FORT MYERS, FLA.: For most theatre staffers, a promotion is a time for celebration. For Jason Parrish, who was told last Tuesday that he was getting promoted from associate director of Florida Repertory Theatre to interim artistic director, the news came with some complicated feelings.
“It is the strangest feeling to all of a sudden have that title and to be congratulated under the circumstances,” he remarked wryly. The circumstances: He was given the title after longtime producing artistic director of Florida Rep, Robert Cacioppo, was fired on Thursday, April 5.
The reason for the firing, according to an official statement from the theatre, was “behavioral problems” on the part of Cacioppo, including “bullying, considerable absence, demeaning individuals (particularly women) both publicly and privately, and anger management issues.”
Florida Rep is a $4-million organization that serves an audience of around 90,000 annually. It operates two theatre spaces and programs a mix of plays and musicals. It was founded in 1998 by Cacioppe and his wife, Florida Rep’s associate producer, Carrie Lund Cacioppo; she remains on the theatre’s staff.
Trouble surfaced in December, when Actors’ Equity Association filed a letter of complaint to the theatre on behalf of a group of actors who had worked on Night and Day: Love Lost and Found through the Eyes of Cole Porter. Beginning in February, the board conducted two investigations, involving interviews with 21 employees, both full-time and temporary.
Though some of the allegations against Cacioppo included harassment, the investigation, in the board’s words, “did not find a full legal case for sexual harassment.” Instead the largest concerns, according to board chair Marc Laviolette, were “about abuse, about creating a toxic work environment.”
Following the investigation, the board of Florida Rep offered Cacioppo a partly paid leave of absence, with a requirement that he get “anger management and leadership training for a number of months,” said the Rep’s managing director, John Martin. During that absence, the theatre was planning to reevaluate its “governance policy” and explore “structural changes.”
But the talks broke down when Cacioppo refused to sign a letter agreeing to the absense, after which the board voted to terminate his employment. For his part, Cacioppo said he didn’t sign the letter on the advice of his lawyer and local colleagues. “I first showed it to three different community leaders and donors that are my friends, and they all shook their heads and said, ‘Do not sign this, this isn’t guaranteeing that you come back. This is a bad idea,’” said Cacioppo.
In response to the allegations, Cacioppo said adamantly: “I’m guilty of being a perfectionist, I’m guilty of being demanding of excellence—all of those things I will vote guilty for. But I have never sexually harassed anyone.”
When asked if there had been prior complaints, Parrish, Martin, and Laviolette responded in the affirmative.
“There’s been a significant history of argument, and mostly folks tolerating the worst behavior because people need jobs,” said Martin, who has been the theatre’s managing director for 17 years. He explains that prior to Florida Rep’s current development director Renee Pesci, “I could only hold onto a development director for about 18 months at a time. And talking to them during exit interviews, there was a significant objection to the structure of the place. It came down to attitude and expression, of behavior that was intolerable after a while.” Laviolette said that while there had been issues before, the last few months represented the first time that complaints of this magnitude had reached the board.
Reflecting on his own 13-year experience at the theatre, Parrish was hesitant. “Yes, Robert has a great capacity for enthusiasm and a great capacity for wonder and a passion for what he does,” he said delicately. “But one of the issues is when you have complete authority, you have to be responsible about it. And there are times when he could have been better at using that power.”
In the week following Cacioppo’s termination, the board promoted Parrish and is now looking at revising the leadership structures of the organization. Previously, because Cacioppo’s title was the producing artistic director, he had final say over all things artistic and financial at the organization.
“What we’re going to do is, instead of having one person, now we’re going to have two—we’re going to have the artistic side and the finance and management side, so two people at the top,” said Laviolette. Another change includes having a more open communication structure, so the staff can “reach out to the board, and feel more comfortable doing that, in a safe environment. I don’t know that existed before.”
When asked why these behavioral concerns were tolerated or waved away for so long among the staff, Parrish was circumspect. “I don’t quite know why,” he admitted. “Nobody wants to feel threatened in raising a concern, so sometimes you don’t for your own self preservation.”
He continued: “I think we all just have to be aware that there is a feeling in this business that it’s acceptable to order people around, or it’s acceptable to browbeat people or to break them down in order to build them up.” But from working with other directors, Parrish said, “I’ve seen time and time again that it doesn’t have to be that way. We have to look at our creative process and say, there is a way to get someone to do what you need them to do for that moment without tearing them down in order to get there.”
But Cacioppo isn’t buying the complaints. To him, the entire process has been “a bureaucratic takeover of an artist-driven organization.” He said that among his upcoming goals were to have Florida Rep join the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) and to pay its artists more. “But now it’s gonna be a group of board members who have no theatrical background making this decision,” he said. “I can bet my bottom dollar that they will not be wanting to go LORT, and not understanding the artists, the ensemble members, the directors, the designers who worked for us for 20 years—they deserve the pay increase and the security that a LORT theatre will bring.”
As for the theatre, the last week has had its ups and downs. Three members of its board resigned. But it raised its largest sum ever at its annual fundraiser. For Parrish, who will soon announce Florida Rep’s 2018-19 season, the focus is on creating a safer work environment and making great art.
“The message I want to send for next year is we are strong and the artistic product will not suffer, and we will continue to do the highest caliber of work in Southwest Florida,” he said resolutely.