Southern Theater's war of words comes to uneasy end

Artists, management call truce after highly criticized firing of artistic director Jeff Bartlett

"We started building a board with, I know the artists don't like the word, but corporate people," board member Vicky Mogilevsky says. Mogilevsky, whose volunteer work raising money for several Twin Cities nonprofits landed her a spot on the board, notes that having employees of major companies on the board opens the theater to donations it might not have otherwise received from those companies. She says that despite criticism of the board in the media, it's one of the best boards she's worked on, with a level of devotion to the theater that the artists and public can't always see.

Speelman, who has a lengthy history of work in theater, agrees. "I've worked with a lot of boards in my career, but this is a very strong and committed board. This board cares every bit as much as the artists that perform here," she says.

While a few weeks ago statements like that would have been seen entirely as spin, as the season progresses, the slightest trickle of hope appears to be entering some artists' minds, and several artists agree that the board has done some things well. Campbell says that artists have tried to express gratitude to the board for their success in unloading the red ink. But, he notes, money doesn't appear to be the reason Bartlett was let go.

Business as usual: The show goes on at the embattled Southern
Mike Kooiman
Business as usual: The show goes on at the embattled Southern

Mogilevsky acknowledges that the relationship between the board and the artists is strained, but with the season proceeding to the delight of audiences and critics, she says that a positive has come out of the kerfuffle. "This opened up a lot of dialogue that I never would have had with artists. It's unfortunate that it had to happen this way."

Speelman says that while both sides are upset, the theater is fundamentally unchanged, even without Bartlett at the helm.

"I know we're operating under a microscope, but I think people will find that the Southern is still the artist-centric organization that it has a reputation for being."

But whatever optimism the season has produced, artists maintain that the Southern is just not what it once was.

"It's just so astonishing to me that this was allowed to happen," Campbell says of the discord. "It could have been solved in so many ways, so early on, and at every opportunity it fell deeper into a hole. I think we're at the bottom now, and I think that because of various board members' efforts and the artists in the community's efforts, we're starting to make those first steps out of the pit. But it's very dark in the pit, and nobody knows exactly how we're going to get out of it." 

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