Managers, oh, managers. Wherefore art thou managers?
Like Shakespeare’s Juliet, trustee search committees and artistic directors throughout America are searching for a serious partner (to produce), a dedicated lover (of theatre) and a leading player with the training, diligence, charm and willingness to fight and strategize for their mutual long-term survival. Unfortunately, countless theatre managers have succumbed to the pressures of leading a not-for-profit theatre and have left the field for careers in business, academia or more lucrative (yet still noble) nonprofit operations. Many key figures who helped shape the not-for-profit theatre field in its early years have moved on, passed on or retired.
So who will fill the leadership posts—the jobs of producing director, managing director, general manager, marketing director, development director, CFO—that are so important to the survival of America’s 21st-century theatres? Since the job description for most managerial openings in professional theatre might be summarized as a search for someone with the patience of Mother Teresa, the financial wizardry of Warren Buffet, the vision of Superman and the resilience of Condoleezza Rice, it’s little wonder that ideal candidates are few and far between.
Where will we find the next generation of theatre managers? And exactly what combination of leadership and management skills are theatres seeking?
Managing theatres has proven a perilous path for many would-be theatre leaders, as economic recession, “surprise” deficits, aging audiences, fundraising fiascos, board politics and “human resource burnout” plague the profession. Are theatres mentoring future leaders who will rise through the ranks? Or can we count on the nation’s theatre management and arts administration training programs to supply the executives needed to create new audiences, mine new funding sources and strategically plan for more than just another year of survival?
In my experience directing both BFA theatre management and MFA arts administration programs, few students wander into faculty offices and declare their passion to work with boards of trustees and generally under-compensated colleagues to facilitate a theatre’s fundraising, audience development and strategic planning needs. Rather, it’s areas such as acting and directing—with their rampant unemployment and outrageous career demands—that seem to charm most students. Yale School of Drama deputy dean and Yale Repertory Theatre managing director Victoria Nolan speaks to the issue: “It is always the case that the acting applicants are far and away the largest pool of applicants to the school, by a factor of 8 or 10 to 1, at least.”
Unfortunately, the results are obvious—too many out-of-work actors and directors and a palpable shortage of professionally trained theatre managers. Perhaps this is why many boards and artistic directors are frustrated with their managers; why there has been a revolving door in top nonprofit theatre management, marketing and fundraising offices; and why more boards seem to be relying on artistic directors to shoulder the management “burden” as producing directors.
In recent searches for artistic directors for American theatres, it’s not unusual for 140-plus applicants to tender their applications and for dozens of talented, experienced artists to emerge. Similar searches for managing directors often yield a mere handful of savvy, experienced candidates, and multiple theatres are often vying for the same candidate. Check out the recent ARTSEARCH national employment bulletin that had 10 full pages of “administration” positions open, from entry level to top management, and three listings for “artistic” positions (and one of those was a graduate assistantship)!
Is There a Crisis in Management Leadership?
To answer the “crisis” question, it seemed logical to poll those who spend the greater part of their working lives pondering and addressing the question—so I touched base with more than two dozen leading theatre management and arts administration program heads as well as artistic and administrative leaders in the field.
“The crisis is related to compensation and governance issues and figuring out how to hold on to wonderful, talented people so they can have a life in the theatre,” contends Brann J. Wry, head of the performing arts administration program at New York University. “If they were compensated justly and were able to see an arc over the years, they might stay.”
“I think there are two crises,” says Tom Parrish, executive director of Massachusetts’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre. “First, the retention of good people is a problem. A well-trained quality manager can be wooed easily by the commercial sector, which has much greater pay and benefits.
“The second crisis,” continues Parrish, “is in the training itself. To be successful now, the arts leader must be skilled at both business and art. Our field has grown too fast relative to the supply of talent. We have created so many professional administrative and artistic positions that, without the quality people to fill them, we reduce ourselves to accepting a lower standard. I feel that collectively we have begun to accept mediocrity, which, in the end, will hurt the entire field.”
“The main crisis in training leaders of America’s professional theatres is that no one trains artistic leaders,” posits Anthony Rhine, head of the MFA in theatre management at Wayne State University. “No one really allows students to be producers. The artistic director who can walk in both a management world and an artist’s world is essential for the future.”
In my own experience as both an executive search consultant and former managing director for a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) company, I’ve been appalled at the quality managers who have been chastised, demoralized or fired for issues (financial and otherwise) that were totally out of their control (or in the control of their boards, artistic partners or, perhaps, Alan Greenspan). There’s the sense that someone needs to fall on his/her own sword, and the managing director is often the scapegoat.
So, can theatre management problems be directly tied to board issues? Do theatres dare address the too-often hidden situation of poorly prepared, uninformed, nonproductive board members and their crucial role in developing and holding onto quality managers? Or is the real crisis related to many boards’ inability to fully engage and provide the maximum financial resources when operations are purportedly going well (while micro-managing their executives in time of financial stress to make up for their own financial inattentiveness during the good times)? And is scapegoating the sad result of the theatre executives’ own board-development, audience-development or fundraising ineptitude?
“One of the challenging aspects in training managers in an educational scenario is the exposure and knowledge needed to work with boards of directors and volunteers in the nonprofit setting,” explains David Rowell, head of Florida State’s MFA in theatre management program.
“Today’s focus is on preparing folks to manage and lead yesterday’s organizations,” contends Virginia Tech MFA director John McCann (whose program is not currently accepting applications). “The solution,” McCann believes, is to “focus more on leadership competencies and less on functional management training—challenge young potential leaders to be creative, intuitive and open to new ideas.”
Reaching out to a broader, more diverse group of theatre leaders is more important than ever as so many of the theatre’s original leaders are leaving the field. The failure to attract and retain people of color in management positions has been particularly acute. “We do have a generation of leaders who are looking toward their retirement, and one hears expressed concerns about their replacements,” offers Yale’s Nolan. “I suppose if you consider how many theatres have open M.D. positions, one wonders if we, as a field, have systems that allow talent to rise to the top.”
Cecelia Fitzgibbon, director of arts administration at Drexel University, concurs: “I believe that my colleagues have forgotten the many opportunities we were given to reach beyond our qualifications when we got started—we are not making room for the brightest people to do important things soon enough.”
Alan Yaffe, director of the graduate program in arts administration at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, locates the problem squarely in the theatres. “We train leaders for these institutions, we provide them with a good understanding of the business and the arts, a sound perspective on the role of the arts in our society and a set of real management skills, but when they get to these institutions, they too often see unchecked artistic leaders, boards who do not (and may not want to) understand the kind of institution they govern, and under-compensated staff with too few skills and little more than enthusiasm.”
“The work is hard and the rewards are limited,” adds Diane Claussen, managing director of New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. “As the industry has matured, the level of sophistication and experience needed to lead these major theatres has expanded. At the same time, the resources available to support and grow these institutions is shrinking.”
“We need to work together to identify the challenges to the sector and to collaborate on applied research in addressing them,” says Dan J. Martin, director of the Institute for the Management of Creative Enterprises at Carnegie Mellon University. He points to two major concerns: “the evolving, expanding challenges placed on theatre leadership” and “the lack of serious cooperation between the profession and the academy.”
“There’s an emerging and essential debate going on about the nature of the leadership challenge in the arts, but I’d hope to nudge you away from the word ‘crisis,’” suggests Andrew Taylor, director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration and president of the Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE). “In a world of war, floods, famine and massive international unrest, I don’t think any particular challenge we face in the nonprofit arts rises to the level of crisis. We have significant challenges and changes ahead, to be sure, well worthy of our energy and attention. But crises? Not so much.”
Still, just try telling emerging prospective arts leaders—who face mounds of student-loan debt, sky-high housing costs, family economic woes and the poverty-level salaries often listed in ARTSEARCH, Back Stage, Variety and other trade publications—that this isn’t a crisis, and their response is much more personal.
What are the practical issues that are keeping potential managers out of the theatre? Recruiting and retaining quality managers is most often related to either financial or quality-of-life issues. “The cost of college tuition” and “burnout among arts managers” are two of the key issues, says Texas Tech’s head of arts administration, Linda Donahue.
Are the future theatre management leaders out there? And how do theatre leaders and educators nurture students whose early focus is acting or directing? “Educators must aggressively recruit the students who we find have a burning desire to make theatre happen and who want to ensure its success through marketing, development and careful and critical management,” says Thomas Adkins, director of the theatre management MFA program at the University of Alabama.
But what about the artists with terrific organizational skills who have their eyes set on the somewhat fashionable producing director positions that are emerging in many theatres? “Someone had better start to look at developing a program that nurtures students in both managerial acumen and artistic/aesthetic leadership,” contends Wayne State’s Anthony Rhine. “That program is going to be flooded with applicants. And if it is successful, it will put the rest of us out of business.”
University Training or Practical Experience?
“The great difficulty in education,” writes George Santayana, “is to get experience out of ideas.” So, is a university route and formal academic training the best way to enter the field and train the future leaders of America’s professional theatres? Many American theatre leaders have succeeded in professional theatre without an advanced degree. If a remarkable opportunity surfaces to learn from an outstanding mentor in a reputable theatre, I believe most university professors would urge their students to plunge in, as one can always enroll in a degree program later, and a student’s stock generally rises with professional experience.
“My fear is that many training programs ignore the many intricacies of actually understanding what it takes to produce theatre,” echoes Ithaca College theatre chair Lee Byron. Ithaca has one of the few undergraduate theatre management programs in America. “I believe it is more productive for students to seek entry-level (or higher) positions before embarking on a graduate course of study.”
“Real-world points of reference and practical experience in the field are absolutely critical ingredients in the training of successful arts managers,” says Steven Morrison, associate director of the arts administration program at the University of Cincinnati. “As a practitioner, I believe that it would be naïve and even irresponsible of academia to profess that the qualified leaders of tomorrow’s arts organizations can be trained in the classroom.”
So, is it better to go to work, to enroll in a graduate school program, or both? “Certainly, new graduate students will do better in the MFA program if they have some actual work experience in the area,” reasons Matt Neves, MFA arts administration director at Southern Utah University. “Actually, we rarely admit someone who doesn’t have some practical on-the-job training. Surely you can learn as you climb the arts management ladder, but how long will it take? Is formal educational training for everyone? Probably not, but in a world where an advanced degree is becoming required for almost all management positions, taking 24 months to prepare yourself is not a bad idea.”
“Our best students are young professionals coming to us from regional theatres where they have occupied entry-level or middle-management jobs and are encouraged by their managing directors to seek graduate training,” explains Yale’s Nolan. “It is a feeder system that works beautifully. It requires of the managing directors enormous generosity and a long view.”
“Managers on-the-job don’t always have the time to give one-on-one training to their subordinates or to each other,” explains Tobie Stein, director of Brooklyn College’s MFA program in performing arts management. “A professionally oriented master’s degree with a built-in multilevel mentoring program will help supplement the training that entry and midlevel managers get on the job.”
Most reputable theatre management programs offer both academic classes and professional experience in the arts through internships and apprenticeships. Mara Wolverton’s recent research at Texas Tech reveals more than 45 programs awarding more than a dozen types of graduate degrees with an arts administration emphasis in 29 different universitites. The degrees include everything from more than two dozen variations of the M.A. and M.S. to MFAs (at Florida State, Brooklyn College, Texas Tech, University of Alabama, Wayne State, Yale) to MFA/MBAs (Yale) to MBA/M.A.s (University of Cincinnati) to M.A./MBAs (SMU) to a straight MBA (Wisconsin) to Ph.D.s with an emphasis in arts administration (Texas Tech, Ohio State, Florida State). Wolverton makes special note of Goucher College’s M.A. in arts administration program that offers a unique distance learning graduate degree, allowing working professionals living anywhere an opportunity for professional development.
In addition, AAAE lists more than 39 universities (28 American and 11 international) with graduate programs; 13 undergraduate programs (9 American and 4 international); and myriad certificate programs in arts administration–related areas. New graduate programs are surfacing every few years. Newcomers on the block include Southern Utah University’s program (first class in 2001), linked with the Utah Shakespearean Festival, and the North Carolina School of the Arts’s performing arts management program (first class in 2004), focusing on the “future leadership of our nation’s performing arts organizations.”
Undergraduate programs at Columbia College Chicago, College of Charleston, Eastern Michigan University, Ithaca College, Salem College, Shenandoah University, State University of New York–Fredonia, University of Hartford, University of Kentucky and University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (to name a few) offer many educational and geographical options for students who know early on that theatre management or arts administration is where they want to be.
For comprehensive lists of undergraduate and graduate programs, check out the AAAE website or the International Information Service for Culture and Management.
Academia Isn’t the Only Option
Even graduate degrees provide few guarantees of steady, fruitful and satisfying employment, although the placement numbers are extremely high for many of the theatre management graduate programs. Networking through college alumni, faculty, staff, friends and colleagues is one of the key reasons that parents, career counselors and theatre professionals often suggest students attend specific high-profile universities.
“There is no prescribed course for advancing into the field,” says Virginia Tech’s John McCann. “The basics of accounting, human resources, production, etc., can be learned in a classroom or on the job. The dilemma is that ‘managers’ do much more than manage—they are responsible for providing leadership to their board, direction to their staff and partnership with the artists. This is learned by plunging in, examining the results you get, and then altering and refining your practice over a career.”
My own 16 months of research into more than a thousand theatres over the past two years (for a book on working in regional theatre) has convinced me that practical experience may be attained through professional theatre internships and apprenticeships for individuals who can afford to travel to another state, work for free and provide their own transportation and housing. Sadly, without any guarantees related to the quality of the experience and the future earnings potential of these positions, how many students can afford this gamble? Paid internships and grants for educational activities offer additional incentives, but the experience still hinges on the quality of the institution, the institution’s leaders and the advancement and mentoring potential for the employee.
Opportunities in regional not-for-profit or commercial theatres offer a great alternative to graduate school if prospective leaders can negotiate the right match and avoid long-term ties to dead-end jobs. Many managing directors and executive directors rise through the ranks of professional theatres by excelling in the marketing, development/fundraising or financial areas of the theatre. Institutions that provide solid mentoring programs and that have top managers who invest in and develop the talents of their junior managers certainly reap the benefits of their efforts.
Many of the nation’s arts service agencies are securing funding and developing programs to back up theatres’ efforts. “There is a wide spectrum of organizations and initiatives currently training theatre managers in various ways,” explains AAAE’s Andrew Taylor. “Given the scope and scale of the field, and the complexity of its challenges, theatre managers need a rich and varied set of opportunities to refine their craft and improve their effectiveness. Theatre Communications Group is clearly a lead player in this capacity—through its conference workshops, leadership initiatives and professional programs.”
“The service organizations have elevated their game in this arena, with the Orchestra Leadership Academy of the American Symphony Orchestra League and new initiatives by TCG, Dance/USA, Dance/NYC and Americans for the Arts putting a focus on the leadership competencies required to guide these highly complex, multi-constituent arts organizations,” adds McCann.
Opportunities in the Field and Beyond
The shortage of savvy, experienced theatre managers is evidenced by the number of longtime managing directors of flagship regional theatres (including the Guthrie Theater, Dallas Theater Center, Cleveland Play House and Alley Theatre) who have been recently recruited away—or have played musical chairs with other theatres. Oftentimes, there’s a demoralizing institutional toll (that’s seldom talked about) when management leaders leave their theatres; this definitely has a snowball (or avalanche) effect on the board and the remaining personnel who are charged with recruiting and orienting a new manager while recalibrating strategic plans, fundraising and audience development initiatives.
Tired of the turnover and dealing with what many consider the “two-headed monster,” many boards turn to an already beleaguered artistic director to run the whole show. This can result in greater institutional stress as the financial checks-and-balances and human resource systems are thrown out of whack. “The need for qualified professional managers is greater now than ever,” explains Orlando–UCF Shakespeare Festival artistic director Jim Helsinger. “For the artistic director, every moment spent on business issues takes away from time spent envisioning the future, researching and reading plays, casting and hiring, designing, playwriting, directing, acting and teaching.”
Turning to yet another conspicuous concern, how do we keep rising stars in theatre management areas from doubling their salaries overnight by “defecting” to either for-profit businesses or nonprofits with more competitive compensation plans (most museums, symphonies, hospitals, social services, colleges and universities)? Drexel’s Cecelia Fitzgibbon advocates paying more attention to succession issues and, more radically, “examining the re-distribution of salaries to stimulate interest and viability, providing project-based work for emerging professionals and creating incentives for retirement of senior management.”
Could the solution to the crisis be as simple as working to provide a “life worth living” versus the hurried, harried, under-compensated, “work for the love of the art” model that has served as the mantra for many nonprofit theatre artists and managers since the movement began? What a concept! What hasn’t been said is that there really isn’t a shortage of brilliant leaders or managers in America—just a shortage of exceptional leaders who want to work in theatres where they are overworked, underpaid and subject to the devastating déjà vu of constantly retraining colleagues wooed away to professions that pay most of their employees a living wage.
“We need a new construct for the not-for-profit model that better fits today’s definitions of community and philanthropy, as well as what young people are looking for in their life balance between work, family, financial security and community participation,” adds Diane Claussen. “A new funding and organizational construct for not-for-profits in the 21st century will address many of the threats and turn-offs that are leading to an arts management crisis, particularly among young professionals.”
It’s definitely time for theatre boards of trustees, artistic directors, service agency leaders, think-tank strategists and university arts educators to put their heads together. The needs are great, the stakes are high, the future of our not-for-profit theatres hangs in the balance—and the time is now.
Jim Volz is the author of How to Run a Theatre (2004) and The Back Stage Guide to Working in Regional Theater (2006) and a professor at California State University–Fullerton.