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.