Local arts activists say they ‘will not accept any more gaslighting’ from Orlando's Mad Cow Theatre

Mad Cow Theatre occupies a second-floor space on Church Street on a lease negotiated by the City of Orlando
Mad Cow Theatre occupies a second-floor space on Church Street on a lease negotiated by the City of Orlando

On July 10, Orlando stage manager Blue Estrella posted on Facebook voicing her frustration with Mad Cow Theatre over her delayed paycheck for their production of Hound of the Baskervilles, joining an illustrious fraternity of local artists who claim they've been ignored or intimidated when asking for their contracted compensation from one of the region's most acclaimed companies.

Mad Cow's July 12 statement regarding the matter dismissed Estrella's post as a "trial by social media" caused by a "payroll timing error," and board chair Kathy Godfrey told Orlando Weekly this week via email that "the employee notified us at 10:45 p.m. that she thought her payment was late. The issue was fixed the following morning. We sincerely regret the delay."

Godfrey blamed the delay on banks receiving funds on different schedules, asserting that "everyone is current, and we are pleased that our staff was retained during the pandemic." According to executive director Mitzi Maxwell, "All contracts at the theatre going forward will explain deposit timing and what to expect."

However, the resulting backlash brought forth a renewed wave of calls for Maxwell's resignation, and reminders that similar promises have been made in the past.

"This is not an attack or a threat [to Mad Cow]. It is a call to accountability. We will not accept any more gaslighting or empty statements."

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If all this sounds tiresomely familiar, you're probably having flashbacks to our reporting from five years ago, when director Aradhana Tiwari sparked a similar firestorm ("Mad Cow Theatre is coming under fire after local artists allege they haven't been paid," Oct. 12, 2016).

This latest conflagration probably would have burned out like the previous ones, if not for the involvement of Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy. Formed during the height of 2020's racial justice protests, CFEA recently held a hard-hitting online forum discussing the progress (or lack thereof) toward local equity in the arts by self-proclaimed allies over the past year, and the organization is following up by making Mad Cow the focus of their first community action campaign.

Citing "profound community concern regarding the safety of Mad Cow Theatre for artists who are involved in productions, both on stage and behind the scenes," CFEA's open list of initiatives include an external investigation of the company's practices within 30 days; a plan for adding new, diverse board members within 60 days; and replacement of the executive director, along with recruitment of a Black or POC artistic director or co-director, within 90 days.

Maxwell told the Orlando Sentinel's Matt Palm that the initiatives were "a bit of a shock" [editor's note: seriously?!] and said that she was open to meeting with CFEA, but Godfrey wrote, "We invited them to talk with us, for the second time. Communication is important."

click to enlarge Meka King, CFEA - photo courtesy of the artist
photo courtesy of the artist
Meka King, CFEA

That prompted a strong response from CFEA founder and lead organizer Meka King. In a conversation last Friday she told me that "CFEA stands firmly by the initiatives we presented to Mad Cow Theatre. They represent both resolution and tangible change."

King went on, "Mad Cow has had a decade to rectify their failing leadership, financial operations, and their diversity and inclusion issues. What the community is calling for is not new or unreasonable. This [CFEA] stand simply means that the buck stops here. Incidents are no longer isolated. There is a well-documented history of abuse and mishandling of artists by this theater. We are not saying that we want the theater to cease to exist. We are saying that we want the abuse to end.

"This is not an attack or a threat," King continued. "It is a call to accountability. Which Mad Cow, along with this entire community, pledged to partake in a year ago. We will not accept any more gaslighting or empty statements. We will only come to the table at this point to help make change happen. That is our mission. That is our only goal."

As for Estrella, she went back to work on the show, including its extension, but the experience left her emotionally wounded. "I love Mad Cow, I love their shows and I love the artists (cast, crew, designers) who I get a chance to work with. It breaks my spirit to where I get depressed when my co-workers or I haven't been paid," she told me.

"The last thing I want is for Mad Cow to fail. All I'm asking is for the chronic behavior of artists having to constantly reach out to get paid has to come to an end. I'm hoping that CFEA can help Mad Cow with these changes to where we can all feel safe knowing that we will get paid on time."

I wish I could be as magnanimous as Estrella, but years of watching talented friends getting taken advantage of has crippled my journalistic objectivity on this topic.

I personally struggled for months to get paid after working for Mad Cow, years before they moved into their rent-free Church Street home, and I have conducted my own silent protest by declining to cover their work (with very rare exceptions) for several years.

As King said, "We believe that there are people who want to be a part of the solution. However, if the head is not changed, then all you are doing is rearranging the chairs in the room. Nothing effective or lasting happens. Mad Cow should give itself a chance to grow, change and thrive with trusted leadership and tangible action."

Sadly, the problems — and their long-needed solutions — extend far beyond any one artist, one executive director or even one company.

First, the City of Orlando needs to separate the operation and booking of publicly owned venues from the artistic organizations that occupy them. The current situation is akin to a taxpayer-funded baseball field being handed over to one particular Little League team, which then only allows its own players to use it.

Second, Central Florida's biggest theater companies all need younger, more colorful leadership at the very top. I'm a bit bitter that my Gen X cohorts (who should be in our career primes) largely lost out on opportunities to lead because late Boomers ahead of us have clung to power, but now it's time to let someone new have a turn running the show.

If you've been in charge of a local nonprofit arts organization for over a decade, I urge you to read "I don't own that job" by Lily Janiak (San Francisco Chronicle, July 7, 2021) and ask yourself what you're doing to make room for the rising generation. Change will be painful, but sometimes you have to sacrifice a sacred cow or two in order to save the herd.

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