In 2018 alone, 25 individuals were named artistic directors of theatres, and at press time 14 theatres were looking for new ones. Suffice to say, it’s a great time if you’re looking to lead a theatre. But how can you find each other? After speaking to individuals at eight theatres and one search firm associate, we’ve gleaned 7 steps for a fruitful artistic director search.
1. Search committee, assemble! An artistic director search can take six months to a year, and your search committee must be on board for the entire process, attending every meeting. Some search committees are board-only, while others vary the menu. The 9-member committee at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis included 5 board members, the managing director, and 3 people from the local arts community “who could bring in perspective from outside the organization,” said Mark Bernstein, the Rep’s managing director.
2. To hire or not to hire a search firm. Artistic director searches can be expensive, from staff time to interview candidates to money to fly them in if they’re non-local. Can you also afford a search firm to help write and disseminate job postings, bring in candidates, and sift through applications? If you can’t, fine—just plan for a lot of staff time. Ten Thousand Things Theater, an $800,000 institution in Minneapolis, received around 45 applications to replace founder Michelle Hensley. While managing director Stephanie Thompson was satisfied with their process (which yielded Marcela Lorca, who had never worked with the company before), she did admit that a search firm would have been useful in communicating with candidates, especially those who were not selected.
3. Evaluate the values. Finding a new artistic director isn’t a simple matter of writing a job description and sending it out. “Whatever the artistic vision that the new artistic director brings, it has to align with the organizational vision,” says David Mallette, a partner at a popular theatre search firm, Management Consultant for the Arts.
At D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth, which recently hired Maria Manuela Goyanes to replace founder Howard Shalwitz, the goal was to find someone who shared the theatre’s values of “artistry, equity and diversity, community building, and innovation,” says managing director Meghan Pressman. “A well-known director of plays wasn’t enough,” she added. “What is your leadership style and how much of an innovator are you?”
4. Name your non-negotiables. Some nonprofits require their artistic director to have a tangible set of skills, such as Vermont’s Weston Playhouse, where the executive artistic director needs experience managing a budget. But Mallette cautions against including too many concrete requirements. “If you’re a $10-million regional theatre and you say, ‘We want to find someone who has had a top artistic job in 5 to 10 years in a theatre of significant size and scope,’ you’ve just carved out nearly every candidate of color in the country. If the committee is open to a broader set of background and experience, then we have a really good chance of bringing a diverse slate.”
5. Interview a diverse pool. Every theatre who spoke for this story said they required a diverse pool of candidates from their search firm. Pressman said that the final four candidates at Woolly Mammoth were all women of color—maybe because Woolly’s search committee was required to attend an implicit bias workshop. The company also had ArtEquity review their job description to make sure it was “inclusive and not unintentionally off-putting.”
Other theatres found that publicizing their search helped bring in more candidates. Ten Thousand Things listed their a.d. job on a local site called Springboard for the Arts, and on the nationally focused Artsearch job board. The $600,000-budget Aurora Fox Arts Center in Colorado did not use a search firm; they posted the job at Americans for the Arts, the Colorado Theater Guild, and on their website and social media platforms; they received more than 100 applicants.
6. The final round. Initial candidates are typically whittled to around 20 candidates for interview, then a round with around 10 candidates, and at last a few finalists. This final round involves seeing not only how a potential a.d. gels with the staff but how well they conduct themselves in different settings, since an a.d. is the “public face” of a company.
At the $11-million Portland Center Stage, the final candidates met in person with the search committee, an advisory group of local artists (both affiliated and not affiliated with PCS), and attended a reception with local arts leaders, whose attendees were invited to fill out a survey about the candidates. The theatre ended up choosing Marissa Wolf, a director based in Kansas City, Mo. For PCS managing director Cynthia Fuhrman, the key to a good search process is “being as inclusive as you can possibly be, and finding ways to get as much input from as many sources as possible.”
7. It’s not over. The work continues after hiring; onboarding is also crucial. Ten Thousand Things has members of the search committee dedicated to the transition process, including scheduling meetings and welcoming events, and setting up leadership training. “The job doesn’t stop at the point where we name the person,” said Thompson. “How do we ensure she has the best chance of succeeding?” It’s a question only the future, and your new artistic director, can answer.