Prism Schism III: Meeting brings tears, cheers

Tempers flared at the Prism Coffeehouse on Tuesday night, April 20, as nearly 100 current and former volunteers, board members, and concerned community members met with mediators hoping to quiet the mighty wind of discord that has been gusting through the Prism's ranks.

At issue: allegations that the current board, including longtime artistic director Fred Boyce and his domestic partner, Kenyon Hunter, have been operating the Prism outside the scope of its bylaws, and that no "fair" elections, open to all volunteers, have been held in recent memory.

But the issue that dominated much of the three-hour gathering was a different question: Should the media be ejected from the meeting?

"This is a family," local real estate agent Aer Stephen claimed. "The family has arguments, but they don't put it in the paper."

Arguing that removing the press would be illegal, another woman pointed out, "There's nothing about a public nonprofit corporation that is secret."

"This is not a way to sell newspapers," a man retorted.

"What do we have to hide?" asked Gloria Quarles, whose husband, Jim, brought the Prism's problems to the public's attention through comments he made in the Hook's April 1 cover story, "Prism schism."

After more than an hour of such heated exchanges, Joe Ayers, a current board member who had been asked to chair the meeting, called for a vote. By an overwhelming show of hands, the group voted to allow three journalists to stay.

For the next two hours, emotions continued to run high as discussion ranged randomly from the validity of the current by-laws to who exactly is considered a voting member and back again to the Hook's cover story.

According to Prism bylaws, volunteers may nominate board members starting at an April meeting, and may do so right up until the scheduled election, which this year is planned for Tuesday, May 18.

"Let's all keep in mind," said Ayers, "every person here has the concern of the Prism Coffeehouse at heart."

With nearly all of the 130 seats filled in the Rugby Road venue, Ayers thanked the crowd for the large turnout and introduced two students from UVA's University Mediation Services. At an earlier meeting, members had voted to invite representatives of the free conflict resolution service to come to this meeting to see if they could help to heal the rift among Prism members.

"You decide the outcome," said mediator Faith Alejandro. "We create an environment for open and honest communication."

Before the group formally voted to use the mediators' services, discussion of the contentious issues began, though removing the press had not been a planned topic.

"We would have agreed to mediation," said Hunter in response to Ayers' observation that it was the publicity that brought so many people to the meeting. "We would have been very happy to avoid being thrust into the public eye."

Hunter and Boyce have declined comment about problems at the venerable Charlottesville institution; however, a February answering machine message Boyce left for Jim Quarles after he and his wife had resigned from the board revealed the temper Quarles and others say people are frightened by.

For most of the meeting, Boyce remained silent at the back of the room. But after two hours, he requested a moment at the microphone.

He began by reading an inspirational essay, "The True Measure of Life," which he attributed to comedian George Carlin. (For the record: on his website, Carlin denies authorship of the piece and brands the essay as "sappy.")

"I should probably stop there," said Boyce at the end of the reading, "but I won't."

Instead, he began recalling his early days at the Prism, back in the late '80s. "There was no functioning board," Boyce said. After more such reminiscences, he began praising a volunteer who for years has picked up the Prism's recycling every Sunday morning.

"You know who you are," he said, describing his amazement to learn that over the years this volunteer always paid for his or her Prism tickets. But his praise of one quickly turned to criticism of others.

"It correlates," he said, "that people who are the most outspoken do the least," a statement that Quarles, who provided room and board for many Prism musicians over the past several years, believes was directed at him.

Then Boyce's attacks became even more personal.

"Kenyon never sold Girl Scout cookies for my daughter from the Prism kitchen," said Boyce, his voice rising to near shouting.

In the front row, 24-year-old Rachel Vigour, who has volunteered for a decade, began to cry.

"I was startled," Vigour said later. She described how, as a Girl Scout in 1998, she sold the Prism 10 boxes of cookies at Boyce's suggestion. The Prism then sold the cookies in place of other baked goods at February show. "The Prism," says Vigour, "made the profit. I've never done anything to use the Prism for my own benefit."

Particularly hurtful, she says, was realizing that Boyce was attacking her parents, Ellen and Pete Vigour, whose allegiance to the venue goes back 30 years.

"To use something as benign as Girl Scout cookies to attack my parents," says Vigour, is unfair. "It's taking revenge through someone's children," she says.

Despite her hurt, and her new belief that "rumors of Fred's short temper are true," Vigour says she still thinks that he's done a "great job" as program director. "But he's not the only one," she insists, "who could do it."

Others feel differently.

John Lohman, with the Virginia Folklife Project, in a speech declining nomination to the Prism board, spoke about Boyce and Hunter's dedication. "The stress in putting on a show," said Lohman, "is very, very intense." He described how after assisting with several shows, start to finish, he was always left wondering how Boyce and Hunter managed to pull it all off.

Many others in attendance spoke highly of Boyce and Hunter, who at one point received a standing ovation from most of the crowd.

Much of the Prism's recent success is thanks to "Fred's genius guidance," said Larry Minnick, another board nominee.

Hunter, during a speech outlining her plans if she's elected, said she has been "doing everything you can imagine" at the Prism since 1998, including acting as treasurer, and offered to "open the Prism's books for anyone who would like to see them.

"I've gone above the call of duty," she said to huge applause.

Personal differences aside, most people the Hook spoke with feel the meeting was a positive step– particularly the fact that the group nearly unanimously voted to commit to mediation. (The University Mediation Services agreed to work in conjunction with Ginger McCarthy, an experienced mediator and facilitator who worked in New York City with various factions following the 9/11 attacks.)

"I really believe there will be fair elections next month," says Rachel Vigour.

Pete Vigour says he's feeling "wonderful" about the meeting. "I'm confident," he says, "that if everyone does what they've agreed to and follows mediation, there will be a fair election."

Two more meetings have been scheduled at the Prism over the next month: an interim meeting set for 7pm on Tuesday, May 11, and the by-laws-mandated meeting to vote for the new board of directors at 7pm on May 18.

Emotions ran high at the Prism Coffeehouse on Tuesday, April 20.