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San Diego Junior Theatre keeps up the Oz-like curtain

Tragicomedy on San Diego stages: Junior Theatre sad, opera happy

The San Diego Junior Theatre is foundering; the San Diego Opera is smiling again.
The San Diego Junior Theatre is foundering; the San Diego Opera is smiling again.

A tragicomedy is a stage production that contains both tragedy and comedy. The local stage scene is a bit like that: the San Diego Junior Theatre for youngsters may be foundering close to a tragedy, while the San Diego Opera, which almost went under three years ago, is back smiling again.

Gil Cabrera wrote a curt, lawyerly warning letter to a junior theater online poster, age 15.

The difference is in the boards. The junior theater’s board of trustees appears to be a clique circling the wagons, keeping its patrons, parents, donors, and children outside the loop. The San Diego Opera used to be that way but now has a staff and board that want to share its news with the community.

Ian Campbell told the San Diego Opera board that there was no money. But there was no debt and there were valuable assets.

The problems at the junior theater started with an incident last year: some children were making noise, and the executive director, James Saba, burst into the girls’ dressing room unannounced and shook a young girl by the shoulders, yelling that she was mocking him. He felt remorse, told a staff member what he had done, and apologized to the girls. But two of his key assistants, artistic director Rayme Sciaroni and production manager Tony Cucuzzella, reported the matter to the board. Within two months, both were fired. Two other unhappy employees were intimidated and resigned. The children were quite upset, but neither the kids nor the patrons were told why the whistle-blowers were gone.

Social media crackled with resentment. Three hundred people signed a petition demanding more information. The board authorized an investigation, but its obvious bias only stirred more ire. The victim and key witnesses were not even interviewed. (The report said the incident took place “backstage” — a euphemism that gave away the partiality.) The board reacted defensively. The pro bono attorney, Gil Cabrera, wrote a curt, lawyerly warning letter to an online poster who had complained of board non-transparency: “Many of these posts are likely defamatory.… I would caution you and others about doing damage to individuals’ reputations.” The letter’s recipient was a 15-year-old boy.

“That’s when I got involved in this matter,” says attorney Matt Valenti, a parent who recently sent a 110-page complaint to the district attorney, mayor, and council about the board’s alleged insularity, conflicts of interest, unethical actions, and financial irregularities possibly bordering on criminality.

I tried to get a board response to Valenti’s charges. After a runaround, I heard from longtime boardmember Lizbeth Persons Price, who said questions about the matter could not be answered because of “employment confidentiality laws.” (I had asked if the board had settled financially with Sciaroni and Cucuzzella, and if the money had come from the theater balance sheet or an insurer.) Then she referred me to a board letter from October 2016, which concluded that Saba “did not act inappropriately.” Cabrera told me that nobody else would speak, and the staff person heading communications claimed that the staff hadn’t been told what happened.

I asked other questions that went completely unaddressed: “What is the financial status of the Junior Theatre? Has the split among patrons and parents hurt attendance or donations? Have expenses been cut?”

Valenti’s complaint states that finances are “in shambles.” For a period, some employees were furloughed. The communications director’s salary was halved at one point. When the board wanted protection from unhappy parents and patrons, it hired plainclothes guards at a reported price of $65 an hour each. One parent asked, “Is this a children’s theater or a police state?”

The board spent $34,000 to $40,000 to have a former president handle Facebook, says Valenti. The board mismanaged finances to such a degree that the theater’s “very survival is at stake,” says Valenti. “Junior Theatre is in serious debt,” he says, noting that the debt is secured with the current treasurer’s property. (The treasurer did not return my calls.) “The board is known to have frequently ordered pricey catered meals for meetings.” Fundraising lags because Saba is notoriously weak in fundraising — a weakness the board knew about when it hired him.

Sums up Valenti, “[S]ignificant and compelling evidence exists demonstrating the current board of Junior Theatre, via indolence, failure to act, reckless spending, and outright private inurement and self-dealing, has squandered the organization’s assets and left Junior Theatre in a precarious financial position.”

But patrons can’t get answers to financial queries.

The story is different at San Diego Opera. Early in 2014, the company was planning for its next season — its gala 50th. But on March 19, general and artistic director Ian Campbell suddenly told the board there was no money for going forward. A stunned board voted 33 to 1 to close down. But then, one by one, boardmembers realized they had been fed dubious information. There was no debt and there were valuable assets. Boardmember Carol Lazier gave $1 million to launch a new start.

The board and local media perceived the weaknesses: Campbell and his wife had been grossly overpaid compared with others in similar posts. After the two separated and ultimately divorced, she got a hefty raise; members suspected the opera was effectively paying alimony. The staff felt Ian Campbell was dictatorial, and a consultant was looking into that. People did the arithmetic and figured that there was plenty of money to continue. Expenses had been far too high — “$16,000 per performance!” for one tenor, growls Pat Ford, the company’s second president in the early 1970s. Ian Campbell had taken regular summer trips to Europe, supposedly to scout talent, at the company’s expense. That ended; the company now looks first for American talent.

Costs were slashed by one-third. Instead of performing all operas at the Civic Theatre, some were presented at smaller venues. “Things are challenging, but I feel we are definitely going in the right direction,” says Nic Reveles, director of community engagement. “We are going out and letting the community know we are here.”

“We had been opaque. We reexamined governance, and now the board knows [and says] what is going on,” says Lazier. Under Campbell, fundraising had been aimed primarily at the affluent Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla crowd, many of whom just wanted to be seen opening night in their finery. Now the board is “well balanced demographically and economically.”

So are the performances. Target markets include younger people, Hispanics, and those preferring modern, dissonant music. The company almost broke even this year and is optimistic about next season.

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The San Diego Junior Theatre is foundering; the San Diego Opera is smiling again.
The San Diego Junior Theatre is foundering; the San Diego Opera is smiling again.

A tragicomedy is a stage production that contains both tragedy and comedy. The local stage scene is a bit like that: the San Diego Junior Theatre for youngsters may be foundering close to a tragedy, while the San Diego Opera, which almost went under three years ago, is back smiling again.

Gil Cabrera wrote a curt, lawyerly warning letter to a junior theater online poster, age 15.

The difference is in the boards. The junior theater’s board of trustees appears to be a clique circling the wagons, keeping its patrons, parents, donors, and children outside the loop. The San Diego Opera used to be that way but now has a staff and board that want to share its news with the community.

Ian Campbell told the San Diego Opera board that there was no money. But there was no debt and there were valuable assets.

The problems at the junior theater started with an incident last year: some children were making noise, and the executive director, James Saba, burst into the girls’ dressing room unannounced and shook a young girl by the shoulders, yelling that she was mocking him. He felt remorse, told a staff member what he had done, and apologized to the girls. But two of his key assistants, artistic director Rayme Sciaroni and production manager Tony Cucuzzella, reported the matter to the board. Within two months, both were fired. Two other unhappy employees were intimidated and resigned. The children were quite upset, but neither the kids nor the patrons were told why the whistle-blowers were gone.

Social media crackled with resentment. Three hundred people signed a petition demanding more information. The board authorized an investigation, but its obvious bias only stirred more ire. The victim and key witnesses were not even interviewed. (The report said the incident took place “backstage” — a euphemism that gave away the partiality.) The board reacted defensively. The pro bono attorney, Gil Cabrera, wrote a curt, lawyerly warning letter to an online poster who had complained of board non-transparency: “Many of these posts are likely defamatory.… I would caution you and others about doing damage to individuals’ reputations.” The letter’s recipient was a 15-year-old boy.

“That’s when I got involved in this matter,” says attorney Matt Valenti, a parent who recently sent a 110-page complaint to the district attorney, mayor, and council about the board’s alleged insularity, conflicts of interest, unethical actions, and financial irregularities possibly bordering on criminality.

I tried to get a board response to Valenti’s charges. After a runaround, I heard from longtime boardmember Lizbeth Persons Price, who said questions about the matter could not be answered because of “employment confidentiality laws.” (I had asked if the board had settled financially with Sciaroni and Cucuzzella, and if the money had come from the theater balance sheet or an insurer.) Then she referred me to a board letter from October 2016, which concluded that Saba “did not act inappropriately.” Cabrera told me that nobody else would speak, and the staff person heading communications claimed that the staff hadn’t been told what happened.

I asked other questions that went completely unaddressed: “What is the financial status of the Junior Theatre? Has the split among patrons and parents hurt attendance or donations? Have expenses been cut?”

Valenti’s complaint states that finances are “in shambles.” For a period, some employees were furloughed. The communications director’s salary was halved at one point. When the board wanted protection from unhappy parents and patrons, it hired plainclothes guards at a reported price of $65 an hour each. One parent asked, “Is this a children’s theater or a police state?”

The board spent $34,000 to $40,000 to have a former president handle Facebook, says Valenti. The board mismanaged finances to such a degree that the theater’s “very survival is at stake,” says Valenti. “Junior Theatre is in serious debt,” he says, noting that the debt is secured with the current treasurer’s property. (The treasurer did not return my calls.) “The board is known to have frequently ordered pricey catered meals for meetings.” Fundraising lags because Saba is notoriously weak in fundraising — a weakness the board knew about when it hired him.

Sums up Valenti, “[S]ignificant and compelling evidence exists demonstrating the current board of Junior Theatre, via indolence, failure to act, reckless spending, and outright private inurement and self-dealing, has squandered the organization’s assets and left Junior Theatre in a precarious financial position.”

But patrons can’t get answers to financial queries.

The story is different at San Diego Opera. Early in 2014, the company was planning for its next season — its gala 50th. But on March 19, general and artistic director Ian Campbell suddenly told the board there was no money for going forward. A stunned board voted 33 to 1 to close down. But then, one by one, boardmembers realized they had been fed dubious information. There was no debt and there were valuable assets. Boardmember Carol Lazier gave $1 million to launch a new start.

The board and local media perceived the weaknesses: Campbell and his wife had been grossly overpaid compared with others in similar posts. After the two separated and ultimately divorced, she got a hefty raise; members suspected the opera was effectively paying alimony. The staff felt Ian Campbell was dictatorial, and a consultant was looking into that. People did the arithmetic and figured that there was plenty of money to continue. Expenses had been far too high — “$16,000 per performance!” for one tenor, growls Pat Ford, the company’s second president in the early 1970s. Ian Campbell had taken regular summer trips to Europe, supposedly to scout talent, at the company’s expense. That ended; the company now looks first for American talent.

Costs were slashed by one-third. Instead of performing all operas at the Civic Theatre, some were presented at smaller venues. “Things are challenging, but I feel we are definitely going in the right direction,” says Nic Reveles, director of community engagement. “We are going out and letting the community know we are here.”

“We had been opaque. We reexamined governance, and now the board knows [and says] what is going on,” says Lazier. Under Campbell, fundraising had been aimed primarily at the affluent Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla crowd, many of whom just wanted to be seen opening night in their finery. Now the board is “well balanced demographically and economically.”

So are the performances. Target markets include younger people, Hispanics, and those preferring modern, dissonant music. The company almost broke even this year and is optimistic about next season.

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20

Incompetent Junior Theatre board members, including those who are City employees, should be investigated by city/state officials for conspiracy for illegal cover-ups, false police reports, and unlawful employee terminations/harrassment....not to mention self-dealing, conflicts of interest, and fiscal mismanagement.

They are nothing less than a band of thieves robbing Junior Theatre of its heritage and capacity to be a productive environment for children. So many people have lost confidence and trust in this Board, which has proven time and again that if it can make a bad decision, it will. City Attorney Mara Elliott, are you listening?

May 31, 2017

cozic: It certainly appears that the board of Junior Theatre needs some fresh blood. I sense inbreeding. Best, Don Bauder

May 31, 2017

Don, thanks for your thorough follow up! I'm delighted to see that you are still on this. Investigative journalism such as yours is crucial to help us remove the "opaqueness" in this issue. The way you draw parallels to the disastrous time period for the SD Opera instills me with hope that there is still a way to save the institution of JT. Transparency is what we need. As one of the many parents & patrons who tried to communicate with the board & management from the very beginning, it does not surprise me to hear you say: "Cabrera told me that nobody else would speak, and the staff person heading communications claimed that the staff hadn’t been told what happened. I asked other questions that went completely unaddressed." Unfortunately, that had been our experience all along. For those of us who were able to attend the first (and only!) meeting with Gil Cabrera on Oct 27. it became clear that his main strategy was to shield board members & to avoid answering our questions directly. The details that - nevertheless - emerged during that 2-hour meeting were more than troubling to the parents & alumni in attendance. Over and over again, we approached board members individually & as a group, asking for a meeting of the minds. Since our attempts to communicate were pretty much blocked all the way, we decided to take matters in our own hands and organized a "Town Hall in Support of JT" on Nov 3. Everyone was invited - NO ONE from the board or management came to join our public discussion. However, Channel 10 took interest & produced this News Clip that evening: http://www.10news.com/news/junior-theater-director-accused-of-shaking-girl

I join the many other voices asking for support from the city's officials in this urgent matter! And thanks to the SD Reader for its independent reporting!

May 31, 2017

RuthM: I have to take a mea culpa for my role at San Diego Opera, which went through similar periods twice. I was on the board in the late 1970s when the opera got in serious financial trouble. I was only vaguely aware of it. Then, in the 1990s, the same thing happened. We were overspending and headed for the cliff. At that time, I was on the advisory board, and my wife and I warned Ian Campbell that he was producing too many modern operas and that the bottom line would suffer. It did. Ian did admit he should have listened to us (and others).

Still, I had no idea that the trouble that came in the 2000s was building. I knew Ian and his wife were overpaid but didn't speak up. I did not know that the opera was spending entirely too much money on productions. I knew about Ian Campbell's regular trips to Europe in the summer but did not say anything. So I am not clean. Best, Don Bauder

May 31, 2017

Mike Murphy: At least the junior theater group is still alive. The Balboa Park celebration never got off the ground, but it did manage to spend a bundle. And nobody got spanked for the failure. Best, Don Bauder

May 31, 2017

Matt: You deserve an award for courage -- seeing the problem and articulating it. Other groups should have an alert person such as you. Best, Don Bauder

May 31, 2017

Linda M. Turner: Child safety and financial safety are critical. Best, Don Bauder

May 31, 2017

Francia Cohen FX Mua: Yes, things at the opera got bad, but it was nothing like what you describe at the junior theater. Best, Don Bauder

May 31, 2017

Dear TruthTastesBetterThanChocolate,

I am sorry to hear of your experience at JT. You are right - no one should be yelling at kids. If you agree that screaming at a child is grounds for dismissal, then we both agree that James Saba should also be fired. Not only did he yell at a child, he entered the dressing room unannounced and grab and shook her.

The time you were yelled at has no doubt left strong feelings that you will keep forever. Now imagine being shaken as well.

The people who tried to cover up this incident of abuse need to be removed from the Board. The kids at JT deserve better than this.

June 1, 2017

jennvalenti: If TruthTastesBetterThanChocoloate is right, then at least two adults were acting out of order at JT. Best, Don Bauder

June 2, 2017

TruthTastesBetterThanChocolate: I am sorry to hear your opinion of Cucuzzella. That is the first negative thing I have heard about him. Best, Don Bauder

June 1, 2017

There is really no way for James Soba to redeem himself within Junior Theater. He should resign and allow Junior Theater to heal without him. The Board Members that practically poured gasoline on this fire should also resign.

June 1, 2017

gregwood: Some people feel that Saba should resign and the board members that have protected him should also resign. But there should be a full and fair hearing on this. Best, Don Bauder

June 2, 2017

Thank you Don for writing another article about the current state of affairs at JT. The Board does not seems to be able to handle any aspect of running a children's theatre. From managing their staff and finances to protecting the children entrusted to them the Board proves to be either unethical or incompetent (or both).

If the Opera was ready to close it's doors after such mismanagement JT's future is looking grim. We need our civic leaders to step in and get control of this situation.

June 1, 2017

Formerstudent: Valenti, who has made the charges against current management and board, should be heard. He had courage to bring out his point of view. Best, Don Bauder

June 2, 2017

Many people are aware that our Mayor recently proposed slashing the city's arts budget. There is obviously not a dollar to be wasted. The Board of Trustees at JT has a history of mismanaging the tax dollars the organization receives each year.

The city of San Diego needs to perform an independent audit of how JT's money is being spent.

June 1, 2017

jennvalenti: Slashing the arts budget is stupid. Trying to expand the convention center is triply stupid, because convention centers nationwide are far, far overbuilt and prices are plunging because of the excess capacity. Any money the city has should be spent on infrastructure. Best, Don Bauder

June 2, 2017

This problem has a simple solution. JT needs an independent investigation as to what's going on. If you are interested in finding out the truth and making change happen please call the City Attorney's office at 619-236-6220 and demand they take action. Or email them at [email protected]

Mara Elliott has 2 deputy city attorneys working for her who are board members at JT (Joan Dawson and Catherine Morrison). Is she looking into this situation or is helping to cover up her employees' unethical actions? Ask her!

The city gives annual funding to JT as well as free access to the buildings they use. They have an interest in seeing this organization thrive. Hold them accountable.

June 1, 2017

REY: Yes two attorneys on the city attorney's staff are on the board of JT. They should have brought this situation into the open long ago. Best, Don Bauder

June 2, 2017

Reem Cohen: The U-T has a severe credibility problem: people who read its peace-making efforts aren't likely to believe them. Best, Don Bauder

June 11, 2017

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