The staff of The Lark in 2015.
It was September of 2017 in New York City, and I had just graduated from an MFA program. A daunting prospect in and of itself—leaving the safety of school for the strictly gate-kept, scarcity-fueled arts field—but doubly so for me: as an immigrant student, I had only one year left on my visa. That was all the time I had to amass a substantial record of artistic achievement to qualify for the Extraordinary Abilities in the Arts visa, one of my only means of staying in the country. I was, to put it mildly, not in a good way.
Then I got a phone call. Andrea Hiebler, director of scouting and submissions at The Lark, told me that my play Machine Learning had been selected for Playwrights Week, a festival of work by early-career writers. “Do you remember applying?” she asked jokingly. I lied and said yes—my anxiety had pushed me to submit plays to an almost innumerable amount of things, and I definitely did not recall this one. But these people sounded nice, so I agreed to participate.
“Nice” turned out to be a huge understatement. Playwrights Week remains one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career. The staff was always there to take care of my needs and those of the team, from our complex staging ideas to our search for a talented bilingual child who could play a key role in the play. Every step of the way was laid with care, enthusiasm, and openness to feedback. Some of the people I met in the process, from employees to artists to audience members, I’m still in touch with to this day.
It might have set the bar too high—I soon learned that not every place was as caring as The Lark, which is probably why I kept coming back, participating in the company’s Roundtable, Playground, and Winter Writers Retreat programs. Even the physical space was welcoming: writing, eating, or just hanging out for no good reason on the fifth floor of 311 West 43rd Street became second nature. I called The Lark my main artistic home, with no qualifiers.
Then, in October of 2021, I received an email from artistic director May Adrales titled “Letter to our Community:”
With a heavy heart and sadness, we write to let you know that after 27 years of innovative and transformative work, The Lark will be ending this glorious chapter. After many months of responding to pandemic-related crises and seeking paths to sustainability, The Board of Directors, in an unanimous vote, have come to the painful conclusion that there is no sustainable and viable path forward for The Lark as an organization.
Board president Colin Greer expanded on that statement for this magazine. According to that article, in spite of The Lark appearing to soldier on through the COVID shutdown, “all was not well with the organization’s finances,” and as it “struggled to meet pre-pandemic funding levels… the landlord for the midtown space threatened to nearly double the rent.” Greer was quoted as saying the whole situation was “a perfect storm.”
However, at the bottom of the article, Nora Brigid Monahan (The Lark’s director of development at the time of the shutdown) left a comment that called this account into question: “This is simply not reflective of what actually happened,” they wrote. “It’s a shame the board and executives are being taken at their word for why The Lark is closing.”
I didn’t see that comment until after I started writing this piece, but I didn’t have to—Nora was not the only person questioning the official narrative. As soon as the announcement went out, I started hearing from multiple people that the financial explanation did not account for the shutdown, with stories that pointed instead to mismanagement, neglect, and gaslighting.
As I dealt with the loss of a place so dear to me, I also had to ask: Could my artistic home have been other people’s personal hell?
My first in-person event at The Lark was the 2017-18 Season Potluck, which celebrated the beginning of a new artistic year and included artists, staff, and friends of the theatre. I don’t remember much about that night, but I do recall an emotional moment: Michael Robertson, at the time the organization’s managing director, got up to deliver a teary-eyed retirement speech. That was the first and last I saw of him during my time with The Lark, but his presence loomed large in the interviews I later conducted. Staff members used outsized language to talk about him: His tenure, which started in 2006, was referred to as “the golden years”; his departure, as “the beginning of the end.”
Robertson presided over a pivotal time in The Lark’s history, during which the company’s operational budget almost tripled (from $500,000 to $1.4 million), as did its staff (from 6 to 17, including five apprentices). That was also when the company relocated to the space I knew, which occupied two floors and included administrative offices, two studios, a writing room for artists, and a communal space for gatherings.
Robertson’s biggest achievement, however, seems to have been cultural. One employee described him to me as “deeply charismatic” and “profoundly emotionally engaged,” sentiments that were echoed by most people I talked to. Robertson spearheaded The Lark’s Equity, Access, and Inclusion (EAI) work alongside Anna Kull (at the time director of community relationships), and eventually left The Lark to pursue this work “through an outside lens” as a director at artEquity. “I had started facilitating some trainings with them, and I realized the power of that work and the importance of white men leaning into anti-racism work,” he told me when I interviewed him for this article. He also thought that his retirement could create “an opportunity for The Lark,” which had a burgeoning culture that fostered “different kinds of leadership, and leadership from different backgrounds.” The question he asked himself was: “Could someone take The Lark in a different direction?”
The structure until Robertson’s departure had him and John Clinton Eisner, The Lark’s founding artistic director, as the company’s executive leaders. Robertson described Eisner to me as a “visionary” and a “brilliant fundraiser” who “worked hard to create an organization that could support the needs of writers.” Eisner’s advocacy (from which I benefited personally during his tenure, as he wrote recommendation letters for my visa applications) is what made him found the company—but that was not his original intention. “I never imagined building an institution when I started The Lark,” Eisner told me in our interview. “It was a result of what artists needed to make projects happen.” Institution-building wasn’t Eisner’s expertise, and by the time Robertson came to the company, Eisner said he had gone through many managing directors: “Michael was an amazing partner. It’s hard to find people who are interested in managing—most people come to cultural institutions to make art.”
As much as the partnership worked, Eisner says the work became more grueling the bigger the organization grew. When Robertson told Eisner about his intention to leave, it felt like an important turning point for The Lark. “To put someone else in Michael’s position would’ve just been to guarantee burnout,” Eisner reasoned. In his view, the alternatives were to “shrink the organization to something that was manageable,” or, should the collective desire for the company to continue to grow, “to engage the smart people in our community and see what we can do [instead].”
That second option won out: In the three months between Robertson’s announcement and his actual departure, he and Eisner had multiple discussions with staff. “I realized we were already operating in shared leadership ways,” said Robertson. “Teams were working without us having to sign off on everything, and we would bring the staff into every major decision. We were already very collaborative.” And, said Eisner, “There was already a conversation in the field around more equitable, collaborative leadership models.” Eventually, a consultant (Erin Frederick) was brought on to help define a new model, which was implemented after Robertson left. In it, the managing director duties were divided among four area heads: Anna Kull (who became director of communications and people), Roni Givigliano (development manager), Lloyd Suh (director of artistic programs), and Stacy Waring (director of operations).
The idea was innovative, and there was even a Yale School of Management business case about it. But it faced two problems. First, the staff didn’t necessarily want a new model, as multiple sources told me. Robertson acknowledged this when I asked him about it: “I didn’t wanna dictate anything on my way out, and I believed in the wisdom of the team, but it may have been unfair for me as an executive leader with power to ask the whole team to do all that labor.” Also, that labor didn’t necessarily equal actual input: Andrea Hiebler told me that the company sent out a press release about the new structure “without ever talking to the actual people who were going to be involved.”
The second, and perhaps more significant, issue was that executive leadership was never where ultimate power lay. The Lark’s directors, like those of any other nonprofit organization, answered to a board of trustees which, according to multiple staff members, did not care much for this power-sharing experiment, and instead looked to Eisner as the de facto leader. Colin Greer told me that the model was something the board approved because Eisner had suggested it, and that they did so on a trial basis, with the intention of checking in after a year to see how it was doing—but that it “still had John be accountable to the board as the executive director.” If the staff had a different understanding of how power would be distributed, Greer said, it’s because the board “never communicated directly with staff, so whatever they heard about the model, they heard from John.”
The experiment was short-lived: In less than three years, three of the four area heads—Givigliano, Kull, and Suh—left The Lark. The general sense I got from talking to staff was that the model gave area heads the managing director’s responsibilities but not the position’s power—and, again, that they had not agreed to participate in it. Even as an experiment, the idea might have been too idealistic, as Givigliano put it to me: “There was a desire to follow Michael’s work without enough time to consider where we were without him. The changes that Michael was pursuing in the organization were ones he was also enacting at a personal level. He was doing that work with the board as well, but they were not there on a daily basis—and with Michael leaving, it felt like as a staff we didn’t have the access to continue this dialogue with them.” Robertson confirmed to me that the board (which he characterized as “a bunch of really smart, nice people who were giving their money and staying out of the way”) did participate informally in EAI initiatives, and that there was an “idea” to eventually do more focused EAI work with trustees—but that didn’t happen during his tenure, with those efforts focused mostly on the staff as “the people closest to the work and the artists.”
When I asked Eisner about the model, he said the organization had entered “uncharted territory,” and objected to analyzing the plan in hindsight: “The demise of creative culture is this notion that ‘something went wrong.’” He admitted that the idea had its limits, because “it’s very hard for organizations to run by committee—people are kind, polite, and deferential. But on the other hand, there are a lot of arguments against a hierarchical model in regards to white supremacy culture.” Robertson, for his part, expressed that he wished he had “more knowledge about what shared leadership models look like before introducing the idea,” and admitted there wasn’t a lot of “expertise around the table.”
In early 2020, Stacy Waring became the company’s new executive director, restoring a two-leader hierarchy alongside Eisner. Waring’s promotion, making her the first Black woman to lead the organization (and one of the very few female leaders of color in the New York theatre industry), could be seen as a triumph of the company’s EAI work, one that maybe offset the failure of the collective leadership model. But, to more than one employee, it was too little too late—or worse.
“Stacy was appointed executive director without being given any support in that transition,” one employee told me. “And she was given an organization that was failing.”
How exactly The Lark was failing is a matter of passionate debate. While the official statement at the time of the shutdown did not go into detail, Colin Greer’s quote left the impression that money troubles were mostly to blame. That’s an assertion I heard from some of my theatre colleagues as well, who pointed at The Lark’s financial model—which depended almost entirely on individual and institutional giving—as the culprit.
Some of my sources for this piece disagreed. Lauren DeLeon, who started at The Lark as an apprentice and eventually was promoted to development associate before leaving for a fundraising position at another company, was categorical: “The Lark taught me all the ways that theatre could and should be—and was successfully doing it. To hear stories being told in a way that makes it look like the mission of The Lark was unsustainable is the most heartbreaking aspect of [the shutdown].” She agreed that the budget relying so heavily on donations made fundraising “rocky and scary,” but said that during her tenure, funding was always secured and she didn’t get the feeling that The Lark was “strapped or underwater.”
DeLeon left The Lark right as the COVID shutdown happened, so it could be that her perspective does not encompass the chaos caused by the pandemic. But Nora Monahan, who was promoted to the post of institutional giving manager upon Givigliano’s exit in 2018 and then to director of development in 2020, was even more categorical: They said that at the time the company announced that it was closing its doors, there were no financial issues at all. “We ended the 2021 fiscal year with a six-figure financial surplus and, I think, around six months of cash in hand,” they told me (referring to The Lark’s monthly expenses), estimating that by the time the company shut down, that figure was closer to four and a half months—without the need to raise “a single additional dollar.” And, they added, “that didn’t include the fact that there were already hundreds of thousands of dollars in commitments that were going to come in anyway.”
Another member of the development team, who requested anonymity to speak freely, provided a different outlook. On the one hand, they felt proud of the work they had done to successfully meet fundraising goals during the pandemic—a pride on which Greer’s statements to American Theatre put a damper, since they felt he was blaming the development department for the shutdown, which they feared could impact their future job prospects. On the other hand, they did agree that The Lark’s financial model was unsustainable in the long run. In their view, the values-centric model that the staff practiced was directly at odds with the company’s reliance on contributed income, which put it at the mercy of funders, and especially the board. “In some ways, the board would support the staff in developing that sense of shared leadership,” they conceded. “But when push came to shove, the iron hand would come down and remind us, ‘Actually, you can play your little staff game, but the board is the governing force.’”
That sentiment was echoed in most of my interviews with employees: When staff and board were not on the same page, only one side could tell the other what to do, and that dynamic did not feel like it belonged in a company committed to equity.
Multiple sources pointed me to an incident that took place at the end of 2019, which, like Robertson’s leaving, was also identified as “the beginning of the end.” At the time, the staff was having continuous conversations about the fact that the board (which was 80 percent white and completely cisgender) did not reflect the diversity of artists supported by the company. The team was looking for ways to “hold the board accountable” to values of equity, diversity, and inclusion, according to DeLeon—but she says the conversations, in which Eisner acted as a point of contact between staff and board, were “muddy.” She wasn’t the only one to note this: Eisner having close ties to the board, which included personal friends, was a common observation in most of my interviews (May Adrales told me that “nearly a quarter of the operating budget” came from donations tied to Eisner). Some speculated that it was precisely those ties that made it difficult for him to communicate the company’s values to the board, especially its older white members, as Robertson had.
Tensions erupted that December, when a board trustee made public comments on Facebook that many staff members considered transphobic, and they came together to write a letter. While none of the people I spoke to would provide me a copy of the letter (in most cases, because they had lost access to their company emails), all agreed on the content. According to Olivia George (the company’s communications manager at the time), the thesis was more or less, “This is harmful behavior, and it’s part of a pattern.” The letter called on the board to join the company’s anti-racism and anti-oppression efforts by undergoing training and signing “EDI agreements.” Employees told me the board was “pissed off” by the letter, and its demands were not acted on. (Responding to a draft of this article, The Lark’s board shared a calendar invite that showed that, about a year after the episode, four trustees, plus Eisner, were part of a cohort that attended an artEquity workshop called “Everyday Justice: Antiracism as a Daily Practice.”)
Eisner told me the letter was taken seriously: “The staff’s complaints and grievances were given to the board, and the board met and took action. Before long, the board member [who made the Facebook comments] left the board.” But the employees I interviewed felt like this moment represented a clear rift between staff and board, which would only continue to grow.
That same month, Eisner, who had been responsible for mediating between both sides, announced that he was planning to retire. He told me the decision was long overdue, and he wished he’d done it sooner: “After several years of thinking, I said, ‘I have to resign. I’m just exhausted, and I really need to focus on what to do next.’” The pandemic, however, ended up delaying his plans by over a year. He was asked to stay on part-time, in a role he described as “a kind of librarian”: passing on his knowledge of how the company functioned and what his job entailed, and reaching out to The Lark’s community to nominate people who could take over for him (though, he said, he did not want to have input on what the future of leadership would look like, because he wouldn’t be around to take responsibility for it).
While Eisner would only officially leave The Lark’s payroll in June of 2021, the announcement of his decision to retire felt momentous. Would there be a Lark without him? The question seems to have made the board nervous, both because so much of the company’s individual giving was tied to him, and because it came at a time when other white artistic directors were stepping down around the country, sometimes amid scandal. “The board was extremely concerned about the optics—they wanted to make sure that everybody knew John didn’t do anything wrong,” one employee told me. They said the staff was worried as well, “not because we thought we couldn’t continue without John, but because, for the most part, we had a board that was invested in him, not in our work.”
Looking back, they say those worries were warranted: “Lo and behold, John retires, and the board dissolves The Lark.”
As with so many of its dramaturgy and development practices, The Lark was a pioneer in the “Great Resignation” that would eventually sweep the theatre industry. The year that followed Eisner’s retirement announcement saw the departure of several key people in the company: area heads Suh (who resigned) and Kull (who asked to be let go to avoid other payroll cuts during COVID), but also members of staff, who gave up steady salaries and health insurance without any other jobs lined up, in the middle of a pandemic that was gutting the industry. Every couple of months, one of my emails to the people I had come to rely on artistically would return a dreaded automated response: “As of today, I’m no longer at The Lark…”
First was Nissy Aya, artistic coordinator, who advocated personally for my play to be part of Playwrights Week and went on to champion it elsewhere, as well as including me in the company’s Playground program. Aya was described by many of her colleagues as an essential force in the team, responsible for, among other things, so many of the difficult conversations that needed to be had about The Lark’s EAI efforts. “She fundamentally transformed The Lark,” one of Aya’s colleagues in the artistic department told me. “And what’s heartbreaking is that when she said, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore,’ the company didn’t fight for her. If anything, the response was, ‘Great, one less salary in the books.’”
Next was Olivia George, who repeatedly created space in The Lark’s blog for me to talk about my experiences as an immigrant artist. According to George, Kull’s departure had George dealing directly with the board—and sometimes being shut out of her own job. George was dismayed to find that the press release announcing Waring’s promotion had been written and circulated without her involvement, even though that would fall squarely under the purview of the communications department she led. “I only found out the news had officially been made public at all because I saw American Theatre post about it on their Twitter,” she recalled.
Relations with the press seem to have been a particular area of tension, according to George. “While my team’s press strategy involved building relationships with community-driven, values-aligned news outlets, we were consistently asked by the board to spend a significant amount of our time pitching stories to The New York Times instead,” she told me. “It felt hypocritical to me. The Times regularly published harmful reviews of plays by Lark writers, and we’d even published a blog post about that very problem on our website. It was one of our most-read posts ever.”
Then, in quick succession in early 2021, Krista Williams (Roundtable and casting director) and Kendra Ann Flournoy (director of alumni programs) also left the company, which meant that the artistic department had gone from four to one staff member (Hiebler). I felt their departure deeply: Williams produced several Roundtable readings of my work (in fact, the last in-person Roundtable ever at The Lark, on March 11th 2020, was for a play of mine), and Flournoy invited me to be a part of the 2021 Winter Writers’ Retreat, which she led. I remember her last night with us: May Adrales (who had already succeeded Eisner as artistic director at the time) asked the writers to prepare a surprise for Flournoy, pretending we were going to read new script pages that actually contained loving farewell messages. I was hesitant to participate; while at the time I had no idea of the problems that were affecting the company, the cumulative departure of so many dear staff members with little or no explanation had left me suspicious, and I feared that the farewell surprise would obscure whatever issues had led Flournoy to quit. I ultimately decided to join in, since I didn’t want to not celebrate her, but the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.
Not just in mine: Almost everyone I interviewed pointed at the multiple departures as having a huge impact on the company. The pandemic had already put a strain on operations (as one employee told me, “The Lark was not at all primed to move into a remote space”), and with each person that left, the strain got worse on the ones who stayed. According to my sources, the worst effect of the resignations was on morale. Both Aya and George wrote comprehensive resignation letters to leadership, outlining the systemic issues plaguing the company. But every time someone left, staff members told me, leadership framed the news as a personal decision made by the employee, not part of a larger problem—which one of my interviewees described as a “collective gaslighting experience.”
Not only did the company seem not to acknowledge systemic problems, its leaders also did not understand exactly what people did or how hard their work was: George told me that the fact the board “did not beg” Suh and Kull to stay showed they didn’t understand what they were losing; another employee who resigned told me that “the staff realized that we had reached a tipping point way earlier than the board did.”
According to some trustees I spoke with, the confidentiality surrounding employer-employee relations prevented them from discussing each person’s particular circumstances with the rest of the team. But the larger issue, as one of the people who resigned put it to me, was that “there was no acknowledgment of how the resignations were snowballing and how it impacted the organization. It was more ‘who’s gonna take over these tasks’ than ‘who will fill this space.’ The weight of the invisible labor staffers were doing was not recognized.” More than a morale issue, they said, the resignations amounted to an “existential crisis.”
There had been hope, both from staff and board, that the renewal of the executive leadership with Waring and Adrales would stabilize the ship and help turn it around. But the next person to leave would be Waring herself.
Waring, who became executive director almost immediately before the COVID shutdown, in March of 2020, had to navigate the company’s “existential crisis” practically by herself, in the lull between Eisner stepping back from an active role and Adrales stepping in.
One of her main challenges, as multiple employees told me, was that she was caught in the middle of the tension between board and staff. When I asked them about Waring’s time in leadership, they usually referenced an episode that illustrated her particular predicament. As part of the company’s efforts to have the board reflect The Lark’s community, two Lark playwrights, Donja R. Love and Erika Dickerson-Despenza, were invited to join as trustees. A conversation between them, exploring what they envisioned their roles to be, was published on the theatre’s blog in February 2021, containing passages in which Love wondered “what does it look like for [a board member] to be able to give money, to provide access and resources, and that’s it. We don’t need to hear from you. We don’t need anything from you but just the coin… [for you] to just give, then to shut the fuck up.”
The quotes didn’t land well with the rest of the board, most of whom were “incensed” and “insulted” by it, according to the people I spoke to—though a trustee told me that there was a contingent of members (including playwrights David Henry Hwang and Katori Hall) who came to its defense, arguing that to welcome Dickerson-Despensa and Love onto the board was to welcome their points of view as well.
It wasn’t Lark policy to edit artists who were published on the blog (beyond a style/EAI guide), but as some board members threatened to resign over the post, Waring had to contemplate the possibility of having the text altered or taken down altogether, something the staff vehemently opposed. To add to the pressure, with the announcement of Adrales as the organization’s new artistic director just weeks away, the board was concerned that anyone coming to the website to check out the news would be met by a link to the Love/Dickerson-Despenza conversation on the home page, which some members deemed unacceptable. Waring had to engage in multiple rounds of negotiation between trustees and staff until a compromise was reached: The post would stay up unadulterated, but would not show up on the home page. It wasn’t a victory for either party, and one board member resigned following the episode.
Waring’s other main challenge was having to lead the organization practically by herself. Staff members described her as being stretched thin during that time, answering emails at odd hours and showing up to meetings late—and in distress. “What Stacy was doing was basically five different jobs,” May Adrales told me. Board treasurer Elaine Grogan Luttrull put it to me more bluntly: “Stacy was doing far more than should ever have been asked of one human to do.”
On the occasion of Flournoy’s quitting, Waring told a staff member she had inherited “something broken” from Eisner; then, on the second day of the company’s spring staff retreat, she abruptly announced she needed to take time off. A few weeks later, in June of 2021, Waring left the company on a six-month medical leave of absence—something that was not made public until Colin Greer disclosed it in his post-shutdown quotes to this magazine. Waring declined to speak for this article, so I couldn’t get much clarity around the issue, but staff members told me there was a lot of internal confusion about her status in the company post-leave, and whether she was going to return. She ultimately did not, as the company shut down before the six months had passed.
As for Adrales, her tenure briefly overlapped with Waring’s; she came in March of 2021, around three months before Waring left. Her appointment meant that The Lark would be led by two women of color, which was made explicit in the announcement with a quote by Waring. It looked like a bright path forward for the company, but Adrales told me that the job that was offered to her during the hiring process “is not at all what job ended up being.”
Some staff members were under the impression that she accepted the position with the understanding that she would continue to pursue her directing career alongside her new post, which they felt would work in a “healthier” organization, but the current state of the company demanded someone to be “all in” to really turn things around. Her engagement to direct Letters of Suresh at 2nd Stage in the fall of 2021 was often brought up to me during interviews, as it caused her to be frequently absent during the turbulent time that preceded the shutdown.
Adrales disagreed with that characterization: “No one takes that job because they wanna pursue their directing career. I knew going in that there was a sacrifice I was going to make in terms of my own artistry.” She told me that her notoriety as a director was a plus for the board, since it would be a way to “gain more attention for [The Lark’s] programming,” but that her contract allowed her to direct only one outside show a year, with the possibility of a second one if “it were to be beneficial for The Lark.” Also, according to her, she signed on direct Letters of Suresh (which was moved from the 2020-21 to the 2021-22 season) before even entering the selection process for the artistic director job.
According to Adrales, she did prioritize The Lark: “There was nobody to even turn the lights on. There was an intruder, and I was the one who changed the locks. Every bill came through my desk. I even took care of leaks on two different floors. I didn’t know how to do a budget on that scale, didn’t know how to use Quickbooks. But I learned, because there was no one else to do it.” Taking the job meant moving to New York, which was a plus for her, because she “wanted to be in one place,” especially to provide stability for her daughter. But even that plan backfired. “I was told that the company would cover my moving cost (which they didn’t), that I wouldn’t have to be in person until August (I had to come back earlier).” She thought this was going to be her “dream job,” but when she got there, “there was nobody to onboard me. I never had a phone, never had a computer. Nothing was in place for my stepping in. And everyone was stretched beyond capacity.”
Adrales told me she was aware that some employees had resigned, but that she didn’t know about “all of the operational gaps,” adding: “I definitely didn’t expect the burnout that happened in the staff.” On top of that, she said, there was also attrition on the board, with Greer and other board members “who were critical to the stability of the organization” stepping down. “There was no one there to lead,” she said. (In response, Greer insisted, “I am on the board, never resigned. I stopped being chair after the decision to close was made by the board.”) Surmising her situation (and, in a way, also Waring’s), Adrales told me: “It’s a really tricky position to be asked to be a part of a network that you have historically not been a part of, to be the face of change where there are no changed systems.”
Some sources told me that, around the time that Waring left (and only a few months into her own tenure), Adrales submitted her resignation. “I did threaten to quit,” she told me, “when it became clear that it was a landslide—but I didn’t want to leave the organization hemorrhaging.” The board convinced her to stay, promising that the support she needed was coming: in March of 2021, The Lark had posted four job openings, seeking to rebuild the artistic department and shake up operations and communications. Candidates were interviewed, and Adrales said she eventually had finalists for each of the four positions.
But, before they were hired, the process stopped. In June, applicants received an email stating that “due to organizational shifts at The Lark, we will have to significantly delay our hiring process” and that the company would be in touch when the search opened again. Privately, some were given a rough estimate of September/October for hiring to resume.
Publicly, the company sent out an update in August in which Adrales stated that the company was working on its “leadership transition, developing our back-to-work plan, and building and strengthening our internal infrastructure,” offering an October timeframe to bring back its artistic programs. “Our return to our space and programming will mark our full commitment to fulfill our mission as a radically supportive and inclusive artist service organization,” the note promised.
The next update that the Lark community received, in October, was to announce the shutdown.
The hiring freeze happened, Adrales told me, because she couldn’t, “in all good conscience,” invite people into the organization without being able to ensure that they were going to have an “equitable, fair way to succeed.” According to her, regardless of how badly new staff members were needed, they would have had “no support” and been exposed to “a culture that was breaking.” But some employees told me the decision was due to a growing concern from the board regarding the organization’s finances—and Adrales conceded that she “couldn’t get approval from the board for some of the big hires.”
That financial concern was fully voiced by a new trustee, Marcella Davison Avilés, who joined the board at the end of 2020. Avilés told me that “the short-term situation was congruent with what The Lark had been reporting—money in the bank, reports being generated, programs running.” But, she said, there were questions related to the “sustainability of the finances,” including Eisner’s retirement, staff attrition, and the uncertainty in the theatre industry caused by the pandemic. “Do we have capacity to replenish revenue? Do we have capacity to create new revenue streams? Those were the questions that needed to be asked and answered,” she told me.
To try to answer them, Avilés joined the company’s leadership in a paid engagement as interim executive director after Waring went on leave, about six months into her own tenure as board member—an appointment that was never publicly announced. (She was listed on the company’s website solely as a board member.) In spite of the title, Avilés told me that her role was not the one Waring had held: the board asked her to conduct “an ascertainment” of the organization’s operations, and her job was to gather information. “I was not asked,” she told me, “nor did I agree to take on day-to-day activities.” However, employees did report to her, she told me, on the “gathering of financial data” and “fund development.”
Avilés’s role, which she described to me as a “hybrid” of consultancy and executive leadership, caused some confusion among staff members. They told me Avilés conducted interviews with them to hear their concerns, but that the message they shared—chiefly, that everyone was at capacity—was not addressed. And since Avilés’s role was part-time, they told me, she was often hard to find—which, compounded by Adrales’ own absence due to Suresh rehearsals, contributed to what board treasurer Elaine Grogan Luttrull would later call a “leadership vacuum.”
Things came to a head when, a few months after coming on board, Avilés clashed with Nora Monahan over a grant submitted by the development department, which contained language Avilés worried could “raise legal issues if not remedied.” The discussion between the two escalated to the point that, according to Monahan, Avilés acused them of fraud, a charge that made the feel like The Lark “had turned into a hostile work environment.” (Avilés told me that what she did was explain that the language in the grant “was a misrepresentation” which “might even be viewed as fraud by the grantor.”) As a result of the episode, Monahan submitted their resignation.
The following weeks, according to Monahan, were “pretty messy.” They had hoped to stay long enough to transition their role to someone new but, similarly to what I heard from other employees who resigned, Monahan told me there was not a lot of interest from leadership in taking up that offer. A meeting with Greer and Avilés that Monahan believed to be about the transition became instead about moving up Monahan’s final date by two weeks and having them sign an NDA; in the meantime, Monahan was asked to not speak of their resignation to anyone, particularly funders or program partners.
When Monahan finally received the NDA, it turned out to be a non-disparagement agreement (as opposed to “non-disclosure,” which is what Monahan had understood). According to Monahan, signing a non-disclosure would make sense, because they were director of development and therefore had access to a lot of privileged financial information. But the agreement they received (which they provided to me for review) felt odd to them: Among other things, it stipulated that both parties were releasing each other from any legal claims, including those “that are unknown, unanticipated, unsuspected, or that may hereafter arise as a result of the discovery of new or additional facts,” as well as agreeing to not “malign, defame, blame, or otherwise disparage” each other. Greer told me that he offered the NDA to protect Monahan, not The Lark—and Nora agreed that they were concerned “about the narrative that was being told to the board about my leaving, specifically since Marcella had accused me of fraud.” But, they told me, “If [the NDA] was about what I would want, there’s absolutely no reason that a general release of claims would be in there.” After getting legal advice, Monahan informed Greer that they would not be signing the agreement.
Monahan was the last staff member to resign before The Lark shut down—and the staff, which at the time the pandemic hit numbered 18 people (including five apprentices) was now down to six. When I asked board treasurer Elaine Grogan Luttrull how much Monahan’s exit impacted the company’s operations, she did not assign a specific significance, but told me, “Nora was a great director of development, and a very strong grant writer. It’s always hard in an organization when good people step away.” Adrales told me that Monahan’s exit was “quite devastating,” and the fact that Monahan had a director title made their resignation “one of the signals to a lot of board members of the low morale” in the company. “I lament that [Monahan’s exit] was contentious,” she told me. “But I respected their decision because it was a terrible environment. Absolutely toxic.”
Monahan quitting was a signal to the staff as well. Employees started speculating about whether there was a way forward; the recent approval, in August, of a budget for the new fiscal year (2021-22) gave some people hope, but others feared that the end was near.
Then, on Sept. 27, employees got an email: There was a mandatory meeting for all staff members with the board later that day.
“This is going to be one of those sensitive-topic kind of meetings, and we’re going to request complete and total confidentiality from you all,” Luttrull began. “We want to just definitely avoid any confusion or misinformation about The Lark or this message or anyone affiliated with it, and so we’re going to ask that you not discuss or disclose any of what we talk about today to anyone outside of this meeting.”
As I heard those words, listening to a recording of the meeting that one of my sources provided in the early days of this investigation, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the fact that it started with a request for confidentiality and yet I was listening to it months later, in my bedroom. It illustrated so clearly the divide between what different members of the company understood to be the right thing to do that it broke my heart a little—a feeling that would only grow as I continued to pursue the story.
Sources on staff described the meeting to me as “spooky,” and there’s definitely a tense mood to the recording. For starters, after the request for confidentiality, Luttrull went through each of the five employees (Monahan, though technically still on staff, was disinvited) to get visual confirmation that they would not share whatever they heard that day. She then ceded the floor to another trustee, David Henry Hwang, who, after mentioning “a series of increasingly challenging circumstances,” stammered and then steeled himself. “I’m just gonna rip the band-aid off: The board has come to the very sad and unanimous conclusion that we are unable to see a path forward…The Lark will be winding down operations within the current fiscal year.”
Hwang’s speech was very light on details of what exactly the “challenging circumstances” were, from the board’s point of view, and he and Luttrull focused instead on the future, talking about the formation of a committee of board members (plus Adrales) that would be in charge of rehousing Lark programs in other companies. Adam A. Elsayigh, at the time the development associate, brought up this lack of detail point blank: “We haven’t really addressed why we are where we are—or involvement, or complicity, or accountability for that. The fact that the board and this committee—many members of which I would blame for why we are where we are—will determine what the solution of this organization will look like is a little disappointing and astounding to me.” Luttrull gave a brief answer, saying Elsayigh had valid points and that “in this moment, there’s maybe what we will call kind of a ‘leadership vacuum’… there is work to be done at the leadership level that certain board members are not capable of doing.”
She then proceeded to explain that, when the board approved the budget for the new fiscal year, a plan had been put in motion to replace the dual leadership model with an executive producer position and a series of “VP” positions reporting to this person. It seems the executive producer would not be Adrales, Waring, or Avilés, since Luttrull then said that “it became sort of abundantly clear that finding that person may not be feasible, and we weren’t sure that we could, in good conscience, bring in a new person in that role, given all of the uncertainty that we have about the long term direction.” Adrales chimed in to agree, mentioning the “amount of attrition” of the prior 20 months—specifically, the mounting resignations, Waring’s leave of absence, and Eisner stepping down—as a contributing factor.
That’s the most tangible explanation for a shutdown that the staff got: There was going to be another leadership change, and it became apparent to the board that no one could do the job. Finances were only brought up in a positive light, with Luttrull stating that The Lark was “in a financially strong position” and that it had “enough current assets on hand to last for four and a half months with nothing else coming in.”
In spite of Hwang insisting that it was the board’s intention to be “as transparent as possible” throughout the process, the staff felt the meeting was very opaque, with the board skirting around the issues that had led to a shutdown. What’s more, that the decision to shut The Lark down did not involve the staff was, according to Andrea Hiebler, “the last betrayal. It was exactly what I was afraid of. I knew in my heart of hearts how much was wrong with the organization, but every time I brought up anything, it was dismissed. It felt like such a foreseeable failure.”
Employees were offered the chance to stay at the company through the wind-down process, though they were advised by Luttrull that “should you choose to stay, you’re agreeing that you’ll work as part of this team to complete tasks that probably fall well outside of what you were hired to do.” The uncertainty over their jobs took a toll on some staff members, as did knowing ahead of time something that would impact the whole community and having to keep it a secret. “We were explicitly told, ‘You cannot tell artists what is going on at all. You have to keep this to yourself,’” one employee told me. “It was like suddenly the values that we were pushing—the ‘bring your whole self, be honest, no censorship’—were being directly contradicted by our work experience.”
Not being able to communicate with artists was particularly traumatic for Hiebler: “The one thing we have with artists is trust. Staff had been saying for years: ‘We can’t make promises we can’t keep. We can’t mislead artists.’ Now I feel complicit. I’ll be the mouthpiece, the messenger. In that [shutdown meeting], I was just so aware that we were about to fuck over a bunch of people.”
The public announcement of the shutdown was similarly vague; the only further specifics were provided by Greer to this magazine, in a way that not only deviated from the talking points the staff told me they were given, but also did not line up with what employees believed to be the cause of the shutdown. Greer, in their view, scapegoated COVID, the development department, and Waring (by bringing up her leave of absence) for a crisis that originated in the board.
In our conversation, Greer firmly restated that the company shut down due to two main factors: COVID and finances, particularly the rent. About COVID, which he called the “overriding” factor, he said: “Anything that was troubling The Lark would’ve been resolved by being in a room together. It always was. But the magic of the space, the roundtables, rehearsals—it was gone.” About finances, he insisted that rent was the main issue. In the American Theatre article, he was quoted as saying that “as the organization struggled to meet pre-pandemic funding levels, the landlord for the Lark’s midtown space threatened to nearly double the rent.” I had heard from multiple people that The Lark had been discussing the issue of the lease for years before the pandemic; Greer did not deny this, but told me that COVID “killed the window” that The Lark had to get out of the lease and receive money from the landlord to do so (though he admitted it was not a guarantee that the landlord would’ve taken that deal).
According to Stuart Gold, who chaired the board’s real estate committee, the work began in April of 2019, almost a year before the pandemic. He told me The Lark was paying $35/square foot in 2020, which increased to $38.50 in 2021—and that for the renewal, the landlord proposed $63/square foot, with planned bumps over the 5- to 10-year term. The committee engaged the firm CBRE to help them negotiate with the landlord and to look for new space; several options were considered, including sharing a space with the New York offices of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, whose lease was also expiring. None of the proposed avenues panned out, according to Gold, and rent became a real concern. “We did not have the money coming in to pay,” he told me.
After the shutdown, with the cover of the New York State eviction moratorium, the company started paying half of the rent, with the understanding that they would pay back the rest “at the end of the pandemic.” Even though none of the board members I spoke to argued with Monahan’s assertions about a six-figure surplus and months of cash in hand, they all brought up the accruing debt as a factor in the uncertainty over the company’s future. Elaine Grogan Luttrull also pointed at several factors in the previous fiscal year’s surplus that were atypical and, she believes, would not have continued into the future: a reduced staff; forgiveness of the company’s Paycheck Protection Program loan (which she put in the six figures); increased donations due to supporters “stepping up during the pandemic”; and the deferred rent.
But Luttrull also told me that, in August, the board had approved a $1.9 million budget for the following fiscal year—a “break even” budget, in which income and expenses balanced out. According to her, that budget reflected “creative priorities” such as increased stipends for core program participants, an “investment in accessibility for all programs,” filling “most, but not all” of the vacancies on staff, cost-of-living and merit-based increases for staff’s salaries, and overhead expenses including the cost of the space.
The approved budget addressed most of the issues raised by people during my interviews (staff capacity, rent, lack of focus on the company’s values)—yet the company shut down a month later. Luttrull did not quite explain the contradiction in our conversation, but she pointed at the fact that a budget approval is required for a nonprofit to continue operations, particularly paying its staff, and that as approved in August, the budget “reflected the potential that we saw at the time so that everything could continue running.” She said there was no “financial catastrophe” that took place after approving the budget, and clarified that only around 10 percent of the projected income was “completely hypothetical”—the decision to shut down, she says, happened because of “ongoing uncertainty.”
Two things did happen between the approval of the budget and the decision to shut down: Monahan resigned, and Avilés finished her ascertainment of the company’s operations. In her presentation to the board, according to Avilés, she raised questions about “staff leadership,” “the ability to rebuild staff during a pandemic,” and “the ability to replenish contributed revenue,” which meant the board had three options: to become an “operating board,” to shut down completely, or to wind down over time and preserve the programs—which is what the board chose to do.
The suggestion that the shutdown happened so that the company’s programs could continue to live elsewhere (some of which eventually did; a complete list is here) is something I heard from more than one source at the board. Even Adrales, who told me she did not participate in the decision to shut the company down, framed it as values-based, against the backdrop of “months of trying to dig ourselves out of this hole.” According to her, “In the end, the most responsible thing to do to uphold our commitment to artists was to rehome those programs so that The Lark legacy and our continuation of support for artists could happen.
“I don’t want that message to get lost.”
The public’s response to the shutdown was immediate and loud. People on social media lamented the death of an institution whose contribution to our industry, as Qui Nguyen tweeted, was “immeasurable.” Philip Himberg, executive director of MacDowell, pointed at the disappearance of yet another play development organization: “I am in despair… First Sundance and now the great Lark.” Lauren Halvorsen included it in her newsletter Nothing For The Group as one of the lows of 2021, while Diep Tran speculated that the problem probably ran deeper than the recent changes of leadership. Paula Vogel, responding to Greer’s comments about the raising of the rent, asked who the landlord was and invited people to “serenade them.” Then she reversed course: “It seems that perhaps Lark terminated itself.”
I found out about the shutdown in the middle of a work meeting, when I got the email from Adrales addressed to the community. I stopped working. I could not believe it, or maybe I didn’t want to. I knew there were problems; it was obvious from how many people had resigned. But shutting down? It felt so extreme. I texted friends, I got in touch with other artists. I kept bringing it up in conversation, almost compulsively, waiting for someone to say something that would make it all okay—which never happened. All differences aside, it felt like someone I loved had died.
Many of the artists who had been supported by The Lark shared in my grief. I asked Gregg Mozgala, founder and artistic director of The Apothetae, which ran a playwriting fellowship for Deaf/Disabled writers with The Lark, if he had felt taken care of by the company during its tumultuous last year. He was categorical: “I never felt let down or unsupported by the staff.” The Apothetae, in fact, was one of the programs that were rehomed, at Queens Theatre, which he’s happy about.
But Mozgala still felt mournful. “My career, such as it is, would not exist without The Lark,” he told me. He was confounded and upset that the decision to shut down was made so quickly and without involving the artists. “If the community had been made aware of any kind of difficulty or struggle,” he posited multiple times during our conversation, “I’m sure heaven and earth would’ve been moved to make sure the organization could remain open.” He feels the loss of the institution, regardless of the rehoming of the programs, is significant because “new plays are the currency with which we deal in theatre”—and in terms of the amount and diversity of new work development, “nothing else, and no one else” did what The Lark did. “The result,” he concluded, “is that a huge hole has been blown into the American theatre.”
I’m still a newcomer to this industry—I moved to the U.S. in the fall of 2015, so I don’t have the benefit of Mozgala’s perspective to make an assertion like that. But I can unequivocally say that a huge hole has been blown in my playwriting practice. The Lark was the place that never turned me away, the one that made me feel like every other rejection didn’t matter because they would still support me. During the COVID shutdown, being able to participate in the Roundtable and Winter Writers Retreat programs was the only thing that prevented me from quitting playwriting altogether. It’s hard to accept that it’s all gone.
I started this investigation with the illusions of a true crime podcaster: At some point, I believed, I’d find the killer, the murder weapon, the irrefutable proof. “This is why The Lark shut down.” It would be clear, concrete—and publishing this story would be a way to prevent it from ever happening again. Instead, what I found was a tale of two Larks. In one, the board ruled with an iron fist; in the other, the employees had grown too independent and refused to take direction from the company’s leaders. In one, The Lark braved the storm of the pandemic with money to spare; in the other, the financial situation grew so dire during the pandemic that there was no viable path forward but to shut it all down. In one, The Lark was a beacon, and a golden standard, of practicing EAI values; in the other, the company was rooted in capitalism, white supremacy, transphobia, and other systems of oppression that it could not quite shed.
“What are you gonna say happened?” was a question that I often got at the end of an interview with a source. It confounded me. I was interviewing people so that they would tell me what happened. It wasn’t my job to have an opinion, just to pursue the facts. But ultimately, the only question I was able to answer concretely was the one I asked at the beginning of this article: Could my artistic home have been other people’s personal hell? I’m sad to say that all the evidence points to “yes.” The overwhelming majority of the employees I interviewed were too scared to talk. If I convinced them to, they invariably described their experience at the company (at least in its final years) as traumatic. And the ones who wouldn’t talk, for the most part, told me they didn’t do so because they wanted to prioritize healing over reopening the wound.
I was shocked when Colin Greer said to me, in another tale of two Larks, that the people who left did so “in very good will. No one was angry. There was no viciousness, no vengefulness left behind.” He cited the specific example of an employee who left of their own volition on good terms. That same employee, when I asked them to speak for this article, turned me down by saying: “I feel so much fatigue when it comes to thinking about this. It took a long time and a lot of work to find some personal closure with that organization after I left. I’m at a place where I like enjoying the good parts and don’t want to dwell too much on the bad parts—I’ve had moments when I couldn’t help doing that, and they were truly no fun at all.”
Speaking about the good parts was what a lot of people I interviewed wanted me to do. “It’d be a shame if this was the last thing that is written about The Lark,” I was told several times, and I rolled my eyes. I don’t have the power to have the last word about The Lark. And I truly hope this isn’t it, because the company really did achieve so much. But I wrote this article because of the good parts. If one thing united me to every person I interviewed for this article, it is that we all loved The Lark: what it used to be, what it could be at its best. To think that people working there were struggling is almost unbearable. It makes speaking about the bad parts necessary, as Andrea Hiebler put it to me: “We need to acknowledge [the bad parts]. We can’t sweep it all under the rug. I actually want to see real change and progress, not just empty talking points, without actual shifts in how things are done and how the field operates.”
Some of my sources were concerned about the artists who, like me, had received support from The Lark and would now wonder whether that experience was tarnished. “The Lark was the artists,” Krista Williams told me. “And the artists didn’t need The Lark to do their work. We were wildly lucky that they trusted us enough to bring their work to our spaces for as long as they did. And whatever experiences they had in those fifth floor studios or at that 8th Ave space… that work should not be compromised in any way by everything that played out in the fourth floor offices. That work was real. It was beautiful. And it is entirely their own.”
Having been in those fifth floor studios several times myself, I will miss them. The “good parts” are gone (with the exception of the programs that were rehomed). I don’t know what will come next. I asked my interviewees to envision a path forward, and they all humored me with ideas about collectively operated companies and new models of making work. But what I kept coming back to was the image of The Lark’s inception: John Eisner, back in 1996, waiting at a loading dock for a set to arrive, frustrated at a producing model that had him stuck there instead of in a room with other artists—then being struck, like Newton’s apple, with an idea for a different way to do things.
If the Lark I knew and loved was born unexpectedly from a frustration with the way things were done at the time, then I hope that from its ashes comes something even better—something that, as Elaine Grogan Luttrull said when she refused to humor me, it may be pointless to predict. “If I have learned anything in many years working with creative individuals,” she told me, “it’s not to prescribe a path forward. Every person that has been touched by this incredible organization has an idea of what a path forward might look like for the industry. And I can’t wait to see what bubbles to the surface.
“When you put creative people together to solve a problem, magic happens, right?”
Francisco Mendoza is an Argentinian writer currently living in Brooklyn, NY after spending several years in Brazil. His writing spans theatre, prose, audio, and the screen, and he also works as a freelance journalist, teacher, and marketing consultant. @notrealmendoza / notrealmendoza.com
Sensitivity reading by Hope Chávez. Hope is a queer mixed-race Latiné creative producer living in Ashland, Ore. She also works as an anti-oppression facilitator, theatre educator, and non-profit arts consultant for organizations across the country. Hope serves on the board of the New Haven Pride Center. @_hopechavez
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