Can a company that’s abandoned its values and vision correct its course?

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One of Transcendence Theatre Company’s concerts (2012)

Dear Sonoma Valley, my Transcendence Family, and the Larger Arts Community,

It is my hope, that in telling my story, I can be part of a group effort to transform words into action within Transcendence Theatre Company for the benefit of its founders, its workers, and for our wonderful, warm, and loving communities — both our local community here in Sonoma County and our larger arts community worldwide. As Nikko Kimzin said, “This is not a call out but a call in.”

My work with Transcendence Theatre Company spanned from 2011–2015, including work in multiple roles and in many departments, and while I believe that the Artistic Director and Executive Director had and continue to have wonderful intentions, during my time there, I experienced the following:

1. A culture of toxic positivity
2. Leadership based in fear
3. A hostile work environment

Nikko Kimzin’s recent letter did not surprise me. In addition to being a hostile work environment for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), I found it to be hostile for working families and artists striving for a healthy work environment.

The beauty of the vision for Transcendence greatly inspired me and led me to completely transform my life and plant roots in Sonoma County. While living in Sonoma and working with Transcendence on a full-time basis, I began to see an unfortunate pattern. Consistently, the actions of the Artistic Director and Executive Director were in direct opposition to their words — the stated vision and values for the company.

THE VISION
My work with Transcendence dates back to the very first concert in Sonoma Valley on October 1, 2011. I had gone to college with the Executive Director and although I hadn’t met the Artistic Director during my time in New York, we made our Broadway debuts at roughly the same time and were a part of the same community.

Earlier in 2011, they came to see me in an immersive show in a Los Angeles nightclub, For The Record: Baz Luhrmann, and after the performance (and in the months after) they shared with me their vision of a holistic theatre company with three goals: 1) as a workplace, the company would reimagine artists’ relationship to their craft as a healthy and sustainable living, 2) as artists, we would be working toward mounting innovative productions of both established and new musicals, with the goal of becoming an incubator company for Broadway and winning the regional Tony Award, and 3) as a business, we would create a new model that would make the company a financially sustainable business and non-donor dependent. The musical reviews that have been presented by Transcendence for the last ten years were meant to be merely a budget-friendly starting off point.

Having achieved my childhood dreams on Broadway and experienced some of the destructive and unhealthy aspects of living and working as an entertainment industry professional, I was looking for a renewed sense of purpose. I was moved and inspired by their vision and wanted to be a part of building it. That first concert was an extraordinary and purposeful event. We helped save Jack London State Historic Park, which had been slated for closure. I made sure that the team knew that I was enthusiastically interested in continuing on the journey, whatever those next steps would be.

THE VALUES
In 2012, the 8 Core Values of Transcendence were specified as:

1. Go beyond the usual limits
2. Create “transcendence” through service
3. Commit to your own great health
4. Collaborate in a spirit of harmony towards the vision
5. Create a culture of discipline & adventure
6. Communicate with honesty, respect, & gratitude
7. Strive always for sustainability
8. Innovate & trailblaze

What I experienced instead was an unhealthy and unsustainable schedule and workload, a culture of toxic positivity damaging to my mental health, a leadership team unwilling or unable to collaborate, fear-driven leadership and policies, an inability or unwillingness by the leadership team to communicate, and a lack of innovation.

In 2012, I was offered the opportunity to come to Sonoma for the entire first season. It was roughly a dozen friends and performers doing everything before there were clearly defined roles. I worked in casting, marketing, promotion, graphic design, event planning, merchandise sales, and arts education. I schlepped gear in my pickup truck to events all over the county. I cleaned the Port-O-Potties before every show, then put on my gowns and sang under the stars. Generally, that’s what we all did that first season — we were a group of friends pushing ourselves hard and attempting to build something extraordinary together. It was a euphoric experience, but also unhealthy and unsustainable, and health and sustainability were stated company values, integral to the vision, and part of my motivation for being there. During my time with Transcendence, we often worked seven days a week and worked from early morning to late evening, often without adequate time to attend to our needs. As the 2012 season was ending, I realized this work was unsustainable. When I communicated this to the Executive Director, I was told this was not a problem, even though it is antithetical to their stated values and vision. He went on to say that he preferred to suck the marrow out of life, reframing my practical question about work/life balance as a philosophical difference of opinion.

My experiences with Transcendence taught me the value and importance of the work our union does in protecting members’ personal lives and time from our jobs. Actors Equity Association — the union for professional stage performers and stage managers — places limits on work hours, requires advance scheduling, and specifies minimum pay, among other worker protections. (Transcendence productions — aside from 2019’s production of A Chorus Line — fall outside of union jurisdiction.)

During that 2012 season, we had several group vision sessions, where we discussed our past professional experiences, our hopes, and our ideas for the company. One white artist asked what the company was doing to become more diverse and pointed out that we were a predominantly white organization and cast. The Artistic Director stammered and replied that she had hired more BIPOC but that they had gotten other jobs. The artist tried to continue in more depth to almost no response, aside from some small vocalizations of affirmation from the two Black and only BIPOC in the room. The conversation moved on to another topic. The leadership team did not address the question then and still hasn’t addressed this issue.

Meanwhile, a culture of toxic positivity was taking root, one that worsened with each season. Workers were constantly reminded to stay positive, and the expectation set forth for workers by the leadership team was one of constant cheerfulness and euphoria. Normal human emotions in response to normal human tragedies, such as divorce or the death of a loved one, were disapproved of and considered character failings. In the first season, I began navigating an almost three-year-long, high-conflict divorce. Other coworkers also navigated divorces and the loss of loved ones. We were all told to stay positive, that today would be the best day ever, that all of life is a work of art, and that everything happens for a reason. Whether the topic was basic needs, work/life balance, or normal human emotions, I consistently found myself trying to talk to a leadership team that didn’t understand what people are and what people need. I didn’t know how to explain that, and I consistently shut down.

Increasingly, I felt like working there was detrimental to my mental health, and for those first couple of years, I thought that I was the only one who felt that way. It was disorienting and I often wondered if I was the problem and questioned if I was really experiencing what I thought I was. It isn’t a coincidence that the majority of the early artists have left. It wasn’t until other artists left and we began to share our stories with each other that I fully understood that what I was experiencing was real, unhealthy, and unsustainable, and that the actions of the executive team were in direct opposition to the stated company values and vision. We had been victims of gaslighting.

A NEW HOME
During the 2013 season, I decided to make Sonoma my full-time home. After moving to the area, I believed that there began to be a reaction of fear in the leadership team to my full-time presence in the community. This fear was communicated through new, and what I later learned to be illegal, work policies rather than face to face conversations with me, their friend. At the time they were introduced, I felt that the new company policies were specifically directed toward me because I was the first, and at that time only, artist who had moved to Sonoma and the policies only applied to me at that time. These work policies, introduced at production orientations, were the only way the leadership team ever addressed their fears with me. It felt cowardly and the opposite of the stated value of communicating with honesty, respect and gratitude.

The new policies were a narrowing of possible employment in the Bay Area. They specified that Transcendence artists were not allowed to be employed by any sponsor past or present (which was over one hundred companies spanning many industries) and were not allowed to work for any other performing arts organization in the Bay Area. An employment attorney later confirmed for me that the new company policies were illegal and unenforceable.

We were reminded at every production’s orientation that everything we do or say in the community reflects on the company, and we were always to conduct ourselves in full awareness of that, so I could see how it might have felt scary to the leadership team to have an artist living locally but not in company employment. But each person hired by the company was hired primarily because we wanted to serve the community, we believed in a shared set of values, and I believed us to be trusted friends. There was never a conversation between friends where the fears were acknowledged and I was invited, as someone who loved and cared for them and the company, to be a part of a solution addressing those fears.

Living in the community brought new awareness to the sometimes negative impacts of Transcendence’s initiatives and presence in the community. Negative impacts that I believed were unintended. When I had the opportunity to present the Artistic Director and Executive Director with this information, under the advisement of the Co-Executive Director, the Artistic Director refused to listen to the feedback and productively discuss it, and the conversation ended with the Artistic Director saying that bringing up these issues was negativity and she wouldn’t listen. Discussing these negative impacts didn’t seem to fit in her worldview of positivity. If someone had a problem, it was their negativity problem.

The first issue I raised was of wine storage. I had been offered a job at a winery, and the winemaker I was working for had seen that the donated sponsor wine had been stored in a barn in Jack London State Historic Park which was not climate-controlled and not a place that would preserve the wine. He was upset and said that if word got around that Transcendence was showing so little respect for their work, then Transcendence would lose the support of the wine industry. The winemaker also said that the Executive Director needed to learn the times of year that wineries have the bandwidth to field requests without those requests adding work and stress.

The second issue I raised was that they opened registration for the next year’s kids’ camp several days before Christmas and required full payment. I was living with two kids’ campers and their mother, who was shocked, stressed, and upset that she would have to come up with $900 two days before Christmas — the most expensive time of year for families. I told the Executive Director and Artistic Director that they essentially ensured that only the richest kids would be able to attend. I suggested the idea of creating a community advisory council filled with people who represent the various perspectives of people in the community and that could help prevent them from making missteps such as these. The Artistic Director raised her voice and refused to listen. The now departed Co-Executive Director who had advised me and arranged the dinner remained silent during this conversation and offered no backup or support.

I didn’t bring up the third issue. In the off-season, my boyfriend (now husband) and I performed in Sonoma Theatre Alliance’s production of The Full Monty. During the run, I learned from their administration and board members that Transcendence’s arrival had decimated funding for all of the longstanding theatre companies in Sonoma Valley. Our arrival in Sonoma Valley had caused struggle and hardship, but at this point, I felt that there was nothing I could do.

NEW WORKS
In 2015, I began the year as the new Artistic Director of Sonoma Theatre Alliance, which we relaunched as Sonoma Arts Live. As someone who came to the community via Transcendence and was aware of the unintended suffering we had caused in the local arts community, I viewed this as a beautiful opportunity to help Sonoma Arts Live thrive in the new climate, to heal wounds, and to build bridges. I viewed it as my task to chart a path for this company that would be complimentary and not competitive, and I saw a place for all the local theatre companies in the larger local theatre ecosystem. The Sonoma Arts Live board tasked me with bringing professional programming to the company. I proposed three new professional programs — a comedy festival, an immersive concert experience in collaboration and association with my dear friends and former employers at For The Record in L.A., and an idea I called Sonoma Arts Underground — secret popup immersive shows in secret locations which would be revealed just 24 hours before the show.

I continually defended Transcendence, specifically the Artistic Director and Executive Director, to members of the Sonoma Arts Live community who had been angry and hurt by Transcendence’s negative impact on their beloved local company, and over 100 people in the Sonoma Arts Live community who had previously said they’d never attend a Transcendence production bought tickets and attended that year. Much later, I learned from a friend and departed Transcendence founder that the Transcendence Artistic Director referred to me in conversations with them at this time as The Traitor, which I viewed as a continuance of fear-based thinking and decision-making.

Despite the accruing history, I still wanted to serve our community through Transcendence in a limited and manageable fashion, so I returned again for the 2015 kids’ camp and Fantastical Family Night.

After I moved to Sonoma and throughout the rest of my time with Transcendence, I routinely ran into scheduling issues with the Executive Director and he was unwilling to work with me to find an equitable solution.

I asked for a general schedule ahead of the Transcendence season, because I needed to make a doctor’s appointment and my future sister-in-law had asked me if I could attend her school play. I got an alarmed and concerned response from the Executive Director needing to know that I would be 100% committed to Transcendence during my contract. I replied that Transcendence would be my top priority, but not my only priority, as I was now a local and had a full life in Sonoma County at this point. I didn’t think that requesting a general schedule so that I could plan the rest of my life around my job was an unreasonable request. Again, I was in the position of having to explain what people are and what they need, I didn’t know how to do that, and I shut down.

On July 4th, 2015, I marched in the Kenwood parade and attended a donor party with another local team member who was crying in the bushes while missing an important family gathering. I was also missing an important family gathering and the first we were hosting in our newly purchased home. That was when I realized the vision of a healthy work environment and a financially sustainable model that was not donor dependent was not being achieved and no longer being planned. Donor parties had become required attendance on top of an already unhealthy and unsustainable workload and schedule.

This was also the season that it became clear to me that the artistic vision of becoming an innovative incubator for new works with a future on Broadway would also not be achieved.

My favorite artistic collaboration happened in this Fantastical Family Night, and I only learned recently how much strife there had been behind the scenes. The directors and associate director of that production created a musical number with a written scene. I worked on taking the scene further and making it more specific with the three directors. The nature of theatre is collaboration. I did not know this at the time and I don’t know why, but it felt like too much of a risk to the Artistic Director and she wanted the number and scene cut. The directors fought to keep it and it stayed. During the first performance, it was clear that it was a hit with the audience. I later learned from a friend who was present that there was a focus group after the production ended. The Artistic Director tried to lead the group’s feedback by asking the group to discuss the disaster that was that number. The focus group countered that it was their favorite part of the show, which angered the Artistic Director.

I also was later told by a departed founder that the Artistic Director wouldn’t consider developing new works that were not developed in house, under the Artistic Director’s control and tutelage. It’s most typical for regional theatres that send shows to Broadway to act as the presenter of works developed by a creative team that has been working independent of the presenting theatre, so the only way with which she was comfortable developing new works was non-standard, very narrow, and inherently much less collaborative than is the norm in the art form. It’s my personal opinion that when one refuses to or cannot collaborate in an inherently collaborative art form, one rarely winds up with a better outcome.

My contract for that Transcendence season had ended and I was still shepherding the season at Sonoma Arts Live. After nine months at Sonoma Arts Live, the theatre season there had been a big success and the board wanted to stick with that instead of expanding to include the new programs. I remained excited about my program ideas, and we decided to part ways.

I remained committed to being complimentary and not competitive during my time at Sonoma Arts Live, after, and currently. The Transcendence leadership team continued to be fearful and competitive. After my departure from Sonoma Arts Live, their Executive Artistic Director attempted to hire a dear friend and Transcendence artist to direct a musical production, and his request was refused by Transcendence leadership. I believed this to be a tragically missed opportunity for both companies.

My departure from Sonoma Arts Live came with the agreement that I would retain my three professional program proposals. I got to work on launching Sonoma Laughfest, a sketch, improv, and stand-up comedy festival. It wasn’t competitive with Transcendence’s programming or schedule by design, and there was no professional sketch or improv comedy in the North Bay, so I felt it was a valuable and affordable contribution to our community that could be equitably accessed.

After the success of the comedy festival, I was beginning to develop my next program, now tentatively called Sonoma Underground — the secret popup immersive shows in secret locations which would be revealed just 24 hours before the show — in collaboration with dear friends at For The Record in L.A.

I occasionally ran into the Transcendence Executive Directors and Artistic Director at various community events and gatherings and still believed us to be friendly. So, at one such run in, when the Executive Director asked what I was working on and I replied that I was working on an immersive experience — For The Record meets Sleep No More, but a secret show in a secret location that no one finds out until 24 hours ahead of time — I thought I was talking to friends. A little small talk followed, as usual, and I thought nothing of the exchange.

A few months later, I received a promotional postcard in the mail for Wine Country Speakeasy, a new, immersive Transcendence experience to be presented in August in a secret location that guests don’t find out about until 24 hours before. I immediately texted a dear friend on Transcendence’s full-time staff and expressed my pain, shock, and heartbreak. He was horrified to learn how the idea came to Transcendence and told me that the project came about seemingly out of nowhere, very suddenly and quickly. I have emails with my past coworker, the Executive Director of Sonoma Arts Live, as far back as January 2015 referring to this idea that I had presented earlier at a Sonoma Arts Live board meeting, and concept posters I had created for myself in 2014.

I saw a promo video for Wine Country Speakeasy, and the song used in the promo video was the same song that was used years earlier in the promo video for For The Record: Baz Luhrmann, the show that the Transcendence Artistic Director and Executive Director had come to see me in back in 2011 when they first shared with me their vision for Transcendence. As the Speakeasy came, there were numerous short videos and photos on Facebook posted by audience and cast members. What I saw was that at least four sections of the show were directly lifted from For The Record: Baz Luhrmann. The creators of For The Record decided to forgo legal action when Wine Country Speakeasy was not enough of a success to make it a regular part of their programming.

This event was the breaking point for me — where I no longer wanted any association with Transcendence Theatre Company. At this point, Transcendence had actively and aggressively negatively affected my livelihood, family, and professional prospects in Sonoma County.

As recently as 2020’s virtual season, the virtual season show I saw contained clips of a past Transcendence show that appeared to be a copy of another For The Record show, For The Record: The Brat Pack.

HEARTBREAK AND HOPE
I’ll always be grateful to Transcendence for the opportunity to serve such a wonderful community and for bringing me to Sonoma County, where I met my husband, made a home, and where we made two children who would not exist without Transcendence changing the course of my life. It’s ten years after the Artistic Director and Executive Director shared their vision with me in an L.A. nightclub and I remain just as moved by it as I was a decade ago — so much so that I continue to make efforts to bring that vision forth in my own way, because I believe in it and believe that the world needs it.

It took me a long time to process the heartbreak of my experience there, and I’ve continued to hope that Transcendence can fulfill more of the vision, even as loved ones continued to be harmed and leave, and that it might be possible that the Artistic Director and Executive Director would finally listen, learn, collaborate, and implement change. Three specific events have given me that hope — Nikko Kimzin’s 2019 video outlining his new education and inclusion initiatives, the birth of the Artistic Director and Executive Director’s child possibly providing an opportunity to learn the importance of a healthy and sustainable work/life balance that works for families, and Nikko’s recent resignation letter and compassionate call-in toward the goal of positive change. This is the first time I’ve communicated about the truth of my Transcendence experience to anyone outside of the dear friends there who have experienced similar and my family, and I’m doing so as part of Nikko’s compassionate call-in.

Transcendence has failed to turn the words of its vision and values into actions, and it’s time for a change in leadership. It’s specifically time that the Artistic Director and Executive Director step down from the Board of Directors and that new board members be appointed who have the ability to put the words of the values and vision into action. I ask the community to look at the actions of the leadership team and look at the workplace they’ve created. The outcomes clearly show that they have built a toxic culture and work environment that must be met with actionable change.

With Love,
Brooke Tansley
#transcendencecallin

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