Update: Chester officials ‘ghost’ the man who would have been center’s artistic director

Chester. Steve Cirbus said officials used him to sell the idea of a town-owned performing arts center to voters, then abruptly abandoned him. He says he feels he owes the community an explanation and an apology. Councilman Ryan Wensley responded after press time that "I should be the one to apologize."

| 14 Aug 2019 | 05:08

Steve Cirbus said he was used by two Chester town leaders -- then dropped abruptly when they got what they wanted.

Cirbus, an actor and Chester resident with extensive experience in the performing arts, said he was repeatedly told by Supervisor Robert Valentine, then-Councilman Ryan Wensley, and other town board members that he was the only choice for artistic director of the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center.

He was introduced to the community at a town board meeting ahead of the vote. His expertise was used to sell the community on the idea of a town-owned performing arts center.

Cirbus presented an ambitious plan to bring plays, musicals, concerts, films, comedic acts, lectures, literary readings, and other artistic presentations to the center.

Wensley told The Chronicle last September, “Understanding that we would need an individual who had their finger on the pulse in the arts, I immediately thought of Steve Cirbus. He’s a Chester resident, family man, and has an impressive acting pedigree in both film and television. Steve’s connections in the entertainment industry and universities are so incredibly diverse and influential.”

Update: Wensley emailed The Chronicle after the paper went to press to say that "Cirbus wasn't dropped. No one has replaced him, including a salary acceptable to him, as well as hiring a consultant." He said it "wasn't something we could add to our 2019 budget. We want to get this right but things are moving slowly. I wish this could be our main focus for the town but that just isn't the case."

Wensley is not running for re-election this November. His full response is provided below.

Voters approve center

Voters did approve the purchase handily last November. The town then proceeded to acquire the performing arts center for $1.2 million. After that, it seems, Cirbus disappeared from the officials’ radar.

“They’re shooting spitballs at the ceiling hoping one will stick instead of going with my very clear artistic vision,” said Cirbus this week. “This is now completely out of my hands and out of my control, and is not what I wanted to do. You can’t do a soft launch in the theater, where people are looking for something great. People want something great.”

Valentine and Wensley did not return messages from The Chronicle by press time.

Still waiting

Cirbus said he feels like he owes the community an explanation and an apology. People have asked him what happened, and why he’s not running the theater. He said he’s still waiting, thinking something may still happen.

“I’m a public person, and people may have thought I was just there to run a campaign to get the vote passed,” he said. “I was ghosted. It went from me talking to Bob and Ryan about moving forward after the vote. I haven’t talked to Bob since the vote passed. Ryan Wensley and I had an acquaintanceship through our children, and he was a fan of some of the shows I did on TV. He said he couldn’t think of anybody else to contact except me when the move toward the theater took place. I believed Ryan was earnest in his efforts to see my vision realized. I’m not sure he was able to make it happen.”

Cirbus said that, before last November's vote, he talked to Valentine and Wensley upstairs at the Tap Room. He asked the officials for some kind of guarantee that he was a part of the plan. They told him they weren't looking at anybody else, he said.

“I operated for free for a very long time,” he said. “I prepared my presentation for the board and connected with others who would join me.”

Full research mode

Cirbus was originally approached by Valentine and Wensley when the theater was still a germ of an idea. He told them he would do the job for much less than the going salary of $125,000 a year in order to get things moving and make the theater a success.

Cirbus said they needed a plan to assure the center’s success, but he doesn’t see this happening.

“As I continue to have people reach out to me in order to create in-roads to the theater, or when they express a desire to get involved, I feel it is my responsibility to explain that I am no longer involved.”

“Not really fully realizing the SLPAC’s potential, they didn’t have the vocabulary to present the idea to the people of the town,” he said. “They asked if I thought it would be a good idea and what I could do with the theater if a purchase went though. Instantly, I expressed interest in the artistic direction of the theater. The town board suggested I reach out to Richard Logothetis,” the former owner and founder of the theater, which was then called the Lycian Center. “My wife and I had dinner with Richard Logothetis and his wife.”

Cirbus said he went into full research mode to learn what hadn’t worked in the past. Logothetis gave him some crucial insights.

The direction that Cirbus planned to take didn’t follow what Logisthetis had done before, which was to offer road shows and resident community theater.

“I was tasked with writing a vision statement to present to the board,” he said. “I reached out nationally to many of my top contacts in the film and theater industry. I contacted several colleagues with professorships at notable colleges and universities across the country. I assembled a network of people that would provide a low to near-zero-cost talent pool for all aspects of production. My idea was unique and original. My contacts were more than enthusiastic to create a professional relationship to the SLPAC some even vying for exclusivity.”

Cirbus shared his vision with the board and the town. The board told him he could expect to move forward if voters approved the purchase.

Board members called him daily with updates. They asked him to speak to the press. He was basically campaigning for the purchase of the theater.

Cirbus no longer receives updates, or outreach of any kind. He's no longer asked to weigh in about the performing arts center at meetings. He's no longer asked to meet with people or for his opinion on anything related to the theater at all.

“I intended to provide a highly organized and professional resident theater company with some of the most talented directors and young artists in the country,” he said. “I intended to provide programs that would appeal to all audiences. I intended to integrate educational programs for local artists and give them an opportunity to work alongside professional artists. I intended to make the SLPAC a place to travel to. It this point, I don’t feel that is the direction the board is intending to go. I’m sorry I’m not involved, but continue to hope for the best for that old beauty.”

Below is the full text of the response that Ryan Wensley emailed to The Chronicle this week:
Here are my thoughts:
First -- If I were in Steve (Cirbus)’s shoes I’d feel the same way. I’d be insulted. And for that I should be the one to apologize. Steve is an extremely talented and creative person and Chester should be proud to have him as a resident. The issue is complicated and I should have done a better job. I believe I did not have a frank enough conversation with Steve early on as it related to his salary requirements.
Steve himself mentioned that the SLPAC during its existence had a good artistic vision and poor money management and at times, vice versa. The intention is to have both which is why we sought out artists like Steve as well as seeking out business consultants.
With other matters unfortunately taking precedence with the town, it’s been slow to move forward at the pace
I believe our intention is still to first obtain a business consultant, who can guide us in forming a non profit, as well as an advisory board. This Is something I still envision Steve to be a part of. As it is now, we are fortunate to have Walter (Popailo) running day to day operations at the center. We needed someone who can manage exterior and interior maintenance of the property, offer administrative assistance and begin scheduling events to ensure we start generating income. I feel that this was not a replacement for an artistic director.
The purchase of the building was a sensitive issue with our taxpayers and rightfully so. We simply could not budget a full-time salary (at or even significantly below the mentioned 120K) and assumed fees from a consultant. Again I likely did not convey this appropriately to Steve.
In my opinion we need to move forward with a business consultant first who can assist us with a proper budget and projections and create the non profit, then, incorporate the artistic and creative. I will take responsibility for the lack of communication with Steve. It hasn’t sat right with me. Steve should not feel the need to apologize to our residents. I hope at the end of the day we can still have Steve be a part of this endeavor.