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On June 22, Source Theatre board president Peggy O’Brien faced off against activists bent on saving the theater from becoming a pool hall. In February, the board announced the sale of the Source’s 14th Street NW building to Bedrock Management Company (“Curtains,” 2/10). Ever since, Source devotees have been trying to kill the deal. In so doing, they have voiced virulent complaints about Source’s board and O’Brien’s leadership in particular.
The three-hour meeting in Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s office was no different. O’Brien took heat for not properly communicating Source’s desperate financial situation and for not trying hard enough to save the place. After two hours of incoming fire, O’Brien held up her palms like two white flags and said, “Have it. Take it.…Pay it off.” O’Brien was offering to quit.
The room fell silent.
“I think most of the people in the room were stunned by that offer and didn’t know how to react,” says meeting attendee Anne Corbett, executive director of the Cultural Development Corporation. “That’s what everyone has been hoping they would say for months and months and months.”
The meeting concluded with an agreement that Source boosters would have until July 13 to gather proposals on how to reimburse Bedrock for the $75,000 it has spent making blueprints that replace theater seats with bar stools. While Bedrock has agreed to buy the building, it’s not scheduled to close on the deal until July 24, hence this 11th-hour effort by Source savers to keep the deal from going through. Any successful proposal will also have to deal with Source’s debt of at least $600,000. After the proposals are submitted and evaluated, the 58-year-old O’Brien and her cohorts will leave their positions.
Since the sell-it-or-save-it debate began in February, the claws have come out, and by all accounts, O’Brien has taken quite the scratching. The case against the board president starts with her alleged failure to get in touch with those awaiting word of the theater’s fate.
Corbett says that she and others got wind in late 2005 that Source was in trouble. (The theater hasn’t produced a show since 2002.) She says they reached out to offer help, but that the board did not take them up on the offer. “I think the manner in which [O’Brien] has communicated has generally been less information rather than more,” says Corbett. “The manner of communication has cultivated a lot of speculation, and that’s worked to [her] disadvantage as far as people’s perception. The bigger picture is to say that there’s a lot of misinformation and miscommunication going on based on people’s feelings of desperation and lack of information.”
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To those who want nonstop updates on Source’s struggles, O’Brien responds that she has a day job. A senior vice president for education at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, O’Brien views theater as a side project and hobby. Source activists, she claims, keep making “self-righteous demands about being kept in the loop.” Working a full-time job while trying to solve Source’s problems and keep various parties in the know is next to impossible, she says. “There’s a whole information-demand syndrome there that is not helpful,” says O’Brien. “If you’ve got X hours in the day, and you have to choose between figuring out how to stave off the IRS or writing the e-mail that will keep people in the loop, there’s no question of where you’re going to spend your time.”
O’Brien and other board members say they’ve fielded accusations that they’re selling off Source to line their own pockets. They decline, however, to identify the sources of those allegations.
Julia Galdo, a Source board member, bristles at any notion of opportunism. “There are a few people—not all—but a few people who seem to ascribe other motivations to the board: unfair motivations, personal benefit to us in making the decisions that we’re making,” says Galdo. “Let me assure that there’s no personal benefit to this. The benefit that we find is that we are having the guts to stick with this to find the best conclusion. If there’s any benefit, it’s in knowing that we’re not running from a difficult situation, that we’re trying to have the courage to face it and to deal with it.”
The difficult situation, in this case, is played out on Source’s balance sheets. When O’Brien joined Source’s board in November 2001, she says, “I knew that things were fragile and that they were dicey and difficult, but we did not know how serious the debts had become.”
Every time she turned a corner, she says, there was another debtor waiting with an expectant hand. If it wasn’t the phone company, it was the electricity company; if it wasn’t the electricity company, it was the IRS. Selling, from the point of view of O’Brien and the board, was the only solution to get the place out of the red. The $600,000 figure commonly tossed about to measure Source’s debt doesn’t even include an undetermined amount that the theater owes to the District government for back rent. (Graham’s office is working on that figure but couldn’t supply it by press time.)
“What’s been really hard about this for all of us…is that you’re asked to take on this job, and you know it’s very fragile, and then you get there and immediately you learn that it’s a train wreck on a million different levels,” O’Brien explains. “After years of trying to pull this thing out of the fire, you realize you have to sell, and then you are the devil because you’re trying to close a theater, which is of course something that no one would want to do.”
O’Brien believes her post would be better filled by someone with Source-inspired tunnel vision. “The rest of those guys, this stuff is their day job,” she says. “[Their expectation] makes perfect sense. But these guys should be on the board.”
Pat Murphy Sheehy, Source’s artistic director emeritus, would like to see some new faces atop Source. “I would very much like them to be relieved of all this responsibility, which is obviously putting them in agony,” she says. “It was heartbreaking to see what they have gone through.”
For her part, O’Brien will be thankful to be stepping down, but she isn’t convinced there’s a lasting solution to Source’s woes. Even if proposals are submitted and Source doesn’t get turned into a pool hall and restaurant, “we don’t want to go off on a course of action now and be in the same place in two years,” she says. “We don’t want another struggling theater in the area.”
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