A philosophy degree might not seem the ideal jumping-off point from which to begin a career in theatre administration. But during Steve Richardson’s tenure with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, it’s proved to be fortuitous.
“If anything,” he says over coffee in a downtown Minneapolis café near Jeune Lune’s converted warehouse of a theatre, “it’s that background that’s allowed me to work successfully in a non-traditional, artist-driven collaborative.”
The 42-year-old Richardson has worked for the group locals affectionately call “the Lunies” since 1990; he was named producing director in 1994. The company began life in 1978 as a Franco-American collaborative of four artistic directors pursuing their collective creative bliss. Running the business end of such an iconoclastic company has demanded ingenuity, flexibility and a willingness to find—or create—his own training opportunities along the way.
After completing his undergraduate degree at Minnesota’s Carleton College in 1986, Richardson spent four years in Virginia working for the now-defunct Theatre Virginia as well as for Theatre IV, which continues to produce theatre for young people in Richmond. At these institutions, he learned the building blocks of running a performing arts organization—from preparing playbill materials to marketing season subscriptions. That experience, combined with a passion for the Lunies’ eclectic work and a desire to return to the northern side of the Mason-Dixon Line, brought Richardson back to Minnesota and a job as marketing director at Jeune Lune.
“At the time, Jeune Leune had this”—and here, he pauses to conjure the correct adjectives—“fascinating and idiosyncratic leadership structure in which the administrative ensemble was supposed to be built in the same way as the artistic ensemble.”
Richardson, along with the theatre’s development and finance directors, formed what was then known as the “executive directorate.” If that wasn’t—um—collaborative enough, each member of the directorate was attached to one of the artistic directors. Richardson vividly remembers, for example, making show posters with Dominique Serrand, one of the theatre’s founders.
He concedes this wasn’t always the most efficient way to run an organization: No one ran the staff meetings, because it was no one’s job to run them. “We used to call it ‘socialist anarchy,’” he says, smiling ruefully. “It took a long time to make decisions. Every issue was addressed from every single goddamned angle. But when we made a decision for the theatre, it was the right decision.”
And he found help along the way. Working in the backyard of the Guthrie Theater, Richardson has reached out to the large resident-theatre company over the years. In the beginning, marketing director Lendre Kearns—now with La Jolla Playhouse—provided an ear and advice. Later, erstwhile managing director David Hawkanson—now running Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company—helped talk through challenges and problems.
“We just asked for help when we needed it,” Richardson says. “This community has always been very good about coming through.”
When, in 1994, the theatre’s finance director left, Jeune Lune used the opportunity to re-evaluate its structure. The theatre had acquired a permanent home, and its touring slate—once a series of one-day run-outs to area colleges—was increasingly involving major collaborators like the Yale and Berkeley repertory theatres.
“We had grown larger, more complex,” Richardson said. “We needed a more hierarchical structure, and the artists asked me to take on the role of producing director.”
Today, Richardson and his eight-person administrative staff oversee a budget of $1.3 million for an ensemble whose national acclaim culminated in a 2005 Tony as the nation’s outstanding regional theatre. The theatre’s artistic structure, too, has evolved into something more conventional: Last March, Serrand became the theatre’s sole artistic director.
Richardson has carefully built the theatre’s board and connections in the larger community to the point where he can gather an ad hoc group of experts—on issues from real estate to human resources—to help guide the theatre through critical transitions.
He’s not at all certain that additional formal training—a master’s in business or arts administration, for example—would make him a better administrator for Jeune Leune. It’s a theatre that, more than many other resident-theatre companies, serves the ever-evolving needs of its creative forces. That’s why Richardson prefers the title of “producing director” to the more commonly used “managing director.” It’s not a matter of managing, he says. It’s a matter of serving.
“It’s our job to build a business that will produce the work of the artistic company, and that work can take almost any form,” he said. “There’s nothing standard here. We don’t have subscription slots to fill. So flexibility is required.”