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Some Drama Desk members blast proposed new bylaws

August 21, 2008 |  9:24 am

(Update Aug. 22: It should not be assumed that sources quoted on one topic in this article spoke to Gold Derby about others. For example, Gold Derby did not interview Leonard Jacobs, Matthew Murray, Andy Propst or Greg Bossler about the Drama Desk's proposed new bylaws.)

Some members of the Drama Desk Awards are speaking out on the organization's list serv, accusing leaders of pressing for the adoption of new bylaws that they say make challenges to current authority extremely difficult. However, as various members voiced their concerns over the last few weeks, leaders have not responded.

Members may have reason to be concerned about the leadership of the Drama Desk Awards. The New York theater prize was once widely esteemed, but nowadays attendance at its award ceremony has dropped, revenue in commercial sponsorships has fled and the show is no longer emceed by a celebrity host or telecast by PBS.

The majority of winners don't show up to collect their engraved statuettes at a cocktail reception held at Tony's Di Napoli restaurant a few months later. This year an attendee told Gold Derby that no-shows included Patti LuPone, Paulo Szot, Laura Benanti, Boyd Gaines, Mark Rylance, Linda Lavin, Laurence Fishburne and Stew.

Among the few winners who showed up were Rob Ashford, the choreographer of "Cry-Baby," and Gerard Alessandrini of "Forbidden Broadway." Last year the no-shows included Frank Langella, Eve Best, Raul Esparza, Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald, Boyd Gaines, Martha Plimpton and Debra Monk. The one actor in a major category to pick up his engraved trophy was Gavin Lee from "Mary Poppins."

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The same leaders who have presided over a perceived decline in the prestige, importance and popularity of the Drama Desk Awards have been accused by members of serious transgressions.

Despite being contacted for comment, leaders have repeatedly declined to discuss the member complaints with the Gold Derby.
 

Among the members' charges: Two leaders allegedly bullied members to undo legitimate nominations that they personally didn't like, and they allegedly hushed up the real reason for the resignation of two members of the six-person nominating committee who decried other alleged abuses of power.

When some members tried to discuss these matters on the organization's list serv once the allegations came to light, President William Wolf allegedly cut off their access to post. Thus the Drama Desk is accused of becoming a journalist organization that censored its journalist members.

One of the gagged members, Leonard Jacobs, national theater editor of Back Stage, said, "There are clearly — to quote a lyric from 'On the Twentieth Century' — dirty doings going on."

The allegedly gagged members' posting rights were apparently restored when Gold Derby drummed up media attention. But the Drama Desk chiefs have been quiet in recent weeks while members continue to speak up on the list serv, not responding to objections that these new bylaws favor incumbency too strongly.

While weighing the new proposed bylaws, we understand that some members object to:

•  A rule requiring the signatures of a large number of members (25) in order to run for an elected office. However, current board members would not need any signatures at all when declaring for reelection.

•  A new provision insisting that only past members of the board of directors may be candidates for president or treasurer. That would guarantee that the top leadership and money-spending posts would be restricted to current chiefs.

•  A new rule permitting the board to boot members for "unprofessional conduct." This item is apparently particularly worrisome because some members fear that it may give leaders official permission to exile dissenters.

•  A new rule giving the board proxy power to cast votes for members who don't vote on adoption of the bylaws. It is thought that current leaders would probably cast those additional votes to endorse the rules that they're proposing.

•  A provision permitting the new bylaws to be judged by an electronic vote of members, thus avoiding in-person discussion between members that can't be controlled by leaders and may be unpleasant for them. Many members want the chance to discuss these bylaws plus the election of new officers at its annual meeting prior to any vote taken. Members want a provision enforced in the current bylaws that states that they "may be amended by the affirmative vote of two thirds of the entire active and participating membership at a meeting duly called for the purpose of amending these by-laws, or at the annual meeting, providing notice of such proposed amendment has been included in notice of the meeting."

When Gold Derby asked leaders to respond to the objections to the proposed bylaws, we were e-mailed this response from PR chief Les Schecter, who said he was relaying the views of President William Wolf:

"The Drama Desk Board of Directors has asked the entire membership for comments on proposed new bylaws, an ongoing process. Some have commented already and others are expected to comment. When the process of getting the fullest possible reaction is completed, the various viewpoints will be taken into account by the Board for further work on the bylaws in light of the membership comments and suggestions. Nothing is set at the moment. Eventually the proposed by-laws will have to be submitted to the membership for ratification. This is a voluntary organization, such a process takes considerable time and it is entirely an internal Drama Desk matter."

Even if Drama Desk chiefs succeed in getting future changes in the bylaws switched to electronic votes, they are still obliged to honor the current bylaws' requirement to hold the next vote at a membership meeting. Will they do so? President Wolf did not respond to that question when we posed it to him this week.

In the past, the board has shrewdly held the annual meeting after leaders were chosen in uncontested elections that required members to vote "yea" or "nay" on a ballot of candidates chosen by the board.

Instead, many members want the annual meeting of members to be held prior to elections and include an open invitation to members to run for office.

Surprisingly, while discussing the new bylaws on their list serv, no members have complained about the provision permitting only the board of directors to remove board members or officers. Regular members can't do so prior to regular elections, even by overwhelming vote during emergencies. 

Internal scandal first erupted back in April when New York Post theater writer Michael Riedel reported on the resignation of Drama Desk member Tony Phillips, who had been bounced from the nominating committee by Wolf and Siegel. Riedel's article quoted Phillips' fiery letter to fellow members accusing Siegel of many abuses of power. He claimed Siegel isn't interested in "generating a ballot for the membership to vote on, but pulling as much of that ballot into her own hands as possible."

Phillips even accused Siegel of steamrolling members into squashing a legitimate nomination for "Twist" as best musical because she was squeamish about the sexually quirky twist on Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist." Once she conducted a re-vote and "Twist" was successfully removed, Phillips said, "It was at this point that I knew that Barbara Siegel was corrupt and an imminent danger to the integrity of this organization." Read more of Tony Phillips' extensive allegations, CLICK HERE.

The board of directors responded with a written statement:

"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." READ MORE

Gold Derby requested interviews with Siegel and Drama Desk President William Wolf to follow up further, but both refused. Wolf dismissed the allegations as "old hat" and insisted that Siegel was exonerated by the letters he'd received supporting her. (CLICK HERE to see the letters.)

Most letters vouched for Siegel's character, but were penned by people without specific knowledge of the charges against her. However, a note from Robert Cashill — who served on the nominating committee at the same time as Phillips and Siegel — denied the charges and accused Phillips of "a self-aggrandizing pack of lies." READ MORE

After Wolf and Siegel refused our request for interviews, Gold Derby sought out other members of the nominating committee who could testify to the accuracy of the charges made. Andy Propst — who considers himself to be a friend and supporter of Siegel — admitted that "Twist" was fairly nominated for best musical, that Siegel targeted it for removal from the ballot and then conducted a re-vote that succeeded in getting it bumped, but, he added, "A re-vote of 'Twist' was taken because it didn't adequately reflect the landscape of that year." READ MORE

Propst also considers himself to be a friend and supporter of President Wolf, but he verified a rumor accusing Wolf of a similar charge that Wolf torpedoed a legitimate nomination he didn't like when he served on the nominating committee. Wolf was allegedly so upset that Conor Donovan, a 12-year-old star of "Privilege," earned a nom for best actor that he kept the nominating committee in session for hours after midnight until members agreed to conduct a re-vote designed to nix Donovan's bid. When Gold Derby asked Probst if the allegation was true, he sighed and said with obvious reluctance, "I can confirm that."

One of the most startling claims discovered by Gold Derby came from committee member Greg Bossler of the Dramatist Magazine, who was one of two members who abruptly resigned last year just weeks before final voting on nominations, thus throwing the whole process into chaos. The other departing member was Bernard Carragher of the Catholic Transcript. General membership of the Drama Desk had been told that the two exited because of schedule conflicts, but Bossler said that wasn't true. He said that he and Carragher quit to protest how Siegel ran the committee, thus partly echoing Tony Phillips' charges. Bossler said that Siegel forced re-votes "again and again and again" in order to get a result she'd specify ahead of time. READ MORE

Repeatedly, Gold Derby contacted Drama Desk PR chief Les Schecter to ask Wolf and Siegel to reconsider their refusal to address these charges, but without success.

Later, as the growing scandals became more public, Wolf lashed out at two members who tried to encourage discussion of the issues on the organization's list serv. He cut off Matthew Murray's and Leonard Jacobs' access to the list serv after they voiced complaints about Drama Desk leadership to Gold Derby. Jacobs protested the action in a note to Drama Desk Treasurer and Vice President Charles Wright: "I am writing to convey my shock that President Wolf would unilaterally remove Matthew Murray, myself and other dues-paying Drama Desk members from the Drama Desk list serv. That the head of an organization of media professionals would comport himself in such a manner only suggests a validation of the charges leveled against President Wolf and Ms. Siegel." READ MORE

The board of directors issued the following response: "The removal of two members from the Drama Desk list serv is already moot. Their having gone outside the organization to publicly attack us on the eve of our all-important annual event was an outrage. President William Wolf informed the board that, in the heat of the moment, he had removed those two members from the list serv, but on reflection, he felt that they were entitled to be restored." READ MORE

However, the issue wasn't "already moot." While Wolf restored Leonard Jacobs' posting access, Matthew Murray continued to be shut out. Only when Gold Derby persisted in reporting on the failure of Drama Desk chiefs to make good on their pledge to lift censorship — long after they claimed the gags were undone — was Murray's access finally re-instated. READ MORE and MORE

An internal revolt against Drama Desk leaders began back in February when a group of dissidents had one of its members ask Wolf for a copy of the organization's bylaws. The dissidents hoped to discover a way to mount a leadership challenge from within, but Wolf seemed to dodge the request for months. Only in May, after repeated proddings, did Wolf and the board of directors address the request. They promised to give members a copy of the current bylaws along with proposed new ones by late June.

When the two sets of bylaws were dispersed in July, they included shocking revelations. According to the old — and now still-current — bylaws, only print journalists could belong to the Drama Desk. Therefore, leaders like Wolf and Siegel, who write for Internet media, aren't even qualified to be members.

According to current bylaws, the board of directors should appoint the chair of the nominating committee in September, but the board shocked onlookers by hurrying in June to reelect Siegel to yet another term without conducting an independent investigation of the serious charges made against her by several Drama Desk members who worked with her on the small nominating committee.

Now that new bylaws have been drafted and submitted to members for approval, some members may be reluctant to speak up with strong views at the list serv considering what's happened to others who've done so. Gold Derby encourages all Drama Desk members — including those under fire like Wolf and Siegel — to share their views here at this blog so we may help to promote discussion and debate. They may post thoughts below by clicking on "Comments" or may reach us via e-mail at GoldDerby@gmail.com so we can include their views in the main body of future blog posts.

BELOW ARE LINKS TO SOME OF GOLD DERBY'S OTHER RECENT REPORTS ON CONCERNS ABOUT THE DRAMA DESK AWARDS:

Despite hype, Drama Desk Awards are strongly biased toward Broadway shows — CLICK HERE

Do the Drama Desk Awards betray the reason they exist? — CLICK HERE


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