Theatre is an industry built on human stories that move audiences. So it may come as a surprise that many regional theatres don’t have a dedicated human resources professional on staff. But HR, it turns out, can actually have an impact on the quality of the art an organization delivers, mainly by keeping tabs on the quality of life enjoyed by artists, administrators, and theatre staffers.
I spoke to five directors of human resources at theatres across the country about the challenges they face, the tools and practices they use, and the everyday joy they receive from working in a creative field.
Like many HR specialists working in the arts, Lindsey Morris, human resources manager at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in Washington, D.C., is a generalist. That means her work encompasses all aspects of the theatre’s human resources needs. There is no typical day for Morris, though the basics include working on payroll, addressing the theatre’s recruiting needs, and answering staff questions about benefits.
“People work in theatre because they love it,” Morris observes, “but they also work here for a paycheck and benefits. It’s important to have HR to help employees navigate these things, which can often be confusing. And when it’s time for budgeting or policy changes, it’s equally important to have HR involved as an advocate for staff.”
Morris, who has been in her position for five years, was initially drawn to the position because she was an avid theatregoer. Though she’d worked in other industries, she now says, “I can honestly say I can’t imagine working anywhere else.” She finds the commitment of her co-workers “inspiring and contagious.”
In light of recent allegations of sexual assault and misconduct industry-wide, the Shakespeare Theatre Company is making some internal changes in hopes of making the theatre a safer place to report any sexual misconduct.
“We’re actually working on an update to our entire employee handbook at the moment, including an update to our sexual harassment policy,” Morris reports. “It’s not a complete overhaul, but I do want to make our reporting process, and the designation of who employees can contact, much clearer.” She adds, though, that “having a policy is all well and good, but how you enforce that policy and create a safe workplace for your staff is what’s important.”
Morris is also working with the D.C. chapter of Not in Our House to adapt the new standards, drafted by artists and other shareholders in the Chicago theatre community, for all theatres in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia regions. She believes that this document is a powerful tool for creating safer working environments.
Not every theatre company, of course, has the resources to employ a dedicated HR department, but Morris recommends that all invest in a membership with the Society for Human Resources Management. The annual professional membership fee is fairly inexpensive at $209 per year, and SHRM not only keeps members up to date on federal and state laws, but also provides professionals with a number of useful white papers and document templates.
Jen Nieri, human resources director at ZACH Theatre in Austin, seconds Morris’s recommendation. SHRM, she notes, not only provides assistance in HR matters but offers skillful training for staff members assigned to handling human resources-related tasks, even under other job titles. SHRM has local affiliated chapters, which Nieri recommends as a great way to meet other local HR professionals and learn from your community about where the focus of HR efforts should be aimed.
“I am on an email list of local HR professionals who work for nonprofits,” Nieri notes, “and we routinely bounce ideas and ask for feedback from each other.” Nieri has been with ZACH since the beginning of the 2016-17 season, joining the company because she was eager to lend her HR expertise to the arts world.
“When I was hired, ZACH was dealing with some complex staffing issues,” she points out. “As we started the recruiting process to fill vacant positions, my focus was not only on hiring for culture fit, but also for a culture shift.”
That shift took time, but Nieri says she’s proud of the quality, integrity, and character of the people who make up the ZACH Theatre staff today. And she’s proud of her contributions to the team as human resources director: “Theatre work is stressful, and at the end of the day, feeling supported matters.”
Like STC, ZACH chose to address #MeToo head-on. When the movement started, managing director Elisbeth Challener wrote a company-wide email reminding staff that the theatre had a strict anti-harassment policy. The email included a copy of the policy, which outlined avenues for reporting sexual harassment and violence. ZACH also hired an employment lawyer to talk to employees about the legal ramifications of harassment in the workplace.
ZACH isn’t the only theatre making changes in the #MeToo era. “We now make sure that a member of the HR team visits the room during every first rehearsal,” according to Caitlin Upshaw, director of human resources, equity, and inclusion at Portland Center Stage (PCS) in Portland, Ore. “We use that time to hand out our harassment and discrimination policy and to make sure everyone knows they can come to HR if they don’t feel like their concerns can be addressed in the rehearsal room,” Upshaw says. “We also remind everyone that they are our employees while they are with us, and therefore subject to the same expectations and protections as anyone else.”
Upshaw says that initiatives to prevent sexual assault in the workplace are always top of mind at PCS—and that the managers with whom she works are “incredibly proactive.”
When a worker at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis made allegations of sexist comments and actions in the theatre’s scene shop last year, for example, Upshaw notes that “our scene-shop managers reached out to request additional training to make sure they knew how to prevent a similar situation in our shop.”
She knows there’s still work to be done.
“I know we need to keep working at improving the reporting structure and reinforcing the strength of the anti-retaliation policy,” Upshaw concedes. “It is ultimately on me to ensure that my colleagues understand that they will never be penalized for bringing good-faith concerns to my attention—and that their concerns will be taken seriously.”
Upshaw has been a theatre person her entire life, but says she wasn’t able to combine her passion for theatre with her passion for human resources work until the 2015-16 season. “Theatre people are amazing co-workers,” Upshaw says warmly. “From the box office to the café staff to the run crew to the marketing team, my co-workers are motivated to make art and to create a unique and inclusive workplace. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of that.”
She understands that not every theatre has room in their budget for an HR department, but Upshaw urges theatres to consider how human resources can save theatres money in other areas, such as decreasing turnover, or limiting a theatre’s exposure to legal liability.
“Making theatre is complicated—it takes so many people to be in the right place at the right time, and those people have to be properly supported to be able to do their jobs,” Upshaw elaborates. Unique to the regional-theatre model is the mixed employee base: year-round and temporary, union and non-union, staff and contractors. Navigating those moving parts can be particularly challenging for folks who are also trying to do their own work or run a department.
“From a workplace happiness perspective, staff members can feel pretty isolated in their departments, and having full-time, organization-wide HR support makes a huge difference in connecting the dots,” she reasons. “We take care of the boring stuff—onboarding paperwork, benefits—but most important, we create a place where people can find support in making changes, if needed.”
The most important thing human resources can do, Upshaw concludes, is standardize and equalize the hiring process, with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
“There’s a tendency in industries that have ‘grown up’ without HR to continue to be kind of insular in their hiring,” Upshaw says, “often bringing in folks who have theatre degrees from the same set of schools, or who know someone who knows someone—and that is truly damaging to our efforts to diversify our workforce and create inclusive organizations.”
The human resources department at Portland Center Stage now reviews and revises every job description before recruiting begins, in an effort to remove every unnecessary barrier to entry. If the position doesn’t require a college degree, or if the on-the-job training that employees inevitably receive is just as good as a couple of years of experience, those job requirements are removed from the listing.
Emily Hill, human resources generalist at Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Repertory Theater, agrees that human resources are an indispensable part of the regional theatre model. She’s approaching her one-year anniversary with the company, and before she joined the team, Milwaukee Rep did not have a dedicated HR professional on staff.
“I have never felt more welcome and supported in a human resources role than I do here,” Hill declares. “A huge function of my role is acting as a liaison between staff and senior management—and to be able to do this with the support of both parties allows me to uphold integrity and solicit genuine feedback to creative positive change for the organization as a whole.”
Hill says the most challenging part of her job is that there isn’t a lot of precedent for human resources policies and practices in the theatre workplace.
“Due to the unique makeup of the theatre industry, we can’t simply use a sample policy from another industry as a starting point,” she points out. “Although I love the professional development that comes with being able to create resources in-house, it can be time-consuming. And with everything else HR professionals have on their plates, who has the time?”
But when Hill does make time for those in-house resources, she feels supported by her colleagues at the Rep. “The creative environment here makes for an extremely collaborative workplace, one that I have not experience anywhere else. The staff is accustomed to sharing their feedback, which allows for me to be more successful in implementing directives.”
Farther west, at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, Wash., human resources manager Ben Leifer agrees with Hill that his coworkers are what makes his job so rewarding.
“People are the brains, heart, and soul of the theatre,” Leifer allows. “When we help our organization well, treat employees well, offer effective policies and competitive compensation and benefits, deal fairly with issues when they arise, and help employees feel valued and respected—that’s when they can do their best work and feel good about doing so. That helps the art on our stage be the best it can be.”
Leifer was a subscriber at 5th Avenue Theatre for 18 years before coming on board as the theatre’s HR manager, and now he’s been in the position for five years. Like Hill, he is the theatre’s first dedicated HR professional on staff.
“It was a competitive recruitment process, so I feel fortunate to have been hired,” Leifer confides. The most rewarding part of his job, Leifer avows, is seeing the productions come to life. “I get to attend the first read-sing, and then witness how the shows develop and unfold through the rehearsal process,” Leifer says. “Holy cow, I even learned about tech! It gives me great satisfaction to think that I have a supporting role in helping the organization deliver such wonderful art.”
Leifer developed the theatre’s first employee handbook, which included a robust anti-harassment policy. He says he’s “particularly vigilant about compliance—making sure we’re following the multitude of ongoing, new and evolving federal, state, and local laws that impact employment. Adapting to legal innovations is a core issue for all HR professionals, frankly.” That means keeping up with local, state, and federal regulations, even when, as he points out, “Sometimes various laws don’t align with each other or they can create administrative challenges on implementation.” To sort those out he says he relies on “a number of area law firms and benefits brokerages” that provide free or low-cost briefings.
#MeToo considerations also factored into the new 5th Avenue handbook. The new policy, for instance, clarifies that harassment not only in person but on social media is prohibited. Leifer is hoping the movement will serve as a wake-up call.
“I hope the leadership of all theatres adopt strong policies and procedures to prevent and address harassment issues, and then walk the talk, using HR or other appropriate staff to effectively deal with problems if or when they occur,” he says. “National statistics show that most employees who experience sexual harassment do not report the issue, and we need to make sure our organizations are receptive to hearing and acting when staff does not feel safe or respected.”
If that’s not an argument for human resources, I don’t know what is.
Danielle Mohlman is a nationally produced feminist playwright based in Seattle. She is a member of the 2018 Umbrella Project Writers Group, and her play Nexus is among the 2015 honorable mentions on the Kilroys list.
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