Board of Trustees, staff dispute Old Creamery terminations

The Old Creamery Theater’s Board of Trustees and former staff have disputed the reasoning for the recent terminations.

Former+employees+of+Old+Creamery+Theatre+pose+near+an+outdoor+stage+for+a+portrait.+Contributed.

Former employees of Old Creamery Theatre pose near an outdoor stage for a portrait. Contributed.

Madison Lotenschtein, Arts Editor


On July 2, the Old Creamery Theatre in Amana, Iowa, announced that it would suspend the rest of its 2020 season and terminate its entire staff — a total of 11 employees — with the exception of the General Manager Pat Wagner.

Since then, the Board of Trustees and the former employees of the Old Creamery Theatre have been engaged in a dispute over the reasoning for the terminations. Several staff members believe they came as the product of a conflict between the board and a post made on the theater’s website and social media by staff members in support of Black Lives Matter.

According to Peter R. Teahen, president of the theater’s Board of Trustees, staff members were terminated because the theater had run out of funding from the Paycheck Protection Program.

“But we knew that money was going to run out, we knew it would run out about June 30th,” he said. “…We had no way to pay the payroll to keep the staff on longer. And so it came to a natural conclusion at that point, you can’t keep the staff if you can’t pay them.”

At a meeting May 11, the board decided that their staff would be employed up until June 30, when funding was slated to run out. Paying employees costs the theater about $20,000 a month, Teahen said. He added that once the June financials — where at that point, the theater was incurring a $150,000 loss in operating expenses — came through from the board’s accountant, the group voted to “proceed with its May 11 decision to terminate the staff,” on July 2.

But several members of the staff have disputed that’s the case. Former artistic interim director Katie Colletta said she and her colleagues believe they were terminated because of a Black Lives Matter action statement that Colletta, her husband and co-Artistic Interim Director Keegan Christopher, and former Executive Director Ashley Shields posted on the theater’s website  June 10.

A sign for The Old Creamery Theatre Company is seen on Friday, July 17, 2020, in Amana, IA. (Jeff Sigmund)

“The timing is very convenient with COVID, but I don’t think that’s the sole reason,” Colletta said.

The post, which has since been deleted from the company’s website, stated that the Old Creamery Theatre stands with the Black Lives Matter movement, that the theater has a lack of diversity, and listed ways the theater will work to improve these issues, including the establishment of a scholarship fund for students, young artists, and interns who deal with financial hardships.

Shields was told by the executive committee on June 11 to take the post down, and did so once she got off the phone, Colletta said.

“By choosing to tell stories that look like us, written by people like us, we have muted the most oppressed of voices, denied thousands of patrons and students the right to see themselves on our stages, and failed to create shared theatre experiences that might challenge how we think, feel, and act,” the statement read.

Colletta said the staff  emailed the statement to members of the Board of Trustees a couple of hours before it was posted, and that they did not specifically ask for permission to post the statement online since they have never had to seek permission to post on social media before. When no one responded to the email, the statement was posted.

Teahen said that employees cannot commandeer a company’s website on what he describes as personal policies without the clearance through management.

“And here we were trying to figure out how to pay bills and how to keep the building open, and they’re committing in their letter about establishing scholarships that we knew we could never fulfill because we didn’t have the money to keep the doors open,” he said.

L.D. Kidd, a choreographer and visiting instructor at the University of Iowa who also used to serve on the voluntary Program Development Committee for the Old Creamery Theatre, said that he quit the committee over email on July 12 because of recent events.

“The timing, the wording, everything just seemed off,” he said about the terminations. “…I just had a friend send it [the BLM post] to me and I thought that it was a really great post, and that was part of my issue for sending the email. There was nothing wrong with it that the organization shouldn’t have been very easily able to get behind.”

According to Teahen, an updated statement from the Board of Directors will be posted but they want to publish at the right time. The post will cover the organization’s position on inclusion, race, and equality at the theater, Teahen stated.

“We intend to post it, but it has to be done at an appropriate time so it’s not feeding into this hysteria that everybody’s been fired because of the Black Lives Matter statement,” Teahen said. “It needs to be a sincere statement that’s put out when this hysteria settles down. Otherwise it just looks like a phony statement because ‘oh they just put it up because of all the bad press they had.’”

Teahen denies any correlation between the BLM statement and the terminations, stating that the board decided on May 11 that the employees would no longer be employed once the funding ran out on June 30, one month before the BLM action plan was published on June 10, Teahen said.

The May Board of Trustees meeting minutes state, “Regarding our staff, everyone is employed up to June 30. We will continue to revisit it. In some cases, they could make more on unemployment. Programming will dictate what happens staff wise.”

According to Teahen and the meeting minutes, Shields — who was present at the May 11 meeting — said that she would write a press release and to let staff know that they are employed up until June 30.  The Daily Iowan reached out to Shields for comment but didn’t receive a response by press time.

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While Colletta said the staff knew that the PPP funding would end on June 30, they never received any email or statement from the board saying that they should be prepared for termination.

“We knew that it was likely, at some point in the summer or in the fall — especially once the good weather had gone away — that we were probably going to be furloughed,” Colletta said. “And we were all fine with that. I do not understand the rationale in telling people via email that they are immediately terminated.”

Since the board doesn’t know when the theater will reopen in 2021, Teahen said it decided to take the advice from its lawyers and accounting advisor to terminate. Layoffs typically mean employees are between contracts. Because of the realm of uncertainty surrounding the theater, the board decided to terminate its staff instead of laying off or furloughing them.

“That way, you can pay their unused vacation, where if you lay them off they don’t get their unused vacation,” Teahen said. “Your records are clean as far as tracking employment records because they’re no longer there. And then when you wish to re-engage them, then you put the postings so they come, you know, if you want them back you’ll hire them back.”

Colletta said that the first employee to receive an immediate termination email on July 2 received it at 5:35 p.m. Teahen had a Zoom meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. to confirm the end of the staff’s employment and to answer questions and discuss future plans for the theater. Teahen also had sent out the link the night prior, though with no explanation, Colletta said.

Shields sent an email to board members just before the scheduled meeting stating the staff would not attend because they felt “unsafe in entering any kind of meeting or discussion with members.”

“How can someone feel unsafe on a Zoom call?” Teahen said. “I don’t know how you feel unsafe on a Zoom call. I just don’t understand that. So I’m at a loss for words for trying to explain it.”

Colletta said the staff felt unsafe because of a phone call Shields had with Teahen — who was the only person on the committee to pick up their phone — the morning of July 2.  In the email, Shields mentioned that Teahen hung up on her, which Teahen said did not happen.

Colletta and  her colleagues were at the theater at the time of termination. After receiving the immediate termination email, they packed up what they could of their belongings in their cars and saw a sheriff’s car sitting in the parking lot.

Deputy Greg Welsh of the Iowa County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that there had been no call for service to the theater, but that there had been an accident in a nearby area (C avenue and 42nd Street). A sheriff’s vehicle could have been in the area and could have been mistaken for being present because of the situation, he said.

Even though the employees were supposed to be informed by Shields 60 days prior about their last day of work (June 30), they were not given a two-week notice, Teahen said. Employers do not typically give a two-weeks notice for fear of property damage, violence, theft, or disruption within the workplace, he said.

“In this case, employees were informed that the employment end date was June 30 as stated in the minutes of the meeting,” he said. “So, we gave them almost a 60-day notice. In addition, Ashley [Shields] participated in budget and finance meetings and routinely saw and [was]told money was ending. It is her role and responsibility, as their manager, to inform the staff that report to her.”

The decision to fire staff on July 2 instead of June 30 was made so the staff would be able to receive insurance for the month, Teahen said.

“That doesn’t sound like a board that’s punishing their employees when we’re willingly paying for their health care for a month because we care,” he said.

Colleta said that she would “absolutely not” return to her position at the theater if given the opportunity. The former artistic interim director said that she hopes the current board will be removed, and that a new, more diverse one will take its place.

“I hope that diverse board sees fit to hire an artist of color in my place,” she said. “We must make room for more perspectives at the table.”

The theater has formed a sub-committee within the board of directors to “take a deeper dive into this issue,” Teahen said.

“We are committed [to] addressing the issue in a honest, thoughtful manner and will share more with everyone when we have made progress on what our next steps might be,” he said.

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