• Anthony Chase

Shea's Trustees are Bungling It

Sadly, Michael Murphy needs to go


One of the complications of writing about the theater comes from the fact that theater is live. This means that in time, you begin to know the artists who create theater and the administrators who run theaters personally. Writing about the situation at Shea’s has, therefore, been especially painful for me. I know the parties involved.


I have great affection for Michael Murphy, a man who has extended kindnesses towards me and who has endeavored to support my work. I have also endeavored to support his.


At the same time, I have known many members of the Shea’s staff for years dating back to before Murphy’s arrival. I have admired their professionalism and their unwavering support of the institution they represent.


The number one allegiance of journalism, however, must be to truth.


Piecing the truth about the current tumult down at Shea’s is not easy. Certain bare bone facts are not in dispute. A large group of Shea’s staff members, frustrated at what they perceived to be a “toxic” work environment, characterized by intolerably demeaning and abusive behavior on the part of Murphy, asked the Shea’s board of trustees for help. An investigation ensued. Murphy was put on leave, which was subsequently referred to as a “vacation.”


At a certain point, the board signaled that Murphy would be returning to work after some sort of counseling. Reasoning that there was safety in numbers and strength in solidarity, 25 members of the staff signed a letter imploring the board to reconsider. They wanted Murphy gone.


Mark Sommer of the Buffalo News has been following the story closely. Today’s installment is astonishing, both for what it says and what it reveals between the lines.


“Three more members of Shea's Performing Arts Center's Board of Trustees have resigned and the theater's general manager has been fired as turmoil continues to churn over the board's decision to retain Michael Murphy as president” writes Sommer.


“Resigning from the board were Sujata Yalamanchili, Shea's vice chairperson and a partner at Hodgson Russ law firm; Ken Jaskier, Shea's immediate past board president and chief financial officer at Frey Electric, which sponsors the 710 Theatre season; and Donald Fishback, recently retired chief financial officer at Moog and a co-chair of Sunday's 2022 Gala event.”


These resignations are in addition to the departure of Rich McCarthy, head of the retail banking division at M&T Bank, which sponsors the M&T Broadway Series, and Holly Beecher, a partner at Phillips Lytle law firm.


The defection of board members, all of whom have declined to speak to the press, is irksome and frustrating. Presumably, these individuals pledged to protect and advance Shea’s. Instead, these captains have abandoned ship, or, to deploy another metaphor, they have left the lunatics to run the asylum. Other than a brief statement from M&T bank, we’ve had crickets from these defectors. Do they have nothing to say? Do they truly feel that their responsibility to help this situation has expired? I am afraid, Mr. McCarthy, Ms. Beecher, Ms. Yalamanchili, Mr. Jaskier, and Mr. Fishback of M&T, Phillips Lytle, Hodgson Russ, Frey Electric, and Moog, that as much as the words of abuse and toxicity, the staff at Shea’s and the theater community will remember the silence of their friends.


The remaining board seems to be remarkably tone-deaf at best, or to approve of abusive leadership. The incident in which the board president charged at education director Thembi Duncan at a recent staff meeting, an event witnessed and confirmed by several attendees, suggests the latter.


The board has also been ignoring the press. In his Buffalo News articles, Mark Sommer has repeatedly reported that the Shea's board has refused to answer questions. Really? Unwilling to be accountable for high-handed actions at one of the region's most important not-for-profit arts institutions?


At the Shea’s gala on Sunday, during her remarkable performance at Shea’s 710, Broadway star Renee Elise Goldsberry, several times, praised Shea’s for its education programs. It is notable that Thembi Duncan, the director of those programs, who recently joined the large and growing list of Shea’s employees who have quit, was reportedly barred from attending the event.


The indisputable truth is that something is seriously wrong down at Shea’s and it’s being handled very badly. For the staff, it’s as if they called in the calvary for help, and instead of helping, the cavalry added to the abuse. It also seems that the community leaders on the board resent being criticized by lowly staff members, mere pawns in an organization. Board membership was supposed to add luster to profiles, not invite criticism from unimportant little peons!


It is very sad to say, but it becomes increasingly clear that Michael Murphy is a problem. It is probable that the Board of Trustees should have guided him more closely from the beginning. At this point, however, their support of him is bewildering. One wonders if they are more concerned with lawsuits and personal liability than the welfare of the institution.


The boost in subscription, seen at Shea’s (and at performing arts centers across the country) is due to the booking of “Hamilton,” not Michael Murphy. Under Murphy’s leadership, civility and collegiality have collapsed entirely. Due to this situation, Shea’s reputation has been tarnished across the industry, even making it to the highly influential “Broadway Briefing,” read by every producer and influencer in the American theater. Shea’s has lost the support, at least in terms of board representation, of M&T Bank – a move that was likely intended to make Shea’s eliminate Murphy, but which has obviously backfired – within hours of the first two board resignations, the remaining board called the notoriously contentious staff meeting, opening by saying they'd take no questions and were tired of hearing about everybody's feelings. The trustees also seem to think that Murphy steered Shea’s through covid alone. Obviously his much-maligned staff had a lot to do with all of Shea’s successes, and it is beginning to seem that they accomplished this despite an abusive boss.


At the Shea’s gala, it was notable, as Shea’s presenter, Albert Nocciolino honored former Shea’s president, Patrick Fagan and recounted the history of Shea’s, that the theater has thrived before Michael, and will thrive after him. Whatever his fine qualities, vital aspects of the operation collapsed under him, and talented staff members have fled in droves. It was notable that with Michael absent that evening, the gala went off like clockwork, thanks to the efforts of a capable and dedicated staff.