Mad Cow Theatre is coming under fire after local artists allege they haven’t been paid

Mad about the money

Mad Cow Theatre is coming under fire after  local artists allege they haven’t been paid

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click to enlarge Mad Cow Theatre is coming under fire after  local artists allege they haven’t been paid
Image via Mad Cow Theatre

Michael Marinaccio, an actor and producer of the Orlando Fringe Festival, had a similar experience to Williams. He was paid on time and in full for participating in plays like Master Harold and the Boys at the beginning of his association with Mad Cow, but as he began to get more involved in the company by teaching classes and directing shows, his paychecks were withheld starting in 2007.

When he finally left in 2011, Mad Cow owed him about $4,000, and he didn't receive that money until 2014, two days before the Orlando Sentinel interviewed him about the financial problems at Mad Cow. Mad Cow's lease with the city was rent-free but the theater company still had to pay monthly utility fees and monthly maintenance fees that in the third year of the lease totaled about $2,000. The Sentinel reported Mad Cow was "required to reimburse the city $480,000, plus 5 percent interest, for converting the space in the 54 West development into a theater." By 2014, Mad Cow was past due about $154,000, including interest, and artists it contracted told the Sentinel some of them waited four years to get the money they were owed, while some said they were "using personal funds to build sets for the theater's shows, or delaying the purchase of props while scrambling to find ways to pay for them."

"When I spoke to the Sentinel in 2014, they promptly started paying everyone they owed money to," he says. "I had thought, had hoped, that was the end of it, that we could put that terrible time behind us and Mad Cow could try to earn back the support of the community that it had lost."

Through the years, Marinaccio says again and again artists would tell him Mad Cow continued to pay them late or not pay them at all. After seeing Aradhana Tiwari's post on Facebook, he decided he couldn't be quiet any longer.

"One of the things that held me back over the years is I still love the theater I helped to build, the theater that helped make me the artist that I am," he says. "I didn't want it to go up in flames. ... I never told an artist not to work there. I tried to just stay out and hope that it would be corrected. I think that was naive and a little bit cowardly on my behalf, and I apologize to all the artists who were there because I helped enable that behavior."

Artists who have recently worked for Mad Cow have stories that mirror many of the experiences of Williams and Marinaccio. Actor Becky Eck says every single contract she's had with the company lapsed 90 days past the closing date of a show. Charles Hale and Donald Smith, two staff employees at Mad Cow who worked in production, say they both dealt with artists who constantly inquired about their paychecks. Orange County court records show that in 2012, Dahlquist Printing and Graphics, Inc. sued Mad Cow for not paying $827 for postcards. The case was later settled by both parties and ended up being voluntarily dismissed. Amanda Brumby, a costume designer, says she threatened legal action and even ransomed costumes she created for the production of The Dead until she was paid by Mad Cow.

"I have never, ever, in my 10 years of working in theater, been paid late by anyone other than Mad Cow," she says, a sentiment echoed by many of the artists Orlando Weekly interviewed. "I have also never been concerned that I was never going to be paid until I worked with Mad Cow."

Tiwari says she became Mad Cow's resident director in 2014 despite knowing about the allegations that artists were paid late and despite the fact that she was owed money from previous shows. Soon after starting her employment, her paychecks started to fall behind for months. It was hard to watch the many Equity actors included in shows get paid regularly while she and the rest of Mad Cow's staff fell behind. During her tenure there, Mad Cow would host fundraisers, once asking donors to give money for "health care for the artists," but Tiwari says that money never went to pay for health care for Mad Cow's staff.

"Some of us on staff weren't sure if the board of directors even knew what was going on," she says. "Every time we wanted to bring this up to them, we weren't allowed to email them, we were warned not to. In two years, we weren't asked or even allowed to go to one board meeting, and in my draft agreement, it says we're supposed to attend all meetings."

When she did get checks, Tiwari says she would get two or three checks at a time written for the correct pay period – once she even got an envelope full of them – and sometimes Mad Cow management would ask her not to cash her checks until a certain date.

"It's kind of like they were just dangling a carrot in front of us," she says. "All of it revolved based on where we were with a production. What they would spend on a play would affect whether or not you get paid that week."

After a little more than a year of frustration, Tiwari says she decided to resign and make an effort to get from Mad Cow the last $800 they owed her from two years ago. When she was ignored, she took to social media, setting off a discussion in the theater community that has evolved to include asking for a boycott against Mad Cow.

"I wish I had left sooner," Tiwari says. "When I wrote that letter on Facebook, I didn't have an agenda and I wasn't looking to take legal action. I just wanted to create stuff."

Orlando Weekly reached out to Maxwell and Mad Cow's board of directors and other employees to respond to these allegations, and received a response from Alvin Wang. Aside from being dean of the Burnett Honors College and a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, Wang is also on the board of directors for Mad Cow Theatre.

Wang says the board is aware of artists' posting on social media and adds that Mad Cow needs to correct these late payments, an issue which the board finds "unacceptable" and has taken "very seriously and very deliberately," according to Wang. But, he says, there has been a "mischaracterization online" about what exactly the board knew about Mad Cow's payments.

"There is no question that Mad Cow has been late in payments," he says. "This has been going on for quite some time and it needs to stop. The [board] members will be the first to say that this was not right and it needs to be corrected as soon as we possibly can. Some of mischaracterizations really have to do with how the board operates and the sense that in some way, we're withholding payments or support because we can, because we're just kind of sloppy maybe, or we're not caring or not paying attention, and that isn't the case at all."

Wang says Mad Cow's board is working on a plan for late payments to be corrected as soon as possible. Wang also added that the extent to which there had been late payments for years was not fully revealed to the board until recently.

"We were kept apprised that we were typically one or two payments behind, which, to put that in terms of a bi-weekly salary, meant we were two to four weeks behind in payments," he says. "The two years that I've been on the board, we were told basically it was two to four weeks and it would be manageable. The board is still discovering right now the extent to which we need to basically make good on the money we owe to people. ... It was courageous for some of these artists to let this issue be known to us, because I'm not sure the board would have discovered otherwise."

Wang didn't answer a question about whether there would be any changes in Mad Cow's executive staff, but says the board of directors is looking at what expenses they can cut this season and in the theater's upcoming productions, yet maintain the production quality. He has heard about the petition for people to boycott Mad Cow until they are paid, and says that while he understands these sentiments, that would mean Mad Cow would have less revenue to start making payments.

"It's difficult because there's no fat to cut away here," he says. "In other words, we're not sitting on a nest egg. If we had the funds currently to pay everyone, we would do so. We don't have that funding. We're sorry that this has happened and people were put through this experience."

Wang says the board wants to see everyone paid and Mad Cow Theatre succeed.

"There have definitely been some financial and management issues that need to be corrected," he says. "But I hope everyone understands that ultimately our intention is to provide an uplifting and artistic vision to the Central Florida community, one which Mad Cow does very well in terms of the front end. We need to work on the back end process."

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