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We’ve been using this space to share a peek behind the curtain on the exciting transformation-in-process here at TBA. In the past six weeks, we have welcomed three new leaders into the fold: our Executive Director, Sean Fenton, and two new board members, Juan Manzo and Calvin Kai Ku. With this coalescence of emerging and established community leaders, mentorship has been at the top of our minds. Fostering mentorship is at the core of how we can care for and grow our artistic community — which is why we sat down with Anne W Smith and Sean Fenton to talk about mentorship in their own words.

Anne Smith in a colorful sweater smiles, looking off to the right of the camera. She is a Black woman with short white hair.

Dr. Anne W Smith, TBA’s Board President

What does mentorship mean to you?

Anne: There’s a good Wikipedia definition of course, but I’d say Mentoring is advising and explaining by showing. Usually, you become a mentor by seeing an example — show and tell. My parents were my first mentors: about how to learn different skill sets in different situations; from starting school, I was usually the only one (African-American) in school, camp, the baseball team, dance, social event, facing biased remarks in the store, church, music lessons etc. Mentoring isn’t grounded in age, in my opinion — because it’s more about experience in the situation than how old you are. I’ve had to learn about mentoring new residents in a senior community — the mindset doesn’t change, except to speak louder so they can hear you!

Sean: I definitely agree that mentoring isn’t grounded in age. Mentorship for me is the imparting of wisdom to someone else and nurturing their growth. This can come in many forms, an advisor, a coach, a friend. Whatever the relationship though, mentorship involves the sharing of someone’s unique experiences to help another person grow.

The language around “mentors” and “mentees” can also make it seem that these relationships are purely unidirectional. I think that’s often not the case. There are always new perspectives to understand, new ways we can grow. Mentors can often learn just as much from their mentees, reversing the roles.

Sean in a sharp blue suit smiles at the camera for this professional headshot. He is an Asian American man with short black hair.

Sean Fenton, TBA’s Executive Director

Talk about a moment in your career where a mentor was invaluable to you.

Sean: I have been blessed to have many people in my life who have mentored me in some way — family, friends, supervisors, and professors who have shown me a different way of seeing the world or a new way of working with other people.

I think of all the folks who managed and coached me during my time at Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre, respecting my competence but also gently showing me where I could grow. Or thinking back further to my very first job, my first supervisor, Andrea, showed me how to manage large teams, how to empower leaders with projects and responsibilities, and how to maintain great relationships.

I think of the theatre makers in my life — Leslie Martinson, Derrick Silva, Nina Meehan, Mina Morita, and so many more — who took me under their wing and showed me how to be an arts professional.

Some of the best advice I’ve gotten has also been from my family — my mother, my father, and my brother. They too have been great mentors to me for my entire life. And as I continue my own journey, I’m so grateful for the new mentors in my life, including and especially you, Dr. Smith.

Anne: And thank you, Sean, for mentoring me on updating awareness of intergenerational contemporary vocabulary and EDI issues!

As for me, I was trained to be a high school teacher and theatremaker, and was mentored in arts management by the leader of a much larger arts organization —”just pay attention” he said, to whoever is the leader of the moment whether it be the director, the dance, the stage manager, the box office salesperson, the big donor, etc. I watched him deal with these different people and learned. Then you pass on the new knowledge to others coming into the organization or department.

As leaders in our community, how do you practice mentorship?

Sean: I try to practice mentorship by identifying emerging leaders and sharing with them my experiences, mistakes, and what I’ve learned along the way. At the same time, the older I get, the more I realize how much I need to also stay open to learning myself. There’s a danger to feeling so experienced that you have nothing more to learn. So modeling that openness to growth, no matter how experienced we are, is so important.

Anne: The most interesting mentoring challenge is with those who are stubborn in clinging to one way of producing results. As an elder in the theatre community and experienced mentor, I’ve found it helpful to be able to reach into an accumulated bag of ideas and suggest at least two strategies for a baffled or concerned person to try. I might be smoothing my white hair while doing that!

How does TBA foster mentorship?

Sean: One of the most substantive ways TBA is fostering mentorship is through our Arts Leadership Residency program, now going into its third year. This past year we placed four emerging theatre leaders in residencies to be directly mentored by an established artistic director or managing director in our community. The program residents receive mentoring on both administrative and artistic functions, direct or produce at least one project over the year, and then come back and serve on the panel that reviews the next year’s applications for the programs.

My hope is that the program is providing these emerging leaders with the support and training they need as they move into the next part of their careers. But, again, mentorship is not purely unidirectional, right? I also hope that the companies and the company mentors are also learning as much from the residents — a fresh perspective, a new way of doing things, or a questioning of the status quo.

As the “mentor” of TBA, what’s one piece of advice you have for our community?

Anne: We can sure use “Dreaming Big” here in the Bay Area theatre community! The uncertainty about contagion and the continued limitations of living with COVID can be isolating, yes? I’ve been thinking about how TBA members could Mentor Bay Area audiences in the forgotten tendency of reconnecting at the theatre. There’s really good shows out there this month — I’m also very excited about the arriving production of “Goddess”, the musical at Berkeley Rep. Ask me if you need Mentoring about how to get out and buy a ticket. Let’s go!

Come see a show with us — check out what’s playing in the Bay Area!

Applications are now open for TBA’s 2022-23 Arts Leadership Residency cohort. The Arts Leadership Residency is made possible through support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Amazon.