Every so often, a buzzword du jour grips the American theatre. One of the surest signs that a particular concept has taken hold of the imagination is that key phrases—“organic process,” “multimedia work,” “ensemble theatre,” “cultural diversity” or “the personal is political”—keep cropping up in everyday conversation, panel discussions, press releases, published interviews, even funding proposals. It’s almost as if everybody were struck by the same lightning and came out speaking in code. The other sign of an idea gaining quick popularity is a certain loss of immediacy; after the trendy jargon has been endlessly batted about, the meaning becomes so opaque that the original intention recedes backward in time and memory, or so transparent that you have to double back and consider it anew. It may not necessarily follow then that everyone is working on the same page; the original sense has likely evolved into something different.
Lately the idiom of mentoring has been making the rounds. As a training tool and educational philosophy, it has gained fresh currency and unusual traction in professional theatres, university settings and conservatory programs across the country. Formal mentoring programs with elaborate machineries of selection, screening, interviewing, designation, administration and funding have cropped up—and their proliferation in the recent decades militates against an orthodox view of mentoring, which insists that, in the performing arts, there can be no single ideology or paradigm of what constitutes the practice. Because mentoring is not a new custom—it dates back at least to its ancient Greek etymology in Book 2 of Homer’s Odyssey—many existing programs are being reconfigured to address its renewed appeal.
Teachers who have been committed to preparing students for careers in the professional theatre are being identified as mentors. Aspects of educational programs and graduate learning are being scrutinized and reevaluated for their mentoring potential. Outside of the academy, labor unions, associations and service organizations that provide apprenticeships, on-the-job training and professional placements are giving out fellowships and grants explicitly to support mentoring arrangements. The rise of formal mentoring programs in the contemporary theatre indicates a tip-of-the-hat acceptance of a largely unnoticed, not insignificant practice: Some proponents toil to give it an academic imprint.
The cultural phenomenon of mentoring programs cannot be understood strictly in terms of faddishness, prestige or economic value. Generosity, passion, exploration, hands-on collaboration, love and community are as real a part of mentoring in the arts as the establishment of complicated economic infrastructures for the programs. The designation of mentor and protégé requires a remarkable leap of faith. Sometimes no specific, tangible deliverables are expected. If the mentoring is goal-oriented, it usually does not assume the primacy of the money economy; it is not a matter of reducing culture to commercial product or receiving compensations for goods and services but of enlarging the field of artistic vision—making an investment in the future of the arts. (That said, if a mentorship produces a pay-off, it is immediately promoted.)
Natural-born mentors are motivated, to some degree, by the wish to repay a measure of the inescapable debt every artist carries to teachers and other artists who have gone before. In hindsight, they look back at their own relationships with established artists as past examples of mentoring spirit at play. “Thinking about it today, I guess she was a mentor” goes one typical account, the musing of those who have come to realize that, without being conscious of it, they had been the protégés of someone who had been wiser, older and more experienced. “I wish I had a mentor when I was coming up the ranks” is another frequent declaration. Although this remark is meant as a sincere appreciation of how fortunate young protégés are today as opposed to the previous generation, it actually represents a nostalgia for what could have been by those still searching for roots—those who are still hungry for tradition and continuity, who have come to appreciate that knowledge and experience are hard-won. It is the sigh of an unanswered conviction—that if each of us had a mentor, and each of us had a protégé, then the world would be greatly improved.
The other, more frequently stated formulation is that “some of the best mentoring stories out there come from the least formalized origins—one senior artist taking a junior artist under his or her wing, and that junior artist in turn feeling the need to pass on that gift.” This particular stance, the most widely held viewpoint among theatre artists and professionals (at least according to those I spoke to while researching this article), rumbles with the force of historical truth. The statement is largely anecdotal and is supported by no scientific study or rigorous analysis of the theatre field, but it appeals to the common sense. As a belief system, it is the hardest to shake. Even the true-blue advocates of formal mentoring systems are loath to offer contradiction, because informal mentoring is widespread and has been undeniably valuable.
As Eric Booth, founding editor of the quarterly Teaching Artist Journal and author of The Everyday Work of Art, observes in a recent TYA Today essay in which he offers advice on how to establish mentoring relationships: “There are both formal and informal setups that allow for mentoring to unfold well. Try to become part of a program of official mentoring if you know one—they usually attend to the basics: mentee selecting the mentor, establishing clear foundations and expectations, setting goals (for both mentor and mentee), getting things off to a positive start. But formal programs are only one way [italics mine]. In informal mentoring, the learner needs to select the mentor, having identified that person as having something essential for her. Even though you can’t walk up to likely prospects and say, ‘Hey, how about opening your heart to me as your mentor,’ there are things you can do.”
That “but” speaks volumes about the mystified, essentially wide-open attitude toward the pattern of mentors and protégés finding each other. In the corporate world, mentoring is a time-honored tradition, a proven catalyst for success, and yet in the arts, mentoring relationships seem available only to a lucky few. “When researching mentoring programs, certainly for young people,” Booth says, “I found that the most historically effective are programs in the professions of medicine, business, science and engineering. Mentoring is part of the way these institutions do business. The preponderant expression of mentoring is in professional settings. We’re new to it in the arts. We’re borrowing a long-term professional tool. In my research I didn’t come across a single large corporation that doesn’t use mentorship as a structural component of leadership development. I challenge you to talk to the human resources department of any Fortune 500 business and see if they don’t have a mentoring program.”
In an ideal setup, the protégé receives the keys to achieving the expression of his or her potential. But formal programs, especially in the arts, are not the only ways to acquire those closely guarded secrets that distinguish outstanding and successful people from the simply average. For some of us, no one mentor represents the one god; if you have been around long enough, you may discover that you have to find mentors for different aspects of your life—and at various stages of your artistic progress or arts management career. Studies confirm that even seasoned veterans could benefit from mentoring. Anyone can maximize his or her potential with the help of the right mentor—young people crave this kind of generous-hearted guidance—but deciding which one is right for you can be as onerous and endlessly frustrating as the proverbial search for “Mr. Right.” Why is a good mentor so hard to find?
Conversely, effectively selecting and working with a protégé exacts its own headaches. What if this person I’m mentoring is a half-crazed nut? What if my ideas have become as old and hoary as a dinosaur? What if I’m just out of my depth? And who exactly has the time to play the part of Yoda to someone else’s Obi-Wan? Do I want the responsibility of being someone else’s external conscience, like Jiminy Cricket was to Pinocchio? Besides, isn’t a successful career in the theatre largely an illusion anyway, a mirage with no essence, no enduring reality? A phenomenon that we could maybe transcend on the way to somewhere else? Most of us in the theatre are rather like Neo waiting to see the Oracle in The Matrix. When he spots a young boy, calmly sitting in Lotus position and making spoons bend, apparently through telekinesis, Neo deliberately tries to repeat the impossible stunt—and fails. “There is no spoon,” the boy explains. The spoon is a chimera. It exists only relative to everything else.
The New Culture of Guidance
There is a difference between walking the path and knowing the path. Since the expertise of widely recognized working artists is harnessed to groom the mentee for the next level of development, one of the overt goals of a formal mentoring program is to erase that gap. The hope is that mentoring would raise the stakes and up the ante. How profoundly mentors train protégé artists to become who they were destined to be represents the gift made—the light saber that’s passed on or the glass slippers that spur an act of transformation. None of us walk alone. We are part of an ongoing legacy. The archetype of the mentor who offers an invitation to the protégé to begin his or her journey is beautiful, golden, ideal, heroic even—except for one kink. “Mentoring is uncharted territory,” says Emilya Cachapero, TCG’s director of artistic programs who oversees the New Generations Program, which mentors future theatre practitioners both stateside and abroad. “There’s not going to be any template or formula they could go to and say, ‘Oh, well, that worked exactly the same way over there. I could just transpose it and bring it over here.’ There hasn’t ever been that relationship before, and they’ve got to define it and figure it out as they go through.”
This contemporary notion of mentoring calls upon a different set of skills and abilities than are used either in traditional classroom teaching, in the often-solitary creation of one’s own art or in the rehearsal room. In teaching, the commitment is to package up and deliver a set of information and skills; in mentoring, while the transfer of information and skills still takes place, there is a greater context for it and a more holistic or more integrated approach. In mentoring, the fulcrum is not the evaluation process, the onus of a teacher needing to render a grade. It’s really more a systematic response from one who has the ability to offer up possibilities that the young artist might not have seen. Then the choice whether to follow or not follow is up to the individual artist.
Mentoring can take place on the job or in the rehearsal room, where young apprentices can shadow master directors or experienced arts managers, secure a place in the production or institutional hierarchy through mimicking a powerful leader or conforming to shared mindsets, vernaculars and observed practices—in short, you pay your dues to join the club. Assistantships for early-career directors and choreographers, such as those offered by the Drama League’s Directors Project and Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, originate from the pre–Industrial Revolution concept of apprenticeships in which the guild system ensured that artisanal knowledge, applied skills and ability were kept in the firm or in the family and not lost to a competitor, thus establishing quality standards for the product and practice. Many factors, however, could impede the status of such a top-down, one-sided arrangement: the imperative of having to please your boss, the intense pressure of turning a buck, the fear of losing face or your job, differences in philosophy and approach that could threaten individuality and uniqueness. In an observership, the only guarantee is that both parties are going to be present and available in the same room; anything more is icing on the cake. In recent years, in fact, the Drama League and SDCF have designed their own respective new-works programs and based-on-recommendations-only fellowships which incorporate mentoring as part of their formal structure.
This is not to say that a form of mentoring does not take place in school or in the workplace. But the new definition that has been gaining momentum in the past 10 to 20 years calls for a mentor to be someone other than the protégé’s immediate supervisor or authority figure, in order for the individual to expand networks and to avoid potentially conflicting roles. Leaders of the European Mentoring & Coaching Council in Watford, U.K., a global community of experienced figures in the coaching and mentoring industry created in 2002 to promote industry-wide good practice and ethical standards, view mentoring as “off-line help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking.” More important, mentoring must take place one-on-one, at best face-to-face. It requires two-way respect, with both parties contributing and receiving information and ideas. Depending on the length and depth of the arrangement, it may even involve an honest sharing of personal struggles—artistic failures as well as successes—a willingness on both sides to take some risks. If the protégé is asked to temporally move inside a theatre company or an institutional setting, his or her role, says Cachapero, possesses the possibility of becoming that of “a change agent,” and mentors would need to assess how open they would be to change. “Mentorship is more than a staff position,” she says. “Internally, the mentee has a level of access to the mentor that is far greater than an employee. How do you finesse those relationships within an organization?”
Unlike in the corporate sector, mentoring in the arts requires a special kind of creativity and flexibility. “In businesses, mentoring programs are quite structured, and the selection of a mentor can be an act of consequence in that person’s career,” says Booth, who heads the Juilliard School’s Faculty and Professional Mentoring Program for faculty and students at the cusp of becoming professionals. “The programs openly state their goals and give a limit on the term of mentorship. There is feedback and accountability. They also state a formal ending to the mentorship, even though the friendship lasts for longer. It’s almost a personal/business relationship. In the arts, our programs tend not to be quite so structured. The forms are not so known. We’re making it up as we go. It’s how we do things in the arts. We want to go about it our own way. We’re fast learners. We’ve been known to make our share of mistakes. We’re relaxed about making them because we’ve made so many in our art. Mentoring has a dominant influence in business; it’s proven to be an extremely reliable and effective tool for effective leadership and management skills. In the arts, it tends to be personal and non-institutional and quirky. What we’re doing is adapting some of the value businesses and other professions have found in mentoring to the arts.”
The Matrix of Mentoring
Haydn mentored Beethoven. Beethoven mentored Brahms. Tchaikovsky mentored Rachmaninoff. Bach mentored Mozart. Aaron Copland mentored Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein mentored Seiji Ozawa. Joseph Papp mentored Elizabeth Swados. Oscar Hammerstein II mentored Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim mentored Jonathan Larson. Doris Humphrey mentored José Limón. Limón mentored David Earle. George Balanchine mentored Peter Martins. Bob Fosse mentored Gwen Verdon. Verdon mentored Shirley MacLaine. Martha Graham mentored Agnes de Mille. Hal Prince mentored Ruth Mitchell. Brecht mentored Peter Palitzsch. Jo Mielziner mentored Ming Cho Lee. Lee mentored Douglas Schmidt, Ralph Funicello, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg and….
The roll call of famous mentor/protégés could go on and on. If we could trace every possible connection, the list would likely not be linear at all, but a web of relationships, a matrix that could rival the Old Testament’s litany of “begats.” The stories of how these individuals eventually found each other have filled whole libraries of biographies, critical studies and memoirs. The search for the mentor or protégé can begin in every possible flavor from instantaneous dislike to professional courtesy to fleeting flirtation to genuine friendships. But since the path to being awakened—or “unplugged” from the main stem, to borrow again from The Matrix—is so crucial, some structure is naturally inevitable when mentoring becomes a codified and formalized process.
Most mentoring programs, in varying degrees and extent, function no differently than matchmakers. The alert and effective ones discover fairly quickly that the programs can’t simply assign mentors and protégés, no matter how earnest their intentions. Some guidelines or platforms must be set in place for individuals to select one another. Unless the persons know precisely whom they would like to be paired with, any number of factors could affect the search for someone they might have an affinity with or someone they want to spend time with. For instance, at the Cherry Lane Theatre Mentor Project, a new-works initiative co-founded in 1997 by the theatre’s artistic director, Angelina Fiordellisi, to provide a comprehensive developmental program for emerging playwrights, the mentors themselves make the final selection of protégés based on 12 to 15 semifinalist scripts, which have been whittled down by selection committee from about 100 submissions. Those scripts never arrive over the transom but come from literary managers, artistic directors and, on occasion, established playwrights. The program’s target constituency is postgraduate writers who have not had a professional production budget of $50,000 or more in New York. Says Fiordellisi: “When I became an advisory member of Indianapolis’s development program, the New Harmony Project, working on new plays for eight seasons, I saw there was this black hole between college and their first professional production. Students who were under the umbrella of institutions got protected; their works were being done but they usually had fallen off the radar. It was the perfect niche for us.”
Of the 27 mentee playwrights who have already passed through the Cherry Lane program, nine of them have moved on to regional and New York productions. Cherry Lane has actually given longer runs on its main stage to two of the project’s plays, Bridgette Wimberly’s Saint Lucy’s Eyes and anton dudley’s Slag Heap. “Sometimes mentors do not choose certain plays,” adds Fiordellisi, “but if I believe in a play, I will find another opportunity for the playwright. If I fall in love with a play, I will definitely find a venue for it. I have the utmost respect for the selections made, for the most part.”
Similarly, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a new philanthropy inaugurated in 2002 by the Swiss watchmaker, pairs an elder master artist with a young artist who is deemed on the cusp of a breakthrough. Artists cannot apply directly to the Rolex program. The biennial project relies on a panel of six arts professionals working anonymously to compile a shortlist of potential protégés. Rolex staff contacts the young artists to ascertain the candidates’ interest. The mentors, who hail from the disciplines of dance, literature, music, theatre arts and visual arts, then meet the finalists and make the final selection of protégés to take on. Designed to fill a void in arts philanthropy, the initiative provides lavish corporate funding for both mentors and individual emerging artists. Mentors spend at least 30 days with their protégés during the 12-month program.
But while the eight-year-old Cherry Lane Theatre Mentor Project specifically matches two like creatures and is focused on a season-long development of a new work, the Rolex initiative will support some curious matches, depending on the whim of the mentors. Unlike the British director Peter Hall, for instance, who chose 38-year-old director, writer and producer Lara Foot Newton of South Africa, who co-founded Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, as his protégé, the American director Robert Wilson picked someone who is primarily a writer and whose English-language skills are not quite secure. The Argentinian protégé Federico Leon acknowledges that the most difficult moment of his year-long mentorship with Wilson involved “my problems with the language, when I couldn’t understand what was being said, how he was working.” Neither their aesthetic differences nor their language deficit fazed Wilson, who says, “With Federico, our relationship grew because we could exchange ideas so that we could learn from one another. He is more involved with storytelling, whereas I am more interested in abstractions. The most important lesson I could give him was the freedom to have his own ideas. What I do is right for me. It may not be right for you.” Capped by a gala ceremony, public performances or exhibition of works supported by local institutions and Rolex, as well as a December symposium at Columbia University and Barnard College, the Rolex initiative is simply deluxe—a posh, high-financed paradigm of what mentoring would be like when done on an international scale.
Other mentoring programs take a more democratic approach, with administrators abjuring the responsibility of designating who would be mentored by whom and preferring instead a design that puts to work a peer-review panel from the outside. Funded by the Duke and Mellon foundations, TCG’s New Generations Program is geared to early-career theatre professionals in any discipline who are given two-year paid ($32,500/year) mentorship positions at a theatre and are mentored by an established professional in their field. “The TCG staff,” says Cachapero, “does not play matchmaker or make decisions. Originally we said that it was not necessary to identify the mentee; you can get a grant and do a search. But we found that the more successful pairings are those where the individuals have a prior relationship. On the other hand, it is possible for two people to know each other too well. That knowledge could potentially skew the relationship so that actions would be anticipated. The best relationships are when people are up front and they talk about their mutual expectations: This is what I can give. There are my strengths.”
Launched in 2000, New Generations was developed in direct response to what theatre leaders and managers believed was “a crisis in leadership succession, due to the imminent retirement of many founding theatre leaders and the loss of both seasoned and younger artists to more lucrative commercial opportunities,” according to Suzanne M. Sato’s report “Hot Seats and Safety Nets.” (The other half of the program, involving the cultivation of audiences of tomorrow, is beyond the scope of this article.) What is really unusual about the New Generations Program is the two-year time element, a generous period that is at least twice longer than most mentorship programs generally allot, thereby allowing for a deeper, more intensive, more personal degree of interaction and experience. In addition, grants of $15,000 are handed out to directly repay a mentee’s student loans, the crushing weight of which, adds Sato, has been “further exacerbated by long years of low-paying on-the-job experience.”
The other aspect that makes New Generations so unusual is that the mentorships are selected according to the merits of a proposed pairing. Instead of deciding who should be paired with whom, the mentor and mentee apply together, and their proposed partnership is weighed by a peer-review panel based on several criteria: that the mentor has some experience in mentoring, that the mentee is an exceptionally gifted individual and that the mentee will likely benefit from a structured mentorship at this point in time. “We don’t make distinctions about the area of focus of the mentorship,” says Cachapero. “It could be about an artist, administrator, dramaturg, artistic leader or development director.” There is also an international component that consists of $15,000 grants supporting six-month fellowships that allow foreign artists to visit hosting regional theatres.
Some mentorship programs, especially at the inaugural stage, are not quite as sophisticated in their structural apparatus, and a fixed period of intensive mentoring is done on a per project basis. One example is the informal mentoring program to train minority producers at Theatre Resources Unlimited, a New York City–based network of new and established producing organizations. Three years ago, TRU’s president Bob Ost and vice president Cheryl Davis noticed there were very few minority faces among the producers they invited to their panel discussions. “The information we got was that minorities did not see themselves in the role of producers,” says Ost. “They felt disenfranchised, unable to approach people in the theatre community. It’s a white person’s area.” In designing the program, TRU intended its mentees to get their feet wet by producing its annual reading series of plays and musicals, with the mentors making themselves available for conversations and questions. “A one-night reading is a solid way to gain experience and is a lot more involved than most people realize until they jump in and do it,” says Ost.
When there are no immediate projects at hand, TRU works as a kind of placement service; it is not unusual for Ost to find part-time employment for a young producer in, say, a general manager’s office, or to fax over the letters and résumés he’s received to a producer who might be looking for help. “The most likely situation is for a producer to have an intern who will come out, learn the ropes and work in the office,” says Ost. “This is a creative project for me. I’m creating it as we go along to respond to the needs of the theatre community.”
The Baryshnikov Arts Center Fellowships at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts is another project-based effort with mentoring built into its core. During its pilot year, the fellowships brought together in the same studio—at the newly opened Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City’s Midtown—recent graduates of the Tisch School’s conservatory graduate programs and professional artists recruited by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Bookwriter and lyricist Rachel Sheinkin (before she won a Tony for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and composer Nils Olaf Dolven developed a musical, Serenade, with choreographer Benjamin Millepied as mentor. Playwright anton dudley requested that playwright Edwin Sanchez be a mentor for dudley’s new play, Flight of Kings. Choreographer Beliz Demircioglu and multimedia artist Jamie Allen created a new dance work using live-motion tracking and processed video, with choreographer Tere O’Connor as mentor.
“The philosophy behind the fellowships came from Baryshnikov,” says Mary Schmidt Campbell, associate provost for the arts at NYU and dean of Tisch. “His idea was to fill the Baryshnikov Arts Center with the burgeoning work of a whole range of artists. He was very clear from the outset that one of the ways he wanted to do this was by establishing a relationship with the university. He brought the idea that a mentor would help take the young artist to the next step. We raised the funds to support the young artists so they can take advantage of the opportunity.”
The mentorships ranged from two to six weeks, and public presentations were held. The intent was to find mentors (none of whom were NYU alums) whose sensibility and aesthetic would be transformative for the project underway. It was Baryshnikov, for instance, who suggested that Sheinkin and Dolven be mentored by Millepied to add dance to their musical-in-progress. They were at that point where they could move forward with their work. “What was thrilling is that after the program Benjamin changed his status from mentor to collaborator,” adds Campbell.
It is not a surprise that universities like NYU and Juilliard have hitched onto the mentoring bandwagon. Developing exit strategies for graduates as they transition into the professional world is a major priority for colleges and conservatories. By giving young talents access to the experience of acclaimed masters, mentoring is a proven tool for retaining emerging artists and providing them with opportunities to grow creatively. “The longer students stay in a conservatory the narrower their definition of life in the arts becomes,” says Booth, who helped launched Juilliard’s mentoring program five years ago. “Juilliard’s president, Joseph William Polisi, noticed, as he traveled around, that many graduates were not leading full, juicy lives. He began to feel responsible for too many graduates who were thinking that a life in the arts is only about technique and gigs. Faculty members weren’t being encouraged to send graduates out there to explore other art forms or ask big questions. We weren’t modeling the very life we wanted them to live.”
This concern led to Juilliard’s unconventional program, which pairs students with faculty of different disciplines to provoke conversations and adventures they otherwise wouldn’t have in their own discipline. “The program counteracts the tunnel vision tendency of specialization with a high passion dose of generalized artistic curiosity,” says Booth. “One mistake we made was that we thought mentors could take on several mentees. We found that people wanted to spend so much time together that having a programmatic overlay, to have convenient numbers that would work out right, undermined the relationship we wanted to support. At the beginning of the third year we made it a voluntary program. We made each faculty member mentor no more than one student. Suddenly it all made sense.”
One attractive feature of the Juilliard Mentoring Program is that it overturns typecasting. Robert White, a voice teacher, took his mentee to dinner at the Century Club, an exclusive all-men’s association at West 43rd Street, to see what it feels like to be in old New York and hear jazz uptown. One drama student had a mentor who was a former dancer, and she took him to see a performance of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, for which she had originated this very piece many decades before. “This young actor was watching his mentor watch a young artist dance a piece she had created 25 or 30 years before,” says Booth. “In the middle of the dance, they made eye contact. The mentee felt the impact of having a whole life in an art form, what it might be like to see younger generation take on work and extend it. It was an experience that he could not have had in any other way, and it didn’t take any words.”
Anxieties of Influence
Genius, some experts contend, cannot be mentored. As playwright OyamO says, “As a teacher, when I clearly see talent, I know enough to get out of the way, to stand off to the side, to inspire, to give useful pointers which can be used by the writer in a way that suits what she or he is doing, to warn the writer about the subliminally predatory workshop process that currently prevails in reading series after reading series among our mainstream and tributary theatres, to point out other writings that may inspire or teach or ‘free’ the writer to write, to remind the writer that she or he is the master of his or her work, to be honest, to be what she or he wants to be.”
Conversely, according to mentoring experts, a good talker is not necessarily a great mentor. Mentors usually fit the “old and wrinkled” category because the assumption is that age represents wisdom and experience, while younger mentees are—and wrongly so—contrasted as inexperienced and developing. Mentors-to-be may need training. “At Juilliard, we had to come up with a rigorous two days of work to dislodge preconceptions,” says Booth. “Mentoring is not just a charming garrulous willingness to tell great stories of your experiences, but it is an art form based on listening and drawing forth that individual with real discipline.”
Mentoring within a discipline, when it works, can be quite powerful as a means of fast-tracking talented individuals. New Generations grant mentee Aaron Davidman, for instance, was selected to lead Traveling Jewish Theatre when the 25-year-old San Francisco–based company’s middle-aged founders began to seriously think about how to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders. TJT co-founder Corey Fischer, who mentored Davidman, became associate artistic director. Melvin D. Gerald Jr., who was mentored by Signature Theatre of Arlington, Va.’s Sam Sweet, is now the managing director of Washington, D.C.’s African Continuum Theatre Company.
Moreover, while it is sometimes a truism that the success of mentorship is ultimately best viewed in the long-term, there is some direct evidence that the fruits of mentoring don’t remain entirely behind the scenes. Cherry Lane’s mentor project, in particular, catapulted itself into becoming an incubator for hot new discoveries when first-time playwright Eliam Kraiem’s Sixteen Wounded—a drama set in Amsterdam in the early 1990s, about the friendship between a guilt-ridden Holocaust survivor and a Palestinian refugee terrorized by the Israeli occupation—was picked up by the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut and then transferred to Broadway. Kraiem, who was guided through rewrites and revisions by one of the project’s founders, playwright Michael Weller, might have been branded a poster child for the mentoring project had the show run longer (it ran for only 40 performances on Broadway)—but that would have appeared to certify the idea that the commercial stage is the only high-water mark for theatrical success. Fiordellisi muses about the fate of Sixteen Wounded: “People didn’t want to hear or see the Palestinian point of view at the time. And it was a dark subject and maybe too volatile. It is also so arbitrary—it’s really about luck. Would I hope that a play from the mentor’s project move to Broadway? Sure. Why not? For the writer’s sake. Some have gotten agents out of it. Industry people do come, sniffing around for writers. If they can get their work seen by big-time producers, that’s the icing. But it’s not something that influences how I run the program or how I shape it. I certainly created a launching pad, a program that would shed light on new voices.”
When it comes to mentoring playwrights, what ultimately matters, says playwright Craig Lucas, is “writing for production with a paying audience and first-class actors and directors.” And, as Edward Albee says, you know you’ve made it as a playwright “when you get slammed by the people who don’t know anything.”
Mentoring across disciplines also has its advantages. In that case, the mentor does not leave a deep-seated mark on the protégé, thus diffusing the angst of borrowing, which the critic Harold Bloom has famously noted among creative circles. He quotes Oscar Wilde: “To influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.” This “anxiety of influence” is at the core of America’s capitalist imperative, which insists on novelty, constant flux, fame and glamour, as well as the endless reintroduction of new products. A mentoring program with a cross-disciplinary take can diffuse that mimicry and identification with a style or school of thought. It tends to make the tools of mentoring pose different kinds of questions and to support an artist’s idiosyncrasy. It could also circumvent a very real danger in the field: The new economy of mentoring initiatives might bring about a purgatory of perpetual protégés leaping from one program to the next.
Mentoring within disciplines has been seen to be life-changing for women and persons of color, who are typically not seen in leadership positions or have historically not been viewed as powerful creative entities in the arts. One of the most significant aspects of career acceleration, statistically supported by several studies, is that men are inclined to mentor men, not women. To make matters worse, historically women have not mentored women either—in part because they felt they’ve had to go it alone, so the next woman should have to do the same. Mentoring across cultural, racial and gender lines can go a long way to alleviate that problem.
We live in an odd time. We require of ourselves individuality and uniqueness and novelty, but we don’t want to be too far out on the edge of the crowd. We inspire young people to pursue the arts, but we are leaving behind a professional theatre that seems to be more complex, more perilous, than the environment in which we matured.
“The old assumption,” says Booth, “is that you follow the path of training—and when you graduate, you are an entry-level artist whose career will build to larger roles that create a good life, which leads to an advanced and more financially rewarding place in that field. The fact is that fewer than 10 percent of graduates of conservatories have careers that look like that. Ninety percent will be piecing it together in some different way: working in other fields, originating work, collaborating with artists of other fields, starting theatre companies and launching business endeavors. We need to model the way for students and young artists to think and be joyful and make meaning of this hodgepodge that is a contemporary career. We’re good at rehearsing Shakespeare scenes and improvising the hell out of awkward situations. But we’re not so sensitive to training inner skills that will make a sustainable creative life in the theatre.”
Mentoring—these experts suggest—can respond to the larger impulse of allowing the sort of “one-on-oneness” that is so essential to transformation. It can give them the necessary tools to try to create lives in this extremely difficult environment they are inheriting. It gives both mentors and protégés a system that would allow them to take responsibility for areas of reflection and create insight into new areas of professional and personal development. Mentoring allows us to walk in each other’s shadow to escape the heat of an angry day. When the protégé is ready, the mentor will appear.