This is one of two stories about American theatre's current leadership succession challenge/opportunity. The other one is here. A thorough effort to track the field can be found here.
The American theatre is undergoing generational change. Around 20 theatres are changing artistic leaders this year. Among them: American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Rep in the Bay Area, Shakespeare Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the Denver Center, and Ten Thousand Things in Minneapolis. In short, the field is undergoing a leadership change of historic proportions.
As we look to this crucial transitional period, it’s probably useful to review the leadership state of the field, especially as it relates to League of Resident Theatre companies, which comprises some of the largest theatres in the country.
A 2015 study released by the Wellesley Centers for Women measured the leadership of 74 LORT theatres (most of which are in a co-equal leadership model, with power shared between an artistic and managing or executive director) in 2014. They found that there were zero managing or executive directors of color and, on the artistic side, just six people of color. Since then the figures have worsened: Three artistic directors of color have departed, or will depart: Kwame Kwei-Armah (from Center Stage), Sheldon Epps (formerly of Pasadena Playhouse), and Tim Bond (formerly of Syracuse Stage). In that time, Artists Rep (led by Damaso Rodriguez) joined LORT. So there are currently only four people of color leading LORT theatres. Four.
That same study also found that women made up 59 percent of managerial staff presumably next in line for leadership positions (associate artistic directors, general managers, finance directors, development managers, etc.). But women have historically never held more than 27 percent of leadership positions in the American theatre, and the needle on that percentage hasn’t budged in 30 years. There is no pipeline issue; there is a glass ceiling firmly in place.
These outcomes are appalling, and the hiring process is compromised, in my view, by the nature of the searches themselves. Because leadership searches are necessarily clandestine, so as not to compromise a candidate who may not wish their current employer to know of their interest in an open position, they allow for practices that would never be considered acceptable if the searches were public. For instance, when Arizona Theatre Company named David Ivers as its new artistic director back in May, it was the local newspaper, The Arizona Republic, that discovered that of the five finalists who interviewed for the job, four were men, one was a woman; all were white.
Some years ago I challenged LORT to create a Rooney Rule for the theatre. Created by former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, it was a rule which categorically changed the makeup of head coaches in the NFL. By simply requiring that NFL teams interview candidates of color when searching for a new head coach, the NFL saw significant changes in their head coaching ranks. Just by getting those candidates to the interview.
The Rooney Rule was considered and rejected by LORT. They did however create a Diversity Task Force (on which I served), and this group was explicitly charged with making recommendations for hiring practices as they relate to leadership positions. The guidelines, which are now sent to board chairs and the continuing partner (in co-equal leadership models) when a vacancy is announced, state that those leadership positions are to remain open until a “diverse and qualified” group of candidates have been considered. Unfortunately there are LORT theatres since then that have installed new leadership without following those guidelines.
I was hired to lead the Guthrie Theater, a LORT organization with a $28 million dollar annual budget, in 2015. And we have instituted the Rooney Rule across the organization (in recent years, Facebook, Microsoft, Uber, and Amazon have also adopted some version of the Rooney Rule). Now every staff search we conduct remains open until we have seen a diverse and qualified slate of candidates, and we are seeking to extend these practices to vendors and contractors when we put projects out to bid. All creative teams on all Guthrie productions must be both racially and gender diverse.
Systemic biases require systemic solutions. The demographics of our region, like every other in this country, are diversifying rapidly. So our institution, our board of directors, our administrators, and the art makers themselves need to reflect the diversity of our changing communities or we’re going to be left far behind.
I remain fully persuaded that the best thing LORT could do for itself is to demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that women and people of color are brought to interview for these important jobs. Until a measure like the Rooney Rule is put into effect, it is incumbent upon the community, board, and staffs of these theatres to insist that the searches are conducted with equity firmly in mind. It is also incumbent upon the search firms hired by these theatres to ensure that they communicate to the board the ethical and business imperative in ensuring that the final candidates are diverse and qualified. A leadership search that doesn’t include women and people of color among the final candidates is a failed search, not to mention an immoral and an embarrassing one.
Insist on a process that is fair and inclusive. Nothing else is worthy of the art form and the organizations that we love.
Joseph Haj is the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.