Things have turned sour at Sweetback Productions. Founders Kelly Anchors and her husband, Michael Mc-Kune, have been thrown out of the company they launched in 1994 by a board of directors made up of their very best friends. The friends–coartistic director David Cerda, managing director Steve Hickson, and husband-and-wife production team Pauline Pang and Richard Lambert–say Anchors is brilliant and they love her, but none of them wants to work with her anymore. Her directorial style, as they describe it, could be a shtick from their own shows: a mix of Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Crawford at their most unpleasant, with the default setting at “crisis.” So they got together, divided the assets, offered her a like-it-or-lump-it deal, and told her to push off.
Anchors and McKune got the company name, $3,000, the right to produce a couple of long-standing Sweetback programs (Screw Xmas and Diva Night), and whatever equipment they had stored in their home. The renegade board, who had run the business aspects of the company for the last few years, took the rest of the money in Sweetback’s bank account (about $17,000) and the legal entity with its valuable not-for-profit status (achieved through the efforts of Pang and Lambert). For now, they’ll also keep the Sweetback Web site (created by Lambert) and E-mail list; they say they’ll turn the Web site over after a “transition” period. Cerda has the rights to the signature cross-dressing musical late-night-film parodies he wrote (Scarrie–The Musical, Touched by Jayne Mansfield, and a handful of others), though Anchors claims she should have a share in their biggest hit, The Birds. Cerda opines that they’ve done right by Anchors. After all, he says, “We could have just waited until [her term expired in] July and voted her out and given her nothing.”
Anchors is humiliated. She can’t believe that the board she put together when Sweetback became a legally designated not-for-profit company could and would get rid of her at the end of her annual term. These were the people she trusted most: “Pauline and I stood up at each other’s weddings; I gave David his start in the business.” She admits that she had less time to put into the theater after her second son was born in 2000, but says she was being cool when she backed off temporarily and let the others “do their own thing.” As for her working style: “I operate the same now as I did in 1994. A lot of people don’t like it. They come and go. That’s as it should be. I’ve been in theater since I was seven, worked at one theater for ten years. When I left I didn’t ask what slice of that theater was mine. I never thought I was owed a part of those companies. The payoff was what you learned and the experience. But here, apparently, these four got together and figured out they didn’t have to walk.” When she came back to direct The Birds under the physical constraints of the Berger Park Mansion coach house last fall, she says she “could feel people were resenting me walking back into this company, taking a leadership role. Things came undone.”
There’s no argument on that. “It was hell,” Cerda says. “A nightmare. A bunch of screaming. But it brought the cast together. We were unified by our disgust. Maybe this will be her wake-up call about how to work with people.” For Cerda, the split was “like breaking up with a lover”; for Hickson it was more like finally leaving an abusive spouse. Cerda, Hickson, Pang, and Lambert have formed a new company–Hell in a Handbag Productions–and plan to stage a new Cerda show, “Poseidon: An Upside-down Musical,” next winter. Anchors is putting together a new show of her own. But, she says, as long as her former colleagues have the Web site “they’re capturing our audience base.” She says even if the breakup was inevitable, it should have been handled differently; it should at least have involved a mediator.
For their part, the Sweetback board believes shedding founders is standard practice in the theater world. Cerda couldn’t think of any examples but maintains it happens all the time: “A board of directors will just vote ’em out and they get nothing,” he says. “That’s like the norm.” And Pang spelled it out in an E-mail to Anchors: “It is no longer your choice to give up the company or not, for the company can give you up. It is far from weird; it is part of the unfortunate psychology of theater that founders get separated from the companies they started all the time…and most of them don’t get to keep their name.”
Friends in Need
Last week on the way to the Illinois Arts Alliance Awards–honoring Governor George Ryan, Chicago Humanities Festival founder Richard Franke, and blues legend Koko Taylor–I heard former Better Government Association head Terry Brunner interviewed on the radio. “We’ve been saying Ryan’s a crook for 20 years,” he was saying. No matter: the day after two former top aides were indicted for alleged shenanigans involving state workers and his campaign committee, the arts community lathered the gov in balm. At a $250-a-seat benefit in the ballroom of the Four Seasons, Ryan was welcomed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Henry Fogel and Columbia College’s Woodie White (both IAA officers) and a tag team of pols who praised him as “the best friend Illinois arts have ever had in the executive mansion.” Ryan got a standing ovation and said he thinks the people of Illinois are more concerned with problems that affect their families and a balanced state budget than they are with the charges against his aides who are fine fellows anyway.
The only place in the nation still showing Pete Jones’s Stolen Summer is the CineArts 6 in Evanston. Two weeks after its limited-release opening, the Project Greenlight film got the red light from Miramax.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.