As a dramaturg, one of my main tasks in developing new works is to find the core of the script, the seed from which the entire play grows. I apply this same strategy to my work as a CFR columnist, peeling back the layers of a story or event to find its essence, to go spelunking like Alice through the looking glass. For this story, there was no bottom to find, no essence to unlock. Each looking glass had another, and another, waiting for me to step into over and over again.
An anonymous source told me an improbable story about a production of Rent here in L.A. that never opened, that it was essentially a “scam,” and invited me to investigate. Supposedly, the source said, the San Bernardino-based Broadway Theatricals was the producer, and the opening was slated for September 2014. It was then scrapped on opening night by the cast after it emerged that the company did not have the rights to Rent, and, despite having sold tickets, that its venue had not been legitimately booked. The source felt vulnerable and, obviously, didn’t want to be named. Instead, the source put me in contact with a cast member, David Sasik, who spoke with me by phone.
Sasik told me that he found the Rent casting notice at lacasting.com. The first audition set, last August, was canceled because the directors (notice the plural) never showed up. A second audition was set up two weeks later and conducted by the directors, Zaccharin Thibodeau and Charles Johnson. At a callback — he told me he was ultimately cast as Mark Cohen — Sasik learned the opening night was shifted from a date in December to Sept. 25, and while this was clearly odd, it didn’t put him off. Instead of rehearsing in a theatre or in a studio space, the cast always met in a Pasadena apartment. There was constant talk of moving to a professional space, but up to opening night, all work was done in that apartment.
Sasik shocked me when he added that the cast never interacted with the creative team — no designers, no stage managers. You can cut a lot in theatre to save time and money, but a stage manager — the person who runs the show — isn’t one of them. The cast never saw the set they would act on or lighting or effects cues. Despite these red flags, the cast soldiered on.
Four days before the first performance, the cast learned that the venues for the production had changed. Originally slated for the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, now Rent would rise at the Sturges Theatre in San Bernadino. The night before the opening, Sasik said, the cast was told there would be no technical rehearsal: the cast and the audience would experience the set and lights for the first time together. As Sasik prepared to head out for the theatre on opening night, he received a text from a friend who called the Sturges to check on the details of the performance. This friend was told, unequivocally, that no show was slated to open that night. Sasik frantically contacted Thibodeau, who insisted the situation was well under control and the show would indeed go on. The cast, their suspicions now at a fever pitch, soon gathered and started discussing the situation. A fellow cast member, Jamie Mermelstein, believed that the directors did not have the performance rights for Rent, despite allegedly using “official” librettos and backing vocals in rehearsals. Indeed, Sasik told me that he later discovered that this Rent was possibly to be passed off as an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s musical, based on the way the title was appropriated for the playbill. If so, he said, the show was never presented to the cast as such — and it would have been an illegal adaptation anyway. A photo of the Rent libretto remains clearly visible on Thibodeau’s Facebook page.
Sasik remembered that the cast called the directors and told them the show would not go on at the Sturges. Thibodeau apologized and assured the cast that he was heading to that theatre, money in hand. Whether he went there or not, Sasik doesn’t know. The cast ignored Thibodeau and did not hear again from either or the directors that night. So far as Sasik is aware, the Sturges was never formally booked.
Whether I felt the anonymous source and Sasik were trustworthy or not, I needed to find other people that had interacted with this production and also to look at Broadway Theatricals itself. I uncovered endless inconsistencies.
Broadway Theatricals’ homepage shows an array of what looks like production photos from their shows. After a glance it becomes obvious that these are, in fact, production shots from Broadway runs — shows like Beauty and the Beast and Cats. There are no asterisks, no notes, no fine print to prevent casual viewers from assuming these photos come from Broadway Theatricals’ productions.
Other oddities crop up. Casting results appear for a version of A Christmas Carol, but only half the roles are listed. Nearly every actor on the list belongs to Actors’ Equity, but my research found most of them not living in California. Broadway Theatricals claims to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, but no board of directors — or any leadership — is listed on the site. On social media, only Broadway Theatricals’ Facebook page has been updated, and it refers to A Christmas Carol opening on Dec. 4, 2014. Based on a set of auditions for the show that I found online, that production would have come together in less than a month.
Other evidence suggests that the Rent debacle was part of a pattern. Last July, there was an Amazon Local deal for tickets for up to five Broadway Theatricals productions, and two of the three comments are disturbing. One recalls a “tiny, unmarked white box sitting behind” a music store, dark and empty. Another states that the company was impossible to reach.
Or was it? A box-office number I found has been disconnected, but the company’s main line went straight to Thibodeau’s personal cell. He answered after the first ring and agreed to an on-the-record phone interview.
As I prepped to interview Thibodeau, I hoped layers of this story would melt away. A pleasant man with an engaging speaking voice, Thibodeau is charming, if over-enthusiastic. First, he told me that he acquired Broadway Theatricals from another owner, taking official control of the organization on Dec. 22, 2014. When I asked about Rent, he said it was performed as a staged reading on Nov. 28 and 29, 2014, at Center Stage Fontana. When I asked about any other Rent, he insisted the only one was the staged reading. How could this be? “You’re thinking of a different company, called Theatrical Experience,” Thibodeau replied, adding that he had acted in that Rent, at first, and Johnson was its sole director until he unaccountably stopped attending rehearsals. That’s when Thibodeau became its director. The staged reading of Rent, he said, featured most of the September Rent’s original cast.
When confronted with Sasik’s story, Thibodeau said, “I’m stepping into this, so I’m changing a lot.” I don’t know what that means, but he placed all the blame for any wrongdoing on Theatrical Experience. When I mentioned the Amazon complaints, he replied, “That was before my time… I couldn’t comment.” Thibodeau conceded that Broadway Theatricals was not yet in legal compliance as a 501(3)(c) nonprofit, but assured me that a board was being elected and an application was being submitted for nonprofit status.
At the close of the interview, Thibodeau asked me to send him links to the information I found and promised to back up his story. I felt like my story was turning into a Gordion Knot. Thibodeau’s version seemed odd, yes, but was this a “scam”? It seemed more a very badly run, decidedly unprofessional operation with a lot of young performers who didn’t know better.
But I decided to keep peeling the onion and set about checking Thibodeau’s story as best I could. There are programs online for both versions of Rent. The earlier one, running Sept. 25 to Sept. 28, lists as its venue the Plummer Auditorium; Thibodeau, not Sasik, is credited in the role of Mark Cohen, while Sasik is credited as playing Roger Davis. Johnson is credited as playing a handful or roles and no director is credited at all. In fact, there are no production credits. The program clearly shows Broadway Theatricals as the producing group.
The staged reading of Rent, running Nov. 28 and 29, was indeed at Center Stage Fontana, which is located nearly 60 miles east of L.A. This program is much more complete, with Thibodeau listed as both director and choreographer. There is also a cast list, production credits (the lighting designer is listed as “Name”), a song listing, even a director’s note. But the title page has been altered to read “We’re not going to pay RENT,” and the billing page states explicitly that the rights were obtained from Music Theater International. Comparing the cast lists, no one from the earlier Rent appeared in the staged reading.
A Web search for a company called Theatrical Experience is infuriating. Mostly there are reviews, plugs for other groups and discussions of the abstract concept of theatrical experience. Then I found one mention –right where Thibodeau said it would be. Eventbrite lists tickets for the September production of Rent with the organizing company as Theatrical Experience. When I read the short text in the “organizer” section, I instantly recognized it: this is the same text as on Broadway Theatricals’ “About Us” page. This “production” doesn’t use “We’re Not Gonna Pay RENT” on the show’s title page, though — it simply reads Rent. There was an option to contact the group, so I sent a message asking for an interview or a comment. No response.
To determine if Theatrical Experience is the company that scrapped Rent, or even an extant entity at all, I would need to speak with Sasik again. My follow-up interview was short and illuminating. He maintained that Broadway Theatricals was the producing organization for the September Rent, and said he’d never heard of Theatrical Experience. He maintained that Thibodeau and Johnson were introduced as co-directors from the start and insisted that Broadway Theatricals was characterized as their company. Confusing the stories more, Sasik said Thibodeau started the production as a “lead director,” then slowly transitioned to more of a “lead actor,” in a contradiction of Thibodeau’s narrative. Sasik said that Johnson did quit the show, he even quoted Johnson as saying that Thibodeau “did crazy shit.” Sasik saw a casting notice for the Rent staged reading on lacasting.com, but did not reply to it and was not contacted about it or asked to participate in it. Crucially, Sasik believes that less than half the friends and family who bought tickets for the September Rent were refunded. I wondered: did any money change hands and then go unrefunded?
Now to corroborate other parts of Thibodeau’s story. The “Contact Us” page lists three physical locations for Broadway Theatricals‘ activities, so I started with its “Los Angeles Performance Venue”: The San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. An apparently cancelled Broadway Theatricals production of Into The Woods remains on the website of the venue. Steve Wilkinson, the Playhouse’s facilities manager, told me Thibodeau reserved space for Into The Woods and set up a meeting time to pay a deposit and sign contracts for the production. But he failed to show up for the meeting, which was set for Jan. 5, 2015.
The second location is its “Inland Empire Performance Venue.” According to Google Maps, this is a strip mall. It’s certainly possible that Broadway Theatricals performs there, but I hope not.
The third location is for “Auditions, Classes & Rehearsals”: the Fremont Centre Theatre. When I called there, all I had to say was “Zaccharin” and the voice on the other line tightened with anticipation. I left my name, number and credentials — all of which I was informed would be thoroughly checked — and was told to wait for a call from the artistic director. Which came.
Her name is Lissa Reynolds — she’s listed as President of California Performing Arts Centre and Managing Executive Director and Artistic Director of Fremont Centre Theatre. She told me that Broadway Theatricals booked the theatre for a new version of A Christmas Carol to be titled Bah Humbug! Thibobeau came in, she said, signed paperwork, paid the deposit and provided insurance. Then he used the rehearsal space not for Bah Humbug! but for the Rent staged reading. Then, Reynolds claims, Thibodeau’s checks were returned as invalid. While attempting to secure new payment, she learned that Broadway Theatricals’ insurance coverage had been dropped. She then informed Thibodeau that the theatre was no longer available to him and that he must remove mention of it from his website. But Thibodeau does continue to list Fremont Center Theatre as its venue for Bam Humbug!, although no such production ever played in that space or, to my knowledge, in any other space. Recently, Reynolds called me with an update. “I’m at the police department right now filling a report on Zaccharin Thibodeau and the phony check he gave me,” she said.
Reynolds had told me that, on the dates of the performance, ticket-holders arrived and were understandably incensed not to find a show. Worse, as Fremont Center Theatre did not sell or issue the tickets, they could not refund them. Then she discovered that Fremont Center Theatre, not Broadway Theatricals, was listed as the producer on many of the tickets. She notes that yet another venue, The Acting Corps, appears on Facebook in connection with A Christmas Carol, which is not Bah Humbug! in any event, while on Broadway Theatricals’ site, it seems the Dec. 21 performance of A Christmas Carol, with tickets priced at $34.99, was cancelled.
A quick Internet search also reveals this Yelp review:
We purchased tickets for a performance of A Christmas Carol presented by Broadway Theatricals and sold by The Acting Corp. We drove 70 miles up to Pasadena for the show only to find out that the group had not fulfilled their obligations to the venue and the show was cancelled.
Clearly, in this level of peeled onion, I had to question basic facts about Broadway Theatricals and Thibodeau. In most of Broadway Theatricals’ online programs, he is listed as a member of Actors’ Equity; in others, he is listed as a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. When I contacted Maria Somma, National Communications Director at Actors’ Equity, she told me that Thibodeau is not a member of the union. Similarly, he is not listed on the SSDC members directory as either a full or associate member.
What I found shocking, however, was not whether Thibodeau deceived people intentionally or through incompetence, but that the reactions of Actors’ Equity and SSDC were so blasé. Are we so resigned to this kind of behavior that it doesn’t warrant some kind of response? Neither organization seemed remotely interested in pursuing any action against a person posing as a member. Doesn’t that just look bad?
I realized that what I found was not simply questionable professional practices but an apathetic and exhausted industry. Some are trying valiantly to keep theatre afloat in L.A. — Reynolds, Sasik, my anonymous source. Johnson did not reply to a request for comment and neither did several ticket-holders I contacted, as I still wanted to determine whether sold tickets were refunded. A theatre company possibly defrauds ticket-holders, tanks several productions and this is apparently normal? Even if I could get to the bottom of what actually happened, who really ran which company and when, and whether what was going on was a matter of misunderstanding, misinformation, malfeasance or fraud, the L.A. theatre scene is such that the same problem will likely pop up again somewhere in a different guise.
I am upset by what I found. People throwing blame and erecting smokescreens to obscure the truth. Artists without passion enough to try and reveal it. Audiences who couldn’t be bothered to make an issue out of it. Professional organizations appearing apathetic to it.
I am also upset for those who now view theatre as vile, untrustworthy and damaging. The people who wrote reviews on Amazon and Yelp, for whom the theatregoing experience may forever be tainted; the people fighting for a better theatre, like Sasik and Reynolds. It is almost impossible to be an artist in our country right now. Nearly all of us have day jobs that barely support us and we must claw and scrape our way into every endeavor. That wears on your soul and your resolve, even when the art is great, even when no one is taken advantage of. This new century is so pregnant with possibility. Theatre is poised to undergo a fantastic revolution, driven by young, inspired artists and established dynamos. I always had faith in that future, but now my certainty is shaken. If artists are no more trustworthy than large financial institutions or government intelligence agencies, if our organizational safeguards are unable or unwilling to protect us, then why the hell am I doing this?