The Spokane Civic Theatre board of directors on Friday fired Executive Artistic Director Yvonne A.K. Johnson.
In a news release, Civic announced that the board and Johnson “terminated their association” after more than eight years of “the director’s remarkable service to the community.”
Board President Larry Wooley wouldn’t comment beyond the contents of the release. Johnson said she was blindsided by the decision, especially after her annual evaluation three weeks ago was “exemplary.”
“I’m sitting here in shock,” she said. “All I’ve ever done is in the best interest of Civic Theatre.”
She was notified Friday morning in a voicemail. More concerning, she said, is she has no idea how the 10-member board voted. Johnson said the votes were submitted via email to Wooley, who took over as board president July 1. She said she is confident she had the support of five board members but doesn’t know how the others voted. In the event of a tie, board rules allow the president to make decisions, she said.
“We have some major board issues at Civic,” she said.
Johnson said she is talking with her attorney. “I hope to have my job back next week,” she said. “I have a show to direct.”
The Civic has been financially successful in recent years. For tax year 2012, the nonprofit theater reported total revenue of more than $1.14 million and net income of $106,942, according to tax records compiled by ProPublica. According to a news release last month, Civic finished the 2012-13 season in the black as well and has recently launched a building project to construct a new women’s bathroom and a new meeting room and donor lounge. Johnson said the Civic planned to announce a major capital campaign in September to build a new theater.
As artistic director, Johnson selected the Civic’s slate of plays and directed many of them. She had been set to direct the season-opener, “Les Miserables,” opening Sept. 20, with rehearsals set to start in two weeks.
Although her tenure has been financially and artistically successful, there has been controversy, notably the decision to fire musical director James Ryan in 2010. He was let go after eight weeks when the Civic learned he and his wife had posted a sex ad in the “Casual Encounters” section on Craigslist, according to a November 2010 Inlander article.
Since April 2011, Ryan has maintained a blog at thetyrannyofyvonne.blogspot.com dubbed “Civic Doody” – what he has called an “Internet crusade to protest” his “unjust termination.”
In March, Johnson’s lawyer sent Ryan a letter demanding he take down “all website postings which make derogatory, defamatory and damaging statements regarding Yvonne A.K. Johnson.”
After Ryan declined, Johnson in April filed suit against Ryan seeking “injunctive relief.”
Ryan won a motion to strike the suit on June 21, and Johnson subsequently was ordered to pay $8,358.40 for Ryan’s attorney fees.
Although it’s unclear if the Ryan situation is behind Johnson’s ouster, it clearly divided the artistic community.
“There is a group of people in the community that has continued to support (Ryan’s) cause,” Johnson said.
The board met Tuesday and went into executive session. Johnson was told she had to leave, even though as artistic director she is an ex-officio board member, she said. On Thursday, Johnson sent out a plea to Facebook friends for their support, alleging “secret meetings” held in violation of the Civic’s bylaws. She wrote that Wooley “blindsided” her and half the board by calling an executive session and asking the board for her immediate termination.
“I am asking for the support of the patrons, volunteers and community members of Spokane Civic Theatre and friends and family in the states and abroad to email your messages, thoughts and letters of support regarding both my leadership and to continue the good work of Spokane Civic Theatre,” Johnson wrote.
Ryan’s website followed with its own call for letters and collected 10, including one from local actor and director Patrick Treadway. Treadway wrote that he stopped volunteering and performing at the Civic shortly after Johnson arrived.
“I will happily volunteer at Spokane Civic Theatre once more, but only if I am convinced that the theatre is in the hands of the community again, and not bullied by one strong personality of limited vision and ability,” he wrote.