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 leadership of the American theatre is at a crossroads like it hasn’t seen since the birth of the regional movement in the 1960s. And the coming shift, playwright Theresa Rebeck says, “is going to be seismic.” Theatre Communications Group (TCG) executive director Teresa Eyring calls this “a historic moment of change.”
There are more than 20 artistic director vacancies at major theatre companies across the country, along with a handful of high-profile executive and managing director positions. One way or the other, the new guard will alter the leadership landscape in the American theatre for decades. The question is: how?
TCG has seen this leadership bubble coming for 10 years, in part because a large number of regional theatre titans would be approaching retirement age at the same time. The organization has focused much of its mission since on preparing and developing the next generation of arts leaders through extensive executive training programs such as SPARK Leadership, Leadership U, and Rising Leaders of Color.
And none too soon.
“We did a survey of the field in 2015 that showed 20 percent of our organizations were anticipating leadership changes within one year,” Eyring said, of the 86 staff members who participated in the survey. “If you look 10 years out, virtually 50 percent of our organizations are expecting some transition at the artistic or executive leadership level. And so we might not know the full impact of these coming hires for a long time to come.”
But with change comes both great opportunity and great responsibility, Eyring said.
“There absolutely is an opportunity to build a more inclusive and diverse leadership composition of the American theatre field,” Eyring said. “And there is absolutely a responsibility to recruit with a special eye toward identifying talent among women, people of color, trans people, and others who have been underrepresented at the highest levels of the American theatre.”
In a 2015 study released by the Wellesley Centers for Women, which measured artistic leadership in 2014, 73 percent of U.S. artistic directors and 62 percent of executive directors at leading U.S. theatres were white men.
More tellingly, nearly 63 percent of those working in jobs just below the highest leadership positions were women or persons of color. That means a majority of women and POC already are in place for executive advancement—but they aren’t getting hired when they become available. In other words, said one woman, when the report was presented at the Statera Conference for Gender Equity in the American theatre in Denver: “Women do all the work—and men get promoted.”
Eyring expects three things to happen as these current vacancies start to get filled: There will be some musical chairs, with a number of currently established artistic directors moving from one company to another. There also will be some ascension of promising associate artistic directors from within the ranks. Third, Eyring hopes, a substantial number of companies will hire candidates with no prior experience at the artistic director level and commit to their success over the long term.
Not as a favor, she emphasized, but out of both historical fairness and common sense: fairness because for every white man who makes up the current 73 percent, she said, “Someone, somewhere gave them their first chance to be an artistic director.” And common sense because the demographics of America are rapidly and unalterably changing. “The good news is that we unquestionably have a good bench,” Eyring said. “We have a diverse pool of talent that is ready to take on some of these organizations.”
The early returns are not encouraging. Of the seven most recent artistic directors hires, all but one were white men—until Monday, when Angelina Fiordellisi’s resignation from New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre was announced along with the promotions of associate artistic directors Seri Lawrence and Janio Marrero to co-artistic directors.
Arizona Theatre Company was recently criticized in the state’s largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic—not for hiring David Ivers as its new artistic director, but because four of its five finalists were men, and none were persons of color (despite entreaties from former artistic director David Ira Goldstein that the board consider a diverse roster of candidates). That’s what troubles Jamil Jude, the new associate artistic director at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre in Atlanta.
“The system is the problem, not the people inside of it,” Jude said. “The people become the problem if they are made to recognize the issue and choose not to eradicate it.”
Ivers, for his part, agrees. “It’s simple for me: I think we need to reflect the world and what it looks like on our stages,” he told The Arizona Republic. “I have children. I want them to see and hear and experience stories through the lens of what the world actually looks like. And to me it does not look like only white men.”
If ever there were a time to take a risk, Eyring said, it’s now, when companies are more mindful than ever that the next generation of theatregoers will come from an increasingly multicultural America. But for that to happen, she said, companies must not only commit to expanding their search pools, but also to continuing on-the-job training once their positions are filled.
“I am hearing that there is this desire for candidates who are experienced and ready-made,” Eyring said. “Theatres are more complex today than they were a few decades ago, and boards are often looking for candidates who already have years of experience with artistic planning, community engagement, and fundraising.” She recommends that boards expand their definition of who is qualified to be an artistic leader, noting, “there have been some notable success stories of boards hiring leaders with different kinds and levels of experience, and backing that up with a commitment to their development over time. More and more, search committees are going to have to evolve their thinking in this direction.”
One prototypical candidate is Nataki Garrett, named associate artistic director by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company last November. Garrett is a black woman in her 40s with 25 years in professional theatre, including a stint as associate dean at CalArts School of Theater. She is a self-described change leader who says the TCG’s leadership programs have prepared her for the very executive opportunities that exist today.
“There is an opportunity for a real sea change here,” Garrett said. “This conversation about equity, diversity, and inclusion is not just about making sure that people who have diverse identities come to the table. It’s about making sure that the organizations are representative of the microcosms that they live in. Because it’s the microcosms that are doing the bigger shift.
“We are about to have what they are calling ‘50-50 in 2020,’ where there is not going to be any one cultural or ethnic majority in this country,” Garrett continued. “That’s a huge shift, and theatres in particular are going to have to be open to what that shift really means among their audiences.”
Most of the open artistic director positions will be filled by a process that begins when a search firm identifies the top candidates for each organization. Who ultimately gets hired will be decided by boards versed in the needs and vagaries of each given community. But Garrett said that familiarity can also be a barrier to change.
“I think in their hearts, these boards want to advance the next generation of leaders,” Garrett said. “But they are going to have to expand their view of what that means. Because just like any other industry, the American theatre system is filled with a certain kind of bias.
“If you look at the boards for these theatres, they invariably match by percentage the people who are running their theatres. The figurehead who represents the interests of the board reflects a certain level of familiarity—and in a lot of ways that familiarity means having a shared identity, culture, and gender. So the board may be unconsciously predisposed toward a certain kind of person to run their organization. Meanwhile, the people on my level are the ones who are shouldering the bulk of the responsibility for making sure the organization moves forward. But that’s also true in education, that’s true in entertainment, that’s true in film and television.”
Rebeck thinks this spate of vacancies is an opportunity for the American regional theatre to “thoughtfully return to its original purpose” when it was begun by the likes of Zelda Fichandler of D.C.’s Arena Stage and Nina Vance of Houston’s Alley Theatre. “These theatres were built in places like Minneapolis and Denver and all over the country to foster the originality of the American voice: the playwright and the director,” Rebeck said. “This wasn’t just a commercial enterprise.”
That’s why she hopes these boards and search committees “really think out of the box” and consider putting playwrights and other non-executive artists in charge.
“I think that’s something that doesn’t occur to people, but it’s been done very successfully, frankly,” Rebeck said. “Look at Emily Mann of the McCarter Theatre (in Princeton, N.J.). She is now known nationally as a director, but she started as a playwright. In a different vein, Mike Ritchie, who runs the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, was a stage manager before he became an artistic director. For a while the great Christopher Akerlind was running Portland Stage, and he was a lighting designer. There are many, many amazing artists who also have the expertise and the relationships and the passion to be running a theatre.
“So right now you have all these theatres looking for an artistic director. But if they are all looking at the same five people, then we’ll end up with the same bottleneck we always end up with. This is an opportunity to really look at how much expertise there is in the theatre from different points of view.”
There’s even more at stake, Eyring said, because not all of the current artistic director vacancies have been created by the departures of white men. Mimi O’Donnell, a white woman, has run New York’s Labyrinth Theater Company since 2013. Tracy Brigden, a white woman, recently left Pittsburgh’s City Theatre after 16 years. And Kwame Kwei-Armah, a black Briton, will be leaving Baltimore Center Stage next year. So the diversity vacuum could even be growing, Eyring said.
But there is one enormous difference between hiring an artistic director in 2017 versus a decade ago, before the global economic crisis, said Disney Theatricals president Thomas Schumacher.
“Any artistic director who gets hired today will also be expected to go out and raise an awful lot of money,” said Schumacher, who spent five years on staff at the Mark Taper Forum. “And that’s just different.”
Eyring emphasized that any company that does not ultimately hire a woman or person of color is not necessarily “part of the problem” by sheer virtue of that decision, she said—so long as the company’s board carries out an informed search with integrity, while considering a broad range of candidates and fully considers input from both staff and community leaders.
“I think what would be painful for us as a field is if that very scenario replicates across every single job, and in the end, we don’t shift the course of things at all,” Eyring said. “We just want to make sure these search firms are as encouraging as they can be toward giving opportunities where they might not naturally be given. Because there are biases that people are working from. There just are.”
Former Denver Post theatre critic John Moore, covered among influential regional theatre critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011, took a position in 2013 as a senior arts journalist at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, from which he covers the local and national theatre scene.
Rebecca Novick, a Bay Area-based director, is tracking this in real time here, including artistic and managing positions. As of this printing we can report:
CURRENT ARTISTIC DIRECTOR VACANCIES
- About Face Theatre (Chicago)
- American Conservatory Theatre (San Francisco)
- American Shakespeare Center (Stanton, Va.)
- Aurora Fox (Colorado)
- Baltimore Center Stage
- Berkeley Repertory Theatre (California)
- Brooklyn Academy of Music (position opens end of 2018)
- City Theatre (Pittsburgh)
- Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company
- Intiman Theatre Festival (Seattle)
- Labyrinth Theatre Company (New York)
- Lincoln Center Festival (New York)
- Mansfield Playhouse (Ohio)
- Miami Theatre Center
- On the Boards (Seattle)
- Ordway Center for the Performing Arts (St. Paul, Minn.)
- Pittsburgh Public Theatre (position opens in 2018)
- Raven Theatre (Chicago)
- Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (position opens in 2019)
- Shakespeare Festival )St. Louis)
- Shakespeare Theatre Company (Washington D.C.)
- Simpatico Theatre (Philadelphia)
- Ten Thousand Things (Minneapolis)
- Theatre Aspen
- TheatreWorks (Colorado Springs)
- TheatreWorks (Palo Alto, Calif.) (position opens in 2020)
- Weston Playhouse (Vermont)
- Woolley Mammoth Theatre (Washington D.C.)
- Alabama Shakespeare Festival: Rick Dildine
- Arizona Theatre Company: David Ivers
- Cherry Lane Theatre (New York): Seri Lawrence and Janio Marrero
- Geffen Playhouse (Los Angeles): Matt Shakman
- Georgia Ensemble Theatre (Roswell): Alan Kilpatrick
- Pasadena Playhouse: Danny Feldman
- Philadelphia Theatre Company: Paige Price
- Theatre Under the Stars (Houston): Dan Knechtges
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