My name is Anika Bennett and I am a senior at Boise High School who has been involved in Boise Contemporary Theater’s Theater Lab program over the last few years. Before I begin, I am aware that no one outside the walls of BCT knows the full story of Dwayne Blackaller and Matthew Cameron Clark’s departure from the theater. This letter also does not reflect the opinions of any present or former members of the BCT staff or board, nor is it representative of the feelings of any theater lab students or alumni beyond those who have agreed to sign it. My intention with this letter is merely to share my perspective based on my experiences with Dwayne and Matthew and to ask the Board for their perspective as well. I know I am not alone in my confusion about the events that have transpired in the leadership at BCT.
I remember sitting in Dwayne Blackaller’s office in 2018, just Dwayne and a small group of students in BCT’s theater lab program spitballing ideas in a last-ditch effort to finalize the last few pages of our play the night before it opened. As our fellow student Sabine Englert clicked away on the desktop computer, Dwayne listened to us run around in circles. He interjected when he needed to, always pushing us to ditch the ordinary and deliver something truly great. When we finished writing it was past 9 p.m., two hours after the class was scheduled to end that night. We packed up our things and gave each other a few pats on the back, and as we walked out the door Dwayne told us how impressed he was with our dedication and tenacity. He never failed to show any of us in theater lab how proud he was or how much he appreciated us. I hope he knows how much we appreciate him, too.
Anyone that knows Dwayne probably knows about his infamous "Dwayne Speeches." Every time we reached the familiar breaking point where discouragement drowns out enthusiasm, Dwayne would sit us down in a circle and give us a speech. Often he talked for too long and got lost in tangents, but he always managed to make us feel proud where before we had felt ashamed, excited where we had felt terrified, and capable where the task felt impossible. He empowered us, even as kids and teenagers, to create authentic art inside and outside of theater lab. When a group of his students decided to venture off to create their own student-run theater company last summer, Dwayne encouraged our journey and guided us with his experience in the logistical side of the theater business. He believed in our vision. When so many people looked at us as nothing more than a group of delusional children with unrealistic dreams about theater, he spoke to us like we were adults, treated us like we were adults, and expected us to act like adults. He gave us the power to do so, and we did.
Yesterday morning, my good friend Samuel Gillespie and I sat reading Matthew Cameron Clark’s email explaining that he and Dwayne were no longer moving forward with Boise Contemporary Theater, and not by choice. If you are not a theater lab student, you probably can't fully understand how painful this news has been for us. All of my closest friends are people I met at BCT theater lab. Outside of the program the theater lab kids continue to support and encourage one another just as Dwayne always did. Dwayne is real. He shared with us stories of joy and love, of defeat and sadness. He instilled in us his best philosophies, not just for theater but for life. He was honest with us. He pushed us to work harder than we thought we could. He taught us to make big choices and big mistakes. He taught us that those mistakes are not only okay, they are important. He taught us to be honest, to take chances, to listen and to give. He always had our best interests in mind, and I know that he still does.
When I first heard that both men were no longer working for Boise Contemporary Theater, my fear was that something truly bad had happened, that maybe they weren't the kind-hearted people I had always thought they were. Of course, that was not the truth. They always have been and will continue to be the genuine, caring, outstanding individuals they both are. Samuel and I spent a long time calling our close friends, asking them if they'd heard, hearing their hearts break over the static on the phone line, the disbelief settling in all of our chests. We never imagined this could happen in the place we always felt the safest and most welcome. It felt like a kind of intimate betrayal.
Dwayne always told his students to “Hold on tightly and let go lightly.” Our apologies to Dwayne, but this is one time we can’t heed his advice. The theater lab students and the community of Boise will hold on to Dwayne and Matthew tightly, but we will surely not be letting go of them lightly. We’re holding on to them even tighter, and we will be making sure their legacies continue both inside and outside of BCT.
Matthew Cameron Clark and Dwayne Blackaller represent, in all of their actions, everything that BCT stands for. They encourage themselves and everyone around them "to examine our perspectives and better understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us," to quote BCT’s own mission statement. While we all know that a small theater company cannot survive unless it, to some extent, functions like a business, Boise Contemporary Theater’s successes have never been rooted in ticket sales or budget surpluses. The theater has thrived because of what it stands for, what it has done for the community and the artistic integrity it has always maintained. Dwayne and Matthew foster love, joy and a passion for the arts wherever they go. While we are deeply saddened to know their time at Boise Contemporary Theater has come to an end, we know they will continue to carry this spirit forward to their next great adventure.
BCT does not belong to a president, to a board, to Dwayne Blackaller, to Matthew Cameron Clark, to the students of theater lab, to any one person or group of people who leads it. BCT belongs to the community that has supported it for years. It belongs to all of us here in Boise, those that have dedicated their lives to it and those who have only seen a single show. It belongs to you and to me. We are BCT.
Signed, theater lab students and alumni:
Anika Bennett and Dana Kenney (co-authors);
Olivia Seidl, Ethan Ellis, Rachel Gordon, Grace Johnson, Jillian Dinucci, Ali Abbot and Sabine Englert