Black and White?
Was the firing of Delaware Theatre Company’s artistic director motivated by a controversial play, or was it something else?
n May 27 Anne Marie Cammarato ran into David Ledford, executive editor of The News Journal, at Harry’s Seafood Grill in Wilmington. Ledford was a fan of Cammarato’s original play “10 Months: The Wilmington Voices Project,” and was considering publishing a follow-up story. Ledford’s story never happened—the day after that meeting, Cammarato was fired.
“It was so ironic,” says Cammarato, who served for six seasons as DTC’s artistic director. “Here was this critically acclaimed show, and David was talking about how the paper might continue the dialogue it started. Then it was over.”
Michael Marquardt, chair of the DTC board, acknowledges that Cammarato was given no warning prior to her termination. Her final performance review in December, in fact, was stellar.
The board points to declining ticket sales as a reason for Cammarato’s dismissal—though roller coaster sales are part of the business. Many of her shows sold poorly, as have those chosen by previous artistic directors. Yet the board supported Cammarato throughout her tenure and encouraged her to produce controversial work.
“One of the things I always gave Anne Marie credit for was that she came in with her vision and she stuck by it,” says Marquardt. “And we stuck by her.”
Such support is the reason Cammarato remains nonplussed. But there’s more to the story than meets the eye. As “10 Months” challenged its audience, the story of her firing is challenging its players to confront the truth.
Numbers don’t lie. Cammarato’s stats at DTC weren’t so hot. From 2004, when she joined DTC, through her final season, earned revenue dropped 27 percent. Over the past five years, the theater sold an average of 1,676 tickets per show. “Ten Months” sold 437.
Subscribers are the lifeblood of a theater, the patrons who stand by it in recession and in wealth. During Cammarato’s tenure, subscription tickets sold went from 18,417 in 2004 to 8,373 in 2010, a drop of 54 percent.
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Yet some of the highest-grossing shows in DTC history happened under Cammarato’s watch, she says. Works such as “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Fire on the Bayou” were huge. Cammarato produced four world premieres and secured for DTC 28 Barrymore nominations, the most earned by any DTC artistic director. (The Barrymore is the Philadelphia equivalent of the Tony.)
Fluctuating ticket sales—and the factors that affect them—are realities in show biz. Fontaine Syer, Cammarato’s predecessor at DTC, says that in 2000, plays like “Macbeth” and “A Christmas Carol” sold a booming 75 percent. After the terrorist attacks a year later, she was lucky to hit 50 percent. Cammarato’s curses were the recession and, last year, a blast of monster snowstorms. Board members had even considered closing DTC during her tenure, and the theater is nowhere close to being out of the woods financially.
Yet that same board always rolled with the economic punches. And it never questioned Cammarato’s talent.
“There was not a single time the board ever got involved with her show choices,” says Marquardt. “That’s how it should be. You have the artistic director’s vision, and it’s her view. She determines what makes sense in the greater narrative of the theater.”
Cammarato joined DTC after 15 years of deficits. “It takes a long time to recover from that,” she says.
Managing director Mary Ann Ehlshlager disputes that number, calling it “inconsistent with our audited financial statements.” She would make no further comment.
Cammarato was originally hired as both artistic and managing director, an unusual role for a creative type—one sure to trigger burnout—but it was a challenge she accepted willingly. Once Ehlshlager entered the scene in 2008, Cammarato’s role became solely artistic.
The board believed that, as a 30-something native of Milford, Cammarato was a good hire who would appeal to different groups. And she did.
She introduced Delaware audiences to Kevin Ramsey, an African-American playwright, director and actor who, since his 2006 premiere in “Sam Cooke: Forever Mr. Soul,” has become an audience favorite. Ramsey helped Cammarato connect DTC to the African-American community.
“Ten Months” appealed to African-Americans because it gave voice to racial issues that had long been swept under the rug. An original work by Cammarato, the play focused on the race riots of 1968. The script was based on interviews Cammarato conducted with many Wilmingtonians.
Some of those Wilmingtonians had endured the riots and National Guard occupation after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Others were young African-Americans living in present-day, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Cammarato also interviewed well-intended but out-of-touch white suburban residents who rationalized their prejudices about the city.
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“Ten Months” flopped. Lots of shows flop. More troubling than its dismal sales was the fact that the alleged loyal fan base Cammarato cultivated never showed up to support the play, the first she had written in five years.
Poor ticket sales, at least until “10 Months,” never threatened Cammarato’s job. Her woes were more likely born of the show itself.
According to supporters of the show, the brutal honesty of “10 Months” rubbed important people the wrong way. It was not the show Cammarato originally pitched, Marquardt says, the one he and his colleagues “went into overdrive” to market and support. “Ten Months” was not a public relations campaign for the city, nor was it intended to be, Cammarato says.
The city of Wilmington has suffered bad press for years, so once word got out that Cammarato was hitting the streets to interview residents, suggestions poured in from board members, fans—everywhere—most asking her to focus on the positive, such as the city’s revitalization, the blossoming Riverfront and the Whistle Stop Tour, that electrifying event in January 2009 when President-elect Obama traveled by train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and stopped in Wilmington, the home of Vice President-elect Joe Biden.
Cammarato had hoped for an auspicious piece, too. But research guided her work, so the show became an account of the racial turmoil fueled by the assassination of Dr. King and the National Guard occupation. Its focus was on scars that never healed and the continuing fear suburbanites have about Wilmington. Cammarato attempted to start a dialogue between people who didn’t understand each other.
“Its topic centered around a painful historical period and a turbulent now,” says Raye Jones Avery, the executive director of the Christina Cultural Arts Center. “I saw the show twice and took students. The dialogue afterward was rich, tense and wide- ranging.”
The dialogue may have been rich and tense, but the show did not reflect the premise the board had supported. “When Anne Marie showed us the original concept of ‘10 Months,’ it actually had a picture of Biden and Obama speaking at the train station,” says Marquardt, “and the idea was that we’d do 10-month snippets of Wilmington history.”
Marketing was a sore point. “Ten Months” actor Ben Cherry says that he and the other two actors in the show, “would have gladly gone to community centers, churches and libraries to talk to people and interest them in this innovative piece of theater,” but were never asked to do so.
Many DTC subscribers bailed, as evidenced by hundreds of paid-for but empty seats. Some were inspired. DTC subscriber and Wilmington resident Karl A. Grieshaber believes that “10 Months” “made you think deeply about how we do things for people of a different race while absolutely patronizing them.”
Bebe Coker, an activist with the Urban League and the Black Heritage Educational Theater Group, says, “The play had to do with racism and an unhappy time, a memory white people don’t want to recall and black people don’t like to recall.”
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Cammarato doesn’t know if “10 Months” and the controversy surrounding it was the last straw. Coker thinks it was.
“I think her firing had racial overtones,” Coker says. “I don’t want to blame the board, but I wish I could help them understand that Anne Marie wasn’t just building an audience. She was building a diverse audience.”
Diversity has historically been the theater’s strength, says Marquardt. “We have to be responsive and attractive to a broad spectrum of the area’s arts-loving population to be successful.”
But Coker no longer feels included in that broad spectrum. “If I were younger, I would have boycotted DTC,” she says. “I would have assumed it really didn’t want us in the theater.”
People are “generally uncomfortable talking about the implications of race, class, power, politics and genocide,” says Jones Avery. “But silence is an assassin. I had hoped to keep the conversation (in this show) going, because courageous conversations build bridges of understanding.”
Syer agrees. “Even in 1998, when I came to DTC, I know there were a lot of people in the Wilmington leadership echelon that did not want to look racial issues squarely in the face,” she says. “ Until a community does that and accepts realities for what they are, the racial questions continue to fester.”
“Ten Months” may have been more successful had it been marketed to a larger demographic.
“I’ve always admitted that the organization, every one of us—that includes me—did not get out to sell ‘10 Months’ to the right audiences,” says Cammarato. “But when it comes right down to it, the mechanics of selling tickets to the theater was not in my job description.”
Marquardt admits that “‘10 Months,’ by itself, was a manifestation of the end in an extreme and unfair way.”
But there’s a subplot. “Ten Months” may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but Cammarato’s people skills may have brought her curtain down.
Former employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say that Cammarato is a micromanager whose controlling nature stifles creative growth.
Yet Cammarato earned raves, as well. Jeremy Skidmore, who directed the DTC production of “My Name is Asher Lev,” says “Anne Marie’s leadership and constant presence with her staff attracts, inspires and retains employees and collaborators.”
Three days before being fired, she says, Cammarato talked with Marquardt about her strategic vision for the next five years. Marquardt denies that, insisting that the two discussed her long-term vision during her December 2009 performance review.
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Cammarato’s final act happened backstage. She refused to acknowledge her part in the “10 Months” fiasco. “She went into blame mode,” says Marquardt, “claiming that everyone on staff abandoned her.”
Not so, says Cammarato. “There were plenty of staff members who worked hard on the show and whom I never felt abandoned by. Nonetheless, the lack of marketing and audience development was evident.”
DTC was not on good financial footing. “The Foocy,” which succeeded “10 Months,” sold a dismal 32 percent. And no one was popping open the bubbly to celebrate next year’s subscription numbers, either. The staff was “staring down at the abyss,” Marquardt says. “This was the time Anne Marie needed to be more collaborative and less defensive. She wasn’t.”
Marquardt insists that Cammarato was ultimately fired for not being responsive to DTC audiences. Coker disagrees. And Cammarato points out that she is, in fact, a native Delawarean who “knows the audience by name.”
“I will say that Wilmington is a tricky audience,” Cammarato adds. “It’s not a traditional, theater-going city. That being said, it was never expressed to me by the board that my job was to make a hit out of every show. The way I interpreted it, and the way they approved it, my job was to put together a season of five plays that brought an audience on a varied journey. We always expected that some plays would connect well and some wouldn’t.”
And, Cammarato claims, “I’m the most collaborative leader DTC has ever had.”
Whether Cammarato’s termination was sparked by questions raised about racism in “10 Months” remains in question. All parties agree that her ending was handled badly. She was fired in May, when theater staffs are prepping for next season and directors are reading scripts, not resumes.
Theater is a business. Cammarato did not fill seats with butts. But given the fact that many Delawareans still don’t know where DTC is and, even after 32 years in existence, still confuse it with The Grand Opera House, it’s not clear anyone can.
“The challenges of running a theater in Wilmington are significant,” says Syer. “So often boards think that if you change the plays, you’ll get a bigger audience. That doesn’t necessarily follow. Wilmington is a small city. The number of people who want to see substantive theater is even smaller.”
DTC’s two other artistic directors—Syer and cofounder Cleveland Morris—both suffered nauseating sales swings. Neither was fired for them. So it’s fair to ask if the board ever considered giving Cammarato a warning.
“No, we did not,” says Marquardt. “I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about that, and it’s still painful.”
The sentiment is too little and too late. Cammarato has hired a lawyer. “Had the board said, ‘We feel your work isn’t connecting to the audience, so let’s talk about what that means,’ we may have come to the mutual agreement that I was not the right fit,” Cammarato says.
What invokes the most sadness for Cammarato is uprooting her 6-year-old son. She hopes to land a job in Washington, D.C.
Marquardt has bad days, too. He and Cammarato worked respectfully together for years. He’s lost a friend. But he stands by the board’s decision.
“We all hope that 10 or 15 years from now,” he says, “Anne Marie will look back and say the theater did her a favor.”