25 Shea's Buffalo Theatre staffers seek board inquiry into 'toxic' work environment | Local News

In the eight months since “Hamilton” performed at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, 10 of the 37 full-time Shea’s staff listed in the show’s Playbill left their jobs.

The departure of 27% of the staff was, with a few exceptions, partly due to a “toxic” and demoralizing workplace under Shea’s President Michael Murphy, four current and former Shea’s employees told The Buffalo News. Murphy was put on a three-week leave by the board of trustees on July 17 that has been extended into its fifth week. 

Twenty-five of the current 28 staff members wrote a letter to the board on Aug. 12, urging the board to speak to staff members to get “the full picture” of specific incidents and their perspectives before allowing Murphy to return.

Michael Murphy (copy)

Michael Murphy is the president and CEO of Shea’s Performing Arts Center. Photo taken, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. 

“We believe Michael’s actions are in violation of our values and policies held by this organization,” according to their letter. “There are members of our staff who have endured abusive behavior and an unsafe work environment because of Michael. We stand with our colleagues.”

A statement on Aug. 19 from the Shea’s board reserved praise for the job Murphy has done.  

“Shea’s Board of Trustees is aware of internal concerns raised about management and has been reviewing and evaluating them for several weeks,” the statement said. “The Board’s priority is ensuring that everyone involved with Shea’s can continue to contribute their talents and dedication toward Shea’s’ continued success in a positive environment.

“Michael Murphy remains president of Shea’s,” the statement continued. “He and the Shea’s team guided the organization through the turbulence of an unprecedented pandemic into a blockbuster 2022-23 season of shows. The Board will continue to work to maintain and grow our region’s premier theater experience.”

The four current and former employees spoke to The News on the condition they not be named in the story, citing fear of recrimination or being fired. They said they care deeply about Shea’s, and blame the board as much as Murphy for failing for months to arrive at a solution they hoped would be resolved internally. 

The loss of the recently departed staff members is keenly felt, said the staff members, who predicted more staffers could follow their former colleagues out the door if Shea’s 15-member board of trustees decides to keep Murphy.

The employees, current and past, described Murphy as charming to outsiders but often mean-spirited and derogatory toward them. They said Murphy is prone to angry outbursts that include obscenities and shaking his fists, denigrating their work and recording conversations with staff, patrons and board members he would play back to staff.

“I’ve seen brilliant, creative people who really love the organization and love the arts leave Shea’s broken,” a staff member said.

That employee said the board was informed that if Murphy returns, more staff will leave.

“I know of at least five or six people with resignation letters ready, and probably many more than that,” the staff member said.

Murphy did not return several messages for comment for this story. 

Murphy, who grew up in Gowanda, came to Shea’s in October 2016 with a background in theater and opera management, most recently having spent 16 years at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, the last five as managing director.

At Shea’s, his salary was $374,138, according to the theater’s 2020 tax return.

Shea’s has scaled new box office heights under Murphy’s tenure, and the theater continues to have one of the best one-week subscription series in the United States. There are currently 15,954 season subscribers.

Shea’s reached $36 million in revenue in the 2018-2019 season, according to the 2019 IRS form. That was the theater’s most successful season at the box office. The organization’s revenues have dropped off since due to the pandemic. 

“I have the utmost respect for Michael’s expertise and what he has achieved at Shea’s,” said Randall Kramer, MusicalFare Theatre’s executive and artistic director.

“There is a lot of concentration on the main stage, but he has made the Smith Theater a viable theater for the first time ever really, and he has actually increased the stature and the quality of work at 710,” Kramer said. “He’s made that into an arts theater campus, and I don’t think that should be underestimated.”

Kramer referred to Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, Smith Theatre and 710 Main Street, the three theaters that are part of Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

Albert Nocciolino, Shea’s longtime producer and co-presenter of traveling Broadway productions, said he doesn’t know the details of the labor-management strife at Shea’s, but expressed concern.  

“We have all worked for many years – staff and leadership – to bring Shea’s to the place it is today as one of the best subscription markets in the country, an institution in the community and as a destination and anchor of the Theatre District,” Nocciolino said. “I hope whatever the situation and issues are get resolved so we can continue this legacy.”

One ex-employee found Murphy friendly and personable. But the work environment, in contrast, “was chaotic, negative and unproductive.”

The former staffer decided to leave because although the person loved the job they were hired to do, the work atmosphere became debilitating.

“I was looking for another job, as were most of my colleagues, because it had taken such a mental toll,” the former employee said.

Randall Best, Shea’s chairman, didn’t return a half-dozen calls over the past two weeks from The News seeking comment on Murphy’s status.

But during Murphy’s first week of absence, Best said the concerns were about “personnel issues and management style.”

Best said the staff needed to be focusing more on Shea’s business at hand.

“We’re simply trying to get everybody back paying attention to the best interest of Shea’s, and worrying less about what’s going on inside the office,” Best said. “We seem to have gotten off track a little bit in really embracing what Shea’s and the theater community is about. We’re spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with personnel issues.”

Best denied that Murphy was on a leave of absence.

“Unfortunately, the more people you talk to, the more answers you’re going to get,” Best said. “Coming from me, Michael is on vacation. Michael continues to be president of Shea’s, and I expect that he retains that position going forward.”

Two staffers said they received different information. “We were told it was an administrative leave and not to discuss it with media if asked,” one of the employees said.

“We were told by the board’s executive committee that Michael would not be in the office for three weeks,” the other staff member said. “The official word was Michael was on leave.”

The staff was later told to refer to Murphy’s absence as a “vacation,” the staffer said.

Because Shea’s doesn’t have a human resources department, complaints from staff were funneled through General Manager Bill Patti to the board.

Many of them were anonymous. 

“People were afraid retaliation would be severe if they were identified, and afraid of losing their jobs,” a staff member said. 

In April, a management leadership coach was hired to conduct “a culture check” in response to complaints by staffers. Interviews were held with multiple staff members. 

On July 15, senior staff balked when informed by the executive committee that the board’s solution was for Murphy to receive leadership coaching. Two days after the “explosive meeting,” as one staffer characterized it, Murphy went on leave.

The board deliberated on Aug. 10 on what to do about the Murphy situation, but failed to reach “a clear consensus,” a staff member was told. That prompted the Aug. 12 letter with the 22 signatories.

The board on Aug. 10 also formed a three-member human resources committee and held interviews with senior staff in recent days.

Board member James Eagan said in an email to the staff that the committee would not respond to anonymous concerns, which upset some employees, a staff member said.

The ongoing, uncertain situation over Murphy’s status has left staff feeling frustrated and wary over the board’s inability or unwillingness to rectify the situation, employees said.

“The board is the problem as much as Michael is,” a staff member said. “They do not do their due diligence on what is going on in this organization, and not with the expediency that this situation warrants.”

One incident that typified Murphy’s treatment of the staff, an employee said, occurred in March at the annual conference for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, of which Murphy was outgoing president.

At the Toronto event, which included about a dozen Shea’s employees, Murphy told those assembled “something to the effect that, ‘I’m so glad to bring them so they can see how a great staff like the NAMT operates,’ ” the staff member said. 

The staffer said the putdown wasn’t surprising but still hurt.

“It was embarrassing,” the employee said. “It felt like a dagger to everyone there.” 

Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He’s also a former arts editor at The News. 

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