It’s a story too often repeated in the nonprofit annals: well-meaning community member forms a nonprofit for the benefit of society but has little knowledge of how to run an enterprise. Eventually, the organization must either develop strong systems or fold. The Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando is facing this breaking point now after former employees made the organization’s appalling payment practices public and Orange County commissioners denied the organization a $75,000 grant in response.
The theatre is under scrutiny for what has been described by one resident as “Mad Cow’s unhealthy culture of compensation.” In an open letter to the theatre company, Aradhana Tiwari wrote:
I’m an artist. It’s not a hobby. It’s my livelihood. When I’m not paid, there are consequences. Like you, I have a water bill, a cell phone bill—I even eat food. When we have an agreement for compensation an expectation is set. An expectation that I will get paid. I have spent the last three years fighting for my compensation privately and as I’ve exhausted all other avenues available to me, I’ve now decided to go public with this fight: Respectfully, please pay me and my fellow artists for services rendered.
The response to Tiwari’s letter and the social media posts from other Mad Cow employees, as reflected in the Orlando Weekly, show that others have had similar experiences. As Tim Williams wrote:
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But in Orlando, most artists reacted to Tiwari’s post with a resigned “me too.” In comment after comment, actors, stage managers, costume designers, technicians and former staff employees talked about delayed paychecks, paying for supplies for productions from their own pockets and being stiffed by the theater company.
The board of directors responded to Tiwari’s letter, confirming the financial struggles of the organization and admitting that the theatre owed back wages to some employees from the 2015–2016 season. The board apologized for the delay and indicated that the organization is looking into a way to correct the issue. “The theater also is behind more than $300,000 in payments to the city of Orlando related to its leased space on Church Street,” as reported by the Orlando Sentinel.
However, comments from former employees indicate that these financial struggles date back much farther than the 2015–16 season. Tim Williams, an actor with Mad Cow Theatre since 2005, noticed that when he was covered by the Actors’ Equity Association labor union, he received consistent, on-time paychecks. However, when Williams took a Mad Cow role that was not covered by the union, his paychecks were significantly delayed. This discrepancy for Williams and other staff continued for several years. Whenever he brought concerns to Executive Director Mitzi Maxwell, she assured him that steps were being taken to secure funding. After eight years, however, Williams lost his faith in the theatre.
Williams says, “We want Mad Cow to survive, and as artists, we have a bad habit because we want to work, even work for free, and so many actors here already have day jobs at the theme parks. People leave but if you still have a lot of actors showing up to auditions, people designing sets and donors still throwing money at it, it’s not going to change.”
We beg to differ. We trust that most nonprofits would not take these kinds of liberties with staff or contractors, who are their partners in the mission over an extended period, but we get the point. Mad Cow Theater appears to have transgressed in a way that their public won’t countenance, and now they must reform in decisive and public ways or be further sanctioned and dropped from the hearts of other community members—donors, actors, audience and all.—Sheela Nimishakavi