Denver Nonprofit IDEA Stages Suspends Executive Director | Westword

IDEA Stages Votes to Suspend Executive Director and Organization

This decision comes following an exhaustive review by the IDEAs Accountability Committee sparked by concerns raised during a production of In the Heights at Vintage Theatre.
Alicia Young, executive director and founder of IDEAs, (pictured right in her role as Abuela Claudia in In the Heights) was suspended.
Alicia Young, executive director and founder of IDEAs, (pictured right in her role as Abuela Claudia in In the Heights) was suspended. Courtesy of RDG Photography
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In a bold move reflecting the challenges and growing pains of a nonprofit in the arts sector, the IDEA Stages (IDEAs) board of directors voted to suspend its executive director and founder, Alicia Young, and halt all programming to allow for a comprehensive restructuring and leadership development plan.

This decision, announced on February 28, comes in the wake of an exhaustive review by the IDEAs Accountability Committee, sparked by concerns raised during a production of In the Heights at Vintage Theatre last summer. In the fall, cast and crew members involved with In the Heights came forward with documents and accompanying text messages detailing Young's alleged wrongdoings.

According to Michal McDowell, a member of the production, Young engaged in repeated offensive behaviors toward her castmates; this included sending inappropriate text messages to cast and crew members, as well as engaging in body-shaming and racist behavior that directly contradicted IDEA Stages' mission statement. The IDEAs board formally became aware of the allegations in October 2023, which prompted the formation of the Accountability Committee in November to allow members of the In the Heights crew to voluntarily share their experiences.

Pressures in the theater community rose in December when Young was fired from her position as director of Black Nativity at Vintage, with the company citing "multiple challenges" during the rehearsal process. However, the committee took time to gather "as many perspectives" as possible before issuing its report on February 17.

"One of the things that we discovered is that Lisa, as the leader, stumbled, based on our investigation of what happened during In the Heights," says MiDian Holmes, chair of the Accountability Committee. "We didn't focus on the Black Nativity situation; although the timelines overlapped as far as when we were doing the work, our efforts were specifically focused on In the Heights. ... It was very clear that Lisa didn't act alone. She was not the only person who stumbled. Vintage Theatre was definitely in need of accountability. … There were also some missed opportunities by those individuals who reported this. They had some biases that were very clear and on display."

The committee's findings revealed lapses in judgment that necessitated a re-evaluation of leadership roles and organizational practices. Young founded IDEAs in the summer of 2020 to champion initiatives that challenged traditional theater practices and to advocate for a more inclusive theater-making environment. Yet as the organization transitioned from a grassroots-led movement to a formally structured nonprofit, IDEAs faced critical challenges in defining roles, expectations and accountability mechanisms. This environment led to the problems experienced during In the Heights.
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As IDEA Stages embarks on this period of introspection and restructuring, the theater community at large faces an opportunity for significant growth.
Courtesy of Michael Ensminger Photography
The Accountability Committee's investigation into Young's behavior revealed significant issues, including a lack of clarity regarding the organization's role in production, insufficient checks and balances for the executive director's role, and a need for more defined processes and transparency. The report also highlighted challenges related to casting decisions, access to resources, working conditions, toxic social media usage and the overall culture within production environments.

In an effort to address these concerns, the committee recommended in its report to suspend "Alicia Young in the role of executive director and all associated leadership responsibilities related to IDEAs. This decision is not made lightly but stems from a genuine dedication to fostering a healthy and inclusive organizational culture. Suspending her leadership at IDEAs will provide the necessary space for a comprehensive leadership development plan to be formulated and implemented."

The community's reactions to the report were mixed. Some, like McDowell, express concern over the committee's focus on the responses of those impacted by the incidents rather than on Young's actions. Young did not respond to a request for comment.

"When I first read the announcement from the Accountability Committee, it was pretty upsetting," McDowell says. "There was very little about Lisa's behavior in it and a lot of specifics about how we, the victims, responded to her behavior, and then very specific things regarding how Vintage handled it. It was strange to me that they could be specific about our behaviors but not about Lisa’s actions. It felt like victim-shaming." 

However, McDowell also voices hope for reconciliation and progress, emphasizing the importance of learning from mistakes and moving forward collectively. "I don't want to see her canceled," McDowell says. "I'd like to see Lisa rally and come back educated, ready to work with everyone in a more positive way. We need to stop calling people out and start calling people into difficult conversations; otherwise, nothing will ever change."

The board’s decision to remove Young reflects a commitment to introspection and change: "This action will be followed by an intense focus by the board to create and implement a comprehensive leadership development plan and organizational strategy," the announcement notes.

The pause marks an opportunity for the organization to reassess its structure, ensuring that future initiatives align more closely with the community's needs. Holmes highlights the collective responsibility to address and heal from the disruptions, emphasizing the opportunity for all involved to engage in a process of atonement and growth. "Everyone involved now has an opportunity to be an example of what it looks like to hold tension and to listen to feedback," she says. "Take the findings, take the recommendations and have a conversation about them. What does that mean for your theater company? How do you make adaptations based on these community recommendations? This is an invitation to lean in and to take this as an opportunity to develop and be a part of this atonement process."

As IDEA Stages embarks on this period of introspection and restructuring, the theater community at large faces an opportunity for significant growth. The measures taken in response to the Accountability Committee's findings can pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable future in Colorado theater, turning a moment of crisis into a catalyst for lasting change.

"We find ourselves now in the messy middle, navigating the uncomfortable, ambiguous and often chaotic stages encountered when organizations change, grow or seek atonement," Holmes says. "As the organization closes this chapter, we will work to make this juncture an opportunity to reaffirm IDEAs’ dedication to fostering equity and inclusivity in theater-making with unwavering integrity and purpose."
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