Failure to Communicate – A Case Study

Yesterday, I read the American Theatre article on the mess at New Dramatists. I’d like to examine this as a case study on communication (or lack thereof). I started sharing my thoughts on communication a little over a week ago, but boy is the ND situation ever a neon sign highlighting multiple things at once. I disagree with the Captain in Cool Hand Luke when he says, “Some men, you just can’t reach.” Rather, it is only through actual communication that anything of any value can be accomplished.

A few things right off: (1) I’m not going to weigh in on the original vaccine letter decision…that quickly became a moot point. (2) We cannot chalk this up to the inability to gather in person during the pandemic. In my nonprofit theatre career, the actual shelter-in-place portion of the pandemic is miniscule and I could easily do dozens of other case studies on these same issues over the last 20+ years. (3) I do not have access to the original communication mentioned in the article so I will not be talking specifically about the tone of communication used by any of the folks involved; I’m taking at face value the way the article portrays these communications…acknowledging the built-in bias that this will cause. (4) So much of what caused (and causes) issues here is embedded in white supremacy culture. I’ll highlight examples of urgency, worship of written word, denial and defensiveness, and fear within this case study, but really we have to keep examining all the ways white supremacy culture shows up in our everyday dealings and knee-jerk responses to things that come up in our organizations.

Let’s start with the initial expression of concern by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen and other playwrights and the response by ND leadership (Emily Morse and Christie Brown are quoted in the article)…all via email. We need to stop using email to discuss sensitive topics. Yes, email is efficient, but efficiency cannot be the priority when there are critical issues at hand. Besides which, efficiency is closely related to urgency, mentioned above. We must slow down and actually talk. Face-to-face in the same room is best but Zoom is still lightyears better than email. Email leaves far too much room for vocabulary misunderstandings and the loss of tone and body language. In-person allows for clarifying questions in real-time avoiding misinterpretations becoming fact in someone’s mind. Perhaps if the ND leadership had taken the time to meet with Deen and the other playwrights after they voiced their initial concerns, both sides could have been truly heard. It is scary to sit down with someone who has offered criticism but that is truly the only way we grow. If you haven’t read it, please take a look at Crucial Conversations by Grenny, Patterson, It is an excellent primer on how to productively and safely go into these types of conversations.

Instead, the first (based on the information provided in the article) in-person conversation was in the group discussion at the April 2021 WEC meeting. It is difficult, even for the most seasoned, open, and centered leader to usefully hear and engage with criticism at a group level…especially when it is the first time you’ve discussed this issue face-to-face. It is no wonder that Deen felt he was asking for a shift in the way decisions were made whereas Morse heard “disappointment that we didn’t make a different decision.” These are very different messages. Morse says they committed to “more transparency around not just how decisions were being made, but also who makes those decisions.” From what I read, the writers were not asking for more transparency but rather more participation. So, even if Morse and the ND team delivered on what they thought they heard, the writers would have been disappointed.

However, the ND team didn’t even get the chance to deliver the wrong solution because the ND executive director, Joel Ruark, chose to take Deen’s criticism of a process personally. I don’t know how to shout this loud enough IT NEVER HELPS TO PERSONALIZE AN ORGANIZATIONAL CONFLICT [see “defensiveness/denial” above]. Much like when an actor decides that their character “would never do that”…making any criticism personal cuts off all avenues of reconciliation or growth. Instead, you end up sounding like you are in the middle of a kindergarten playground spat…”you can’t be my friend anymore.” I’m not saying it is easy, but we have to take our egos out of the equation…and stop supporting those who cannot do so.

Having a face-to-face meeting at the beginning of this mess might not have prevented the Ruark from saying what he did, especially if he wasn’t in the room with Morse, Deen and others during the conversation. However, it could have built trust between Deen and Morse so that, instead of going back to his tribe to build support for an injury, he could have gone to Morse and said, “hey, what’s up with Ruark, I thought we were good?” Instead, with no goodwill built on either side, the next interaction was, once again, in the semi-public forum of the June WEC meeting. This time, the staff heard key trigger words that caused them to shut down and get fearful [see “fear” above]. As soon as this turned into an “HR issue” between Deen and Ruark, according to a corporate mindset (which I’m sure the ND Board had also drilled into the staff) all open conversations are off the table.

To compound the problem even further, the “HR Task Force” was reduced to just three Board members because the staff recused themselves to avoid conflicts of interests. Once again, their hearts were in the right place, but their action meant that the Board members are thrust into the “parent” role with no one in the room to temper their non-artist-focused perspective. I don’t mean non-artist-focused to be pejorative, simple explanatory. As I wrote about here, we have a habit of filling our boards with folks who have no direct experience with arts organizations other than as patrons and donors. How can we expect them to step in and understand, much less mediate, a personnel conflict with no “interpreter,” so to speak. The Board members were set up to fail from the writers’ perspective even when they thought they succeeded by their own standards. Then, you get an employment practices attorney in there and what started out as an attempt at organizational growth has turned into an iron-clad statement of no liability.

Can we please bring the resolution of interpersonal conflict back into the realm of honest conversations, however hard they might be? Of course, I strongly recommend that no conversation of this type happen solely between the folks in conflict…you absolutely have to have a third-party…as dispassionate and yet compassionate a third-party as humanly possible…to help with the inevitable translation issues during high-emotion conversations. Both of the conflicting parties may agree on the destination but often they are so tunnel-visioned into the route they are using to get to that destination that they can’t see the shared goal. A third-party in the room can help with that. What doesn’t help is a sanitized, 10-ft-pole investigation by folks who can’t possibly relate to the circumstances and only see the potential for lawsuits. Again, this is not the traditional Board members’ fault, they can only work from the base of knowledge they have. By this point, there was actually no path back to a safe space for anyone involved. From the outside, reading the article, it should have surprised no one that the March 22 Zoom meeting was filled with anger and hurt feelings. That is what happens when you put dynamite under a foundation of trust and light the fuse. We do it in our organizations every single day in large and small ways.

My final thought here is related to the final quote from Brown and Morse in the article. They suggest that when they post their core values “you will see that we talk about community…” As I’ve seen in organizations within which I have worked, you can say anything you want, verbally or in written form, but unless you imbue those words with humanity and action in your daily choices, they are just that…words. I hope that the ND staff, Board and resident playwrights can find a way back to square one…hit CTRL+ALT+DELETE and start talking again. About how to build trust, collaboration, and cohesion back into the organization. There is no question that it is much harder to repair than to build from scratch, but it sounds like the environment originally envisioned by New Dramatists is worth saving.

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