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TBA Online: News & Features: November 2017

Revisioning Theatre: What’s at Stake as Companies Search for New Artistic Directors

Wednesday, November 1, 2017   (1 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Lauren Spencer

The first revolution of American theatre arguably began in 1961, when the Ford Foundation offered a $9 million dollar grant aimed at “strengthening the position of resident theatre in the United States.” This unprecedented opportunity to establish local, professional theatres excited many artists who were hungry to create outside the commercial constraints of Broadway, and the financial support of the Ford Foundation ultimately spurred an explosion of regional houses across the nation that would forever change the model of theatre: who had access to it and how audiences and artists interacted with it. Thus today’s nonprofit theatre system was born.

Now, a little over fifty years later, the American theatre scene is poised for a second revolution with over twenty artistic director positions currently in play at major theatres across the country. Three key players in the Bay Area—American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley—will take on new leadership by 2020 and California Shakespeare Theatre recently hired artistic director Eric Ting. Such a significant shift in the landscape has not happened since the advent of the regional theatre movement and has many in the field pondering what they want theatre to look like in the next fifty years.

M. Graham Smith. Photo courtesy of Playwright's Foundation.

M. Graham Smith, a Bay Area based director, points out the potential and need to reenvision the economic model of regional theatres in order to sustain institutions as they move forward. “Theatres have depended on subscribers that will support the work you do on a consistent basis. But now you have a new, younger generation who want to decide what they are doing on the day of. New leaders will have to envision what is the ‘Netflix’ of theatre?”

There has also been a public push from the larger theatre community, and representative organizations such as Theatre Communications Group (TCG), for diversity in leadership, encouraging the hire of women and people of color for leadership roles in a field where, according to a study completed in 2014 by the Wellesley Center for Women, 73% of these positions are held by men with very little racial diversity represented overall. The Wellesley study looked specifically at the members of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), a national association with 72 of the larger nonprofit theatres from across the country. With so many leadership positions open, It’s certain that change is on the horizon, but what that change may be largely depends on those who will be hiring the next generation of artistic leaders.

Mina Morita. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

“It’s important to understand that the artistic director, like the managing director, is hired by and reports to the board,” Mina Morita says. Morita recently went through the AD interview process and was hired by Crowded Fire Theatre Company’s board to succeed former artistic director Marissa Wolf two years ago. The theatre’s board appoints a search committee tasked with identifying potential candidates and performing  interviews. This committee, typically comprised of 5-8 people (though larger organizations may have upwards of a dozen), often includes board members, senior staff, artistic personnel, or other stakeholders in the company such as resident artists or major donors. The committee narrows applicants down to a smaller group who then interview with the full board. After these final interviews, the board selects the candidate to whom they would like to make an offer.

But how does a board identify potential candidates in the first place? In the case of large institutions such as A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, or TheatreWorks, an artistic director search nearly always begins with the theatre employing an executive search firm. These firms initially work with the theatre’s search committee to set expectations for the timeline and goals of the search as well as the internal discussions that need to occur in advance of any interviews. Then the firms perform an initial round of cuts before presenting the theatre with what they consider to be the most desirable candidates.

Robert Kelley. Photo courtesy of Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group.

“Understand that if you want as broad a spectrum of candidates as possible, you engage a national firm,” says Robert Kelley, the founding artistic director of TheatreWorks who will step down in 2020.

However some question whether worthy candidates from traditionally underrepresented groups make it through the first round of cuts or even have access to the application in the first place. There is a remarkably limited number of executive search firms, the following three considered the top firms for theatre: Albert Hall & Associates (currently hired by Berkeley Rep), Arts Consulting Group (currently hired by A.C.T.), and Management Consultants for the Arts (currently hired by TheatreWorks). The staff at each of these firms skews heavily male and white, prompting many to wonder how implicit bias could play a role in which candidates these firms put forward.

The Wellesley Center for Women’s report addresses this concern directly, recommending that search firms “look wide and deep inside and outside of LORT, including within smaller theatres, before deciding on who the best candidates are … present a slate of candidates based on credentials that are race- and gender-blind ...[and avoid] testing that is not evidence-based as being gender- and race-neutral, and avoid testing tools that have been benchmarked against a male ‘norm.’”

Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area asks, “What exactly do we mean by expertise? What can we do collectively as a field to encourage these gatekeepers to look further toward different kinds of strengths and experiences that will allow different candidates to rise to the top?”

M. Graham Smith, who has interviewed for three different artistic director positions at differently sized institutions in various states, points out that any systemic overhaul necessitates theatres risking the serious consideration of candidates that may not fit the traditional criteria used by search firms or the board. Theatres have certainly been rewarded for taking risks before. For example, A.C.T. hired current artistic director Carey Perloff in 1992 despite the fact that she came from a much smaller theatre both in terms of budget and scope of operation. However, Smith posits that A.C.T.’s dire straights at the time, the theatre having undergone serious damage in San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake, may have allowed them to make a bolder choice. Given that many theatres are just now resurfacing from effects of the recession, the question is whether boards will tend towards what they perceive as guaranteed stability over a potentially more rewarding but also incalculable risk. “A board’s job is to protect the legacy and longevity of the institution,” Smith says, “Ironically, the older an organization gets, the more conservative the board gets.”

Conservatism aside, financial or otherwise,  Robert Kelley emphasizes that core company values are a compass for choosing future leaders: “What values does the company embody at the moment and should we be looking to alter those values in any way as we move forward?” Kelley asks. Before looking at any particular candidates, TheatreWorks is using the first full year of its AD search to discuss the values cultivated through the theatre’s first fifty years and see whether there is a desire or openness to change them under new leadership.  These conversations include board members, frequent artistic collaborators, subscribers, and others who Kelley describes as TheatreWorks “stakeholders.”

“Stakeholders” is a word frequently invoked in conversations about the steadily approaching sea change in artistic leadership. Just as with the candidate search, one might wonder if the criteria used by companies to identify stakeholders may unintentionally exclude voices of significant value to the next fifty years of regional theatre.  Smith believes that it all comes down to an investment in vision: “Can we broaden our understanding of what it means to be a stakeholder and the different ways in which we are connecting and serving the community through our organizations, if we are interested in doing that? That really may require a revisioning of how theatre might work.”

Lauren Spencer is an actor, activist, and teaching artist based in San Francisco.

Editor’s Note: Look for more on the effort to diversify executive leadership, including a report from the recent Berkshire Leadership Summit which focused on achieving gender parity in executive positions, in the November 15 issue of The Insider.


Breach Once More says...
Posted Friday, November 3, 2017
Totally Agree with Mr Smith! At Breach Once More we are trying to envision what this "Netflix generation" wants and needs in their content. We are trying Mash-ups, limited runs, small scale repertory Once we get first time theatre goers hooked, we begin to re-construct the subscriber module; exciting and terrifying times. Great Article!