Arts Community Fires Warning Shot for Southern Theater

When the Southern Theater's new board fired the company's longtime artistic director, Jeff Bartlett, in July, they probably assumed there would be some backlash. Instead, the artistic community unified under the banner of outrage. The board says Bartlett is on "indefinite leave," whatever that means, and they met with the public to discuss it two weeks ago. Nothing really came of that meeting. Now artists, politicians, donors, and staff are rising up to call for major changes at the theater including the reinstatement of Bartlett.

Yesterday a letter signed by 200 disgruntled people dubbing themselves 'Southern's constituency' was released the press today. In it, Southern Theater supports demand that the new board opens itself up to an "independent evaluator" to interview everybody effected by the new board and its decisions. Specifically, the group wants answers the evaluator to look at

"... the relationship of the organization to the artist constituency, the sudden dismissal of the founding artistic director, the lack of an articulated plan for continuity of artistic leadership and transition, staff concerns and structure - and suggest strategies for moving forward based on an assessment of the needs of all."

And now, bear with me while I editorialize a little bit. As an dance theater outsider (I leave the dance writing to highly qualified local dance writers such as Linda Shapiro, who also signed the letter), this seems like a reasonable request. The Southern's own artistic philosophy statement claims:

The Southern presents and produces performance characterized by innovation and originality. We value connections to the local community and celebrate artwork that holds potential for transformative exchange. On stage, we are unyielding in our commitment to the highest levels of professionalism and artistic integrity.

I would bet that even some people on the board might call Bartlett's dismissal less than professional. Furthermore, if the theater is serious about connections to the local community, the first thing they should do is listen to and take direction from the community. If the board won't allow itself to be looked over, I have another idea for the frustrated and disappointed constituency: Boycott the Southern Theater. The letter hints at the possibility of audiences boycotting the theater, or artists not coming back to perform. But the public threat of such a tactic from the artists and donors might open the board's ears. The interim board made it clear that it was going to play hardball when it jettisoned Bartlett last month, so maybe they'll understand a little hardball turned back on them. If the members of the board refuse to put forth a reasonable effort to make amends with the community, staff, and artists, the constituency should simply refuse to perform and donate the theater.

I am not saying the board is doing a poor job, and I am not saying it needs to agree to bring Bartlett back. The board has a difficult job most people wouldn't want. The theater needs to grapple with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and the economy looks bleaker every day which always means less money for the arts. The 200 people who signed on to this letter must realize they will not get everything they want from the board. That said, if the board's new approach to running the theater continues to veer away from its founding philosophy and away from the patrons that support it, a boycott might force their hand.

There is no doubt that few months of a darkened stage will hurt artists. The theater will suffer. Culture in Minneapolis will suffer. But the point would be made loud and clear: The board needs to listen to what the artists and community are saying. The theater is there to serve the artists and dance lovers, and when it doesn't do that it serves no purpose.

Read the complete letter (with all the signatures) below.

Arts Community Fires Warning Shot for Southern Theater

A dark stage might be the only way to get the board to listen.

August 7, 2008

To the Southern Theater Board:

We write to you as concerned members of the Southern Theater's constituency.

We share a deep concern for the future of the Southern Theater; for the fair and respectful treatment of its staff, including 30 years plus Artistic Director Jeff Bartlett; for the artistic integrity of its programming; for a system of structure and leadership that upholds the theater's organizational mission; and for the preservation of the Southern Theater as an artist-centered and driven institution.

Large segments of the Twin Cities performing arts community are clearly up in arms over the Southern Board and interim management's handling of this situation, and the ongoing lack of clear communication about what Jeff's "indefinite leave" and other changes mean to the direction of the Southern and its commitment to fostering artistic exploration and risk-taking.

We propose that an outside, independent evaluator be brought in to examine the situation and report its findings to the Southern and the community. This evaluator, agreed upon by the Board and representatives from the constituency of the Southern Theater, would interview all parties (including the staff, artist community, and Board), to offer an evaluation of recent events and the current status of and future plans for the organization - e.g., the relationship of the organization to the artist constituency, the sudden dismissal of the founding artistic director, the lack of an articulated plan for continuity of artistic leadership and transition, staff concerns and structure - and suggest strategies for moving forward based on an assessment of the needs of all.

We believe that funding can be identified to support a focused, time-limited assessment and we will be responsible for securing that funding. The Jerome Foundation has made a commitment and other funders will be asked for contributions. Springboard for the Arts, a nationally-respected arts organization based in St. Paul that provides consulting services to arts organizations and independent artists, has agreed to serve as a neutral conduit for the funding process and to facilitate identification of an evaluator acceptable to both the Southern Board and the artistic community.

The community stands behind it. We have spoken with several current and former staff and they support it. We hope that you will make a gesture of reconciliation with your artistic constituency and inroads towards organizational health by agreeing to participate in this mediated, neutral evaluation.

We believe this is urgent because:

It has been almost four weeks since Jeff Bartlett was put on "indefinite leave."

It has been over two weeks since the public meeting called by the community, at which the Southern Board provided no clear answers as to the status of artistic leadership or organizational structure at this beloved theater.

The Southern Theater's website continues to list no artistic leader and a host of Interim positions: Interim Executive Director; Interim Development Director; Interim Technical Director; Interim Production Manager.

To date, only a handful of artists and community members have received proactive phone calls or emails from the Board or Executive staff.

Finally, The Southern risks a potential exodus by its current and future season artists, and a general boycott by the community. To quell this potential disaster and out of deference to artists with unsigned contracts, this evaluation needs to be conducted before the 2008-2009 season is well underway and we propose it be completed by September 15, 2008.

In order to secure funding and identify potential evaluators, we need the Board to confirm its willingness to act on this proposal by August 14. Please email Laura Zabel at Springboard for the Arts ([email protected]) with your response. Laura will then coordinate recommendations for evaluators and serve as a liaison between the Southern Board and the arts community around this issue.


Phyllis Kahn, State Representative MN Don Habermas-Scher, 20-plus years Southern Member Laurie Uprichard, Artistic Director, IDFI Dublin Dance Festival, Dublin Ireland Carla Peterson, Artistic Director, Dance Theater Workshop, NYC Donald Kahn, Professor, University of MN Colleen Callahan, President of the MN Dance Educator's Coalition Julie Landsman, Author; Poet; Visual Artist Tere O'Connor, Artistic Director, Tere O'Connor Dance Barbra Berlovitz, Co-Founder, Theatre de la Jeune Lune Janis Lane-Ewart, Executive Director, KFAI, Fresh Air Radio Janet L. Binder, Ph.D., Metropolitan State University Michael Bigelow Dixon, Resident Director, The Playwrights' Center Colleen Sheehy, Director of Education, Weisman Art Museum Mary M. Easter, Professor of Dance, Founder and Director of the Dance Program, Carleton College; Dancer/Choreographer Wendy Knox, Artistic Director, Frank Theatre Sandra J. Agustin, Artistic Director, Neighborhood House; Former Artistic Director, Intermedia Arts Matthew Keefe, Company Manager/Stage Manager, American Repertory Ballet, New Brunswick, NJ Heidi Eckwall, Lighting Designer Eddie Oroyan, Dancer; Choreographer; Patron Victor Zupanc, Music Director/Composer, The Children's Theatre Company Karen Sherman, Artist Carl Flink, Artistic Director, Black Label Movement; Chair, Theatre Arts & Dance, University of MN Emilie Plauche Flink, Black Label Movement Artistic Associate Jeffrey A Scherer, FAIA, CEO, Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Limited Architects Judith Katz, Writer; Performer Peggy Barton, Patron of the Arts Jon Skaalen, Audience; Donor; Program Coordinator at VSA arts of Minnesota Robert C. Hammel, VP in charge of Production, Perimeter Productions Elliott Durko Lynch, Artist Ben Krywosz, Artistic Director, Nautilus Music-Theater Jill Maraist Bethany Gladhill, Managing Director, Nautilus Music-Theater Karla Grotting, Founding Member/Artistic Associate, Flying Foot Forum Joe Chvala, Founding Member/Artistic Director, Flying Foot Forum Erika Thorne, Former Dance Artist; Member of the Women's Performance Project Megan Mayer, Performing Artist, Director, Photographer and Southern audience member since 1990 Stuart Pimsler, Artistic Co-Director, Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater Suzanne Costello, Artistic Co-Director, Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater Mathew Janczewski, Artistic Director, ARENA Dances, 2008-2009 Season Artist Charles Campbell, Co-Artistic/Managing Director, Skewed Visions Cassandra Shore, Artistic Director, Jawaahir Dance Company Jamey Leonard, Three Dances Morgan Thorson, Artist Susana di Palma, Artistic Director/Choreographer, Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre Laurie Van Wieren, Artist; Producer of 9x22 dance/lab David Jordan Harris, Musician; Writer Eleanor Savage Robert Haarman, Artist; Audience; Constituent; Citizen John Munger, Third Rabbit Dance Ensemble, MN Suzanne Wiltgen, Three Dances Rebecca Frost, writer, performer Andres Moreno, Audience Tara King, Artist, Mad King Thomas Shawn McConneloug, Artistic Director, Orchestra* Tamara Ann Rogers, Zorongo Flamenco Board of Directors Linda Shapiro, Writer Penelope Freeh, Artistic Associate, James Sewell Ballet; Fringe Festival Board of Directors Joanna Furnans, Artist; Performer David O'Fallon, Advocate Ellen Keane, Artistic Director, Keane Sense of Rhythm Joyce Kennedy, Patron, Southern Member, Former Member Southern Board of Directors Wallace Kennedy, Patron, Southern Member, Former Member Southern Board of Directors Aparna Ramaswamy, Co-Artistic Director, Ragamala Music and Dance Theater Ranee Ramaswamy, Founder and Artistic Director, Ragamala Music and Dance Theater Chris Schlichting, Choreographer and Performer Siobhan McDonald Kane, Systems Analyst, University of MN Paula K. Doyle, Attorney Nikki Schultz, Performer; Southern Patron; Development Assistant for Free Arts Minnesota Tessa Flynn, Teaching Artist Pacyinz Lyfoung, Southern Theater Member; Naked Stages/Intermedia Arts/Jerome Foundation Fellow Kristin Van Loon Karis Sloss/ Artistic Director/ Eclectic Edge Ensemble Leigh Dillard, Asst. Professor, Dance/Theater Department, College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University Mary Harding, Independent Artist; Dance Educator Jessica Cressey, Artist Diana Grasselli, Chanson D'or Productions Julie Jacobson, Founding Member, Beyond Ballroom Dance Company Nora Plesofsky, Audience Anika Solveig, Actor, Frank Theatre; Director of Development, Barefoot Theatre Company Jack Carpenter, Lighting Designer Eric Sharp, Performer Sonja Arsham Kuftinec, Associate Professor, Theatre Arts and Dance, University of Minnesota Marcus Young Steven Rohde, Frank Theatre Designer/Technical Director; Director of Production Services VEE Corporation Peter Rachleff, Professor of History, Macalester College Esther Ouray, Artist Kevin Obsatz, Co-Director, Mirrorman Films Jim Lieberthal, Choreographer/Dancer; Ameriprise Financial Inc Karen Lyu, EcoTech Harmony Consulting & Design Doug Freeman Joel Sass, Director & Designer Sandra Roback, Artist; Librarian Venus DeMars, Musician, All The Pretty Horses; Performance Artist Denise Gagner, School Coordinator, Zenon Dance Company and School; Performer Danny Buraczeski, Associate Professor, Southern Methodist University; Former Artistic Director, JAZZDANCE Leah Cooper, former Executive Director, Fringe Festival; Partner,; Director; Arts Administration Consultant Alan Berks, co-creator Thirst Theater; Partner,; Playwright; Arts Administration Consultant Michelle Kinney, Musician in Residence, University of MN Dance Department Emma Nadler, Licensed Professional Counselor; Artist; Patron Olive Bierenga, Artist; Co-Director, The Body Cartography Project Judith Howard, Dance Artist; Carleton College Faculty Barb Ryman, Singer-songwriter Maryrose Dolezal, Program Director, US Fellowship of Reconciliation; Board Member, Commonfire and SmartMeme Gulgun Kayim, Co-Founder & Co-Artistic/Managing Director SkewedVisions; Afilliate Faculty Dept of Theatre & Dance, U of MN; Adjunct arts consultant, Springboard for the Arts Wendy Lewis, Musician Jaime Kleiman, Theatre Artist; Journalist Betsy Donovan Genevieve Bennett, Director Marty Allen Tamara Ober, Zenon Dance Company Vanessa Yancey, Artist; Community member Binky Wood, Actor; Director Monica Maye, Donor James Sewell, Artistic Director, James Sewell Ballet Keimi Umezu, Artist Krista Kelley Walsh: Interdisciplinary/Conceptual Artist,; Former director of the WARM Mentor Program ; Arts Advocate Jan L Gonder, Business Manager, Ragamala Music and Dance Theater; Former Business Manager, The Southern Theater Jeanine Durning , Choreographer; Performing Artist; Visiting Choreographer, Zenon Dance Company, 2005 -2008 Justin Leaf, Dancer, Minnesota Dance Theater Zaraawar Mistry, Dreamland Arts Leslye Orr, Dreamland Arts Jamie Ryan, former Southern Theater staff Wendy Morris, Director, Creative Leadership Studio Dr. Cia Sautter Michael Koerner, Independent Composer/Musical Director,/Musician Peter O'Gorman, Artist with Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum; Mary Ellen Childs' CRASH Alison Morse Director, TalkingImageConnection Barbara Mahler, Artistic Director of Barbara Mahler Makes Dances; Faculty, Movement Research, NYC, and Hunter College of CUNY; Member, Artistic Advisory Board of the Brooklyn Arts Exchange Rick HAUSER, Founding Partner, Beyond Broadcast; Co-Founder, THE PERFORMANCE LAB Bernadette Sullivan, actress; Co-Founder Frank Theatre (Minneapolis); Co-Founder Zoo District Theatre (Los Angeles) Diane Aldis, Dance Educator; Performer Mary Hansmeyer Margo McCreary, Puppeteer; Artist in Education with Minnesota State Arts Board Deborah Jinza Thayer/Movement Architecture Jeff Millikan, Artist Tom Scott, Composer; Performer; Musician David Jordan Harris, Musician; Writer; Former Southern Theater Board member Douglas Padilla, Artist & Arts Activist, Salon Artisimo; Art Jones Gallery; Grupo Soap del Corazon Stephanie Fellner, Dancer/Instructor, Ballet of the Dolls David DeBlieck, Artistic Director, Wicked Sister Dance Theatre Georgia Afton, Hamline University, Master of Fine Arts Candidate Kathy Kohl, Costume Designer Debby Kajiyama, Co-director, Navarrete x Kajiyama; SCUBA 2008 Artist (San Francisco, CA) Susan McKinnell, Audience Theresa Madaus, Dancer/Choreographer, Mad King Thomas Sean Smuda Lisa Axell, Costume Designer Gregory Waletski, Company Member, Zenon Dance Laura Grant, Dancer/Arts educator, Minneapolis Public Schools Stephen Schroeder, Dancer, Lighting Designer and Technical Coordinator; Zenon Dance Company, ARENA Dances Theresa Dolezal, MA Community Psychology, Program Coordinator, Partners for Violence Prevention Sharon Picasso, Artist Michelle Hensley, Artistic Director, Ten Thousand Things Theater Juliet Patterson, Poet, Teaching Artist and Arts Supporter Erik Barsness Adjunct Instructor of Percussion, St. Cloud State University; CRASH, Janus Percussion Althea Willette, Silver Appraisal Services Lisa C. Barton Amber Ellison Walker Co-Director Wilderness Dance. David Coral, Actor, Director; Board Member of Starting Gate Productions Terri Sutton, Department of English, University of Minnesota Soozin HIrschmugl, Spectacle Artist/Puppeteer, Barebones Productions; Chicks on Sticks; Bedlam Theater Jennifer Arave, Artist Jim Bovino, Flaneur Productions Marianna Padilla Vera Mariner Nina Ebbighausen Michael Kronebusch Kimberly Richardson, Dancer; Actor Erik Sanborn, Founder/Artistic Director, The Metropolitan Ballet & Academy Marg Rozycki, Artist; Art Teacher, Watershed High School Kelly Dormady, Dance Artist Muriel J. Bonertz Bryan Axell, Art Director/Production Designer, 3 Ring Scenic, inc., Mpls Ginger Wagg, Dance Artist Pamela Paulson, Ph.D. Rebecca Olson, Dancer; Community Member Annie Follett, Filmmaker Dr. Paul Kovacovic, Musician; Adjunct Faculty at University of MN-Twin Cities; Concordia University Jessica Briggs, Artist, Performer; Scholar; Project Manager of Ananya Dance Theatre Ellen Marie Hinchcliffe, Performance Artist; Filmmaker Kathy Mohn, Dance Specialist, St. Paul Public Schools Jack Dant, Sr. Product Development Engineer; Oil Painter Gwyneth Olson, Audience Beth Sole, Lifelong Minneapolis Arts Patron Ellen Swartz Michael Wangen, Lighting Director, Fitzgerald Theater Brent Radeke, Ananya Dance Theatre, Director of Public Relations and Media Sharon Mansur, Dance Artist; Artistic Director, mansurdance; Assistant Professor, Winona State University, MN 2005-08; University of Maryland, Fall 2008 Kendra Heithoff, Dance Artist Michael Kiesow Moore, Writer; Arts Patron Melissa Birch, Artist Tim Heitman, Board Member, Skewed Visions Theater Laura Selle Virtucio, Performer Shapiro & Smith Dance; Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theatre; Black Label Movement Joe Holan, Board of Directors, Frank Theatre Mike Kittel, Lighting Designer, Technical Director 2000-2005 / Light Crew 1990-2007 Betsy Husting, Arts Consultant Denise Culshaw, Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies (GTCYS); Former Stage Manager Dorothy Williams, TransVoices Holly Streekstra, Former Southern Theater Technical Staff

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