The Artists vs. the Flea Theater: ‘We Will Burn It All Down’

Backstage at the Flea. Photo: TODD HEISLER/The New York Times/Redux

When we last checked in on the Flea Theater, good things were happening. In June, galvanized by an open letter from a company actor, the members of the Off–Off Broadway theater had called for a racial and labor reckoning. All eyes were on the downtown house, potentially the industry’s prototype — proof that, in some places at least, the summer calls for justice were bearing fruit. Then, without warning, on December 2, the board unilaterally dissolved its artists’ programs, cutting loose over a hundred affiliated theater-makers. The shock rippled through social media, shaking free painful memories and (in some cases) decades of anger at the venue. A parody Twitter account (now suspended) retweeted accusations going back years; attempts at healing dissolved. An organizer summed up the current mood: “We will burn it all down.”

The story of the Flea captures 2020 in a nutshell. It’s a theater enduring a year in which you can’t gather and make art. It’s a cultural building facing debts without any income. Its unjust structures are being challenged by activists as conflicting narratives emerge about the same small set of facts. And — for added piquancy — social media has made sure everyone is as angry as possible. (There’s even a guest appearance by a liberal celebrity couple, commenting at little cost to themselves!)

Founded in 1996, the Flea is known for its critically acclaimed productions (The Guys with Sigourney Weaver, She Kills Monsters, Syncing Ink) and also for the uncomfortable relationship between its growing capital and continuing reliance on unpaid artists. Actors joined a repertory in which they didn’t just act for nothing (or tiny stipends); they also had to “volunteer,” pitching in on administrative or technical labor, supplementing the work of the paid staff. The Flea is atypical for a downtown theater: It’s not a scrappy band-of-brothers collective. Instead, it’s structured like a university department, in which a tiny permanent core distributes opportunities to a massive and constantly changing constituency. (The unpaid macrocompany accreted to its staggering size because if you don’t pay your actors, there is never a financial reason to ask an actor to go.) There had been power shifts in recent years: In 2015, founding director Jim Simpson stepped down, and Niegel Smith took over as artistic director. Smith is currently the only Black artistic director of a New York theater with a budget of $1.5 million or larger, and he immediately began programming seasons of Black-led work. In 2017, after a successful capital campaign started in the Simpson era, the Flea moved into its very own $25 million building.

Putting a volunteer company in fancy new surroundings made certain disparities stand out more than ever. Actress Bryn Carter’s public letter crisply stated the distance between the Flea’s expressed beliefs and its reality and also named longtime executive director Carol Ostrow as inhospitable to young Black artists. (“You do not know how to speak to Black people,” she wrote.) In June, the Flea’s resident directors, writers, and non-Equity acting company, known as the Bats, organized to fight for a voice in the Flea’s affairs, for acknowledgment of past mistreatment by Ostrow and other staff, and — most important — for pay. It seemed to be working. Smith cheered them on; Ostrow reportedly got a personal anti-racism coach; and the organizers, energized, were forming committees. But just five months later, the Flea’s board — now with a new chair, Nona Hendryx — changed the terms. A week ago, the artists found out (many via the Twitter grapevine) that they had been fired from jobs that didn’t pay in the first place.

Or were they? When I say the word fired to Smith, he lets out a groan. Since they weren’t employees, they can’t be fired, he says, and Smith does not see the dissolution of programs as erasing the theater’s relationship with these particular artists. One of the requirements of rebuilding the organization was to start clean. Stunned by waves of hardship and with only three paid staff members left (out of an original 14 in June), “there’s not the staff bandwidth to support any activities from a company right now,” Smith says. “We’re going ‘down to the studs,’ [so] the energy and perspective has to be about rebuilding. As soon as it became clear to the board that the Flea would not be able to support a large company,” he says, “it seemed important to let folks know.” In the rosiest possible light, the dissolution looks like a kind of victory, since the total reinvention of these programs was the artists-insurgents’ goal all along.

This construction taxes the credulity of the artists I spoke to. The writer and director Ran Xia, who was a resident director at the Flea till the purge, points out that the theater blanked all its social-media accounts and wiped the Bats from its web page just before the notification. “I want to believe that they weren’t aware of the full scale of the impact of what they did,” she says. “But they did delete their social-media presence before this communication was sent out. There was a level of awareness; they didn’t want to receive hate mail.”

The dismissal was also abrupt. For most of November, the Resident Artist Council (RAC) was in a back-and-forth with the administration over artist inclusion on the board, clearly growing impatient at what the artists saw as delaying tactics. (A board accustomed to quarterly meetings and artists who Zoom multiple times a week operate in very different time signatures.) The RAC’s tone grew brusque. Then Hendryx sent a letter to the RAC, dated December 2, which said in part, “Over the next several months, The Flea will embark on a new mission, vision, values process and 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. Artists who have been members of our programs in the past will be invited to apply for this program.” This invitation was seen by several Bats and non-Bats as a way to weed out activists by making them reapply to their unpaid positions. It is signed, “With best intentions, The Board.” (Twitter was particularly vicious about this touch.)

“In retrospect, I get it,” says Smith, anguished by what he sees as a mistake in messaging. Hendryx is more circumspect, though. She joined the board only in 2019, so she doesn’t comment on the difficulties that predate her involvement with the Flea. She swears to her commitment to communication with the artists, but she has clearly chafed at the way all conversation has been funneled through the RAC. According to Liz Morgan, a playwright and organizer, this was meant to protect the Black artists from needing to rehash their concerns. “There were certain things that would need to be in place before artists would feel safe to communicate more directly — even over Zoom — with staff,” she says. “Our mediator told [the staff and board], ‘It’s not appropriate yet to ask artists to speak directly to you.’” In practice, this meant that offers from the board to engage in listening sessions with the BIPOC Bats were rebuffed. In a September 28 email, RAC went further, noting that any conversation between the board and BIPOC artists was contingent on Ostrow’s removal. A subsequent attempt at talks was met with the same condition.

Whether voluntarily or not, the theater did meet the RAC’s ultimatum: On November 2, Ostrow announced her retirement, asking that donors continue to act with “radical love” toward the Flea. It includes no hint of the internal tensions, only “profound gratitude and overwhelming sentiment.” Despite the letter’s tone, this was clearly a profound rupture. She’d been there for 15 years, providing a financial backstop to the organization and serving in multiple capacities without taking a salary. It is probably not a coincidence that the board is now half the size it was — when Ostrow went, other deep pockets went with her. Several sources noted that the financial strain at the Flea has reached a frightening point. The building is valuable, but it doesn’t bring in any income. Boards have fiduciary duties, and, according to Hendryx, “If you do not keep the lights on, there’s nothing to return to. As the more active and working board that we have become — because we are leaner — that has to be our priority. There’s no other priority!”

So what happened in November? According to Xandra Nur Clark, a member of the RAC, “We felt that they were responding to our requests … it wasn’t quite satisfactory, because they didn’t say ‘We have listened to your demand.’ Instead, it was that she has ‘retired’ and no other real explanation. But … that was a success. They were listening to us.” It seems likely that the month was a roller coaster, with board members departing and the sense of crisis escalating. According to Hendryx, the theater was trying to find a way to pay the artists they would invite to sit on the board, a process that took months of working through bylaws and paperwork. Ironically, it is now ready. The Flea’s Twitter account was revived on December 6 to post its invitation to artists to apply for two available board seats; the “exiled” artists rejected it. “We publicly and collectively decline,” they said through their new Twitter account. (They are now calling themselves the Fled.) The group has one request: “Hand over the keys.”

Despite the impressive cohesion from the roughly 40 members who have rallied around the activist RAC, there are other ex-Flea affiliates who do not feel the same. A recent addition to the Bats, Shawn-Herbert Felton, rolls his eyes at the group’s demand for the space. He and I spoke as he was driving to North Carolina, and he seemed to be leaving the Sturm und Drang behind as well. Felton started the summer by participating in one of the committees — the Bats’ Black Artists Collective — but he eventually pulled away. He loves the individual organizers, but he doesn’t feel represented by them. He felt the RAC’s continuing hardball tactics weren’t the right choice. “That was probably one of the most unsurprising emails that I ever got,” he says about the notice that the artists’ programs were being disbanded. “They actually are doing stuff,” he continues. “The woman retired. They said they were gonna pay them to do all these things. And RAC was still saying no. It really felt like a petulant child, and I couldn’t be a part of it.” Other artists were less emphatic, but a few noted — off the record — that the demand for total control was unrealistic. “We won’t be doing a French Revolution here,” one said.

On December 8, founding director Simpson and Sigourney Weaver (who are married) weighed in with a written statement through their personal publicist. “Give them the keys. They’ve more than earned it,” it says. “They sound like enthusiastic, passionate, articulate young theater makers. The building, which is all that’s left after you’ve flushed the Flea’s constituency and programs away, was designed for their use and will suit them. Practically, their season would probably be livelier and of more interest than any that the Flea might propose. Even if it fails it is certain to be interesting. Besides, interacting with people who operate in bad faith is in itself a form of oppression. Remember the theater and the funding the Flea enjoys were built by the sweat equity and the volunteer contributions of hundreds of young people like the company you have summarily dismissed. So while the Flea might call it COVID economy, we call it theft. Give them the keys.”

That’s certainly a high-handed tone to strike, given that Simpson was one of the people who actually built the Flea and presided over many of the harms the Bats past and just-recently-past are claiming. It was under Simpson, not Smith nor Hendryx, that the iniquitous labor structures rose up and calcified, and Simpson and Weaver may be underestimating the difficulty of the task they left behind them. It’s also worth noting that, according to the website, they have ceded their emeritus-board-member statuses. Hendryx and Smith, at least, are still in there swinging.

In fact, a tentative discussion has begun about bringing the Fled back to the Flea — this time as a self-contained, self-programming resident company. The board’s fiduciary responsibilities make the “keys” option nearly impossible — there are legal requirements to simply ceding a nonprofit, including verifying that the incoming administration would have the financial wherewithal to assume the theater’s loans and responsibilities. (Even if the departing board said yes, the banks and the city can say no.) But there might yet be a middle way. And if there’s hope for the Flea, there’s hope for other theaters in need of their own radical refashionings. For all its uniqueness, the company is an instructive example of how New York theater works: People working for pennies entertain patrons of extraordinary wealth. That’s a dissonance that must be reckoned with, not papered over with faux solidarity. As the field finally embarks on desperately important, constitutive repairs to its systems, the pandemic means these delicate conversations happen over email, on Zoom, and on Twitter — the worst-possible environments. In the Flea exchanges, even when people were in total mission-sync, the means of communication introduced additional friction and hurt. What kept striking me as I talked to people who were theoretically oceans apart was how close they were to coming to an agreement. Dolores Pereira, one of the key artist activists, says, “I feel reenergized, actually, reinvigorated after this breakup note.” Some relationships are certainly too toxic to maintain, and perhaps everyone involved here should just walk away. Yet these artists and the Flea don’t seem quite done with each other.

The Artists vs. the Flea: ‘We Will Burn It All Down’