Former Breckenridge councilman joins calls for change at Backstage Theatre

The newly remodeled theater is in the Breckenridge Arts District is shown in this 2016 file photo. The theater has come under fire after its executive director and artistic director both announced their resignations this summer.
Heather Jarvis /

Calls for change at Breckenridge Backstage Theatre continue to mount with former Breckenridge Town Councilman Mark Burke delivering a scathing indictment of the theater’s board of directors at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

“I can tell you when you lose three executive directors in a year and then you lose your artistic director in the same year, there’s an issue — and that’s a board issue,” Burke said as he pressed council to intervene.

During the meeting, Mayor Eric Mamula told Burke they had already discussed the resignations at Backstage Theatre and Councilman Gary Gallagher would be “taking point” to make inroads with the board.

After meeting with board president Nina Jannetti and the theater’s newly hired executive director, Debbie Trevino, on Wednesday, Gallagher described the town’s position as “straightforward.”

Council wants to ensure the continued strength of theater programming and make sure the nonprofit remains financially viable, he said, but council won’t be getting involved in any personnel issues.

Additionally, Jannetti has disputed the board has any issues with how it operates.

“The Backstage Board is functioning well, cohesively, and with fiduciary responsibility to guarantee the successful continuance of the Theatre’s institution in our community,” she wrote in an email.

Jannetti added that the board is working closely with Trevino on upcoming children’s programming as well as the theater’s 45th season, which begins in December, while they search for a new artistic director.

“We are reviewing an abundance of artistic director applications and will make a careful selection in the very near future,” Jannetti continued. “The changes at the Backstage Theatre in the past year will lead to a positive and responsible future allowing more growth, more community involvement and the perpetuity of what we consider our local treasure.”

Burke cycled off town council in April after two four-year terms. Based on his understanding, Burke said the theater’s outgoing artistic director, Chris Willard, doesn’t really want to leave.

“I understand the council may be doing some behind-the-scenes work on the matter, so for that reason, I probably should refrain from making any comments at this time,” Willard wrote in an email. “As for my future plans, well, I’ve haven’t made any commitments yet.”

Believing Willard doesn’t want to go, Burke suggested council should leverage the town’s support for the community theater — from monetary contributions to theater renovations and charging cheaper rental rates of town-owned facilities — to force the board into making some changes.

“It really does impact this town,” Burke said of Backstage Theatre. “And I’m strongly suggesting that this board is not functioning properly.”

Based on what Gallagher had to say though, council won’t be putting any pressure on the board for Willard’s return. Gallagher said he believes “there’s a lot of noise out there” and much of the criticism directed at the board following the resignations of its executive and artistic directors in about a month has been mostly “unfounded.”

“It’s unfortunate so much attention has been paid to this,” Gallagher said.

In July, the board publicly apologized for a satirical sketch poking fun at U.S. President Donald Trump, presented during the theater’s biggest fundraising event of the year.

The day after the board apologized for the sketch — and simultaneously promised never to do anything like it again — executive director Erin Gigliello announced that she would resign. She has been tight-lipped about her reasons for leaving, saying only that she and the board “didn’t see eye to eye on some things.”

Fallout at Backstage Theatre might have stopped there, but Gigliello’s resignation was soon followed by Willard announcing he too would resign after serving as artistic director for the last 13 years.

In both cases, Jannetti declined to take questions about the departures. For Willard, the board produced a short statement complimenting his time there. When Gigliello resigned, the board offered no comment.

Combined with Willard and Gigliello’s silence, that has led some people to speculate about the pair’s reasons for quitting and wonder what’s happening at the theater; others have called for an outright boycott.

Addressing council on Tuesday, Burke referenced his experience with numerous boards both now and in the past, including once serving on the theater board and having worked for another board as the former president of Johnson & Wales University in Denver.

“So I understand how boards are supposed to function, boards that function well and boards that don’t function well,” Burke said.

In his remarks, Burke talked about “artistic freedom” and how he believes it runs along the same lines of “academic freedom” in the college environment. Burke said that at Johnson & Wales, he never wanted to do anything to infringe on academic freedoms.

“Maybe I don’t have all the facts; I’m sure I don’t,” Burke said. However, he knows a group of people is rallying around Willard in an effort to try to keep him at Backstage Theatre and hoped council would speak with Willard directly.

Burke’s comments put Gigliello in a precarious position on Tuesday, as she currently sits on town council. As Burke spoke, Gigliello did not respond.

Reached Wednesday over the phone, Gigliello said she sees why he cares so much about the theater and called it “a great asset” for Breckenridge before declining to answer any questions about the circumstances surrounding her or Willard’s exits. Gigliello also expressed little interest in returning to her former job, which has since been filled.

“Not with the way things are,” she said.

Gigliello said she also has decided to remove herself from the conversation among council members, not because she sees it as a potential conflict of interest — she doesn’t — but because she doesn’t want to make a bad situation worse.

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