EXCLUSIVE: Women’s Project Theater Intrigue Deepens With Conflicting Reports: Was Julie Crosby Fired?

Julie Crosby, who had served as the producing artistic director of the Women's Project Theater, gives an exclusive interview to Playbill.com about the differing accounts of why she departed the organization.

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"My favorite line this year has been, 'Why don't you just produce hits?'" Julie Crosby said recalling a meeting with the board of the Women's Project Theater. "I thought that was one of the best questions I got this year from a board member.

"I really prefer the flops," she jokingly added. They're really just so much easier."

The board member's question referred to the lack of revenue brought in by productions put on by Women's Project Theater, a 36-year-old theatre dedicated to presenting works written and directed by women, of which Crosby had served as producing artistic director since 2006. 

In an interview with Playbill.com, Crosby said that she was aware the theatre's co-chairs were unhappy with her and their displeasure was communicated in methods that she described as "bizarrely related in indirect, cloak-and-dagger ways." She said she had suggested the theatre announce that the upcoming season would be her final one with the organization and that she would assist with the transition of a new artistic director. Instead, Crosby said that on June 6 she received an e-mail from a lawyer saying she had to vacate her desk. "I was shocked," Crosby said. "I have no idea. I have no idea why, honestly, why any of this was handled in the way it was handled."

An online petition protesting Crosby's departure and demanding the resignation of co-chairs Arlene Scanlan and Casey Kemper began circulating; as of July 18, the signature contained 665 signatures. 

Crosby's departure was communicated to the advisory board, a group of artists who contribute to the development of the organization, in an e-mail sent by executive consultant Jessica Jenen. Numerous members of the advisory board voiced their objections to co-chairs Scanlan and Kemper in e-mails which were shared with Playbill.com by a former member of the advisory board.

"We are deeply disturbed by the expulsion of Julie Crosby after almost a decade of leadership," the e-mail said. "The way it was handled has created a situation we fear is damaging to the Women's Project's reputation, especially as it typifies the very thing we are committed to fighting — the lack of acknowledgment of the contribution of women to the American theater... We are dismayed by your treatment of Julie Crosby and the disrespect you have shown us, and have no confidence in a board that so unprofessionally dismissed its leadership without any apparent plan for transition. We feel that it is important for us to communicate as a group our grave concern about the effects the mishandling of this situation will have on funders, the professional community, the women's advocacy community, and the public."

The letter was signed by 22 of the 23 members of the advisory board, including Kathleen Chalfant, Paula Vogel and Emily Mann.

Scanlan responded in an e-mail, saying, "Julie Crosby resigned as Producing Artistic Director. She was not fired. She sent the Board an email announcing that she was leaving and asked that we contact her attorney to discuss the terms of her departure. Since that time, discussions between the lawyers have been ongoing. As part of the transition, which frankly took us by surprise, we felt it important to let you know of the change as soon as possible, and Julie was consulted on our statement to the Advisory Board."

"That is totally untrue," Linda Healey, who resigned as a board member following Crosby's departure, said in an interview with Playbill.com. "She was fired. I have never seen anyone treated in this way. And I have been with corporations and seen a lot of bad behavior. But nothing quite like this."

Along with Healey, three other members had resigned.  The Women's Project board now consists of two women and four men.

Healey said she had witnessed Crosby being addressed disrespectfully by Scanlan and Kemper in meetings, describing the treatment as "scathing and unwarranted criticism." In an e-mail to co-chairs and advisory board, she wrote, "The Board's co-directors' traducing of Julie Crosby in several meetings, making it clear that they were firing her and their withholding of information and intentions on other fronts from the board of directors lead me to conclude that they see board members as simply mindless fund raisers and rubber stampers of their faulty actions."

When discussing Women's Project Theater's financial health, Crosby said "a lot of detail that just got missed... the absolute agreement on the board, even including the co-chairs, that the problem at Women's Project was not an expense side problem. The problem was revenue generation."

Board giving at Women's comprised about two percent of the overall budget, differing greatly with other institutions where board giving would total between 15-20 percent of the budget. Crosby said the co-chairs report asking her to cut expenses, but she states that no one made that request to her.

A New York Times story quotes Scanlan as saying in an e-mail, "No one tried to second-guess her until she created an $800,000 shortfall, at which time we asked her to be more conscious of spending." However, Crosby said the board approved a $500,000 shortfall that was planned for, and the money would be drawn out of the reserve to inveset in growing the board and fundraising. Additionally, Crosby said she was not soley in charge of finances; a managing director had assumed that responsibility until being fired in December 2013. 

Crosby is widely credited with improving Women's Project's financial health, bringing it into the black and spearheading fundraising efforts as well as selling the Project's former theatre and renting performance space; the sale is credited with creating the Project's reserve fund. Healey expressed frustration with the co-chairs' financial approach, saying they had not given any money to the theatre themselves.

Healey also commented on Scanlan and Kemper's refusal to grant interviews on the subject. "They keep sending the same statement with the same lies, which is that Julie Crosby resigned," she said. "This is their pattern. They just keep repeating. It's as if you and I were saying It's raining out and you can hear the rain pattering on the roof and they say, "No, the sun's out." That is just denying reality. And it doesn't matter what any of it says in an army of e-mails to them or anyone else. They say it over and over and over that Julie Crosby resigned."

Crosby's departure comes during a time of heightened discussion about the role women play in theatre. She reflected on this, saying, "The timing of this, I think, is unfortunate because I do feel like there is this sort of lens being placed on this very persistent gender bias in the theatre that is really exciting, and I think it's breaking open conversations that haven't been had or haven't been had with the same level of sincerity — [that] we're going to fix this."

Crosby said she plans to continue advocating for women in theatre, and she has several projects she described as "percolating" in her future.

"I've been thinking for a few years of how do we get this problem more national recognition and more national action. I have an idea I've been brewing and the board members who departed Women's Project are very excited about moving forward with that. My entire career has been about advocating for women in one way or another so I can't imagine not doing that. It's a fundamental part of what drives me."