Lessons I Learned From My Stupid, Boring, Losing Fight with a Non-profit Community Theater

If there’s one thing I can’t tolerate, it’s unfairness. Well, that and people who take the elevator to the second floor (but that’s a tirade for a different time). I never wanted to write this post, but recent events have forced my hand. NOTE: It’s long, and I hope you have the patience for it, but it’s the whole truth (if overly dramatic). If you know the story, skip to Lessons Learned portion.

I recently got into a spat with a non-profit community theater, which ultimately led to me getting banned from the theater. That may sound strange, as I don’t seem the type to kick old women out of their wheel chairs or maliciously steal jigsaw puzzle pieces, so what could I have done to get banned from a non-profit community theater?

It all started one Sunday night when I was doing a standup show at the theater. About 10 minutes before the show was supposed to start, the technician and an intern at the theater gathered all the comedians and informed us that we were going to be recorded for a “podcast”. They didn’t really know why or what it was about, but just that all our sets would be recorded and posted online at the theater’s website. Most of the experienced standups were disquieted by this, and one asked “Can we opt out?” They responded “We could probably edit you out if you don’t want to be in it.”

Then, the managing director of the theater (let’s call him Pete Rose), comes in and says, “Hey, we’re recording your sets, and going to put your clips online. It’ll be just like Rooftop,” and then left without answering any questions. Rooftop Comedy is a very popular website that records standup shows at various clubs across the country, and posts short 1-2 min clips online. If you’re familiar with podcasts, this explanation didn’t sync up with that of the tech and intern.

So, we’re all left wondering why we’re being recorded and what those recordings were being used for. I later emailed the person in charge of the standup shows (let’s call him Tony Perez) at the theater, saying I wanted to opt out of this recording. He simultaneously responded in an mass email saying:

Hello everyone!

Thanks for doing The Comedy Show last night.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there.(wedding, ugh)

I’m also sorry about not giving you a heads up about our podcast trial. I wasn’t aware that we’d be recording sets thereby requiring permission from each of you.

Thanks for all of your emails regarding audio usage – if you have any questions – I’m happy to answer them!

Hope to get you all on the show again soon!

Best,

APR (I changed his name from his usual signature)

So, I emailed a list of questions, including the following to Pete and Tony:

  1. Do you intend on having written consent forms, or is an oral agreement sufficient?
  2. If someone agrees orally, does this consent apply in perpetuity? Also, if someone agrees to written forms, how long does this consent apply?
  3. Who owns the rights to the clips?
  4. If they are posted online, can we have them removed if we do not like the clips that are used? If so, what is the procedure to do so?
  5. How long will the clips be online?
  6. Are there any plans to use the clips for monetary gain, and if so, are performers entitled to a portion of the profits?
  7. Are you only recording the Comedy Show show, or is this going to occur for other standup shows (Nighttime Comedy, Obscure Popular Comedy, etc.)?

Meanwhile, I was really bothered with the way the whole evening went. We were forcibly recorded for unknown reasons or usage, and after pressing for it, we were able to say we don’t want to be recorded. However, there were a couple of new comedians on that show who didn’t know any better. Nobody told them that being recorded and posting their clips of performing standup for 7 people wasn’t going to be helpful for their career. I found it especially troubling since these people were taking classes with Tony Perez. Since he was the one who came up with the idea of recording, he would be in a conflict of interest to tell his students that they should be judicious on what they post online.

So, I decided to start a discussion on a private Facebook forum for standup comedians in Boston. I posted:

CONTROVERSY OF THE WEEK: Non-profit Theater is now recording standup sets to put on a Non-profit Theater “podcast” (it’s unclear what it will be because some people said “podcast”, while Pete (Rose) said it was just going to be clips, like Rooftop). They started doing it yesterday as a trial, though didn’t have us sign waivers granting permission to use our material. The default is they will use material, unless we opt out. Thoughts?

I led with “Controversy of the Week” because that forum is filled with standup comedians bitching about one thing versus another. It’s what I would like to call “humor”, but that unfortunately was not taken that way, as I found out later. What followed was a series of posts by other comedians decrying this policy, and questioning the motivations of Non-profit Theater.  Finally, Tony Perez (a member of the private group) posted:

I’d like to jump in here just to clarify something that caused more confusion on Sunday night than anything else. Non-profit Theater rebranded Comedy Show Sundays as Comedy Show and we intend to record the audio of comedians’ sets for podcast purposes in the future WITH written consent from the comedians before each show (and an option to opt out after the show if you would rather your set not be used). This past Sunday we had a dry run with two of our Techs so we could test our audio recording capabilities during The Comedy Show. It was a test run for us and we had no intention of using any content for release anywhere. That said, since we were recording, we wanted to inform the comics on the lineup to make sure they knew that we were recording, and what we intended for the content in the future. That was it. The issue might have been a miscommunication of “Future content” rather than “Your content tonight, IN the future”. Once we are set up and know that the podcast was ready to launch, we’ll publish details so comics can get involved. Non-profit Theater is working to create opportunities for the Stand Up community and Comedy Show and Comedy Show podcast are just some of those opportunities – Anyone can opt out. Intellectual Property and material rights are not my specialty, but I know Non-profit Theater would NEVER assume to own a comedian’s set or the jokes themselves, only the right to publish the clips recorded at Non-profit Theater with the consent of the comic. The published clips would be used to showcase the local scene, highlighting comics that have played shows at Non-profit Theater and promoting future appearances by those comics. My apologies to anyone who was confused or concerned on Sunday. But really, with The Comedy Show and any other shows, feedback by people who are actively involved, who want to help, or who want to be involved in the scene at Non-profit Theater will always be welcome. I’ll take questions on or offline – I’ll also take shit with a smile on my face.

While this didn’t coincide with anything we were told previously, I accepted what Tony said regarding the recording issue. So, for me, the issue was over. Meanwhile, little did I know that Tony and Pete were getting hateful emails from standups about this (what they told me, don’t know if this is true or not), and felt that I was responsible for the whole thing. They thought, “I can’t believe Raj, a regular performer at this theater, would shit all over the theater so publicly.” It was never my intention to do so, and I did everything possible to put the theater in a positive light, while still maintaining the point that I disagreed with this new policy of recording standups (because until Tony’s post, it was a fixed policy in my mind and probably the minds of other standups that Sunday evening).

So, Tony tried calling me later that day to talk about this whole thread, and after seeing his post, I thought “This isn’t a big deal anymore”, and I had a work project due the next day, so I texted him later and said “Hey, I’m busy, can we talk about it later in the week?”

Tony never responded, and I just figured he moved on also. But the events that transpired reflect the opposite. I can only presume that my dismissal of their attempt to reach out to me because I was too busy with my day job was Tony and Pete’s conclusion that I wanted to destroy the Theater to it’s very core, and that I should be considered some sort of Enemy of the State.

Then began the second phase of total irrationality.

Pete contacted the Artistic Director of the theater, Dave Concepcion (again, fake name). I don’t know what exactly the course of events took place, but Dave sent me an email the day after Tony tried calling me saying:

Hey man…can we chat about this whole Sunday thing when you have a chance? I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.

Thanks,

Dave

I emailed him back saying “Sure, when would you want to talk?”, but didn’t hear back from him until Sunday. He then sent another email:

Hey man…sorry that I didn’t get back to right away. I’m available all day before 6pm. Can you give me a call at 123-456-7890 when you have a chance? Thanks!

Dave

So, I spoke to him on Sunday (a week after the infamous standup show), which he told me that my comments on Facebook were very unpleasant to Pete Rose. In fact, Pete found them to be “inflammatory”. And as a result, I would not be allowed to perform on the September 12 Ballyhoo show (or any other Non-profit theater show), UNTIL I met personally with Pete Rose to ensure that I wouldn’t make such comments online again.

I tried defending myself, mentioning the fact that I intentionally tried to be diplomatic and say nothing negative about the theater. Dave agreed that he didn’t see anything wrong with what I wrote, but Pete was very upset about it, so it made sense to have a meeting. I then mentioned the fact that it seemed pointless for me to have a meeting with Pete Rose over this issue as he still hadn’t responded to my original email or emailed me himself whatsoever (especially since Pete brags on Twitter about how efficiently he responds to emails, with a hashtag of #inboxzero). It was clear that Pete didn’t want to talk to me, so what would me trying to meet with him achieve?

I nevertheless agreed with Dave, who was trying to broker a peace (which in my mind was never a war). So he sent an email to me and Pete on Monday to try and set up a meeting. I responded immediately saying “I’m free anytime from Tuesday to Friday this week. My schedule is more erratic after that.”

A day passes by and still no response from Pete. Up until this point, he has still not said ONE WORD to me about this whole affair. He ran a festival that I performed at for 3 years, so it’s not like I was some stranger. So, it was a bit surprising that he was stonewalling me.

After talking to some friends, one of whom (Carlton Fisk) was in the middle of an intellectual property dispute with Non-profit Theater, because he ran a festival at the theater, and he wanted to branch out and do it somewhere else. The theater told him that he didn’t have the rights to the festival, and that despite spending his own money to promote the festival (what Carlton tells me), anything developed at Non-profit Theater belongs to Non-profit Theater.

I don’t want to get into Carlton’s problems, as that’s another 5000 word story.  But I mention it for context, and that Carlton is a good friend of mine. While his fight was never my fight, I tried to support him as best a friend could. Carlton told me that he went to the board to resolve his dispute with Pete, so I thought that would be a reasonable avenue to resolve my dispute with Pete. Carlton would always say “the board is there for you”.

Monday passes, and Tuesday passes, and I still haven’t heard from Pete about meeting, and as things stood, I wouldn’t be allowed to perform on the Ballyhoo. The people who were producing the Ballyhoo were saying they’re trying to email Pete and Dave and get them to change their mind, but ultimately I’m the one who was banned for the forseeable future for (as one person eloquently put it) an Orwellian Thoughtcrime.  While we agreed that this abuse of power didn’t sit well with us on a principle level, I was still hurt on a personal level.

I eventually decided to email a couple of members of the board. Formation of a board of directors is an essential part of any 501(c)3, but most of the people on the Non-profit Theater board just consider board membership a “resume stuffer”. So, I sent a lengthy email to the board of my plight (yet still slightly shorter than this post), and what safeguards there were against Pete’s abuse of power. But I didn’t hear back from them.

I simultaneously sent an email to everyone I thought was important at Non-profit Theater to tell them what was happening at the theater they and I so loved. Nowhere in my email to them did I ask them to take action (except maybe to forward my email).  I simply was laying out the story as it was, and said it troubles me that this is allowed to happen.  Out of ~30 people I emailed, about 6 responded back to me saying they support me, and they’re sorry about what happened.  A few of them volunteered to write letters to the board on my behalf.

At this point, I’m frustrated and feeling ignored by everyone. I started out not wanting blood, but in my frustration and loneliness of being ignored by people I considered “friends” I became irrational and bloodthirsty.  I get 6 supportive emails out of 30 people I contacted, so I think “Nobody give a damn what happened to me. Nor do they realize that this could happen to them.” I’d finally given up on trying to rally support from theater that I’ve performed, teched, taught, and took classes at. So, I decided to make an appeal to the standup community. I posted on another standup forum what had happened to me, and that standups should consider against performing there, possibly even boycott the theater until Pete Rose is forced to step down.  While this attracted many views, few people expressed support.  So, I removed the post a day later, as I was ashamed that my emotions got the best of me.

Meanwhile, one of the people I emailed (Jim Rice) who emailed the board himself, told me that the board responded to him on Wednesday saying this is the first that they heard of what happened to me (still no response from Pete yet). Funnily enough, I was the one who gave Jim the board members’ email address! So, I re-sent my email to the board, and they informed me that they spoke to Pete on Tuesday evening, after receiving Jim’s email about this, and they hope the issue would be resolved shortly.

No less than 6 hrs after I received the board’s email (but 2 days after Dave and I try to arrange a meeting), Pete emails me:

I understand that Tony Perez left you a message last week and that you spoke with Dave Concepcion over the weekend.
I’m not sure exactly what was communicated on behalf of myself or the Theater, but if you are available for and interested in a personal conversation about the communication issues over the last week and where we both find ourselves now, I can schedule time tomorrow morning before 11AM or anytime Monday.
PR
So I agree to meet with Pete the next day (Thursday), and lead off with the obvious question, “What did I do wrong?” He then explains his side of the story (which I tried to mingle into this post), and said that he was really busy on Sunday night and that he didn’t have time to explain what was happening with the recording, and that they were only testing equipment. I said to him, “It took 3 minutes to say that. You owe us at least that much time to explain what you’re doing with our sets if you’re going to record them or set up recording equipment.” He shrugged it off and then says “What’s your end plan? The board is saying there are all these people demanding my resignation. I’ll be fine. I have a wife and baby, I can go back to my other theater.”
After my half-hearted plea for a boycott on Tuesday, I sort of realized that nobody had my back and realized that no-one was going to boycott, so there’s no point in fighting the system.  I told him I didn’t want blood. I apologized for my boycott demands, and said that came out of a low place in my life, and I hope he can see where I came from. I presumed that his demand that I was removed from performing was a similar knee-jerk reaction. He conceded this to be true. We both sort of felt like wronged parties, but we at least had an understanding.
I left the meeting feeling a little better, and Pete said that everything goes back to status quo and I get to perform on the Ballyhoo. I emailed the 30 people I emailed before (whether they responded or not), telling them the conclusions from our meeting. These included:
  1. There is a code of conduct which I was not familiar with, which precludes people from saying things negatively about Non-profit Theater. That Code of Conduct would be made available.
  2. I said I would work with Pete to come up with a Bill of Rights for performers, so that these types of shenanigans didn’t happen again.
  3. Non-profit Theater would come up with a definitive guide of intellectual property so it’s clear that when you perform at the theater, you know who owns what rights (Carlton’s fight bled into mine over whether standup rights were being violated by this “recording fiasco”).
I started formulating a list of the Bill of Rights, as I emailed the board, assuming they would care about the result of this dispute. Their response was:

Greetings Raj,

And Thank You for communicating and resolving your immediate concerns directly with Pete in your meeting this week. Working things out directly with the Managing Director is clearly in the best interest of all parties involved. On behalf of the Board, I would like to express appreciation for direct communication with the the MD and AD for all matters at the theater. We are in constant communication with Pete and pay very close attention to all concerns that are posed.

The Bill of Rights idea is a good one the way you pose it, and invite you to continue sharing your ideas with the MD and AD at the theater.

There are a number of initiatives in process, many of which we hope will address the concerns that you have posed. Stay tuned for sure, and I think you will be pleased with the progress we make in the weeks/months ahead.

Please do continue to offer suggestions, and rest assured that the Board is diligently working behind the scenes to advance policies, procedures, upgrades and long range planning that benefit all parties involved for years to come.
Best,
Sparky Anderson
President and Board Chairperson

I interpreted this as: “Next time you get in a feud with the MD and he bans you from the theater, don’t bother us. Also, you have some interesting ideas, tell them to the MD or AD and stop wasting our time.” So, I gave up on formulating the Bill of Rights.

So the result of all that was I wasn’t banned anymore, and there would be no more recording of standup sets without permission.  Seems like a victory, right?

Well, at a Town Hall Meeting of Non-profit Theater four days ago (which I didn’t attend, but read reports of), Pete decided to address my situation by saying I was angry about the recording that occurred at Non-profit Theater, so I decided to talk negatively about Non-profit Theater online. According to him, Pete, Dave, and Tony all tried to reach out to me, but I was clearly too “busy” to reply, but not too busy to start a nation-wide boycott of the theater to demand Pete to step down.

And thus began the revisionist history. Just like Tony and Pete changed the story of what happened the night of the recordings (the current story is that it was just a “test” and that nobody was recorded), they were beginning to revise the picture of me being a person being banned for innocuously posting something online, to me being banned for making personal attacks online towards Non-profit theater members (and for possibly murdering kittens, I did miss the meeting, so I don’t know what I was accused of).

Tony and Pete each made appeals to the Non-profit Theater community to give them the benefit of the doubt over what happened and that they’re all looking out for the community members. I heard that and couldn’t help but wonder “Who looked out for me? Who said, ‘Raj is a good dude, I’m sure he had a reason for posting his concerns online, rather than talking to us. Maybe we should speak to him first, rather than immediately preventing him from performing?'”

I’m done fighting over this. I just wanted to put my truth out there for people’s consumption. I’m writing this because I concede that Non-profit theater won, and I just want to move on. I don’t care what happens to any of the people at the Theater anymore.  I just want them to stop fabricating the truth over what I did to demonize me and portray themselves as victims.  As I said before, I may have a skewed interpretation of the facts, but I want them to be available for people to make their own conclusions, rather be presented with falsehoods.  When I told Pete that I was frustrated about how frequently the story changed over this recording thing, he ominously replied, “You’re just going to have to accept that people will lie to you.”

LESSONS I LEARNED

Why did all of this happen? Because I tried to act like a goddamn hero. I was speaking to one of the new performers before the infamous standup show, and then saw that this recording was going to happen. I realized “This guy’s not going to know that recording his set is a bad idea!” I had to start a discussion on a local standup forum so that new comics (most of the people who read that forum) know that it’s not great to have all your sets online. Because a potential booker might see a set where you’re bombing (or sound like you’re bombing) and decide “I won’t book him/her.”  And it’s unfair for them to be punished for not knowing better.

I was trying to look out for these new comics because I thought I was doing a good thing by putting facts out in the air. I emailed my “friends” and people at the board to notify them of what happened to me after I was banned for my Facebook comments, because if it happens to me, it could happen to anyone else.  I thought my banning was also unfair.

I’ve never been in a fight in my life, and I would have happily gone along with Pete banning me from Non-profit theater forever. I am moving to New York, and I didn’t need to perform at Non-profit Theater anymore. But I again decided to be a goddamn hero and put up a fight over this, because if he was going to try and bully me out of a theater I loved, then who’s to stop him from doing that to anyone else? And what if that person isn’t funny (which I once believed I was, but now I’m not sure anymore), and Non-profit theater is the only place that lets him perform. I thought that I was standing up for the Everyman.

Non-profit theater exists as a non-profit theater because it’s a community of people. Some people are funny, many are not, but they all agree to come and meet at this location to be friends and bond over comedy (good or bad). Despite winning the battles over recording standup sets and performing at the Ballyhoo, I lost the war.

I don’t feel welcome at the theater anymore, and while I’m technically not “banned”, I have been forbidden from teaching sketch writing there, and probably will never be booked there again.  Finally, I can’t look at people at the theater as friends anymore. The ethos of Non-profit Theater is meant to be “community”, but when push came to shove, their stagetime was more important than my right to fair treatment or friendship.

It’s very easy to paint me or Pete as a villain, but nobody’s a villain and nobody’s a hero. Everyone behaves their own selfish ways. I foolishly thought that I’m doing something for a perceived little guy, but that person doesn’t exist. I’m just quixotically trying to uphold principles that nobody cares about. Pete and Tony thought they were trying to be helpful to the standup community by recording our sets and putting them online for our benefit.  But really, they just wanted to legitimize Non-profit Theater as a venue for standup and make themselves more relevant in the Boston comedy community.

So, the lesson I learned from this is, if you see something, say nothing. That’s what anyone else is going to do.

I will now return to minding my own business.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons I Learned From My Stupid, Boring, Losing Fight with a Non-profit Community Theater

  1. It’s a jolting realization huh…that righteousness DOESN’T prevail. My life got a lot easier once I understood and began working from that basic premise. It’s the single most cynical thought I’ve ever embraced. Good luck in NY though!!

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