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Orlando sues Mad Cow Theatre over equipment removal

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 8/2/2022 Matthew J. Palm, Orlando Sentinel
54 W. Church St. is pictured in June after Mad Cow Theatre had vacated the premises. © Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS 54 W. Church St. is pictured in June after Mad Cow Theatre had vacated the premises.

The city of Orlando is suing Mad Cow Theatre over the nonprofit’s removal of equipment from the downtown space it previously leased from the city.

In the lawsuit, dated July 29, the city says the theater — which has been locked in disputes with the city for years — unlawfully took more than $30,000 in theatrical equipment from the Church Street location when its lease was terminated.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mad Cow Theatre executive director Mitzi Maxwell said she had not yet seen the city’s lawsuit. At the end of June, she told the Sentinel that the company had removed only equipment to which it was entitled. At that time, the city had publicly stated it was considering legal action.

The missing equipment, which the city says includes everything from microphones to music stands, is needed because without it, the city’s plans to activate the space as a theater for up-and-coming artists could be delayed.

“I think it could potentially hurt our efforts,” said Alauna Friskics, executive director of Orlando Fringe, which is the city’s new tenant. Orlando Fringe has been tasked with establishing and running an artist-incubator program to help diversify and strengthen the region’s cultural offerings.

“In discussions with the city from the beginning, we asked that Fringe enter into a fully functioning theater with working theatrical equipment,” she said. “We have been complying with the city to determine which equipment is there and what is missing so that we can get the theater open as soon as possible.”

Mad Cow Theatre was formerly located in city-managed space on the second floor of 54 W. Church St. in the heart of downtown Orlando. © Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Mad Cow Theatre was formerly located in city-managed space on the second floor of 54 W. Church St. in the heart of downtown Orlando.

The hope is to open the space in early 2023, Friskics said. Orlando Fringe is currently holding community “listening sessions” to guide its plans for the venue.

The list of missing equipment stated in the lawsuit is a long one: Ticket scanners, computers, monitors, highboy tables, lighting instruments and rigging, sandbags, a fog machine, an Akai digital audio board, costume racks and more.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement when Mad Cow Theatre vacated the 54 W. Church St. space in May, the theater company was allowed to retain select items that had been donated specifically to the theater and would need to be returned to the donor, rather than handed over to the city. Friday’s filing states the city has not received proof from the theater company that any of the removed items meet that criteria.

The city of Orlando is suing Mad Cow Theatre over equipment that is missing from the nonprofit's former downtown location on Church Street. © Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS The city of Orlando is suing Mad Cow Theatre over equipment that is missing from the nonprofit's former downtown location on Church Street.

In exchange for surrendering the equipment in the venue, the theater company was not required to pay off more than $500,000 in debt the city said it had racked up through the years in unpaid common-area maintenance fees.

The city’s legal paperwork indicates it has been on the trail of the equipment for months: “On or about Friday, May 27, 2022, two business days before Defendant was required to surrender the Premises, City received information from third parties that suggested Defendant desired to remove Operational Property from the Premises without City’s consent,” the court filing states.

For several years, the theater company rented storage space in a warehouse shared by other arts groups, including Opera Orlando and Orlando Ballet.

Opera Orlando general director Gabriel Preisser confirmed the theater company’s rental contract had been terminated at the end of June after failing to pay its rent. The opera company gave the theater two weeks, until July 15, to remove its property, he said, and opera staff noticed some items had been taken away.

After hearing about the equipment dispute, Preisser said he contacted the city a few days prior to the July 15 deadline. The city’s real estate manager visited the warehouse, spokeswoman Ashley Papagni said, but did not find any of the missing equipment.

When a deal was reached for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra to rent some of the shared warehouse, space was needed, Preisser said. So last week, the opera company had an “open house” for other arts groups to see if they could use anything Mad Cow Theatre had left behind.

Orlando Fringe officials visited, Friskics said, and also examined the items left by the theater company but did not find anything covered by the settlement agreement.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue an order “commanding the sheriffs of the state” to seize the equipment and return it to the city or issue an injunction to prevent the theater company from moving, using or disposing of the equipment.

Papagni said the city would drop the lawsuit if the equipment were returned.

“We are disappointed that Mad Cow did not comply with the settlement agreement,” she wrote in an email.

“We have received nothing from the City, and have no comment at this time,” Maxwell wrote in a brief message Tuesday.

Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts, facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. Want more arts and cultural news and reviews? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts.

©2022 Orlando Sentinel. Visit orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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