We all make choices.

Life is all about choices. Sometimes bad things happen and we can’t do anything about them. Other times, our own bad choices doom us to their consequences.

As a sound mixer, I have as much in common with other engineers as I do with other artists. Like most engineers, I’m a control freak. I want to get my hand in there and fix things, change things, rearrange things in a way that makes them better. And like most artists, I have a vision (or in my case, a hearing) of the sound I’m choosing to give the material I’m working on. That means that in some situations, there are two artists at work on the same masterpiece. We each have choices. It’s important that we respect each other.

Most of the time, singers are pretty happy with the way I treat, sweeten, and mix their voices. I get compliments from almost everyone. When I’m mixing twenty or thirty voices in a musical, I use methods honed over years of experience to make sure everyone gets the best attention I can give them, and it’s still always a challenge. But once in a while there’s a show where the focus is tighter; there are fewer artists and I can devote more time and attention to each. You’d think those were the easy ones, but in fact they’re even more challenging because every voice is under a microscope, right out front.

I worked a show like that a few years ago and it came to mind because it’s one of the few times an artist actually spoke to me when I got in her way. She was making certain dynamics choices, and the choices I was making were not always the same ones, and we were working against each other. We made a compromise and all was well after that.

I’m a very hands-on mixer. My mixes are very dynamic. Things change a lot from moment to moment. They have to. The picture above will let you know what I mean.

You’re looking at a vocal track in green and a mixed drum track in orange, with my fader movements superimposed in yellow. This is a chunk of the final mix of a song from that same show which I pulled up to show someone today. I don’t always look at my mixes this way and I’m not always conscious of the dynamics. After this long, my fingers just do what they need to to get the sound I want. But a mix done this way sounds alive and real. Hands-off mixers who just throw the faders up and leave them there — the guys who make one, compromising choice and live with it — can’t get that kind of sound. You have to make choices that make a difference.

Some of you have guessed that I’m off on a metaphor here.

What follows is going to make some people angry, but this is my forum, my blog, and I’ll say what I want here. Damn the torpedoes, and there sure have been a lot of those skimming along beneath the surface lately.

Recently Rivertowne Players fired Judy Long, my favorite director, one of the most talented directors this town has ever seen, and the person who gave them one of their most successful shows to date, Les Miserables. She was set to direct Chicago and had already begun the early stages of planning and organization when the torpedo hit.

They fired her without any discussion and without any explanation to Judy. They did it via a letter. Have you ever been fired by letter? Neither have I. Nobody does that. It’s a very cruel choice.

They did it based on bad information — they were told Judy would not accept the original show dates, demanded they be changed, and would not do the show otherwise. This is false. They were lied to. She suggested changing the dates, and a trusted board member distorted that information. They made no attempt to verify it. This was an unfortunate choice.

After they did this, rumors began to spread. I wondered if people knew what had happened, and they of course did not. Most people who asked me why I was disappointed after the well-attended season launch told me they’d been informed that Judy angrily quit over show dates, or at least that she quit. Virtually no one knew she’d been fired. The board remained formally, stubbornly silent even when I queried one of the members. Another poor choice.

I wondered where those rumors might have come from, and I asked myself, “Cui bono? Who benefits?” If you fired someone well-respected, especially this way, would it be to your advantage for people to think she quit? I’m not saying the board spread these rumors. But one wonders who would choose to. Certainly not Judy or those loyal to her.

So, knowing that the board’s own rules require them to read any postal letter addressed to the board aloud at the next board meeting, I made a choice. I sent them a letter. I reproduce it below.

Dear Members of the Board:

I find myself compelled to express the degree to which I deplore both your recent decision regarding the director of “Chicago” and the manner in which it was handled.

Regarding the former, it is beyond my belief that you would dismiss the same experienced, highly professional director who brought you Les Miserables, New Bern’s best and most successful theatre production in years, in favor of a far less experienced director. To do so abruptly after that director had already been invited is even more repugnant. How such a decision could be arrived at rationally is beyond my comprehension — primarily because you’ve refused to explain it.

Which brings me to the latter: transparency. It’s true that you as a board are not in a legal sense accountable to the people you serve. Be that as it may, you ought to bear in mind that countless people have donated money as well as thousands of dollars’ worth of materials, labor, and professional services toward Rivertowne’s success. So when you make a decision that changes people’s plans and disrupts and upsets a great many volunteers, refusing to answer questions simply exacerbates the situation. People who have given until it hurts do not like being told, essentially, that this is none of our business. Likewise, placing yourselves on an unreachable pedestal is unwise and ultimately does everyone a disservice, yourselves included. I, for one, believe that an explanation is in order.

As long as this no-comment policy continues at Rivertowne, you need not ask me to work any further shows there.

Sincerely and regretfully yours,  /s/ Scott Johnson

The letter was reportedly read at Tuesday night’s board meeting. Not surprisingly, I hear there were some heated comments with regard to it. In fact, someone I have had great respect for as both director and performer apparently said that since I was not a member of the theatre, my opinion doesn’t matter much.

A member, you say? Perhaps I’d made a bad choice by not joining? I immediately visited Rivertowne Players’ web site. There is a menu item entitled “Get Involved,” but there they only ask for more volunteers. There is not a thing on that site — NOTHING — that says the theatre even has members, let alone who they are or how one would go about becoming one. So apparently they’d love more silent volunteers, but they’re not interested in any new members. For all I know, the only members are board members.

I did seek to become a member of the board at Rivertowne once. I was even nominated. But in the end, it seems I’m not the sort of person they wanted on their board; I speak my mind.  According to one board member I spoke to, they only want yes-men. I would have tried to make a difference. Isn’t that the point? They apparently preferred I continue to volunteer without “getting involved.” They want my free services but not my opinion.

But if anything qualifies me to comment, perhaps it would be those hundreds of hours of professional audio services I have donated to the theatre’s productions. My time happens to be pretty valuable. I’m not an amateur. Sound is my profession, and if I charged Rivertowne (or any community theatre) my professional rate, they would be many thousands of dollars in my debt. But I’ve never tried. In fact, I’ve never asked to be paid at all, even though on many occasions I could have chosen to be doing well-paid work on the nights I was instead volunteering.

In the interest of disclosure, there have been one or two times I was paid a token stipend voluntarily. I didn’t request it. We’re talking about $50-$75 for 50-60 hours of work. I chose to accept these tokens and I appreciated the gesture because it made me feel more appreciated.

Often it was necessary to provide my own equipment free of charge. Les Miserables could not have even been produced had I not chosen to bring my own 40-channel mixing console. I chose to purchase that console specifically for Les Miserables because no suitable one was available locally. I’ve used it professionally only once since. For every musical production prior to that, except one, I also chose to bring my own console, though a smaller one. Their own console was a 16 channel Mackie useful only for straight plays and other simple sound setups, so it was a bit of a Hobson’s choice in each case.

After Les Miserables, with my guidance and Rivertowne’s stated budget, my wife Allison even managed to locate a suitable console for the theatre that would allow the production of large shows like Les Miserables (and Chicago) without borrowing or renting a console. Allison brokered the purchase, which was well under budget, I tested and commissioned the console, and it is now installed.

But do those substantial donations of professional services qualify me to express my opinions about the board’s lack of transparency and lack of due diligence before making life-changing decisions? Does it entitle me to take the board to task for what seems to have been an unfair decision? The answer seems to be a resounding, “No.”

So they’ve made a choice. Unfortunately, when it comes to this particular artistic endeavor, our choices are diametrically opposite, and it seems we won’t be able to work together going forward. Their choices will set the tone in their house, and my choice will ensure that I’m donating my time, expertise, and professionalism where it’s appreciated, needed, and well stewarded. A board that elevates itself above the many volunteers without whom they could not operate has lost its perspective. I hope they someday regain it.

I have many good memories at Rivertowne, the most extraordinary of which is Les Miserables. The friends (family, really) with whom I worked on those shows will always be my friends. The memories will all remain good ones. But all my new memories will be made on the other side of Broad Street, for now. Eventually, perhaps, sanity will return and I’ll feel right choosing to work on Hancock Street again.

1 Comment

  1. Sadly, as frustrating and painfully disappointing as this situation is, it is, in my humble opinion, not likely to resolve itself to the venue’s favor until attendance wanes significantly and donations dimininish into insolvency…

    Which is prcisely what often follows these egoistic flash points. I mean, finding an equally qualified audio professional willing to step into your shoes, along with the acceptance of the same financial arrangement, is highly unlikely, and those responsible for this executive faux pas are usually more than willing to trade off qualification for a body with a temperature above ambient, so long as it insures they won’t have to come calling, hat in hand, back to the table where generous portions of crow and humble pie await them.

    And to discount qualification in precisely the positions most likely to impact the discernable quality of productions is to guarantee that the word-of-mouth reputations falter to whispers from the rumor mill, and at some point, those with deep pockets will either decide that backing lame asses is not the same as sponsoring a winning horse in another stable, or else will get fed up with throwing good money after bad and decide that the time has finally come to give voice to that money, and insist on changes to correct what really ails the theatre.

    Admittedly, that last one can churn and froth ad nauseum, but eventually one of those two scenarios will occur. One has to only take a quick look at what most of the failing theatres around the country have in common, and it’s a safe bet that you’ll find the same cast of characters (😳) on those boards and lists of “preferred” donors, names changed to protect the guilty, driving away the very individuals capable of lifting mediocre performances to inspiring levels, and leaving audiences to experience the theatrical equivalent of gnawing on soy burgers sold as steak.

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