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'Weird Rodeo' at the Scottish Rite

Theatre fires artistic director as harassment charges come to light

By Brandon Watson, Fri., Aug. 2, 2013

'Weird Rodeo' at the Scottish Rite

When Emily Marks became artistic director of the Austin Scottish Rite The­ater in January of last year, she hit the ground running. The space soon became a creative hub, offering an eclectic mix of family programming, music, and comedy. Summer days were booked with camps to develop the next generation of Austin creativity. By most measures, Marks' tenure was a success. So it came as a shock to many in the community when, last week, she was abruptly fired.

According to former Executive Producer John Riedie, also fired last week, that termination was the culmination of a months-long campaign against Marks, sparked by her attempts to run the theatre independently from the Scottish Rite fraternity. Although the Scottish Rite gifted the building to the nonprofit theatre, Masons retained control of the board. Riedie says Marks was raising alarms because Scottish Rite involvement threatened the theatre's mission.

Indeed, minutes of the June 18, 2012 Board of Directors meeting reflect that Marks addressed the board with concerns about bylaw changes deepening Scottish Rite involvement – including giving the Masons sole authority to choose board members, and applying Scottish Rite rent payments as donations. That meeting's minutes read, "The Executive Director does not feel comfortable applying for grants relating the mission of providing 'Community & Children's Theatre' if the charter purpose of the corporation is not be[ing] followed due to the involvement of the Scot­tish Rite in Board decisions and business."

Around that time, Marks' relationship with the Board and some members of the fraternity began to sour. Riedie describes a culture of intimidation. He says there were weekly complaints from Masons about Marks, and incidents when Masons would padlock equipment to prevent use. He remembers occasions when a Scottish Rite member would refuse to shake Marks' hand. As Riedie describes it, it was a "weird rodeo of bullshit. They had a Mad Men-esque, retrograde way of handling professional women. Some bullied her. I saw one man get in her face shaking with rage." Riedie says the harassment got to a point that he and Marks formed a mutual evacuation plan.

Although the Board was made aware of those occurrences, Riedie says they were never adequately addressed. What's more, the Board appeared to be covering its tracks. After both he and Marks were terminated, the theatre quickly severed all ties with productions involving the pair. Performances of Charlotte's Web, which featured Marks as a cast member, were cancelled with only two days notice. On July 24, 35 participants in Mother Falcon's Music Lab were turned away by Scottish Rite brothers with the explanation that the building was deemed unsafe. A subsequent call to the fire department, Riedie says, revealed that no inspection of the building had occurred prior to that Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the fate of the theatre as a cultural institution remains unknown. Riedie says that although his contract gave him 180 days to complete work already in progress after termination, he is unsure if that programming will be allowed to happen. The summer camp series was also interrupted, with one group, "Puppet Pandemonium," still struggling to find a home.

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