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 Mitzi Maxwell - Image via Mad Cow Theatre
Image via Mad Cow Theatre
Mitzi Maxwell

We also reached out to staff at the city of Orlando and the Orange County Division of Cultural Affairs. It wasn't easy to reach everyone due to Hurricane Matthew, but we did hear back from Cassandra Lafser, spokeswoman for Mayor Buddy Dyer, just before press time. Lafser confirmed that the City's funding agreement and lease with Mad Cow provides the space at 54 W. Church St. rent-free for 20 years, and that Mad Cow must reimburse the city for the theater buildout as well as a monthly Common Area Maintenance fee. "To date, they owe $85,058.48 in CAM fees and $245,000 in reimbursements that have not been paid, Lafser wrote in an email. Regarding the question of payments to artists, Lafser says, "The agreement does not address Mad Cow and their payment to their employees. That is a matter between Mad Cow and their employees."

So where is the money going at Mad Cow if not to its artists? Mad Cow's tax forms help paint a picture of what's going on at the theater company that's registered as a 501 (c)(3) public charity, according to Central Florida Foundation.

Mad Cow lists its mission statement as "the belief that the theatre is a dynamic and powerful means of social understanding, as well as a hugely entertaining art form. Through the combination of passionate, skillful acting and compelling, insightful writing, nurtured by an attentive and ever-changing process, Mad Cow presents entertaining works of theatre to an ever-widening audience – promoting, enhancing, and celebrating the human condition through art," according to the Central Florida Foundation.

In an audited financial statement ending on June 30, 2015, Mad Cow says it received $572,124 in grants and donations from the local community, including: $96,834 from the United Arts of Central Florida and its supporting organizations; $75,000 from Orange County; $204,193 from corporations, foundations and individuals; and $127,897 in "in-kind contributions" of professional services. The theater itself pulled in revenues of $420,256. But Mad Cow spent almost $1.4 million in production costs and other expenses, far outspending its total revenue.

Tiwari, Marinaccio and others say they often questioned why the theater put on 10 shows a year and hired Equity actors when it could not afford to pay everybody else on time. Tiwari says Maxwell told her not putting on those shows would be like the professional theater company taking a step back.

Mad Cow's 2015 audited financial statement says the theater company still owes the city's Community Redevelopment Agency $308,458. The CRA loaned Mad Cow $480,000 in 2011 for theater buildout costs, and while that money was due at the end of 2014, the financial statement says Mad Cow hasn't been able to pay due to "project cost overruns and related delays." The statement also adds that various board members and related family members had loaned Mad Cow money for a total of $165,275 by the middle of last year. According to 2014 tax returns, Jean Siegfried loaned the theater $7,000 in 2013/2014, of which $7,000 is still owed; Barbara Maxwell loaned $12,003 in 2010 and is owed $16,806; and Mitzi Maxwell made a loan of $80,664, also in 2010, with $141,469 now owed. Interest is accruing on these loans, but it's not clear if payments are actually going out.

In regards to the loans, Wang says "every board member has made a personal sacrifice in order to help with this issue."

Others have pointed out that it seems to be a conflict of interest to have Maxwell both as Mad Cow's executive director and as a treasurer on the board. Wang agrees, and says the board addressed the issue two months ago by asking Maxwell to step down from the position and appointing that responsibility to two other board members. Wang adds that the reason Maxwell held those positions despite the conflict is because Mad Cow is a small organization and finding people to do that kind of work is challenging.

Margot Knight, past president and CEO of United Arts of Central Florida, says she has a lot of respect for the work of Maxwell and others at Mad Cow for surviving in a financially hostile situation in regards to rent downtown. Knight says right before she left United Arts in 2011, she was contacted by several artists who complained about Mad Cow being late with payments. After speaking with Mad Cow's board, United Arts offered to loan Mad Cow money to resolve the issue, but Knight remembers Mad Cow told them they could handle the issue.

"It's a tough marketplace for arts and culture in Orlando, but it's still not an excuse to not pay artists," she says. "But it's irresponsible to imagine Mad Cow's demise. It's too important to the audience and to downtown."

Knight adds that she feels bad for everyone involved in the situation, including Maxwell, who has been the focus of online attacks.

"Some of the attacks Mitzi has been getting have been over the top," she says. "I think we should focus on the problem. I understand the frustration, but we need to make this about the process and remedying the situation, not about the people."

Martha Haynie, comptroller for Orange County, was selected to be on Mad Cow's board back when its financial issues became known to a wider audience in 2014. Haynie says she has since stepped down from the position because Mad Cow simply needed more attention than she could give.

"I knew that they had some big problems and if I stayed onboard, it would be my responsibility to fix them," she says. "But I didn't have the time or energy, and I don't like to just be a name on the letterhead."

"It's important to pay people for what they do," she says. "Artists have to feed their children and pay rent, too. As this community celebrates its beautiful cultural facilities, we need to pay attention to the incredible local talent that we've got and nurture them as well."

In a final Facebook post on Oct. 4, Tiwari says the Mad Cow Theatre family is a tribe that needs to support the artists who are telling their stories about delinquent payments.

"I get that many of you are upset with me," she writes. "I may be sacrificing my friendship with some of you by saying the following, but family tells the truth to each other. Even when it's inconvenient. Even when it's impolite."

We heard back from Terry Olson, director of Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs, the day after our print deadline. He had this to say: "Orange County is concerned that the operations of all the organizations in which we invest are sustainable, and that they continue to produce quality performances and exhibitions that help elevate the status of Central Florida’s arts and cultural affairs to that befitting a world-class community."

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