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Growing scandal threatens to upstage the Drama Desk Awards

May 16, 2008 |  6:02 pm

On the eve of its awards being presented this Sunday, the Drama Desk is engulfed in a growing scandal that erupted following the resignation of a member who was booted from the nominating committee.


Initially, president William Wolf pooh-poohed "the total nonsense and patently false" charges made by Tony Phillips of Edge Publications against Barbara Siegel, chair of the nominating committee, as "the biased and disgruntled rant" of someone who'd been fired, but now other prominent members of the Drama Desk have not only substantiated some of Phillips' charges, but evidence has emerged that Wolf may also be guilty of one of the most serious allegations against Siegel — bullying nominators into changing a legitimate award nomination that he didn't like.

Wolf and Siegel hold leadership roles of dubious legality since neither may technically qualify for membership in the Drama Desk organization. In the past few days Wolf — whose media outlet is his own website, — revealed that old bylaws are still in effect that don't recognize Internet writers. Siegel's media credentials are and Also in question is the legality and authenticity of this weekend's awards, which were voted upon by the many Internet-only writers in the Drama Desk.

Several prominent members describe Wolf and Siegel as kingpins of an entrenched leadership that rules forcibly, hides scandals and key issues from the general membership, and makes it difficult for rivals to become officers or members of its board of directors. Among controversies they're accused of hushing up: Last year there was such serious dissent over management of the nominating committee that two of its six members resigned in protest just a few weeks before nominations were to be decided.

"If Tony Phillips hadn't mentioned that fact in his resignation letter, many general members would never have known that it happened," says Matthew Murray, a former member of the nominating committee. "Why weren't people told?"


"There's something seriously wrong with the Drama Desk Awards when, three weeks before the nominations are due, two people resign," adds Andy Propst of American Theater Web who writes for Back Stage, Village Voice and Time Out NY and has served on the nominating committee in the past. "And now this year, Tony Phillips' allegations — we've got real problems."

Also kept secret from general members was a radical change made recently in award eligibility that bolsters a serious charge against the Drama Desk — that they're awards that pretend to honor off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway shows on an equal basis with Broadway fare, but are really rigged to favor the latter so that they lure big stars, major attention and influence the Tony Awards. It's widely presumed that the Drama Desk Awards are bestowed just days after Tony nominations are announced so that they can have maximum impact upon Tony voters as they receive their ballots.

Drama Desk leaders recently disqualified all productions under the Actors Equity's showcase code, which constitutes about 90% of off-off-Broadway fare.

The change infuriates Leonard Jacobs, national theater editor of Back Stage, who believes that the Drama Desk should do more, not less, to reward off-off-Broadway shows. But the leadership made this change "under the radar," he says, "and perhaps in violation of bylaws. Shouldn't the whole organization have a say in something as fundamentally basic as what qualifies for a nomination? I don't know how this change happened. I never received an email or any other communication. If they can make a change (as huge as this) through stealth and the withholding of information, what else are they not telling the rank and file about?"

The secret way the rule change was handled "is the most distressing thing" about all recent controversies, insists Propst. "To me that's the most scary. I had no idea they did that. The bigger issue of entrenched leadership and not communicating with membership about something as important as changing what is eligible for this award — that's where I go, 'Hey, wait a minute! This is an organization careening!' "

"I found out about the rule change from a publicist," says Murray. "I was horrified. I think this whole thing is abominable. Some of the best theater I see every year is off-Broadway. Why weren't we given a chance to vote on this?"

When such serious new charges were lodged against Drama Desk leaders after the New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel broke the news of Tony Phillips' allegations in mid-April (read his full resignation letter - CLICK HERE), Gold Derby made repeated attempts to interview Wolf and Siegel to get their perspective, but they refused to speak.

Gold Derby made it emphatically clear to Drama Desk PR spokesman Les Schecter that the issues we wished to raise with Wolf and Siegel include serious new ones from prominent members that far exceeded the initial claims of impropriety made by Phillips — including one that indicted the ethics of president Wolf — but they refused to comment. Wolf even banned Gold Derby from attending the Drama Desk's nominees reception — which we attend every year — unless we promised not to discuss the recent controversy with any member. We couldn't make that promise, we noted, because to do so would permit a media organization to censor the media.


Wolf will only address the Tony Phillips hubbub, which he considers "old hat" after sending an e-mail with an official statement from the Drama Desk board of directors, stating, "We wish to make it clear that we totally support Barbara Siegel in the face of the outrageous charges by Tony Phillips, whom Ms. Siegel and William Wolf, Drama Desk president, dismissed from the nominating committee. We have complete confidence in her committee leadership and her integrity, and we can attest that at our Executive Board meetings Barbara asks for and is given policy guidance for the work of the Nominating Committee."

Wolf and other Drama Desk leaders have also been sending out e-mail blasts containing extensive testimonials hailing Siegel and her leadership. Among them are endorsements from current members of her nominating committee such as Gerard Raymond and Richie Ridge, who also refused to be interviewed for this article. Propst –- who does talk candidly about what he knows –- writes one of those letters to salute the "passion and drive (she) brings to the process." Former Drama Desk president David Sheward, executive editor of Back Stage, who served on the nominating committee alongside Siegel years ago before she became chair but never with her in charge, offers his "sympathy and support."

However, some of those endorsements are seriously questionable.

A letter of support from Jack Cummings, artistic director of Transport Group, is "a little weird," Phillips says, "considering he just got a special award from Barbara last season."

Many observers are surprised by the inclusion of a letter from Vince Gatton, former star of "Candy and Dorothy," who addresses Siegel, saying, "You were on the committee that nominated me for Outstanding Actor in Play for the 2006 Awards, for a performance in an Off-Off-Broadway production that had made a brief run earlier that season. High-profile actors like Ralph Fiennes and David Schwimmer didn't receive nominations for their work that year -- but I did . . . (My) personal experience gives me no reason to doubt your commitment to recognizing outstanding work at all levels."

Ironically, Gatton's nomination wouldn't be possible now that Siegel oversaw the disqualification of showcase productions.

Murray says it's strange that Siegel is promoting a letter of support from "someone who's saying that, 'If it wasn't for Barbara, I never would've gotten on the ballot.' To which I say, 'Well, because of her you may never get on it again.'"

Phillips alleged that Siegel used her power as chief of the nominating committee to skew at least one vote result to reflect her personal taste. When off-off-Broadway show "Twist" — a sexually kinky spoof of "Oliver Twist" — was legitimately nominated as best musical, he says Siegel denounced it as "a potential embarrassment for the Drama Desk" and railroaded it off the ballot.

"Twist" author Gila Sands confirms to Gold Derby that Siegel may have had a personal reason for wanting to nix its legitimate nomination: "I heard that Barbara absolutely hated the show."

Phillips asserts that Siegel "replaced 'Twist' on the ballot with 'Mary Poppins'" — a big Broadway show lambasted by critics — adding, "It was at this point that I knew that Barbara Siegel was corrupt and an imminent danger to the integrity of this organization."

Wolf counters in a follow-up public statement: "I know from personal experience on the committee last season that Phillips' accusations against Barbara are total nonsense and patently false. All decisions are made according to votes within the committee."

Phillips agrees that a vote was taken, but claims that its outcome was "rigged."

"She basically coerced another member to change her vote," Phillips says. "This member went from a number six –- which is the highest score you can give something –- all the way down to a one. That's not how this process is supposed to work. Barbara's not supposed to have that kind of power."

Gold Derby e-mailed that voter, Glenda Frank, of Plays International and, to ask for comment, but she did not reply.

"People won't talk because Barbara has cultivated this culture of fear where people are basically afraid to speak out," Phillips asserts.

Andy Propst was a member of the nominating committee when the "Twist" vote occurred. He admits that the show was fairly nominated for best musical, that Siegel targeted it for removal from the ballot and that one voter changed her vote from six to one to accommodate its removal, but he says, "A re-vote of 'Twist' was taken because it didn't adequately reflect the landscape of that year."

Probst and Murray are among past members of the nominating committee who assert that re-votes rarely occurred, but one of the two members of the committee who resigned last year — Greg Bossler of the Dramatist Magazine — claims Siegel forced re-votes "again and again and again" in order to get a result she'd specify ahead of time.

"She would claim that we had to accommodate a groundswell of support for a show she was hearing about from other Drama Desk members," he says. "Who knows if what she was telling us was true?"

Bossler says Siegel was so demanding that "she insisted that we have a meeting on Easter morning even though one member of our committee was the writer for the Catholic Transcript," he says.

That journalist, Bernard Carragher, resigned from the panel along with Bossler on the eve of voting for nominations, thus throwing the balloting process into deliberate turmoil.

Bossler says Siegel "alienates anybody who's got any serious connection to the theater," he says.

"Look back through lists of publications that used to serve on the nominating committee years ago, back before Barbara took it over," he says. "Major ones. Playbill. The New York Daily News. Now look at it. Pretty soon Barbara's going to start asking the Punxsutawney Piggyback Shopper to be on the committee."

To see a rundown of who was on the nominating committee prior to, and during, Siegel's tenure as chief, CLICK HERE!

Siegel is not the only member of the committee accused of bullying members into torpedoing a legit nomination that they didn't like. There are reports that Wolf— who joined the committee to fill up one of the vacancies caused by Bossler's and Carragher's abrupt exits — was so outraged that a 12-year-old star of "Privilege" at Second Stage, Conor Donovan, was nominated in the best-actor category opposite famous, older leading men that he forced Donovan's bid from the ballot.

Even though the nominating meeting had already convened way past midnight, Wolf is accused of stonewalling the committee for hours until members finally got rid of the nomination.

When Gold Derby asked Andy Propst — a member of that year's committee, who is generally supportive of Wolf and Siegel — if that report was true, he hesitated, sighed and finally said with obvious reluctance, "I can confirm that."

He added in an effort to support Wolf, "Bill voiced some concern whether or not this was an appropriate nomination."

Donovan ended up winning a consolation prize that year: a Theatre World Award. Read a review of his performance in "Privilege" HERE

Technically, neither Wolf nor Siegel may qualify to be on the nominating committee — or even to be members of the Drama Desk organization, for that matter since both are chiefly Internet writers.

A few days ago Wolf dropped a bombshell revelation after some members demanded a copy of the Drama Desk's bylaws so they could see their rights. There's a strong suspicion among a growing rebel faction that the officers and board of directors were in violation of bylaws by not having the full membership vote on the rule change disqualifying showcase productions from award eligibility. What members found out when Wolf finally responded to their request — three months after it was first made — turned out to be more shocking than they suspected.

Wolf admitted, "The bylaws were created for the Drama Desk so very long ago that they had become hopelessly antiquated. For example, online writers wouldn't be eligible for membership . . . . Now the Drama Desk Executive Board (is) working on the finalization. As soon as that happens, the revised bylaws will be submitted to the entire membership for inspection and a vote on ratification."

Many members hope that the occasion will be one when radical changes can be made to the overall leadership of the Drama Desk, which they don't believe is open or truly democratic.

"Members get a preapproved ballot that you can vote up or down, so it's kind of like: do you approve of the politburo or not?" says Back Stage national theater editor Leonard Jacobs. "There is a spot to recommend someone for the board, but there's no way for someone to win at that late point when you're voting. So in that sense it's pretty rigged. I don't participate in the vote for officers because I don't think it's democratic. I've been very offended at the way that's perpetuated."

Murray calls the current election process "unconscionable" and voiced his objections to current chiefs, but got rebuffed.

"I said to Barbara, 'You know, I might be interested in becoming a member of the board and I mentioned that there's a place on the ballot for write-ins, but she admitted that no one could ever really be elected that way," he says. "She said that the only real way to get on the board is to be invited by current members.

"When I suggested that something was wrong with our vote-of-confidence ballot, Bill and Barbara took offense," he adds. "Barbara and I actually got in a feud about it that lasted the better part of six months because I didn't appreciate being stonewalled."

Later, Murray posted a comment on the Drama Desk's Yahoo e-mail service, telling fellow members, "I didn't think it was a good idea to have vote-of-confidence ballot issued before the annual meeting of the general membership so there can be no discussion of who we're voting on. Bill and Barbara really didn't like that. They sent me scorning e-mails saying that's not the kind of thing I should've sent to the whole Drama Desk mailing list because people might see it. My feeling was: if you can't talk about the Drama Desk on the Drama Desk mailing list, how and when can you ever fix any problem?

"The worst part of all of this is that so many Drama Desk members are from such fringe, out-of-the-way publications that the primary reason they're there is to get free Broadway tickets," Murray adds. "Bill and Barbara know that and know how to parlay that into something to keep them where they are. If there are 120 members of the Drama Desk, you'd need an absolute minimum of 60 people to get one member off the board and if that many people don't really care, that's going to be hard. And if there aren't open elections, that only makes it worse.

"Bill and Barbara are doing some weird, really questionable things, but if the membership doesn't care, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it . . . . ," he says with a sigh. "There are many people who'd like to make things better, but they're not given an opportunity. It makes me sad that all of this has happened to the Drama Desk."

Even though Propst remains a supporter of Wolf's and Siegel's and acknowledges that Siegel "serves well and serves passionately, there comes a time, as with anything, you need to change," he asserts.