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A new year, a fresh start for Out North

Maia Nolan-Partnow

Scott Turner Schofield didn't know it was going to be like this.


Upcoming events at Out North:

"Under 30"

Annual showcase of short (under 30 minutes) original dramatic pieces presented by the authors. This year's participants are Olga Livshin, Linda Lucky, Ellen Maling and Duff Pfanner. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 13-15; 3 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 16; tickets $16.75/$13 for students, seniors and military at CenterTix.net or $20 at the door.

"Pro Creativity" film premiere

Student filmmakers from Crossroads Secondary School debut their original documentaries about life as teen parents. 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 29; tickets $10/$7.50 for students, seniors and military

Rhodessa Jones

Performance artist and creator of "Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women." 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday April 14-16; tickets $16.75/$13 for students, seniors and military at CenterTix.net or $20 at the door.

Bridgman/Packer Dance

Guggenheim Fellows in choreography Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer combine dance and multimedia in a technique they call "video partnering." 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday April 29-30; tickets $16.75/$13 for students, seniors and military at CenterTix.net or $20 at the door.


OK, there are some things about his job that the new artistic and executive director of Out North Contemporary Art House probably knew to expect. He was probably prepared for the organized chaos unfolding around him on a recent morning during production week for "Under 30," an annual Out North favorite. The phone rang, people rushed in and out, someone needed to borrow his computer to grab a document. That much he seems comfortable with.

It was the unscripted drama that caught him off guard.

"I'm still pretty angry about it," Schofield said. "It has made my job a hundred times harder."

See, back in the fall, while the state's attention was focused on the theatrics unfolding in Alaska's U.S. Senate race, Out North quietly lost a third of its funding. And for a while there, no one was really sure the Anchorage institution, now in its 26th season, would survive.

Money is tight at plenty of nonprofits, but Out North was facing a crisis that could very possibly mean closing its doors. Ticket sales for an upcoming production of a musical based on "Reefer Madness" were suddenly very, very important. And that was where things started to get messy. In the middle of a fiscal emergency, human emotions bubbled into the mix, further complicating an already difficult situation.

When "Reefer Madness" suddenly departed Out North, that was the first -- and perhaps only -- hint many in Anchorage had that something was wrong at the organization. For some closer to the situation, it raised the question of whether Out North's partnership with the organization in question was ever a good idea at all.

Out North has, for the past half-dozen years, been the Alaska affiliate of an organization called VSA -- The International Organization on Arts and Disability, which advocates for increased access to the arts for people who experience disabilities. The partnership came with an $80,000 grant, which Out North was required to match. Along with an estimated $20,000 that would have been generated by money-making events funded by the grant, VSA essentially accounted for one-third of Out North's planned $300,000 budget for 2011.

The VSA partnership was part of what drew Schofield to Out North. As someone who himself experiences a disability due to a traumatic brain injury, he liked that the organization had stated a commitment to reaching out to disabled artists and patrons of the arts. In the past year, Out North programming has included events like a hands-on art exhibit presented in partnership with Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired and a gallery show of work by clients of Hope Community Resources, as well as gallery shows and live performances featuring or directed by disabled artists. In addition to its work with other nonprofits, Out North used VSA funds to sustain artist residencies in four Anchorage secondary schools; somewhere between 15 and 60 percent of the students who participate have disabilities (it varies from school to school). There are cultural programs for the children of Hmong refugees and for incarcerated teenagers. Around the time VSA decided to terminate its partnership, Out North was honored with the Hope Community Resources Visionary Award, presented annually to individuals or groups that "have had a significant impact on the lives of individuals and families who experience disabilities."

The relationship with VSA hasn't always been perfect, according to Cindy Drinkwater, chair of Out North's board of directors, but she didn't have any reason to believe there was trouble brewing. "While they've pointed out things that can be improved, of course, they've also given us a lot of praise for things that we've done," she said.

Schofield and his board planned the 2010-2011 season based on the assumption that their relationship with VSA would continue as it had during the previous six seasons. "We were just waiting on our check at that point," Schofield said. "In fact, I have an e-mail that says ‘you'll be getting your check.'" The funding seemed assured enough that Schofield proceeded with a couple of capital improvements, reflooring and repainting the building's entrance and replacing a 45-year-old boiler. Out North was starting the fiscal year in the black for the first time anyone could remember.

Then, one day in early October, Schofield's phone rang. It was VSA's arts affiliate services director in Washington, D.C. She was looking at Out North's website -- and she didn't like what she saw.

"(She said) ‘There's all these references to marijuana and sexuality on your website. What are you doing?'" Schofield recalled.

His VSA caller was particularly troubled by content related to Out North's planned production of "Reefer Madness," the musical, then in rehearsal, and to the double-feature screenings of "The World Unseen" and "I Can't Think Straight," two award-winning South African films featuring lesbian protagonists. Then there was the issue of an Out North e-newsletter in which patrons were encouraged to send in their favorite recipes for a marijuana cookbook.

"They were unhappy about that, but they cited problems with our predecessors, the lesbian films..." Schofield said. "This was their reason, but they were ready before."

Bottom line: VSA no longer felt Out North should function as the organization's Alaska affiliate. The partnership was terminated, and with it went $80,000 of Out North's budget for a season already under way.

‘Reefer Madness' departs Out North

Christian Heppinstall, who had recently been hired as Out North's marketing director, drafted and sent the e-mail including the marijuana cookbook brief that he and Schofield say gave VSA the impetus to 86 Out North. (He'd also included a link to information about the state's medical marijuana program.) He had consequently been terminated.

Heppinstall feels he was a "sacrificial lamb" offered up in an attempt to appease VSA, but Schofield contends he would have fired Heppinstall anyway; the e-mail, he said, crossed the line.

"There's the feather, and then there's the whole chicken," Schofield said.


Out North artistic and executive director Scott Turner Schofield
Out North artistic and executive director Scott Turner Schofield says recovering from the events of fall 2010 has been like trying to change a tire on a moving car.

Heppinstall was also directing "Reefer Madness," which was just a few weeks out from opening night. Out North's board wanted a clean break with Heppinstall, and Schofield was asked to remove him from "Reefer Madness." There was one big problem with that: The musical's publisher had granted performance rights to Heppinstall, not to Out North. Heppinstall wasn't unsympathetic to Schofield's situation, but he wasn't interested in giving up his show if he didn't have to. He started looking around for another stage.

Schofield contacted the cast to explain his position and try to convince them to stay at Out North. Heppinstall felt slandered. The cast was distraught. Emotional exchanges flew back and forth on Facebook. Feelings were hurt. And Heppinstall found a venue -- Alaska Wild Berry Theater -- that could accommodate the show. So he took a vote, and the cast unanimously opted to leave Out North.

Despite a public request from Heppinstall to stand up and support Out North, to some who didn't know the whole story, it appeared as though Out North had jettisoned the show under pressure from its funders.

"That was really unfortunate," Schofield admitted. "It made us look like we were bowing to pressure."

Censorship at play?

Talk to either Schofield or Heppinstall and you'll find each reluctant to say anything negative about the other. While clearly there are still some raw emotions (Heppinstall has friends on the board with whom he has not spoken since he was fired), both men seem far more angry about the situation, and at VSA, than they are at one another.

"If I ran Out North, I'd be pissed," Heppinstall said.

They don't like that VSA took issue with programming that wasn't presented using VSA funds. They don't like that VSA complained about sexuality -- it came across to them as homophobic, and as far as they're concerned, sexual content is in no way incompatible with VSA's mission.

"Are there no LGBT disabled people? Of course there are," Heppinstall said. "Just because you have a disability doesn't mean you have to spend the rest of your life watching ‘Mary Poppins.'"

They really don't like that VSA gave Out North no warning before cutting off such an important source of funding. They don't like that the timing seemed to coincide with a conservative victory in the 2010 election for U.S. House of Representatives. They wonder whether VSA, which is funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Education, was anticipating an ideological shift and trying to distance itself from potentially controversial material. And they definitely don't like the feeling they have that VSA tried to censor Out North.

"It's unbelievably censorial without the censorship. I think it's the new form of censorship, unfortunately, because money talks," Schofield said. What's more, he added, VSA's money had come nowhere near the content it found objectionable: "It didn't even get cooties from the money that supported these other projects."

Conflicting missions

Laura Broom, VSA's communications and outreach director, says the nonprofit's decision to sever ties with Out North had absolutely nothing to do with the national political climate (although that's an "interesting theory," she said), "Reefer Madness" or the South African films.

"This is the first that I've heard about the lesbian film festival," Broom said. "That was not a factor." As for "Reefer Madness," "I don't believe that there was an outright objection to the musical. It's a satire, and that's not something that we're unaware of. I think it's more sort of a bigger picture and a longer story."

VSA has one set of priorities, she says, and Out North has another: "VSA's mission is guided by the principles that all students should have access to the arts. When it comes to programming decisions, our mission and our goal has to do more with the arts education."

And while she maintains that the partnership wasn't ended because of Heppinstall's e-mail, she did allow as how it demonstrates the difference between the two groups' priorities.

"Honestly, in terms of the ‘Reefer Madness' marijuana cookbook, in what way does that fulfill a K-12 learning opportunity?" Broom asked.


She gets it, she says. The loss of funding was a blow to Out North.

"I completely understand that they would be upset. We wish them well and we wish them the best, but we're focused on kids and disability, on students in the classroom being included in the arts. That's what our mission is."

As for not giving Out North any notice, Broom said, VSA operates on the same fiscal year schedule as the federal government. The grant cycle ends on Sept. 30. VSA hadn't made any guarantee to Out North for 2011 -- it just didn't renew the partnership.

"Every year, we go through this process in September. If the decision had been made sometime other than during the renewal process, there would have been another kind of notice," Broom said. "It wasn't a breach of contract."

But board chair Drinkwater, an attorney, calls foul on that assertion. VSA's affiliate grant process is noncompetitive, she argued. Not having been advised of any issues with its programming or its status as an affiliate, Out North had no reason to doubt its funding would be renewed.

"There is supposed to be an appeals process," Drinkwater said. "We'd had a partnership for seven years, and had no indication that the pulling of the funding completely was an issue. With this grant, there's much more of an understanding that it's going to be renewed. That's what was so devastating for us."

Broom maintains that since VSA simply chose not to renew the partnership for the new year, the procedures that would apply to a mid-year termination of affiliate status aren't applicable to Out North's situation.

Except, Schofield argued, that until he received that October phone call, everything had been proceeding as though Out North and VSA would continue to partner. As far as he knew, the check was in the mail. And he'd try to explain that to VSA, he says -- if they'd respond to his attempts at contact. But the last word he had from VSA was a cease-and-desist letter ordering Out North to remove the VSA logo from its publications.

Heppinstall also attempted to reach out to VSA in October, hoping he could try to make things right for his former employers, but wasn't able to make contact. And Drinkwater is still attempting to re-establish relations.

"I think it's difficult to know exactly what VSA was thinking or considering because different people have said different things at different times, and I am still hoping that VSA will honor what we considered a commitment to us by providing some funding," she said. "I have been corresponding with VSA in the hope that that may occur. At this point, I have not gotten a response."

Heppinstall argues that VSA was probably never a great choice for a partnership with Out North.

"You need to know who these funders are," he said. "Why would they have a funder that restricts them like that? ...You either present art with no restrictions, or you take this money and present art with restrictions."

Moving on, lessons learned

One thing on which Drinkwater, Heppinstall and Schofield all agree: What happened last fall was awful. A few months down the road, though, while the wounds remain a bit raw, circumstances no longer seem as bleak as they once did.

Heppinstall is still unhappy about the way things went down, but he's making lemonade. The run of "Reefer Madness" opened the door to a new partnership with Alaska Wild Berry Theater, where Christian Heppinstall Productions is now the resident company. Rehearsals for a new production of "Cabaret" began Wednesday.

And at Out North, Schofield (who compares the work he's been doing to changing a tire on a moving car) is starting to come back into his own. He's excited about "Under 30," the company's annual presentation of original performance art pieces (named for the rule that each piece must run less than 30 minutes), which opened Thursday, and about the rest of the season Out North has planned. And he's overwhelmed by the support that rained down on the organization after he sent out an emergency plea for help in November.

Schofield and the board set two fundraising goals: $40,000 by the end of the year and another $40,000 by Valentine's Day. They exceeded the first goal by $6,000, with the majority coming as individual donations of $250 or less (and, more often than not, $75 or less). That doesn't include the donations of time and services that have also come pouring in. Some artists have volunteered their time to present low-cost or free workshops to fill some of the gaps in school residencies that were financed with VSA funds.

"We can't keep up with it all," he said. "The money and the time and the good wishes ... it means everything. That's why we're here."

As far as Drinkwater is concerned, the storm Schofield weathered in his first few months on the job demonstrated that he was the right choice to lead Out North.

"We have a lot of confidence in Scott and in his creative vision, and we're still in a bit of a transition because he's had to be so focused on keeping the doors open for now," Drinkwater said.

She says the board remains committed to promoting Out North's mission with or without VSA's involvement, although she is sorry that, from her perspective, the affiliation was terminated just as Out North was beginning to renew its focus on outreach to people with disabilities.

There will be changes at Out North. Already the staff has been reduced. Next season's programming -- when Schofield can finally get around to finalizing it -- will likely be a little scaled back. Out North is writing a business plan -- its first, as far as Schofield knows. It's important, he said, that the organization never again find itself so reliant on the support of a single group.

"We're not going to be put in a position (like this) again," he said. "We're not going to be compromised."

Contact Maia Nolan at maia(at)alaskadispatch.com.