Although the notion of mentorship has existed since ancient Greece (Mentor was the friend to whom Odysseus entrusted the education of his son Telemachus), we’ve only recently recognized how critical that concept may be to the future viability of the not-for-profit theatre.
Attracting and keeping talented people in our field is one of our most pressing challenges. Young people leave school with crushing debt that makes it hard to embark on careers as freelance artists or to accept the modest entry-level salaries most theatres offer, especially in the face of more lucrative opportunities available in other arts and entertainment-related fields or other professions. Veteran theatre artists and administrators concerned about the exigencies of raising a family and providing for their own retirement often feel compelled to shift careers in favor of more lucrative alternatives, costing our field the wisdom that comes from depth of experience.
How can we spark youthful passion for working in the not-for-profit theatre, and how can we keep that passion ignited in maturity? How can anyone sustain his or her intellectual engagement and creative energy over a 40- or 50-year career?
This month, TCG will award the first of our New Generations mentorship grants for early-career theatre professionals. The program was explicitly designed—in both philosophical and pragmatic ways—to help overcome the obstacles preventing young people from entering the field. These grants, designed with and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, provide not-for-profit theatres with $65,000 to create a two-year, full-time, salaried position in any discipline for a promising theatre artist or administrator who will work under the guidance of a mentor on the theatre’s staff. In addition to the job and the mentorship, the individual will receive up to $15,000 toward repayment of student loans or, in the case of a foreign citizen, additional funds to cover international travel costs and related expenses. The theatre will help facilitate the individual’s departure and career transition after two years, creating a pipeline into the profession rather than a permanent staff position.
The impulse underlying the program is clear. If we can give early-career artists, artisans and administrators entrée into the theatre profession; if they can have a good initial experience working in a not-for-profit theatre organization for an extended period of time; if they can get to know and work with an outstanding mentor who has an explicit interest in nurturing them and their talent; and if we can substantially relieve the financial pressure imposed by student loans, we have real hope of keeping them in the resident professional theatre.
This notion of mentorship has the potential to benefit theatre practitioners who serve as mentors as well. In my experience, I’ve found teaching, whether in a classroom or working with younger colleagues in a professional setting, reinvigorating. I’ve been teaching the same course to theatre management students for almost 12 years, and the experience never grows stale. Sharing ideas that interest and excite me; finding new depths in my own understanding as students’ questions force me to explain something in a way I haven’t thought about before; and seeing how students use what they’ve learned as they move forward in their own careers, invariably feeds my own enthusiasm and reminds me why I work in the theatre. I hope that my students come away from our experience challenged and retaining a few useful key ideas. I’m sure that all the rest fades quickly. But for me, the cumulative experience has been far more profound.
I recently read a Harvard Business Review article, a case study of “reverse mentoring,” where a young corporate expert in Internet matters was asked to mentor an older employee, an expert salesman struggling to adapt to business’s new technological ways. The particular case was an example of a match between mentor and protégé with incompatible goals and styles. In the case study, six different people—business executives, academics and a psychiatrist—were asked to comment on the situation and make suggestions.
Several things struck me about the article: (1) All of the commentators had given considerable thought to the process of mentoring, and there were principles they all shared despite their diverse personal and professional experiences. (2) The differences among the commentators were a reminder that there is no right answer to most complex problems, but a range of choices that people can make, based on their own style, judgment and experience. (3) Reverse mentorship—early-career professionals offering guidance to more experienced colleagues in areas where the younger person has greater expertise—is an intriguing idea, and a reminder that mentorship is a mutual relationship that requires an openness to learning on both sides. (4) Mentorship is an issue serious enough to be featured in the Harvard Business Review.
It’s possible to be cynical about mentorship, particularly in an era where it has become axiomatic that success in any career requires a mentor and young people are urged to make a point of acquiring one if such a relationship doesn’t emerge naturally. But the simple idea embodied by the original Mentor of antiquity has the power to sustain us all.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!