A Q&A With Members of the Original Transcendence Artist Project In Punta Banda, Mexico (2009)

A Founder’s Call In For Change

My name is Leah Sprecher and I was one of the founders and original board members of Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC). I was saddened to read about Nikko Kimzin’s recent experiences with TTC in his blog post “How Do We Hold Arts Leaders Accountable Towards Equitable Change?” — saddened, but unfortunately not surprised. Though I cannot speak to Nikko’s experiences as a BIPOC artist (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) working for a predominantly white company, the suppressive leadership tactics and unbalanced power dynamics he highlighted within the Executive Team created an increasingly hostile work environment that ultimately led to my resignation in 2017. I am sharing my story out of a deep love for the Sonoma community and the theatre community at large and my desire to do the work necessary to serve them better. This is a call IN to create equitable change.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH TTC

I was involved with TTC from its very beginnings as a nascent idea of the Artistic Director, brought to life by a group of artists, and founded on the Baja coast in Mexico. I continued through an educational cross-country tour and on to the founding of the company in partnership with Jack London State Park in Sonoma. I was deeply involved in the first three seasons of Broadway Under the Stars — performing in dozens of productions and helping to produce and direct the annual kids camp — and I served on the Board of Directors until my resignation at the end of 2017.

Like so many artists and members of the Sonoma community, I was drawn to the dream of Transcendence and the compelling vision that the Artistic Director so effortlessly conjured from the very start. My experiences in Mexico, without exaggeration, transformed my life. The ideologies we created in the early years were profound. Transcendence was driven by the belief that the health of the artist, coupled with a deep connection to the community those artists served, was a formula for the future of theatre. It worked in Mexico, and it was incredibly validating and inspiring to be met with such enthusiasm when we finally landed in Sonoma. The beginning years were transformative and I will never forget these experiences.

WORDS VS. ACTIONS

I strongly believe the connection to the original intentions and values of Transcendence was muddled as the leadership team grappled with the immediate and very overwhelming responsibility of running a rapidly expanding, successful theatre company. Having dedicated many years to building a dream that was now becoming a reality, they were very protective of its vision and mission. Unfortunately the instinct to protect ownership and authority led to an inability to relinquish control. Over the years, that control — without a system of checks and balances — became highly destructive.

I can recall nearly a dozen examples of qualified and talented artists and operators, inspired by short contracts with TTC, coming to Sonoma to fill the growing need for full-time positions. As with Nikko’s experience in his role, many of these individuals found themselves stymied by over-management and the mistrust to execute their contracted responsibilities. Individuals were brought on board to inspire donors and receive grants but when it came to the execution of actual programming, they and their efforts to implement programming were often suppressed by the Executive Team. When they ideated with other community members, they were often met with lectures by the Executive Team for having conversations without their permission. When the Executive Team did not like their ideas, rather than have “open and honest communications” — as the TTC company values declared were a fundamental bedrock of the organization — they were quietly stripped of responsibilities. Unable to carry out the job for which they were hired, these individuals, as with Nikko, ultimately resigned.

As a member of the board and founding member, I, and my fellow co-founders often tried to address this issue of mismanagement with the Executive Team, but with no HR department, and a board that was stacked in their favor, any attempts we made to provide more oversight were blocked and disregarded, often with defensiveness and outright hostility. The pressure to conform with the Executive Team’s views created an environment that seemed to suggest that if you voted against the Executive Team, you were somehow against the entire organization. Feeling that my ideas and talents were no longer valued, I made the difficult decision to resign.

I think it is a true testament to the state of the organization to see that only two individuals in director roles have remained in all the years of TTC’s operations — two members of the Executive Team: the Artistic and Executive Directors. The rest of the six founding members, myself included, are no longer active in any capacity. The number of disillusioned employees and founders, used in the short term and cycled through in quick rotations, is significant — and the community of Sonoma deserves to know that what is outwardly professed is very rarely inwardly practiced at Transcendence.

OUR PATH FORWARD

I believe that in order for true change to happen, it is critical that beyond just issuing statements with empty words that don’t reflect actual practice, TTC needs accountability. I would call on both the Artistic Director and Executive Director to resign from the Board of Directors, as is common practice with most non-profit theatre organizations. This very structure ensures a system of true checks and balances, and it creates accountability to the community that funds their operations in good faith.

Furthermore, I call on TTC to implement an unbiased system of Human Resources that does not answer to the Executive Director, but rather to the Board of Directors. No meaningful system of concerns and grievances can be managed when the entire system funnels back to the person who writes your paycheck.

NOT A “CALL OUT”, BUT A “CALL IN”

I want nothing more than to see TTC thrive and grow in its capacity to serve the diverse communities in Sonoma county and beyond. To be very clear, I think what the organization has created, is nothing short of the magical experience that the patrons, donors, and volunteers continue to feel. Sonoma is a tremendous community and the way in which so many have come together to build TTC is the inspiration of a lifetime. But the fundamental disorder in the ranks of TTC needs to be brought to accountability and resolutions to their operations are deeply needed. It is my hope that sharing my story will help Transcendence Theatre Company fulfill its very admirable mission, and allow the full community of Sonoma and beyond to benefit from a vital, passionate, and inclusive arts program.

With Gratitude,

Leah

#transcendencecallin

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