear job description for her, nor had they discussed pay commensurate to the task. Because she had been working so much since she started—spending upwards of three nights in a row sleeping in the office, she says—she'd have to leave the company by May 5 in order to save her health.
Moreover, Lavy says she inherited a company in financial and political turmoil. Two days after her arrival, Lane left on a sabbatical for a month. After a lot of back and forth about whether Lane would ever return, she was ultimately terminated in late November.
Aside from executive troubles, the company had been dealing with some complex negotiations concerning their relationship with the Seattle Fringe Festival, the Gregory Awards were on the way, the bookkeeper had just quit, and the books were a mess. The staff was stressed.
Written statements from TPS staff who called for the board's resignation support Lavy's story of confused leadership, unclear demands, and lack of transparency from the board. Membership and communications specialist Catherine Blake Smith claims the board has presented "no clear and cohesive plan of action for a desired outcome that supports TPS mission."
Smith says Lavy has created a supportive work environment that has allowed her to flourish in the position. "I truly found a mentor that I was not expecting, and I saw her fulfill that same role with other employees," she said.
Following two pages of description of hostile and uneven communication with board members, facilities program assistant Jeanette Sanchez, the newest member of the TPS staff, says she has "no faith" in the board's ability to address TPS's financial woes or "usher in a new era" for the company.
The general statement from the staff calling for the board's resignation cites a number of failures, and also fleshes out Lavy's claims that the board has been acting "in secret" and outside the scope of its authority.
In terms of secrecy, the staff claims "a majority of substantive decisions relative to the organization are now being conducted outside of regular meetings" in executive sessions. It is not unusual, though, for boards to meet and make decisions without the executive director present.
More damning are the accusations that the board failed to create a finance committee as TPS's bylaws direct them to. The board's inattention and general ignorance of the company's finances is particularly galling to the staff considering the fact that former director Lane was terminated, in part, on charges of "fiscal mismanagement."
Belyea contradicts these claims. Though he and the rest of the board can't say too much about Lane's termination due to a confidentiality agreement, he does say that "financial mismanagement and financial problems was in no way a major player in the board’s decision to fire Lane."
He also claims that the board created a financial committee six months ago. He's on it, as is Jane Martin Lynch and Karen Lund.
Belyea does admit, though, that the board is still working on developing an accurate picture of TPS's finances.
Alright. So. Sounds like what we have here is a tornado of classic non-profit dysfunction and theater community *feelings*. Legitimate grievances and desires on both sides. Everyone seems to want to do what's best for the company, but they just can't quite agree on what that is yet.
But it also sounds like something needs to be done, and soon. TPS is losing money. Staff members are thinking of splitting, and this after a lot of turnover. The board appears variously distant and dismissive. For the sake of the people who come to TPS looking for services and a decent introduction to Seattle's theater scene, I hope the staff and board can resolve their differences.
Just today, TPS announced an open meeting next Thursday, April 27 at 5 p.m. in the Armory. If you're a member of the organization and you have a few suggestions as to how the company might best move forward, do consider going.