Backstage Drama

Depending on whom you ask, Polly Carl has either brought new artistic life to the Playwrights' Center--or snuffed out its original mission
Diana Watters

The whole battle royal could have been avoided if Roy Close had never hit the "send" key. Instead, his e-mail to the Playwrights' Center has sucked one of the Twin Cities' most heralded small arts organizations into a leadership struggle.

On March 10, Close--a former theater critic for both Twin Cities dailies and local arts nabob--dispatched an e-mail declining to renew his membership at Minneapolis's Playwrights' Center. Yet the note had more to say than that. In tone and substance, it was the equivalent of using a wedding invitation as an opportunity to light into the groom--and then sending a copy to the bride's parents. In Close's case, that would be the Playwrights' Center's major funders.

Close is a longtime member of the center and onetime president of its board of directors, and his main complaint was the leadership of producing artistic director Polly Carl. While severing his ties with the group, Close charged that Carl has undertaken "a series of actions that have deprived the great majority of local playwrights of any meaningful participation in the life of the Center." His long message went on to single out Carl's personnel decisions and her conduct in managing relationships with a local theater and with local playwrights.

As with so many e-mail catastrophes, matters really grew grave when Close cc'ed his message, in this case to representatives of the Jerome, Bush, and McKnight foundations--the center's major financial backers. While the causation remains in question, the Playwrights' Center recently received word that the Jerome Foundation would not be approving $25,000 in new funding.

Close's e-mail made him a lightning rod for a conflict that has apparently been brewing throughout Carl's tenure heading the center. On one hand, it has led to a pitched debate about the purpose of this one-of-a-kind national organization, which gives seed money to dramatists and workshops their scripts. On the other hand, it has left supporters wondering how much of the disagreement comes down to Carl's personality and even her androgynous appearance.

Carl has led the Playwrights' Center for three years, following stints in development and as general manager. In the wake of the initial controversy, her proponents have been vocal and numerous, while her detractors have largely spoken behind the scenes. This reserve may come from a fear of making enemies at the center, which last year supplied roughly a quarter of a million dollars directly to playwrights. Truly, nearly every Twin Cities playwright--nationally acclaimed writers like August Wilson and well-known newer voices like Jeffrey Hatcher and Kira Obolensky--has come through the center in some way or another.

Roy Close, at least, remains willing to discuss his accusations. He acknowledges the effects of his e-mail while minimizing its intent. "I copied Polly and the program officers of three foundations--all of whom I knew pretty well, and have known for a long time," Close says. "That was it. There were no blind copies sent out. My goal was to make the foundations aware that policy changes have occurred."

The Jerome Foundation, it would seem, became very aware, indeed. The center had sought new funds for an initiative to support experimental playwrighting. The Jerome's letter bears the signature of organization president Cynthia Gehrig. It begins by citing the foundation's limited budget, but soon goes well beyond the matter of the new initiative.

"We are seriously concerned about the Playwrights' Center, its present and future," the letter reads. The Jerome next mentions negative feedback from members of the theater community and "our own independent research." And it demands that Carl and members of her board meet with representatives of the Jerome to address her management.

In the typically bland language of foundations, this is strong stuff. But Gehrig is predictably more diplomatic when asked about her organization's doubts concerning the Playwrights' Center's direction.

"The primary reason really was financial on our part," she says. "We adopted a new budget at our May annual meeting, and it's a very tight budget."

Gehrig allows that she "did express some concerns" about the running of the center in her letter, but declined to get into specifics until her scheduled meeting with Carl in August.


In person, Polly Carl is compact and energetic, and she's especially personable when she's talking about ideas. Reached by phone for this article, she struck an upbeat tone but has obviously been buffeted by the storm around her directorship.

"It's been interesting," she says about the last few months. "The Strib ran an article about a couple of misperceptions--that we're suddenly not supporting enough local writers. The facts just don't bear that out. One hundred percent of local writers who applied for workshop funds [this year] got their funding. Nobody was denied."

The specific allegations against Carl revolve around some internal reshuffling and sound a bit like the kind of dissatisfaction that one hears in any office. For example, she made a decision to eliminate a body called the Artistic Committee, a member group that advised the center's leadership. Playwrights' Center director of external affairs Todd Boss indicates that the committee had been mired in atrophy, and that after shutting it down, the center's board was opened directly to playwrights in order to streamline operations.

Linda Myers, executive director of the Loft Literary Center, is familiar with the kind of infighting that can go on at a small but established nonprofit. "She has been a change agent, and any time some people are used to wielding power within a bureaucracy, some people will be angry and disappointed," Myers says of her peer. "That doesn't mean it isn't a good idea to have change."

Todd Boss is more pointed, and his wording suggests a bit of a siege mentality. "I don't think a new artistic director can win," he says. "Blame is the virus we've caught here, and it's insidious. How to get rid of it is the artists' question, not ours."

Much of the conflict surrounding the center dissolves into personal style and questions about Carl's credibility in the theater world, which she openly acknowledges. "It isn't easy to be a 5-foot-2 woman with a lot to say about how we might do things better," she says. "There's always some resistance to being a little bit of an outsider, not being from Minnesota, coming in with a Ph.D.

"And people don't know what to make of me when they meet me. I'm this little woman dressed in men's clothes--it's nothing familiar to people, especially in the theater. I don't look like other artistic directors. I think if you don't take time to get past that and get to know me, you come away with a sense of discomfort with me."

In recent seasons, the Playwrights' Center has extended its programs to more national talent--at the expense, say Carl's critics, of nurturing unknown and beginning writers. And so it may be no surprise that one high-profile grant recipient, Obie-winning writer Mac Wellman, has lined up in Carl's defense. "It's the most egregious and backhanded behavior possible," Wellman says. "And that [Carl's detractors] are being taken seriously by any arts professional in Minnesota is outrageous to me. You throw enough shit on the wall and some of it seems to stick. What you've got there is a rotten situation, frankly."

Though Carl may lack the smooth sociability of many nonprofit leaders, the center seems to be taking some shrewd steps to bolster its support and disarm its critics. In May, the center announced the hiring of a general manager, a new post that will oversee playwright relations and human resource issues. And later in the month, the organization announced the formation of a new advisory board, including an all-star lineup of modern American dramatists and directors: Edward Albee, Lee Blessing, Anne Bogart, Joe Dowling, Oscar Eustis, David Henry Hwang, Jon Jory, Marsha Norman, and Paula Vogel, among many others. Having assembled such an august group of supporters for the center, Carl would seem to have received at least a temporary vote of confidence from the heavyweights of the profession.

In the meantime, though, the Playwrights' Center is waiting to learn about the status of $240,000 in unsecured funds from the Bush, McKnight, and Mellon/Doris Duke foundations. Within the center there are fears that the Jerome's concerns about Carl might have a cascade effect that could scuttle other new initiatives.

Close insists that he was trying to open a dialogue and nothing more. "I wasn't looking to cut the Playwrights' Center or damage it in any way," he says. "I wasn't trying to get anyone removed. I wasn't trying to shut it down. I had grave concerns about the direction it was going. I'm neither a bad guy nor a hero."

However the casting director might type him, Close is the author of an unhappy little drama, whose final act is yet to be written.

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