Off-Off-Broadway’s Flea Theater will terminate its resident artist programming, including its non-Equity acting company The Bats and its writer and director programs, later this month, citing “the economic realities of the pandemic.” The company states that it intends to implement new programs and organizational designs—ones where “anti-oppression will be the rubric”—in 2021. That promise, however, is met with skepticism by the artists, with news of their dismissal arriving on the heels of a public reckoning; in the past six months, former and current artists have united to speak out about a culture of racial inequality and intimidation at the institution.
In the wake of an open letter by former Bats member Bryn Carter that called out the disconnect between the Flea’s public allyship with Black Lives Matter and internal practices, a collective of the Flea’s resident artists released 10 “non-negotiable demands” that included legitimate wages as opposed to stipends, artist representation on the board. (An 11th—the resignation of Producing Director and Board President Carol Ostrow—was subsequently added.)
In the months that followed, the artists formed a Resident Artist Council, structured in a non-hierarchical model that aimed to center BIPOC voices. They established committees to address racial justice, healing and restorative justice, economic justice, and anti-harassment, as well as a planning subcommittee—comprised primarily of resident artists who were white-passing allies—to serve as intermediaries between the council and the staff and board.
The planning committee met with staff, including Ostrow and Artistic Director Niegel Smith, before beginning to meet with the board at large. Oscar Cabrera, a leader in the Economic Justice Committee and a member of the planning team, says that they had received signs of acceptance of the first 10 demands, but as conversations with the board continued, the execution of them faded. “That’s when we received a lot of resistance on a lot of our ideas,” he says. “There was a lot of momentum, then when we were figuring out what the specifics were, it felt like they were having pacifying tactics with us.”
Meanwhile, the institution faced a fall of continued shutdowns in light of the health crisis, which continues to keep in-person performance largely at a standstill. A representative for the company confirmed that leadership did begin to discuss the potential of digital alternatives that included the artists, though the conversations did not progress to the point of discussing specific compensation.
“There was hesitance from the artists,” says Liz Morgan, who was a member of the Flea’s writers’ program Serials before leaving the company in the fall, as well as of the Council’s Healing & Restorative Justice Committee. “Until we had seen the other part of the work, which was very specific implementation of our demands, it wasn’t going to feel like a safe space to collaborate….so they have not had the opportunity to follow through on their promise to pay the actors and directors for their work.”
The board’s letter to the Resident Artist Council announcing the terminations (sent December 3 afternoon) stated that previous resident members would be “invited to apply” for the new programs, which would provide compensation “albeit to a smaller group of artists.” Neither the capacity of the new residencies nor details of financial backing were stipulated.
To many members of the collective, this uncertainty underscores concerns that the downsizing is a retaliation against those who’ve spoken out. “There’s no transparency on what this process would look like, and it looks like a purging of the people that are trying to hold them accountable,” says Adam Coy, a member of the Resident Artist Council who serves on the group’s Racial Justice Committee. “If we do have to pare down who gets opportunities at The Flea, why don’t we have that conversation together and work out a solution?”
Moving forward, members of the collective hope to continue their own endeavors, if not as resident artists of The Flea, as artists. “What this experience is giving me is more inspiration and empowerment to go into future collaborations with my values ahead of my fear of not getting the accolades I’m looking for,” Morgan says. “I think the kinds of fellowships I’m applying for are going to be different, because I’m going to be looking at the values really critically.”
That being said, the group maintains its pursuit of accountability. In a group statement, the collective, under the name “The Fled,” makes one “final request” to their former home: “Hand over the keys. We do not want your name. We do not want your leadership…If you care about equity and anti-racism, take a step back.”
Read their full statement here.