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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Shea’s Trustees Resolve to Eliminate "Bad Apples"

Board Chair Randall K. Best, president of Gernatt Asphalt Products, speaks his mind.

To hear Randall Best, chair of the Shea’s board of trustees tell it, the problem at Shea’s all boils down to “a few bad apples.” In the board’s assessment, those bad apples “sully the reputation of Shea's” and need to be ferreted out.

"We want to focus on what Shea's does best and try to remove some of the personalities affecting the reputation of Shea's,” he told Mark Sommer of the Buffalo News in today’s edition (Sat. Sept 3, 2022).

The purge has already begun. Shea’s general manager, Bill Patti was summarily fired. Among his infractions was voicing his opinion, at an internal staff meeting, that trustees who did not recognize that Michael Murphy’s abusiveness rises to the level of unacceptable, should resign from the board. It is very clear that his firing was a pointed warning to others.

And yet, Best claims he doesn’t understand why Murphy’s accusers might be afraid to step forward.

“Nobody wants to come forward with who they are, yet they want to allege that the board hasn't taken them seriously or hasn't come to the right conclusion concerning Michael," Best told Sommer.

Another contradiction in the interview is the assertion that Murphy is an excellent manager, and yet, 11 staff members bailed from Shea’s in the past year, many to escape the toxic environment, and 25 staff members out of a staff of 34 signed a letter protesting his “abusive behavior.” A mutiny would seem to indicate poor management. Captain Bligh was a strong leader, but he was not a good one.

As the Buffalo News editorial board observed in an insightful editorial (Sept. 1), “Though not all of the 11 staffers left because of the reportedly ‘toxic’ workplace atmosphere created by Murphy, most, according to reports, did. These departures add up to a drastic and disruptive narrative. It can’t be easy for anyone to leave a job – and its accompanying health benefits – in a field like arts administration, where similar positions are not that easy to find, particularly at the level of Shea’s, one of the crown jewels of Buffalo’s cultural offerings. Such difficult decisions on the part of so many need serious attention.

What emerges is a picture of a board that has not taken staff concerns seriously, and for whom the only issue that truly matters is money. We also see a board that expects employees to endure any level of toxicity without complaint.

Sommer relates Best as saying, "Sometimes, when we allowed a group of people to be together, the volume just got out of control…. So now you wonder, is it the heat of the moment? Is it a mob mentality? We couldn't be sure, and we had to rest our conclusion on the studies we hired and paid for."

Wow. When we “allowed” a group of people to be together?

“We had to rest our conclusion on the studies we hired and paid for"?

I am reminded of the college friend who came out to his parents as gay, and they immediately offered to hire and pay for a proper Christian therapist to talk to him about his “decision.” Who are these consultants that the board hired and payed? What is in those “two consultant-generated reports [that] found no grounds for termination”? What were the consultants asked to do? Was possible termination ever even mentioned, or were the consultants asked to make a structure for keeping Murphy? What is the standard for removal? If fostering a toxic work environment is not bad enough, what is?

Best has also complained on more than one occasion that the problems at Shea’s are an internal matter and should not be discussed by the general public. The issue only went public after staff members hit a dead end in their appeal to the board of trustees for help.

For me, the most remarkable revelation of the interview was the admission that there is merit to the complaints about Murphy.

"Michael is the first to admit that he can sometimes be short with people," Best said. "But Michael has promised us, and we believe him, that he is going to work very hard to change his style."

Those familiar with abusive behavior will recognize the inevitable moment of contrition and the promise to abuse no more. What a comfort to know that this abuser is going to work very hard to contain his volatile temper.

In the old world of theater, abominable showmen were tolerated and even admired. In 2022, that is no longer the case. Just last year, Scott Rudin, a titan of Broadway, resigned after former employees revealed stories of his volatile temper. The headlines were explosive:

“'Everyone Just Knows He’s an Absolute Monster': Scott Rudin’s Ex-Staffers Speak Out on Abusive Behavior." "Even as other Hollywood bullies are being sidelined, the uber-producer behind 'The Social Network' and Broadway’s 'To  Kill a Mockingbird' has been given a pass for his volcanic temper." "Now, former employees open up about a boss who left many traumatized: It was a new level of unhinged."

Shea's trustees are, apparently, more old school.

One more point that cannot go unchallenged. In Sommer’s revealing interview, trustee Jonathan Dandes, corporate vice president for Rich Products, describes Murphy as a “visionary.” This is not a self-evident truth.

"We know that Michael is a visionary,” Dandes said. While I can appreciate a trustee wanting to put the best face forward, I would like to see examples that warrant the lofty title of “visionary.” Shea’s national reputation rests entirely on its robust single-week ticket sales. Long before Murphy arrived, Shea's already boasted the single most lucrative week in the American theater. A 2011 article in the New York Times declared, Broadway Hits Gold in Buffalo and featured a photo of Murphy's predecessor, Anthony Conte.

The big boost in ticket revenue during Murphy's tenure has been fueled, entirely, by Hamilton and the skill of Albert Nocciolino as a presenter and producer. Every theater in America that has booked Hamilton has seen a similar boost in sales. Moreover, Murphy has been slow to find an innovative or meaningful mission for Shea’s 710 Theatre or the Smith Theatre, which was certainly an expectation when he was hired in 2016.

What becomes clear is that the remaining board believes that there is no real problem with Murphy. They see Murphy as the victim. They see this situation as a petty and time-consuming annoyance fueled by a few low-level troublemakers, and nothing more. They see the staff as whiners.

Best's description of the heated staff meeting, in today's Buffalo News interview, is especially telling. "[T]he volume just got out of control," 'Best said.' "So now you wonder, is it the heat of the moment? Is it a mob mentality? We couldn't be sure ...."

Best viewed this diverse group of impassioned theater professionals as a fearsome and uncontrollable "mob."

The plan seems to be to eliminate the "bad apples" and to intimidate those left behind into subordination. With the defection of board members who disagree, that plan might just work.

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