Arts administration is still a relatively new academic field, at least stacked against the history of formal training in the arts. There have always been producers and administrators in and around the arts, of course, but they typically learned to do the job by doing it, or came from other fields. But we’re now a few generations into professionalized management of the theatre, with new graduates poised to change the field by combining enthusiasm for theatre with well-honed business savvy.
There are as many areas of theatre administration as there are types of theatre: production, development, marketing, company management, education, box office, patron services, and more. For students studying arts administration or theatre management at universities in the U.S., getting a taste of every area is critical to their academic experience.
We talked to students who are graduating from various programs around the country in the next two years to ask them why they chose to study theatre administration, what they’re learning, and where their curiosity or passion points them.
Clifton Baker, ’19
A Tuscaloosa native, Baker went to the University of Alabama to study theatre, and his interest in arts management was sparked after taking a class as an undergraduate and working for the Alabama Arts Council. In some ways he followed in his mother’s footsteps—she got her MFA in acting from Alabama in the ’80s, and Baker accompanied her to rehearsals throughout his childhood. He will graduate with an MFA in arts management with the hopes of working in marketing at a large theatre.
What he’s learned so far: “Frequently when arts organizations make decisions, they’re not making them on a whim,” says Baker. “They’ve conducted research, whether it’s census data, interacting with surveys or focus groups—they’re making decisions that are highly informed. It didn’t occur to me until I spent time in this program that research and evidence play such a pivotal role in how our arts organizations function.”
The challenges theatre faces now: “In our venue and event management class, we talked about gathering people in spaces and the safety concerns that come with that. We’ve seen a lot in American culture lately about mass shootings, and it forces us to think about how we can best protect our patrons when they gather for an arts-related event.”
Big idea: “I believe in community building, and I think arts organizations have the ability to help in that endeavor. There’s a legacy of arts managers who do that. I hope to continue that legacy while also utilizing contemporary technology, research, and interaction to help communities flourish, and make communities more livable through arts programs.”
Dóri Bosnyák, ’19
Bosnyák moved to the U.S. from Budapest to study film, theatre, and performance studies at Graceland University in Iowa, where she graduated in 2015. Then she worked for a year in Independence, Kans., to establish a community theatre, which sparked her interest in arts administration. She applied to the Texas Tech University MFA program in arts administration, and has immersed herself in everything from marketing to advising the BurkTech Players student group, which creates autism-friendly performances.
Most valuable educational experiences: “We are required to do four internships, and I have done five,” says Bosnyák. “It has allowed me to make connections in the community. Last year I produced a play at the Lubbock Community Theatre as a fundraiser for the Texas Democratic Women of the South Plains, even though I don’t have a vote. It was wonderful.”
Post-graduation plans: “As an international student, I don’t have the same options as an American student. In an ideal world I’d love to work at a nonprofit theatre company, like Actors Theatre of Louisville; I just love the work they do with the Humana Festival.”
Big idea: “I would be interested in exploring a different kind of funding model for American theatres, because they never know whether a foundation or donor is going to give next year. I see a lot of that here in Lubbock. We had a major donor pass away, and it changed the game in the entire city for every arts organization. I’m always thinking about getting a stronger, more stable stream of income for theatres.”
Mei Li Heman, ’19
Heman was born in New Jersey and grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, where she earned her undergraduate degree in business administration. She then moved to New York City and worked in television production for six years. When she decided to get a graduate degree, she wanted to study something she’d never done before, and the theatre management and producing MFA/MBA program at Columbia University seemed like the right challenge. Heman realized the skills she built as a television producer translated well to theatre production.
Why Columbia: “We’re completely immersed for two years in everything that has to do with theatre management and producing—everything from marketing and budgeting to understanding unions. All of our professors are working in the industry, so there’s a lot of time given to discuss projects they’re working on. We’re asked every day to read certain articles and websites, and we discuss what plays we saw.”
The challenges theatre faces now: “Accessibility. Everyone should be able to appreciate and experience good stories. If I hadn’t been in a graduate program for the past two years, I wouldn’t have known about or been able to afford so much theatre in so little time.”
Big idea: “Recording live performance and making it available on digital platforms can be a valuable marketing tool in the long run. I spoke to someone who works for NT Live, which is the recording branch of the National Theatre, and they’ve been doing it successfully for years. They’ve seen that it doesn’t take away from their audience, it’s just increasing the number of people that are seeing their productions.”
Krissi McEachern, ’20
DePaul University’s arts leadership MFA program accepts only two students each year, and coursework is enhanced by a full-time fellowship with Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Even with steep competition, this was the only school that McEachern applied to after working in accounting for Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis for three years.
Goals for the field: “I’d like to give theatres the tools they need to create the kind of art they want to be making,” says McEachern. “A lot of people who are trained arts administrators tend to be at larger theatres, but I think I could be of service to smaller, less-resourced companies run by an artist who wants to be making their own art, but they’re spending their time doing administrative things. I want to complement someone who is creating art, so I can alleviate the administrative tasks and they can do what they were made to do.
“I would love the opportunity to grow a theatre financially to a larger, sustainable size where we’re employing actors in a way where they can make a living in the arts and also produce work that speaks to the community we’re serving, and allow the community to view arts organizations as a sustainable business that betters the quality of life of the people it’s around.”
Jay Pension, ’20
Pension was introduced to theatre management and producing as a performance major at Salem State University in Salem, Mass. He interned at North Shore Music Theatre, worked at Boston Children’s Theatre, and served as the artistic director of Stage 284 before deciding to apply to graduate school at Florida State University. Upon receiving his MFA in theatre management, Pension would like to work at a large theatre in New York or New England producing musicals or Theatre for Young Audiences.
Lessons so far: “I am nearly halfway through the program and can sincerely say the faculty here have helped changed my perspective on myself and the way I view the world,” Pension enthuses. “They have challenged me to explore and become adaptable in the way I approach problems and work with people. When I complete the MFA, I will be far more prepared to not only produce shows, but effectively engage with those around me as a manager and leader.”
Main focus: “The FSU Theatre Management program advocates a hands-on education. We are challenged to put our learning into practice as we work in our assistantships; managing and leading real offices, in a real business, with real consequences. Even while in grad school, we are able to have a positive impact on the staff in an arts organization. When I complete the program, I am committed to leading by example in a company, with the technical skills and the interpersonal skills I’ve gained in the program.”
Amber H.H. Porter, ’19
Porter earned her bachelor’s degree in theatre from Dartmouth College in 2014 and worked for a playwriting agent before starting the MBA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The program in the Bolz Center for Arts Administration allows students to take classes with students in other areas of business so they can think about how to apply best practices in a variety of fields in the arts. After graduating she hopes to eventually become a managing director.
Lessons so far: “The Bolz Center has a focus on creative placemaking and talking about how you go into a community, listen to a community’s needs, and take that information to design things that are relevant,” says Porter. “The work we’ve been able to do in that space is applicable to so many things. We also have informal lunch ’n’ learns, which are invaluable, and I facilitated one last year on the theatre’s response to the #MeToo movement.”
Post-graduation plans: “The three theatre companies that I admire the most due to their business models are the Public Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Roundabout Theatre. MTC and Roundabout are able to have full Broadway and Off-Broadway houses, and the way the Public is able to consistently develop musicals that go to Broadway is one way that a theatre can diversify its funding model, because when you’re a part of developing musicals early on, you secure a percentage of what that play goes on to make throughout its life. If I were able to work at one of those powerhouse theatre companies, that would be most rewarding.”
Big idea: “We can’t just be checking the boxes. We can’t say we’ve succeeded because we’ve provided an appropriate percentage of opportunities to women and people of color. These need to be conversations that continue to happen. I get fatigue when I read an article that says, ‘We have succeeded because we had this many [fill in the blank] this year.’”
Lisa D. Richardson, ’19
Richardson didn’t intend to work in theatre. She wanted to become a veterinarian at NASA, and accordingly went to the University of Maryland, College Park, for animal care and management, with a minor in astronomy. But after graduation she found herself spending all her money on theatre tickets, and financing her habit with work in public relations and event management. So she changed careers. After doing a development internship at the Public Theater, Richardson applied to get her MFA in theatre management from Yale University. After she graduates, Richardson intends to go into fundraising and development.
Why development: “I think development is a fascinating part of the industry. It’s not always fun, but it feels like I can make a real difference,” says Richardson. “One thing that stuck with me from my time at the Public is that you can get a million-dollar gift from somewhere that could help someone see their vision actualized in a way that’s really fulfilling.”
The Yale diffference: “I was originally going to business school, and Yale is the only non-business program I applied to. The suggestion to apply came from a friend of mine who graduated from the playwriting program in the ’80s. The more I looked into it, the more I realized how similar it was to a business school. We learn by the case study, we have a lot of financial and accounting classes. I feel like a lot of business schools focus on for-profit work, and a lot of the good theatre coming out is coming from the nonprofit world, so this is giving me a base in nonprofit management.”
Big idea: “I would love to be in a world where there are as many developmental programs for writers of musicals as there are for straight plays, and as many places to workshop musicals as there are straight plays. I think it will change how they are perceived in the industry in a wonderful way and if I can help in that, I would be very happy.”
Kelundra Smith is an arts journalist based in Atlanta.