Arts & Culture

Boise Contemporary Theater’s founding artistic director fired after 23 years

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Puppeteer Jodi Eichelberger and BCT producing artistic director Matthew Cameron explain how puppets fit into the world of the play, "A Nighttime Survival Guide."
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Puppeteer Jodi Eichelberger and BCT producing artistic director Matthew Cameron explain how puppets fit into the world of the play, "A Nighttime Survival Guide."

After 23 years, the founding artistic director for the Boise Contemporary Theater has been fired.

Matthew Cameron Clark was dismissed after he disobeyed a directive on Friday, June 14, from the nonprofit professional theater company’s board to lay off the associate artistic director. Instead, Clark said, he spent the weekend trying to save the associate artistic director’s job.

Clark disclosed his dismissal publicly Monday, two months later, in an open letter to “BCT Family” that he posted online and distributed by email. He said he wanted to set the record straight after hearing incorrect accounts of his dismissal.

Clark, 47, a Boise resident, said the board of trustees, and especially President Will Fowler, operated in secret and without consulting BCT staff members or the community.

“In the end, I think Will Fowler and the other members the BCT board believe they are doing the right thing,” Clark wrote. “I imagine they have a vision for a more mainstream theater company that takes fewer artistic risks, something quite different from what you and I have built.”

The 2019-20 Mainstage Season includes productions of “The Wolves” by Sarah Delappe, “Tammy Lisa / Misery To Meaning” written and performed by Lauren Weedman, “Slow Food” by Wendy MacLeod, “Every Brilliant Thing” by Duncan Macmillan with Johnny Donahoe and “The Show on the Roof” by Alex Syiek.

Fowler told the Idaho Statesman that he disagrees with Clark’s characterizations. He said it is natural and common for an organization to split with its founder over time, and the decisions were part of an organizational shift.

“We want to focus on the work being done on stage and not interpersonal conflicts,” Fowler said in a phone interview.

He said he was disappointed to see Clark’s letter go out to a BCT email list.

Clark wrote that board members told Clark on June 14 that they had made the decision to eliminate Associate Artistic Director Dwayne Blackaller’s position because of limited resources and the need to hire a development director who would act as a professional fundraiser.

The board told Clark the layoff was not a reflection of the performance of Blackaller, who had been with BCT for eight years and founded its Theater Lab Program for children.

Clark said the layoff surprised him. The draft of the budget included salaries for both Clark’s job and Blackaller’s, Clark said, and neither he nor Ben Burdick, who was managing director at the time, had been informed of the proposal to eliminate Blackaller.

“There was work yet to be done, but I was certainly not under the impression that eliminating a full-time employee from our already understaffed organization was on the table,” Clark wrote.

Last season, the theater company, based at 854 Fulton St., ended with a surplus and set a sales record for tickets sold and dollars earned, he wrote. Ticket sales have grown by 50% over the past five years, according to his letter.

Clark said Fowler handed Clark the paperwork for Blackaller’s firing and asked Clark to cosign and deliver it. Instead, Clark spent the weekend raising money, and said he raised enough to pay Blackaller’s salary and benefits for three months. He asked if he could use those months to show Blackaller’s value to BC.

A week passed and Clark heard nothing. Then, he wrote, he was invited to a meeting where he was fired for “insubordination” because he did not carry out Blackaller’s firing. Burdick was named acting producing artistic director within the week.

“I see BCT as my life’s work so far,” Clark told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview Monday. “Twenty-three years of my life so far were given to creating and developing and celebrating that place, with this community, and I’m grateful for all of it. And I want it, I hope that it lives on, but I think it’s important to tell the truth.”

He started by working at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival as an actor in the summer of 1995. After meeting people who were working in theater in Boise, he said it felt like there was an audience for contemporary work in addition to what the Shakespeare Festival was doing.

In April 1997, the first show was done under the BCT name. Clark said the theater grew quickly. In 1999, he made the decision to turn it into a nonprofit with a board of trustees.

“We had an amazing group of people early on, and have had many phenomenal board members over the years,” Clark said. “But over the last couple of years, that relationship has been tricky, because there’s been disagreements about the direction of the company.”

Clark said he worries about the way the board was having many closed-door meetings and making decisions without input from BCT staff or the community. He said he is not interested in fighting to get his job back.

“So, Ben, whom I adore and respect, is now, as I understand it, one of two full-time employees at BCT,” Clark said in the letter. “And with one year under his belt, he has been there the longest. The staff has been gutted.”

Clark said he is starting a new production company called City of Trees. He hopes to work on projects that have been on the back burner including book ideas, short films and podcasts.

“I’m embracing the opportunity to do these kinds of projects that I couldn’t do when I was giving all of my attention and energy to BCT,” he said.

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