A crisis in governance

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Last week, the Geffen Playhouse announced that they'd hired a new artistic director, Matt Shakman.

Now this should be the big news at the Geffen. A change in artistic leadership at one of our regional theaters is a big deal. These positions typically transition only at retirement (think Gordon Davidson at Center Theater Group or David Emmes and Martin Benson at South Coast Repertory). But it turns out the Geffen transition is big news not because of the potential new direction for the theater company. Instead, the talk of the town is the disregard with which they fired the old artistic director, Randall Arney.

A day after the Geffen board announced their choice, Mr. Arney's attorneys filed a lawsuit alleging both age and disability discrimination.

Sadly, it looks like the most compelling tragedy in Los Angeles theater will, once again, be happening not on its stages but in a courtroom.

Here's the backstory.

Randall Arney held the top artistic position at the Geffen for 17 years. Poached away from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater back in 1999, he helped establish the Geffen's reputation both locally and nationally. All along, he collaborated with producing director Gil Cates, Senior. This partnership is key to our story. In most American theaters it's the artistic director who's the high-profile front-man, (and sadly, yes, it's still typically a man). At the Geffen, given Mr. Cates’s profile as producer of the Oscars and general Hollywood bigwig, this dynamic was more complicated, with Cates getting more of the public attention.

Fast forward nearly two decades. Gil Cates Senior died several years ago, and we find the Geffen board leadership making an aggressive and, if you believe the lawsuit, illegal transition.

According to papers Mr. Arney's attorney filed in court, after 17 years of notable artistic success, he was summoned to a 10 minute meeting with the Geffen's board chairs and unexpectedly fired. He now alleges that he was dismissed because of his age -- he was 61 at the time -- and because he had suffered several months earlier from a case of Bell's palsy.

Suddenly, that hiring of a bright, young artistic director is eclipsed by the crass disregard with which the board dispatched a man who helped them establish their theater. When asked for comment, the Geffen replied, "We do not comment on pending litigation."

It can be tough to judge the effectiveness of a non-profit board. Are they good at fundraising? Or was it the skill of their development directors? Most of their governance decisions are kept behind closed doors and become the stuff of rumors and gossip. So how do we evaluate their work?

I’m not interested or qualified to pass judgment on the lawsuit or the claim but I’m reminded of the HR dictum "if you're going to fire someone, make sure you don't end up in court." At the very least, the leadership at the Geffen Playhouse failed to remember that.

Randall Arney deserved better and so does Los Angeles.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Photo: Former Geffen Playhouse Randall Arney