Susan Medak, longtime managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, gave this speech at the TCG National Conference in Portland in June of this year, accepting the Visionary Leadership Award from her former colleague, Meghan Pressman, now managing director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Thank you, Meghan, and many thanks to TCG and the panel that saw fit to recognize my modest contributions to the field. Although I don’t feel particularly visionary and am not at all convinced that I have earned this, I am also very happy to use this moment to actually have the microphone. Because there are a few things I have on my mind.
And I’ve been told that I have two minutes. Can I tell you—one of the aspects of being visionary, I think, is that you don’t follow instructions. So sit back and relax. I have something to say.
There are so many people here whom I’ve learned from or whom I’ve had the enormous pleasure of trying to help learn. One thing I hope you all share with me is a sense of the extraordinary generosity of this field. I don’t think it’s true in every field that you always have somebody who’s looking out to give you a leg up. That’s something I think is a rare and wonderful thing about what we do.
I’ve been teaching and mentoring young managers for more than 15 years, and with increasing frequency I hear this question from them: Will there be a job that I will want when I’m ready to lead a company? Will there be a theatre that will value me for my leadership skills that will also let me be a person of the theatre? Will I be able to find a partner who will include me rather than keeping me at arm’s length? Will I find a partner who appreciates that I am not an arts manager—I’m a theatre manager? Will I find someone who understands that what motivates me is not crunching numbers but making theatre?
I always assure them that yes, they will. But I have grave concerns, because over the last 20 years I’ve watched as artistic staffs have become siloed in theatres, operating as if they are the only keepers of the artistic flame and increasingly relegating all contact with artists to members of the artistic staff. Functions that were handled in the past by general managers, company managers, managing directors, and production managers are now often handled by artistic administrators, line producers, and a wealth of other people with creative titles.
I’ve been thinking about how we got here, when the growth of the field throughout the last 50 years has had so much to do with both great artists and great administrators. After all, where would Zelda have been without Tom Fichandler, or Joe Papp without Bernie Gersten?
As a field we do nothing in small increments. We, as a group, tend to go full throttle into whatever problem we’ve identified. It is one of our best qualities. But it also means that we swing, wholeheartedly and with 100 percent commitment, from one priority to another, often abandoning one priority as another new problem is identified.
I may be wrong, but I trace this particular problem to the day when our much admired Zelda Fichandler called us all out, oh so many years ago, for having created organizations with great administrative skill while our artistry had not achieved the same high marks. As a field, we took that concern to heart, vowing to reinvest in the artistry at the core of our organizations. I fear that what we did in the process was exactly what we so often do as a field: We threw ourselves wholeheartedly into making better theatre.
But instead of simply elevating our investment in art, we also devalued the skills and expertise of the administrators who were helping to lead those organizations. We started a process of marginalizing the skilled managers who had helped to build our theatres. We assumed that because someone was a good director, they must also be good at marketing. Good at organizational behavior. Good at long-range planning.
And now, years later, we have declining attendance, worrisome philanthropic trends, a complex regulatory environment, and fundamental changes in our communities that are unlike anything we’re seen since the founding of the field.
At the risk of being run out of this room on a rail, I would argue that great art alone is not going to make the American theatre healthy again. We need great artistic leaders and, more than ever, we need administrative leaders who will help us navigate these uncertain times.
So I want to urge our artistic leaders to reinvest in partnerships with strong administrative partners. Think of them as among your most important collaborative partners, rather than as the naysayers you need to push against. They may not be your collaborative partners in making a play, but they are your partners in making an organization. Think of them as the people who will bring a different kind of thinking that supports your vision, maybe expands on your vision, and helps you achieve your vision. Think of them as fellow theatre lovers who, while they are held accountable by the board for different elements of success than you are, share your passion for theatre—and probably share your passion for the theatre you are both running. Think of them as being, like any good partner, the one person charged with making you the best that you can be. Your task is to do the same for them.
If we do not reimagine our relationship with our administrative leaders, and we do not start making these jobs more attractive for the next generation of great theatre managers, I fear we may find ourselves striving to making stunning theatre with no money and no audiences.
I ask you not, “Have you hugged your partner today?” I’m sure you have! But rather, have you had a good, heady disagreement with your partner today? Have you reached consensus on a project that, because you’ve put your heads together, has become a better project? Have you covered each other’s backs this week? Have you picked up after each other’s messes this week? If not, I ask you: Isn’t it time?