One of Those People

I have become one of those people.

After years of telling people that I was the luckiest former actor I knew, that I loved going to work every day, that I was living my childhood dream, that I had the most amazing partnership in the business, that I couldn’t imagine doing what I did anywhere else, after nearly twenty-five years, it was over. Florida Stage, my life’s work, my definition of myself—“Hi, I’m Nan Barnett, from Florida Stage”—suddenly, completely, poof—gone.

I was very proud of the story of our growth, of the work produced, and of the artists and artisans that we worked with as we grew. We had begun bringing unknown plays to the “cultural wasteland” that was Palm Beach County in 1987. Five seasons later, with a subscribership that regularly topped five thousand or more annually, we moved into a jewel box of a theater—an intimate 250 seat, three-quarter round modified thrust. We were committing to developing, and producing, three to five brand new plays per season with playwright participation. The rest of the forty-plus weeks of the season were dedicated to subsequent productions of work recently premiered elsewhere.

From the beginning, I took great pride in the care that we lavished on people and plays. My vision of a theatrical life was rooted in my Southern childhood of family, hospitality, and the camaraderie that went into the “I’ve got a barn, your mom has some lipstick” sort of creative process. I married an actor who felt the same. Our home became the site of countless cast parties, twenty-plus years of “orphans” Thanksgivings, thousands of provocative discussions, and five theater-family weddings. Talented and successful writers and directors, designers and actors stayed at our house, ate my husband’s cooking, and asked after our son by name. It added up to a life I loved.

Florida Stage became the largest regional theater in the nation producing exclusively new and developing work. We were living the dream of creating issue-driven new work for the American canon. The staff was amazing: skilled, smart, creative, and dedicated to the company and the idea of new work. Our audiences, who clamored for dramas and discussions, were constantly reminded that they were a part of the growth of plays that the rest of the country would be seeing next season.

We became known for premieres, but we also loved getting to work on the second or third production with a playwright. William Mastrosimone, Lee Blessing, Israel Horovitz, Michael Hollinger, Aaron Posner, and David Rambo, among others, brought us their work so they could have another look. I was part of the team that developed the Continued Life of New Plays Fund for National New Play Network, which cemented my beliefs that there were some really wonderful writers working in the regions that deserved a place at the national table, and that work during subsequent productions was vital to the long-term success of new pieces. One of my greatest joys was to see plays that Florida Stage had premiered or had a hand in—Tom Gibbon’s Permanent Collection, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days, Steven Dietz’ Yankee Tavern, Carter W. Lewis’ Story-Telling Ability of A Boy, Jeffrey Hatcher’s Ella, Christopher McGovern’s Backwards in High Heels, and many others—sweep across the country.

We created our 1st Stage Festival, a week-long round of rehearsals, discussions, readings, and events. Seventy percent of the plays involved reached full production within two years, many of them on our stage in their first incarnation. Horovitz, John Guare, Frances Sternhagen, Michael Bigelow Dixon, Mastrosimone, Nilo Cruz, Todd London, Laufer, Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Liz Engleman, Marco Ramirez, Marsha Norman, Dietz, and many others came to play, along with thirty or more South Florida artists and our staff each year. It was a blast.

We were one of the most well respected organizations in the country because of our commitment to developing and producing new plays and our dedication to those who made them. We were the favorite of our audience, our community, and our artists.

We may have been some or even all of these things.

But now, what we are is history.

Our rent and overhead in the plaza by the ocean steadily increased over the nineteen years of our time there, and facility costs were approaching 20 percent of our annual budget. After the Madoff scandal rocked the philanthropic community of Palm Beach County to the core, wiping out foundations and individuals, we evaluated our situation. We made a decision, and took refuge in the black box of a beautiful, welcoming performing arts center, cutting our expenses drastically and moving into the heart of the community. It all seemed perfect.

Until it got tough. Our wonderful subscribers weren’t happy with the location (it was eight miles away) or the new space. The new audiences were coming in, but not fast enough to fill the million dollar hole we had dug for ourselves between losing 15 percent of our old subscribers and 37 percent of our performances in order to fit the first season into the existing schedule of the center.

The board went through its own changes. We lost several of our most charismatic and passionate cheerleaders to the recession, retirement, or death. New board members (and there were several great ones) floundered while the remaining trustees sought their footing in the new location. Our three-step plan of raising $500,000 for the move, $1 million for a cash reserve and $1 million for an endowment—a total of $2.5 million in two and a half years, to be completed by the end of the 25th Anniversary—went out our beautiful new third floor office windows after the first goal was met. We were without a trustee to lead the effort, and the development staff was scrambling to help make payroll. For the first time in the history of the organization, we struggled with cash flow for months on end and couldn’t pay our bills.

 

Our rent and overhead in the plaza by the ocean steadily increased over the nineteen years of our time there, and facility costs were approaching 20 percent of our annual budget. After the Madoff scandal rocked the philanthropic community of Palm Beach County to the core, wiping out foundations and individuals, we evaluated our situation. 

 

a woman smiling at the camera
Nan Barnett. Photo by Florida Theater on Stage. 

As my father was very ill, I attended the May finance committee meeting via phone. There was no mention of impending doom. Back in Florida for a staff meeting one week later, I shared that I felt that Florida Stage had turned the corner. Although we’d be tightening our belts once again, and the next few months were going to require some real sacrifices, we already had more sponsorships committed for the next season, our twenty-fifth, than ever before. We had received word of significant gift increases at the national and local level. Foundation gifts were on the rise. A large estate gift from a much loved former trustee would be the catalyst for renewing our efforts to meet our endowment goal. The board leadership had been invigorated by a conversation with the CEO of the center, who had challenged them to take on the fundraising efforts needed to secure the future of the company in our new home. Yes, the summer show was selling slowly, and subscriptions renewals were down, but there was money in the bank and pledges due that would see us through. We were making headway on the debts, changes to the physical space in response to some of the audiences’ issues, and there was an innovative marketing campaign on deck for continuing to grow audiences.

Three hours later, with an action plan for the upcoming quarter in hand, I went to lunch with a few board members. It quickly became apparent that they weren’t interested in my proposals, or any discussion of the future. I asked if something had been decided that I was unaware of and was told that we were going to meet with an attorney to look into our options. There we were joined by the executive committee of the Board of Trustees. On the advice of attorneys who specialized in not-for-profit bankruptcies (isn’t that a funny phrase?) without the input of the contracted financial consultants or the staff, the committee determined to recommend to the full board that Florida Stage be no more.

My sister called to say that our dad was running out of time. I needed to come home. At the end of the day I was in a meeting with the board treasurer and my producing partner of twenty-four years, preparing the timeline, a plan of action for the announcement, and pulling together the information they needed for a press release and the staff discussion. While still trying to get my head around what had happened, I said “I may be delusional, but…” intending to reiterate my request for the time to look into other options, to mount a campaign, to seek advice from others in our industry, and gather information. My partner reached over and patted my arm. “You are delusional,” he said. “It’s over.”

I was told to pack my bags, go home, and be with my family—the final graceful act of Florida Stage, which had been renowned for how well it treated its employees and guests. On Friday, thirty-seven minutes after my son and I arrived at the family farm, our dad, my beloved Doc, peacefully departed our world.

The full board was sent an email and asked to vote. They never met face to face to discuss the situation. We closed, as scheduled, the world premiere of Carter W. Lewis’ The Cha Cha of A Camel Spider, an astounding piece, beautifully produced, about the Muslim American experience, the rampaging corporate mercenaries filling the Middle East, slam poetry, and the power of Led Zeppelin, on Sunday June 5, 2011. And on Monday, while I was at my dad’s funeral, the staff was told that Florida Stage had ceased operations. The fact that I didn’t have to be there was, I think, Doc’s parting gift to me.

At least one board member found out that we were no more when a shocked employee changed his Facebook status to “formerly employed at Florida Stage.” I know that my life changed that day in more ways than I can count. That I changed. And I know that what I am now is one of those people.

I am one of those people who are unemployed. Who are uninsurable. Who didn’t save for a rainy day. Who spent their entire career with a single employer that no longer exists. I am one of those people who neglected their family and friends, their health and their relationships, for something I believed in and loved, something so secure and consuming and important—and, as it turns out, so very easily ended.

I am now one of those people who are not distinguishable from the crowds of former employees of theaters that have declared bankruptcy, those companies who didn’t pay their royalties, who dumped their staff without warning, who left actors without a show. One of those people who moved into a new space and very quickly closed, had their Equity bond revoked, has had their company car repossessed, and was served with a court summons during dinner. I am one of those people who, despite years of pouring everything I had into making Florida Stage successful, couldn’t stop its failure.

I have become one of those people who gets talked about—with concern, hatred, disgust, empathy, in that way that I have talked about others’ failures, wondering why they didn’t? Or what if they had? I have been made fearful by others’ failures. Failure equals loss, and loss—be it of a parent or a relationship or of a dream—is hard and awful. In the failure of others we see how close we are to losing it all, too.

I have become one of those people I never thought I’d be, one of those people you think you’ll never be, one of those people that any of us can become at any time.

 

I have learned to say thank you to offers of help and to accept these gifts with a sense of pride instead of shame, because I have, would and will do the same.

 

I have also become one of those people who has taken it on the chin, gotten up again, and kept going. Who has been shaken to their core. I’ve become one of those people whose teenage son has held them while they cried. Who has had friends and family loan them money, give them plane tickets and a weekend in the country, surprise them with a drink, a meal, a visit. I have learned to say thank you to offers of help and to accept these gifts with a sense of pride instead of shame, because I have, would and will do the same. I have become a person who has time for her husband, her best friends, old acquaintances, new projects, herself. I am now one of those people who have gratefully taken stock of their network, who has updated her resume, and set up a lovely home office. I have become one of those people who has given glowing references, packed folks off to grad school and new jobs, and helped celebrate astounding career tangents.

I’m working at being happy to be one of those people who used to produce very high quality new work at a really wonderful theater with amazing colleagues and extraordinarily talented artists. One of those people who had a hand in spinning plays and people across the landscape of the American theater.

I am one of those people who helped bring, and hopefully will continue to help bring, new works to life. And it looks as though one of those new works is going to be me. An older, wiser, smarter, prouder, stronger me.

And I am okay with that.

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I was always so impressed with you and Florida Stage. For me it was as good as it gets in professional regional theatre. A great loss to the theatre community....but as you state NOTHING IS FOREVER.But you still have your amazing skills and I personally would revere the opportunity to be connected with you in some capacity.Please contact me.....and thanks for sharing this hearfelt piece

THANK YOU FOR THIS POWERFUL LETTER, NAN ... Makes me Love and Admire you all the more (as if that were possible) Life is a Trip ... Hope to see you soon along the way ... Thanks for Everything ... LOVE ALWAYS, SUNNY

Dear Nan,I am one of those people employed by you, who still talks about the wonderful time I had working in your community. I was one of four women in STRING OF PEARLS during the 2005 season. I stay in contact with Brandy Camille Huff, also employed by you as an intern that year, and she sent me this link. I overheard someone in a theatre in NYC say that Florida Stage was no more, I was shocked, but not surprised after knowing what the community had been through only recently. What you have contributed to so many people on both sides of the footlights is priceless. If this were your obituary, it would be elegant and worthy of a woman who wanted and did make an incredible impact on American Theatre. It is not your final mark, nor in my mind your greatest, that is yet to be determined. Be well, know that many people think of you, and wish you only the best.Trish McCall

I just want to echo the sentiments expressed by so many here; you have written a heartbreaking and very powerful piece. Thank you for putting your experiences on paper for the rest of us.

I too was one of the lucky ones that got to spend time (although only the summer in 1995) at Florida Stage and with Nan. My first gig with a professional theatre soon after graduating from college! I couldn't have asked for a better start. I give this theatre all the credit for my love and devotion to writers and new work. They set the standard and started the journey for this impressionable young artist.And also taught me how to see our world as a family - the young and new, the old and devoted, the here-now-gone-later and the always-back-for-more. Nan took care of me like an adopted child of the family and I hope I have done the same for others.Thank you Nan and Florida Stages. A fond and very sad adieu!Kappy

Nan, you gave so many of us not only a theatrical home, but a personal one, too. You welcomed us into your life and family; your generosity of spirit, heart, (and miata keys) will be with me always -- with so so many of us.You are a force in the American Theatre -- and you do it through humor, laughter, fun, heart ... as well as your darn smarts.I can't wait to see what's next.xoLiz

Nan,

This is a stunning account of an amazing woman who gifted this community and indeed this country with the passion and fortitude to make Florida Stage a first class cultural force. Yes, it took a village, but you were a huge part of its success. I am so sorry to no longer have the joy of attending the performances. I look forward to seeing more of you ON STAGE, and I am quite certain you also have a great future in writing! Love to you, Gordon, and Hunter.

Hi Nan,

I was an intern in the 2000-2001 season and a box office/subscription staff member for the 2001-2002 season. My time at Florida Stage was life changing. I learned so much about myself and about my love for theatre that I can not say. I attended those "orphans" Thanksgivings and cast parties. I was happy there.

When I saw Jimmy's post the press release on the day the theatre closed I was in shock. I shared stories of my time there with my friend at work and as I taught my 6-12th grade theatre students, I couldn't take Florida Stage off my mind.

I can't imagine it not being there--the freezing cold bathrooms, the smell of coffee from the green room, the fact that everyone needed to sit downstage center because of their vision problems. I will fondly miss it all.

Good luck with your future endeavors!! You have landed on your feet and are ready for your new adventure!!

Dee

Thank you, Nan, for this beautiful lament and rallying call. The THEATRE, it is said, is an exacting mistress. And the economy is a kind of shameless whore. I, too, am proud to weather the storms and still do my work, and I have such admiration for all of us who have made lives in the Theater. This story should be read by every youngster who dares to dream the dream...and I'll see to it that my students do just that.

Though my role at Florida Stage was certainly nothing compared to the tireless and impeccable Nan Barnett's, I miss it from afar. I ache that it's done. And I can't wait to see what Phoenix will rise from its ashes.

Hi--

I am a NY actor with friends who have worked at Florida Stage and had nothing but good things say about it. I'm not a regular reader of this blog. I just stumbled on it this morning. But your post moved me very much. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your journey.

And thank you for the passion you put forward all those years. A theater touches so many people in so many ways. Audiences, artists, technicians, administrators. Their families, their friends. The community.

Your work has been and will continue to be valued. And necessary. So thank you. Wishing you all good things.

Nan,I've so dearly missed my time at Florida Stage. I've always harbored a secret wish to return and once again take part in such wonderful and inspiring work. You should know that I always describe Florida Stage to my students as the ideal working environment. It will be missed. Thank you for helping to make such a place possible for the time that it lived and flourished.

I do hope that your rebuilding goes well. Perhaps you'll find later that you merely needed to clear a few items from your desk to accomplish even greater things.

All of my best wishes to you, Gordon and Hunter.

D.

I am simply overwhelmed. Your comments, calls, and emails have been most welcome and moving, and I am thrilled to know that our legacy of supporting artists and projects will live on. It's been a pretty emotional day: all of this, plus I think I found health insurance, the bankruptcy has been finally been filed, and I'm starting rehearsal this week for a show at Caldwell. Back to the beginning. Putting my tap shoes back on (not literally, thank God!) and throwing myself back out there, especially with all of this encouragement, feels pretty good. I hope, in some way, to be serving the new play field again very soon. Let me know your ideas...

Dear Nan - Thank you for your frank and profoundly moving piece. All of us who had professional dealings with you will miss your theatre. Florida Stage behaved, if I may use an old-fashioned word, with honor - you put an ideal before your self-interest. Now you are paying a personal price - but it also sounds like you have come to understand that there is profound and lasting value of what you have done, measured in indelible memories and changed lives.

Bravo, Florida Stage

Dear NanI've been a professional playwright for over thirty years and I have never been treated better than I was by Florida Stage. You did great work with grace and goodness. I am so sorry for West Palm and for the rest of the country that the rug was pulled out from under you by members of your board -- theater boards do awful things as well as good. But the death of your theater -- and so many of us have mourned the loss as a death -- does not diminish the wonder and the joy and the art of the 24 years of Florida Stage. Thank you. Much love and respect, Claudia Allen

A beautifully written piece - I add my thank-you to the list of friends here.

Nan,

This was really beautiful and brave. It reminded me that even the parts of theater we think are forever are really only as ephemeral as productions themselves.

It also made me rueful of the fact we won't have your strong and loving guidance at the Showcase this November. Thank you for writing so clearly about our cruel and beautiful art.

Although we thought there were no words to express our feelings about the ending of an important era in our lives, we were wrong. There are words, and they have been shared here. Thank you.

Having been one of "those people" from time to time, I welcome you to our humble, tenacious tribe. Thank you for the brutally honest yet inspiring essay.

Thank you, Nan for this courageous and wonderful essay. Thank you for all you have done and will continue to do for the theatre, your family and for the state of the arts across the US. I hope I get to meet you one day.

This reminded me again of why we here at Abrams always thought so highly of Florida Stage - and of you. It did break my heart - again -to read this. The theater is so so missed and I don't think we're all out of shock quite yet ourselves. But yes, people of your caliber, heart, intelligence, commitment is the the one of those people you, and Lou and I suspect many many of the people who worked there, truly are. You have a lot of support in the field and I'm sure many many people are eager for the opportunity to show it.

thanks for this post.

Dear Nan, to say the end of Florida Stage is heartbreaking is an understatement. Thanks to you and Lou, it was a thrilling, generous, fun and wonderfully challenging place for an artist to work. While the theatre is gone, your talent is not. In these absurdly difficult times, that talent is even more valuable. You may have to move on from Tennescotia, but there will be many more opportunities for you and Gordon; you're simply too good at what you do - both of you - for there not to be a stimulating future. Thanks for putting your view of the story on the record. What an awful experience to endure (at home and work). Much love, Rambo

Dear Nan,Your kindness to actors who worked at Florida Stage, the generosity and hospitality you showed, your passion for creating theatre, your sense of humor and delight in life are the best investment imaginable. I have no doubt that you will find a venue for your talent, and continue to teach us how it should be done, with grace, a laugh, a heaping plate of home cooked food.Thank you for writing so well about this awful situation. I look forward to brighter things for you. Love from me and Michael.

Board leadership in non-profits seems to be a failure in so many companies, but in this particular situation, a travesty. Nan and Lou were an amazing partnership and did not fail their company. We can only hope they both land on their feet with another company of their own making or with some lucky theatre in need of crystal clear guidance. Nan helped me in so many ways to open my own professional theatre company. There are so many of us out here who owe nan more than we can repay. I believe in Mrs. Barnett. We should all be so lucky to have such a brilliant, friend, mentor, and artist to work with! Great article.

Nan: this is a remarkable piece from a remarkable woman and an amazing theatre producer. None of that can be taken from you. I applaud your courage in writing about this since many of us out in the hinterlands have considered the demise of Florida Stage as an utter and complete mystery. This is a cautionary tale for us all. Thank you for putting it out there--I can't wait to experience your next chapter!

Janet Allen

Wow. As someone who has had the rug of life pulled out from under her more than once, I relate. And I don't think it's been said better. Thank you for writing this.

You are one of the people who changed my life. Who gave me a career. Who set an example of how to have a family and a theater life. Who makes me laugh. Who gives me hope. You're crazy smart and funny and strong and kind and generous. You're someone everyone in the country was lucky to have launching new plays, doing the hard work.One of the first things I said to David when I heard was "Nan will be all right. She'll be a major force in the theater for the next 40 years." I believe in you completely. And love you.Deb

You live to fight another day. Thank you for the great swirling truth. The whole story is better than the terse obit and financial stats. After which the ranks close and act like nothing happened. I have been witness to this process. The greater thing is to go on to another day. People have written well here in response to you. This story should be widely published. Hope to meet you one day!!

I am left wanting to phone you--make that hug you and to say thank you for your candor and bare boned honesty. I'm frankly too moved right at the moment to say much more, other than echo what Mr. Routhier has offered, I believe you will continue to be a force, this clearly establishes that. Again, thank you, Nan.

Beautifully written, Nan. An older, wiser, smarter, prouder, stronger you will continue to be a force in the American Theatre, and luckily for me, a grace in my life.

What a beautifully written piece – thank you so much! When I first started reading, it was with great dread, fearing that I was reading my own future, and reflecting on my own choice to invest so much of my life into my work at the expense of personal life and relationships. But as I read on I was first comforted, and then inspired. It is a great tragedy for the American Theater to lose a brilliant theater, dedicated to developing new work and building our cultural legacy; but it would be an even greater tragedy if out of all that, we lost the heart and passion of someone who cares so deeply out her work, and the work of so many others.

There are so many gifts in this story, not the least of which is that is the personal balance that so many of us struggle with – and how devastating it can be when we feel ourselves sort of unceremoniously dropped by the thing that we held so close.

But another gift, if we are willing to take it up, is the opportunity to reflect on the culture of theater in general. Just a couple of weeks ago I passed a major U.S. theater that was in the midst of spending over 30 million dollars to re-do its front of house. My first thought was “that’s what the death of at least 30 smaller theater companies looks like.” Yes, there are a million reasons why that particular set of funds isn’t transferable from one situation to the other – but there are values in play that are worth examining.

Than you for this deeply moving, and graceful account... The shift in those final two paragraphs from "someone who used to" to "someone who will" says it all.. Yes you will continue to midwife and to give birth to new works of all sorts. Birth hurts, but I know the generosity of this piece and your lucidity and resolve will be a generative part of how this rebirthing happens...Thank you again...

Thanks, Nan, for giving such beautiful voice to the heart of the story. Maybe part of your future will entail writing, especially about your experiences. I'm probably not the only one who'd love to hear more about some of those "midwife" experiences you had in helping bring to life new and newer plays as well as the careers of such a wide variety of artists. Hugs, Cheryl

You are one of those people who produces beautiful theater, but also cares about writers and their families and made me and mine feel at home. I will always be grateful. xo Tammy

you are also one of those people who have given voice to the experience that many are silently having--some of them alone. you are one of those people asking us to remember our great good fortune, to reach out to those whose good fortune is lacking. you are one of those people continuing to make us t h i n k .

thank you for your words, i trust your theater work will continue and grow.

Nan, though the ending may have been painful, your work in South Florida was so not a waste of time. You have a beautiful, productive, production life ahead of you.

This is probably one of the most moving things I've ever read, Nan. Let's chat soon. As always, mi casa, su casa. I want you to come up to Orlando for PlayFest and perhaps the STA conference to talk about this. Love you so much. Patrick

This is a very touching, and moving post. I think it's very courageous as well. I am praying that things turn out better than you think they will, and I am so sorry you lost your Father, especially during a stressful time. I really hope we get a chance to work together when the time is right. You're a Classy Chick! Lela Elam