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As CEO and artistic director of The Public Theater of San Antonio, George Green once said, “theater is about the story first,” with all other considerations second.
Now placed on a leave of absence by the theater’s board as it reviews allegations into Green’s leadership style and practices, Green himself has become the story in an unfolding drama. Some actors and staff associated with the company have described the theater led by Green as a “toxic workplace environment,” and a Facebook post last week from the Public’s board sought confidential information about “issues concerning the Artistic Director.”
Green, who has been the artistic director of the Public since 2016, was placed on leave Oct. 10, two weeks after the Actors Equity Association (AEA) placed the theater on its nationwide “Do Not Work” list. In a Facebook post announcing the listing, the actors union did not give a specific reason, and the AEA did not reply to requests for information in time for publication.
As the union controversy surfaced, some actors and staff who worked with Green locally and at prior theaters have complained that his behavior is controlling and divisive.
“At this point, I am stepping away and allowing the input form to collect the information needed so that the board may address whatever comments, positive or negative, it may bring,” Green told the San Antonio Report in a text message this week. “I feel confident the board will do its job properly. I have love for this city, art-form, community of artists, and organization.”
Green said due to an agreement with the board he is unable to comment further.
Members of the board, including Board Chair Vernon Haney, did not respond to multiple questions regarding an investigation into Green’s leadership, their response to previous complaints about Green, or the fate of the current season.
Plans for one-person plays
When Green became artistic director at the Public Theater, he initiated a transformation of the community theater called the The Playhouse into what would be San Antonio’s only “Equity house” professional theater, as union-affiliated theaters are known in the industry. Green made similar moves to convert community theaters to professional-level status in the Pacific Northwest, where he worked as a director earlier in his career.
With the Public facing an extended shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Green had forged ahead with plans for a new season of one-person plays to help mitigate risk to actors and theater staff. Green established what he called “a robust plan in place” for safety protocols ahead of beginning new productions in September, including a publicly available 16-page guide to reopening. However, Bexar County had not yet met AEA requirements for theater productions, which include a stipulation that “the epidemic must be under control, with effective testing, few new cases in the area and contact tracing.”
The Public Theater began its “202ONE” season Sept. 10 with livestreamed performances of Buyer and Cellar.
AEA liaison Shane Glenn Vickers, an actor and former company manager for the Public, alleges that Green did not notify the union of plans to undertake the current season. Vickers alleged the union learned of the slate of one-person shows only when he and other AEA members informed them that rehearsals were already underway for the first show.
“[Green] was telling local [AEA] members that he had submitted several submissions [of season plans including safety protocols] to be approved and was turned down, which wasn’t the case,” Vickers said.
Green maintains that he was engaging in what he described as amicable negotiations with AEA.
The Public Theater no longer appears on the AEA Do Not Work list, and it was unclear when it was removed from the list. The theater’s chief of staff, Courtnie Mercer, said the relationship with AEA was renewed Oct. 9 and the season would proceed with some adjustment.
“The situation with the Public is currently evolving, so we cannot comment on all specifics at this time,” the AEA stated Thursday. “The Public Theater of San Antonio opened their first show of the season before our union’s safety protocols would have permitted a live production to safely take place, and it took place without Equity contracts or Equity actors and stage managers. However, we always welcome back any employer who is willing to resolve disputes and resumes collaboration with the union in good faith and with the best interest of our members at heart. We have appreciated the outpouring of support from area artists, audiences and others – both for Actors’ Equity Association as the representative of local actors and stage managers and in recognition of the importance of the Public Theater as a professional Equity theater – and we hope that this dispute can resolve shortly.”
As the union dispute simmered, some former affiliates of the Public Theater have taken to Facebook to accuse Green of divisive behavior and “bad faith” collaboration.
One Equity actor accused Green of misleading statements and controlling behavior, and a former employee said she was dismissed by Green during maternity leave after being assured she could keep her job. An anonymous Change.org petition asks for Green’s resignation.
As of Oct. 14 the petition had received 751 signatures.
Support from former colleagues
Some of those who have worked with Green at other theaters describe him as a diligent director with high standards.
Green was artistic director of the Spokane Civic Theatre in Washington and the Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, prior to accepting his position at the Public Theater in 2016. Lake City board member Daniel Bell, who also acted alongside Green, said Green was an ambitious and hard-working director who communicated openly with the board.
“Everything was going well, I didn’t have any inkling that he had treated anyone poorly,” Bell said. Green was demanding of everyone from staff and actors to members of the board, and could be “abrasive” in his directness, Bell said, but in so doing guided the formerly debt-ridden community playhouse to a professional and profitable level with elaborate productions.
“George knows exactly what he wants, and he’s gonna get it,” Bell said of Green’s leadership style.
“People who wanted to maybe deliberate or challenge him, you could do that and he would listen to you. I never once heard him shut anyone down or shut them off. But in the end, it was his choice. It was his decision. And if he didn’t decide your way, he was not apologetic about it.”
Mathias Oliver, who studied under Green in Spokane, said that while Green practiced a form of “tough love,” as a student actor the high expectations were a benefit.
“George knows exactly what he wants,” Oliver said. “He has a very specific vision in mind, and that’s something I’ve always really appreciated about him.”
Oliver performed in a high school production of Urinetown and said part of the reason the play was “so successful is because when we didn’t have our stuff together, he was very to the point and he said, ‘Look, this … needs to get fixed.’”
Oliver is now director of educational outreach at Stage Left Theater in Spokane. “Working with [Green] in a professional capacity as I got older, I could definitely see where he could rub people the wrong way,” Oliver said. “When you come to Spokane and you’re used to certain styles of directing, it can be very jarring to have someone who is so dead set on producing a quality product.”
Oliver acknowledged that “sometimes [Green’s] emotions got the better of him, but I don’t think he would ever do anything with malicious intent towards you, to hurt people.”
Some former staff members disagree. One former staff member who asked to remain unnamed due to potential career repercussions, said, “It’s well known that George Green considers employees disposable commodities.”
As reported in the San Antonio Express-News in 2016, upon Green’s hiring at the Public Theater he initiated staff cutbacks to resolve a budget shortfall of $140,000, attributed to the company’s large payroll. Green’s stated goal was to raise the former The Playhouse community theater to the level of a professional Equity house, a status it had maintained until landing on the AEA Do Not Work list, and realigned the staff to meet his goals.
That staff realignment also resulted in a prior Change.org petition demanding his termination, but board members of the Public Theater supported Green.
On Thursday afternoon, the Public Theater announced that its virtual presentation of Squeamish, a “psychological horror” about phobia and compulsion originally scheduled to open that day, would instead run Nov. 5-15 with tickets available online.
Both Green’s current status and the fate of the remaining productions planned for the 202ONE season of one-person shows remain uncertain, with no specific comment from the board or management. However, Chief Financial Officer and Business Director Laura Michelle Hoadley said Wednesday the theater “will be releasing some very positive information this week concerning our season.”