The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue
Theater

How the Flea Become the Fled

The Flea’s Resident Artists banded together to found a new world order—the institution dissolved them, but their work continues.

Student Body, 2015. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Student Body, 2015. Photo: Hunter Canning.

In June, the Flea Theater reached a turning point. Long dogged by criticism for maltreating and not paying its artists, the Flea faced a reckoning sparked by an open letter from Bryn Carter—a former member of the Flea’s resident actors, The Bats—detailing racist and exploitative treatment.

As a result, the Flea had announced that it would begin paying all artists for their work. “Bat hours,” which required six hours per month of volunteer labor to remain in the troupe, would end. Artistic Director Niegel Smith and Producing Director Carol Ostrow took responsibility for past harm, particularly harm to BIPOC resident artists, and pledged to transform the Flea’s culture. 10 non-negotiable demands submitted by a Resident Artist Coalition (RAC) were accepted, with a pledge from the Flea’s Board to act on the demands quickly.

Then, another turning point arrived. In September, the Coalition returned to the Flea’s Board with an 11th demand: the resignation or removal of Ostrow, who in addition to her role as Producing Director, was also Board President.

Ostrow is no longer with the Flea—but neither are its artists. In a December 2 letter, the theater ended its resident programs for actors, directors, and writers, citing financial burdens and stripping 120-plus artists of their titles and affiliations. It was a jarring turn of events given that, up until the decision was announced, the Coalition had achieved—at least on paper—most of its goals.

“We got done what we set out to do,” Dolores Pereira, a leading organizer and facilitator with the Coalition, told the Rail. “Carol left, and they agreed to our demands. We did the work, and it did pay off.”

Now the dismissed artists are “the Fled,” a family formed out of the collective work pressuring change. Meanwhile the Flea has pledged to carry its work with the Coalition forward in redesigned artistic programs to be unveiled “in the near future,” per the letter.

The Flea pledged in a December 6 statement on Twitter that this future model would center and support artists. Its former artists are skeptical. “It’s not like rebooting a computer,” said Ran Xia, a former Resident Director. “You can’t just erase those memories and hope the hurt will vanish.”

Though the Coalition had been communicating with Flea staff since 2019 around pay equity and anti-racism work, Carter’s letter opened the floodgates to accounts of trauma across the Flea community. To work through the disparate, complex issues raised, the RAC formed four subcommittees, each led by Black resident artists. They delved into Racial Justice, Healing and Restorative Justice, Economic Justice, and Anti-Harassment. Flea staff were not invited to the meetings, but were aware of and encouraged the continued work.

The committees provided artists with a space to speak openly about their experiences at the Flea, and to work towards specific plans for the theater which could be presented to the Flea board—plans that could account for past harm, both financial and otherwise, while charting a path forward.

As these discussions progressed, the Flea also hoped to begin producing virtual work in the fall, since grant-based funding had grown more challenging without programming. For the artists, Ostrow’s presence was a continued stumbling block, and programming was held up as leverage.

“As we progressed through this work of restorative justice and healing, we started realizing how much harm this one person had done,” said Oscar A. L. Cabrera, formerly of the SERIALS Writers Room and co-chair of the Economic Justice Sub-Committee. In a survey sent to RAC members, roughly 40 percent of the artists said they could not return to the Flea with Ostrow still present.

“The harm that she caused was irreparable,” said Pereira. “There was just no way for us to move forward with her still a part of the Flea.”

In her open letter, Carter had singled out Ostrow for confusing Black actors for one another and hiring Bats to cater-waiter events at her home.

In a recent Facebook post, playwright and director Morgan Gould described “screaming voicemails” from Ostrow after Gould declined a low-paying position at the Flea, adding that Ostrow badmouthed Gould to her listed references, then told Gould she was lucky she had decided to “look past [her] weight.”

Former Bat Connor Johnston described her and Smith as “actively shutting down” other Bats, “talking down to them and making snide comments.”

Some former Bats point more to the larger culture that had formed at the Flea over many years instead of any one individual.

“The Niegels and the Carols, they’re not awful people,” said former Bat Chris Murphy. He recalled a day when Ostrow found him in tears after being fired from his tutoring job due to a conflict with Bat rehearsals. Ostrow promised to get him a new tutoring gig—and quickly did. The incident reflected his mixed feelings about the Flea, since Ostrow had helped him, but may have missed the larger issue.

“It wasn’t like, maybe we need to evaluate the insane amount of time and energy that we’re taking from these people,” Murphy recalled. “Instead it was, let’s make this little problem go away, because we need you back in rehearsal.”

Murphy found his artistic experience with Smith fulfilling, but also agreed that the theater’s Artistic Director was not working to change the institution on a structural level.

“[Smith] definitely inherited a flawed system, but his focus was not to fix that system at all,” said Murphy. “That was not his goal.”

Johnston agreed that, often, the emotional burden placed on Bats was simply not thought of. He recalled one evening when he performed in a show, did laundry to complete his Bats hours, then attended a board dinner, where a donor said, “Isn’t it so great you’re here?” He and fellow Bats ended the night crying in the restaurant’s bathroom, instead asking, “What the fuck are we doing here?”

During that same production, Johnston and other actors could not leave their backstage spots from 15 minutes before the house opened until their respective entrances. Their holding positions left them without access to a bathroom. The actors would pee into a cup, which spilled twice and meant they had to hurriedly mop up each other’s urine.

The impasse between RAC and the theater seemed to break with the announcement of Ostrow’s retirement on November 2. RAC reached out to the board, newly galvanized, hoping to push forward with next placing artists on the board. “It looked like we were going to be able to move forward,” said Pereira.

Talks did not progress; then came the December 2 announcement. Smith thanked artists in an email for spurring “a personal transformation” in his leadership approach. In another letter, the board restated its commitment to the coalition’s demands, including regular staff trainings in anti-oppression, DEI work, and conflict resolution; giving Flea artists an ongoing say in season planning and hiring; and filling the two board seats with Resident Artists, with a priority given to BIPOC artists.

“The Flea will embark on a new … strategic fund-raising plan that we hope will lead to a new artists’ residency program, one that will be able to offer material support to participants,” the statement read. “Artists who have been members of our programs in the past will be invited to apply for this program.”

“They are taking all of our ideas, all of the work that the artists did, and then removing the artists,” said Peirera. She also contested the follow-up December 6 statement’s assertion that “the Flea cannot afford to keep over 120 artists as paid staff,” and that ending the programs was an inevitable result of the commitment to paying artists.

“Never did we demand that they put 120 artists on salary,” said Peirera. “That was never a request. We just asked that you pay us for our work.”

Like all theaters, the Flea faces significant financial challenges as the pandemic drags on. A source familiar with the Flea’s finances pointed specifically to lost revenue from ticket sales and venue rental, neither of which will return for several months.

Coalition members wonder if Ostrow’s departure was the more definitive turn in the Flea’s financial picture. “We had heard, even before all of this, that Carol essentially is the Flea Theater,” said Cabrera. “Carol brought in a good chunk of the money for the Flea. Without her leadership there, would the Flea survive?”

For the Fled, these questions are now essentially moot as they look forward.

“The Flea blew its chance,” said Peirera. “I’m looking forward to what the Fled is going to become, and the artists that led that, and the community that we managed to maintain and nurture throughout this process.”

In speaking with the former artists of the Flea, that newfound feeling of community comes up a lot.

Peirera says Coalition meetings broke down the Flea’s former power structure which had placed actors at the bottom. “It was hard to collaborate because of the fear and intimidation which leadership at the Flea was holding over our heads—now I really do see everyone as peers.”

“I’ve never felt more a part of the Flea community than after Bryn’s letter,” said Xia, noting that she met her fellow directors for the first time in the RAC meetings that followed. “We actually do have a community now.”

Contributor

Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at TheaterMania, Exeunt NYC, and Extended Play. He is an alumnus of the National Critics Institute and runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues