Prominent Broadway NYNW Theatre Festival Falls Victim to Fake News Campaign

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  • Liz Abere

When I, a staunch feminist journalist, learned of the blog championed by Stephanie Iscovitz, Alexandria Balsamo, Devyn White, and Abby Judd, I was ready to jump to my computer and write an article standing for women’s rights in the entertainment community. The article that you’re about to read stands up for those same women, but with a different message after reviewing the facts.

The scattered social media testimonies of these alleged various financial improprieties that when matched with receipts and supporting emails indicate that many of their assertions, are deceptive. The facts unraveled by the site disseminated throughout social media by Stephanie Iscovitz as a labyrinth of misleading comments geared towards creating unrest and damaging a project that, by numerous accounts, adds much-needed industry guidance within the arts community, The New York New Works Theatre Festival.

When approached for comment, New York New Works Theatre Festival Creator Gene Fisch, Jr. offered full transparency into all books, receipts, emails to the team as well as the accompanying spreadsheets that were accessible by any teammate, panelist, or participant. He also facilitated access to the hundreds of people connected to the project for inquiries supporting the dozens of positive testimonials on their website, www.nynwtheatrefestival.com.

Ample documentation belied the blog’s assertions. NYNW's expenses are listed via Google Sheets which are accessible to the entire team and nullify assertions of impropriety. Such testimonials are troubling because they mislead the reader and appear to be constructed with the intent to induce unease for last year’s 2018 season (a season with 11 management team members, several whom are NYNW veterans and Broadway professionals that present different perspectives than those of Iscovitz, Judd, Balsamo, and White).

An example of the questionable testimony discusses the validity of being a 501c3. The truth is that NYNW has a relationship with such an entity should they decide to accept donations, however, thus far 100% of the monies have been fronted entirely by NYNW's creator making the point a non-issue.

Testimony is also made by Ms. Balsamo, indicating that ticket prices were $35 for rounds one and two which is incorrect as last year they were $25 before credit card and theater fees. This statement is misleading for it indicates an entirely different revenue level as opposed to what was reality. Further support exists in an email to the Duke Theater introducing Stephanie Iscovitz to the Box Office Manager as Fisch’s “right hand” and re-affirms that the team has access to the wrap reports (ticket sales) referencing the paperwork provided with the theater contract; it was, in fact, the General Manager’s responsibility to examine those reports for accuracy. Assertions continue from the former colleagues that there was over reimbursement for the tech expenditure (note: this was a non-existent charge in the 2018 season). As evidenced by the receipt accessible by Iscovitz, Balsamo, and White, the tech expense for the festival exceeded tech monies asked for in the reimbursement. In 2018 NYNW absorbed the entire charge themselves as they have always done with various financial issues if finances were an issue for the participants.

The blog's testimonies indicate surprise over a levied charge should a participant request additional rehearsal time on the festival's stage beyond what is currently allowed and paid for by the festival. This appears under the realm of common sense; however, it should be noted that the extra time was only an option for the participants should they wish to enjoy additional rehearsals on stage. Additionally, there is testimony regarding surprise as to set items in the theatre being flame retardant. It is fair that participants new to professional theatre may not be accustomed to its responsibilities, though it is also understandable that the theatre instills safety guidelines being that the set items included bails of hay and stacks of firewood. These guidelines were outlined to the NYNW participants and were to be understood and overseen by the General Manager, Stephanie Iscovitz.

Recently, the NYNW Festival hosted a small gathering where there were no fewer than 15 recognizable names within the Broadway and entertainment communities meeting with the various participants and alumni of the festival. As stated in an interview by two-time participant David Don Miller, "NYNW is amazing and what Gene has created is simply indescribable." Mr. Miller's project from the 2017 NYNW season attached a producer who is a member of the NYNW panel. With that said, multiple panelists from the 2017 season specifically sought out the work of women to mentor; these include seasoned Producers Stephanie Rosenberg and Gayle Waxenberg who, following NYNW's 2017 season, attached themselves to a total of four projects created by female NYNW playwrights.

In this video after an NYNW evening’s performance, a bevy of producers discuss the evening’s participants and 39 Steps Producer, Doug Denoff, suggests the possibility of an option for a 2017 NYNW project authored by a female playwright. The video depicts a tremendous producer interest in supporting both NYNW and its participants. Additionally, Meredith Lucio, a Tony-winning Producer, and panelist in 2017 generously offered to meet with all participants seeking assistance and feedback. These panelists and NYNW should be celebrated for creating opportunities that women haven’t been provided in a male-dominated environment.

Gene Fisch Jr. at the NYNW Theatre Festival

Gene Fisch Jr. at the NYNW Theatre Festival

The agenda of NYNW is to serve as a give-back project where they can do well by doing good. When reviewing the spreadsheets, NYNW (Gene Fisch, Jr.) granted over $6,000 in scholarship funding to promote the voices of under-represented writers in 2018 alone. This year, the New York New Works Theatre Festival garnered 11 submissions from festival alumni for the 2018 season. Additionally, numerous industry players have attended and supported the endeavor of helping artists develop their crafts. All of the 2018 NYNW participants that provided commentary conveyed positive messages of receiving guidance that significantly differs from the other festivals in the New York area. Such was reiterated by 2018 participant Auslin Williams, where she states that the festival has "a very familial vibe to it all and the support system is incredible." Additionally, Patrick Cashin, a supporter of NYNW since its inception states that "Gene Fisch, Jr. goes out of his way to introduce artists to people that can help them and you see that at no other festival."

Multiple panelists have relayed that they have been contacted by Katie Spencer expressing concern over them being a panelist referring to the comments of Stephanie Iscovitz, Alexandria Balsamo, Devyn White, and Abby Judd. To dissuade women producers from helping women playwrights is highly destructive on multiple levels as these people are trying to elevate an underrepresented voice in the industry. However, Ms. Spencer's agenda appears to push the ideation to later point and say “see, nobody helped you in this project.”

Inaccuracies in the women’s blog spiral down to the smallest details as demonstrated by numerous participants (and emails) from years past confirming that open bars at NYNW events were inclusive for all of NYNW and not just for panelists or the “important people” as written by Ms. Balsamo. It is notable that this is something not at all obligatory by Fisch, but is an act of generosity in an effort to cultivate conversation between industry decision makers and the NYNW community.

Also, more than one panelist acknowledged that they did not vote for the Stephanie Iscovitz piece to win (contrary to her statement of her winning “unanimously”). There were several confirmations that not only were Stephanie Iscovitz, Alexandria Balsamo, Devyn White, and Abby Judd touted regularly, but that they were given expensive gifts in an opening night speech thanking the team. With regards to applications, script counts evidence that approximately 48% of the 2017 submissions were presented to maintain a level of performance quality refuting the blog’s supposition that NYNW presented “everyone” that applied (in 2018 approximately 57% of submissions were presented). All had full knowledge of these statistics.

When sitting down to discuss the testimonials with members of NYNW's 2018 Management Team, they emphatically stated that they would not partake in NYNW leadership roles if they didn't fully believe in the festival and its message. According to 2017 and 2018 Stage Manager Kat Anderegg, she “…would never have returned to NYNW had the assertions been accurate. I’ve been around environments such as those in other projects and this is definitely not that.”

Additionally, Anderegg has stated that when working with Gene Fisch, Jr., he's "easy to work with, considerate, and there are no bad moments, and he’s one of the most kindhearted people you’ll ever meet.” In a succeeding conversation with Kim Marie Jones, the 2018 Production Manager followed up with “their (Ms. Iscovitz, Ms. Balsamo, Ms. White, and Ms, Judd) website isn’t the truth. Some people don’t follow up on the opportunities that Gene provides and are just haters (or colleagues not invited back).” Subsequently, in a conversation with Dickson Lane, the 2018 Tech Director, Lane has mentioned that "the festival is incredibly organized. No one sees the wizard; Gene is the wizard, and he is noble."

The blog's nefarious nature has an impact on NYNW panelists, as per a panelist who anonymously commented that they were "present at the introduction eluded to by Ms. White which was nothing short of selfless generosity by Mr. Fisch. We were in awe of Ms. White’s, Ms. Balsamo’s, and Ms. Icovitz’s statements as all of our objectives were to help participants and team members. To insinuate that anyone was forced to drink is inaccurate. A playwright drank a soft drink with no mention of it. Many of us on the panel are deep supporters of the women's movement and hold very different perspectives from the testimonials on that blog (created to hurt this project). There were numerous women Broadway professionals being introduced to participants and NYNW team members at these gatherings.”

On a final note, a learning moment for us all is that it's easy to believe everything that's read on the internet. Given this past election downfall, Hillary Clinton would likely agree given her experience where fake news was used against her that it's best to investigate the facts before accepting statements at face value. I am excited to support the female authors of NYNW in their 2018 season.

Since the completion of the 2018 season it appears that 8 participants have the potential for resources taking them to the next level (and that close to dozen of some of the biggest female names on Broadway stepped up to perform in NYNW in 2018 to support its mission; imagine if there were more opportunities like NYNW available for aspiring writers and then imagine how we can help the New York New Works Theatre Festival further assist female playwrights to succeed in a male-dominated environment.