This story is part of "The Changing of the Guard," a special section on the leadership changes sweeping the American theatre. Read the rest of the stories here.
Since last August, Hana S. Sharif has had two jobs. While finishing up her work at Baltimore Center Stage as its associate artistic director, every two weeks she flies to St. Louis to take meetings at, and plan a season for, the $8.35 million Repertory Theatre, where she will start full time as artistic director in June. “I’ve learned how to sleep effectively on an airplane,” she says with a laugh from her office at Center Stage.
Meanwhile the similarly sized Center Stage is going through a transition of its own: It also just got a new artistic director, Stephanie Ybarra, who moved into the job after seven years as a producer at the Public Theater in New York City. “We’re living the same life,” says Sharif.
The two had been friends before, but now, as both transition from supporting institutions to actually being the person at the top, they’re stopping by each other’s offices for advice (or simply to blow off steam) on a whole new level. Ybarra says she is keenly aware that she and Sharif are two of the few women of color to be leading multi-million-dollar institutions, not just in this moment but in American theatre history. And as first-time leaders in a field that till now has been dominated by white men (even though many of its founders were women), both Ybarra and Sharif admit to feeling the pressure not only to succeed but to transform the theatre field.
“My worst fear is letting people down, because the expectations are so high,” says Ybarra. “I hope that I can live up to the revolution that people want, but it seems like a lot to carry.” It helps, she says, to have company like Sharif: “I’m not carrying it alone.”
Ybarra and Sharif don’t just have high personal standards. The American theatre field is currently in the middle of a major, even epochal shift. Since 2015, 97 artistic directors of major theatres around the country, most of them Baby Boomers, have stepped down or announced their departure; and to date many have been replaced by a crop of 30- and 40-something artists, a sizable amount of whom are women and/or people of color.
Bay Area theatre directors Rebecca Novick and Evren Odcikin have been tracking the demographics of these new leaders since 2015. Their Google spreadsheet shows that out of 87 artistic director positions that have been filled, women now occupy 36 of those positions (41 percent, up from 23 percent). People of color now occupy 26 percent, up from 11 percent. In theatres with budgets of more than $1 million, leaders who are people of color make up 25 percent, and those who are women make up 34 percent. At the time of this writing, 9 theatres are still seeking new leaders. But it’s safe to say that if artistic directors are in many ways the visible figureheads of their institutions, the very face of the American theatre is changing in front of our eyes.
“There’s sort of a collective energy that’s coming from the younger cohort of women and people of color coming into the positions,” says Novick. “There’s a lot of symbolic value and actual value, and there’s a lot of energy and hope.”
Those hopes are varied. One is artistic. As conversations around gender parity, diversity, and inclusion have heated up, artistic directors are increasingly expected to program seasons with these concerns in mind. Today a season of plays by all or even mostly white men is likely to be met with an uproar.
Another hope is around the audience. Much of the subscription audience that has till now sustained the American theatre is dying off, and there aren’t as many younger people to replace them. According to a study last year from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2017 just 16.5 percent of American adults attended a musical, and 9.4 percent attended a play. That’s actually a slight (1 percent) increase from the 2012 numbers, but these numbers are part of a larger downward trend over the last few decades. Audiences are still also alarmingly homogeneous: 78.6 percent of all play attendees were white, and 58.3 percent were over the age of 45 (the numbers were similar for musicals). So with competition from high-quality streaming television (a major employer of playwrights, in fact), what can live theatre offer to today’s young, more diverse, tech-savvy audiences?
Then there’s workplace culture. Recent years have seen growing calls for more equitable work environments. Today’s artistic directors are no longer just fielding concerns about programming; they must also be able to have human-resource conversations with their staff about sexual harassment, childcare, and compensation.
The challenges are many, but so are the opportunities. Actors Theatre of Louisville‘s (budget: $10.5 million) incoming artistic director, Robert Barry Fleming, says he is game for all it. For him, as a “Black and queer” man, a moment for leaders from marginalized backgrounds to take the reins is long overdue.
“The reality is I have 55 years of practice—I’m more ready for this than most people might be,” he says confidently. “It’s taken me 50 years to be afforded the Jackie Robinson opportunity to lead, and that’s not about my ability, that’s about when is the culture ready. The conversation for me wasn’t, am I ready to lead? It’s, are you ready to let me lead? Are you ready to let me be of service?”
Increasingly institutions seem to be saying yes. In interviews with 12 incoming artistic directors around the country, a common theme emerged: Now is a moment full of great potential for change. As the nation’s demographics are shifting, can the American theatre start to look more like America? Relatedly, can it be made relevant to more Americans? Among the existential questions faced by the American theatre, this is a relatively new one. This new generation of leaders may have the answer.
ANSWER 1: CHANGE YOUR PROGRAMMING
To understand this moment, it’s best to go back to the very beginning (a very good place to start). By now the origin story of the American regional theatre is well known: Founded as an alternative to the commercialism and primacy of NYC, it was built so that theatre artists could make a living, and audiences could see world-class live performances, anywhere in the country. From that idea sprang the Guthrie, the Alley, Arena Stage, and many of the 50-plus-year-old theatres mentioned in this article.
The movement’s founders were idealistic about art-making. As Margo Jones, one of the original stewards, wrote in her book/manifesto Theatre-in-the-Round, the whole point was to create “a permanent repertory theatre with a staff of the best young artists in America; a theatre that will be a true playwrights theatre; a theatre that will give the young playwrights of America (or any country, for that matter) a chance to be seen; a theatre that will provide the classics and the best new scripts with a chance for good production.”
With help from the likes of the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, these scrappy start-ups took root in their communities and grew into large institutions; some had shows go to Broadway, which gave them national clout and another source of income. Todd London, the editor of An Ideal Theater, a book about the founding of the American regional theatre movement, describes the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s as “a period of institution building—you’re building buildings and creating infrastructure and creating something that you want to last,” he says. At the time, there was a “sense that this was a burgeoning field of promise and stability.”
So much so that when the original founders like Zelda Fichandler (of Arena Stage) and Joseph Papp (of the Public Theater) stepped down, they were handing over multi-million-dollar institutions to their successors. The second wave of artistic directors included people like Carey Perloff, who stepped in to lead American Conservatory Theater in 1992. In her book Beautiful Chaos, Perloff wrote that her generation of leaders sat “somewhere between the visionary founders of the regional theatre movement and the often anti-institutional independent artists who have found homes either in the commercial or experimental theatre worlds in recent years.”
For Perloff the focus of that second generation was on acting ensembles, new-work development, creating education programs to make up for the lack of arts education in schools, maintaining subscription audiences, and advocating for continued federal support. “We were not disillusioned enough yet to despair of institutions and to hold the nonprofit movement accountable for the lack of access and adventure in the field, a charge one hears repeatedly (and often fairly) today,” she writes. (This complaint hit close to home in February, when a former ACT faculty member, Stephen Buescher, filed a lawsuit alleging he was the subject of racial discrimination during Perloff’s tenure; her successor, Pam MacKinnon, has been charged by the theatre’s board to focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion in every aspect of ACT’s operations.)
Indeed today’s leaders inherit many of the concerns of the generation they’re replacing, and they have varying strategies for facing them. For many the answer begins with what’s onstage. When we spoke, Marya Sea Kaminski was in the middle of her first season at the $7 million budget Pittsburgh Public Theater, the largest theatre in the city. A newcomer relocated from a job at Seattle Rep, Kaminski started her first season with a bang: She directed an all-female Tempest and programmed Lynn Nottage and Kate Hamill, at a theatre that hadn’t produced a play by a woman since 2014. Since coming in, Kaminski had to have what she calls a “big conversation” with the board about “diversity and representation in race and gender.” For some the change has been too fast; subscriptions are down slightly. Kaminski sees it as a balancing act. “I feel a constant tension between incrementalism and disruption: how to best move forward, open up the doors wider, open up the canon, but also bring the community along, bring the audiences along who are not used to seeing that. I think it will be the greatest challenge I pursue in my lifetime.”
For Rob Melrose, who recently moved from San Francisco to Houston to run the Alley Theatre (budget: $19.5 million), the easy part is to “hire a lot of people of color and a lot of women,” who he admits haven’t been mainstays at the theatre. The harder challenge, he concedes, is to convince audiences who’ve never been to the Alley that the theatre is for them. “That takes a lot of outreach,” he says.
Houston is 44 percent Latinx, yet the Alley has no Latinx members in its resident acting company and has not programmed a Latinx-authored production since 2011, effectively leaving potential money on the table. Melrose recently sat down with leaders in Houston’s Latinx arts community for a “listening session” to learn how the theatre can better interact with that community. He also wants to make sure that if the Alley does start producing Latinx-focused work that they’re not coopting efforts already being done by culturally specific organizations, as there’s a perennial tension between predominantly white organizations and theatres of color when the former swoops in and hoovers up funding for diversity efforts. “The idea is to keep a continuous presence so it doesn’t feel like just a one-off,” he says. (Since we spoke, Melrose announced his inaugural season at the Alley, where 4 out of 11 shows are by women and 4 are by people of color, including Octavio Solis*).
Melrose also notes that his predecessor, Gregory Boyd, had a reputation for being “shy” and reaching out only “to a select group of people.” (Boyd’s reputation was also dogged by accusations of harassment, amid a storm of which he left the theatre last year after running it for 28 years.) “I’ve had lunch with theatre leaders who never met him, never had more than angry phone conversations from him,” Melrose says. Among the new a.d.’s goals are to hire more from the local talent pool and to create a network of local theatres that can educate audiences together. This echoes a theme that came up repeatedly in my reporting: the importance of teamwork.
ANSWER 2: CHANGE YOUR OUTREACH
At a time when social justice has become a foremost concern at many nonprofit institutions, the question for theatre leaders isn’t just how theatre can survive, but what it can provide for the audience that no other art form does. What are the ways a theatre can give back to its community? And can the community be made to realize that the theatre is a place where they can invest their time and money? Some ambitious theatre leaders are wondering how the art form can bring together a nation that has become deeply divided ideologically.
One thing’s for sure, according to Melia Bensussen: “We can no longer afford to have the perspective that because the work is good, the people will come.” Bensussen will soon be the first woman to serve as artistic director of Connecticut’s Hartford Stage (budget: $9 million). In brainstorming about audience building, she discusses having more multilingual programming to attract Hartford’s Spanish-speaking population, and instituting pay-what-you-can nights. She also sees the potential for the theatre to become a community center, where anyone is welcome anytime.
“We need to change the language, because when we say ‘community center’ or ‘theatre for the community,’ there’s an expectation that artistic excellence is being pushed out of the equation,” she says. “The notion of artistic endeavor and craft and excellence is in no way hurt by prioritizing community access and involvement.”
A theatre’s integral relationship with its community is something David Ivers knows all too well. Ivers, who is currently relocating to Costa Mesa, Calif., to become the artistic director of South Coast Repertory, ran Arizona Theatre Company for less than two short, intense years. He entered just as the company averted a shutdown; it had accumulated $2 million worth of debt, which was then paid off in a subsequent fundraising effort. Ivers then helped the company fundraise to pay down half of its $2 million deficit; subscriptions and single-ticket sales have since increased. What was gained from this near-death experience is “a two-way investment between the theatre company and the community, feeling that if Arizona Theatre Company closed its doors, what would be the loss? I think now the community can answer that. I’m not sure that they could before.” It probably doesn’t hurt, as Ivers notes, that free community events happen almost every night at ATC. (Last month Sean Daniels was announced as ATC’s new artistic director.)
Ivers is hoping to build similar visibility and buy-in at the $11.3 million South Coast Rep, though it is more financially stable. One way to start: “I want to be the first artistic director that has the back of my kids’ soccer jerseys say ‘South Coast Rep,’ not ‘Dunkin’ Donuts.’ That costs like $400. All of a sudden there’s an investment in a community that’s visible, and it’s about us investing too even though we don’t have those resources.”
Ybarra also sees her role at Center Stage as a community leader, and envisions the future of regional theatres as central civic institutions. “To the extent that regional theatres can extend their service beyond just theatre, and be active participants in the civic life of their communities—that’s the thing that raises all the boats,” she says. “That’s the thing that carries us into the future. We have to change the value proposition of our institution.”
While at the Public Ybarra was no stranger to the occasional enhancement-money-juiced property, her ethos echoes that of Public founder Joseph Papp, who wrote in 1958 that his theatre was built “on the bedrock of municipal and civic responsibility, not on the quicksands of show business economics. I am interested in a popular theatre, not a theatre for the few.”
ANSWER 3: CHANGE YOUR CULTURE
There’s often a presumption that change can be easy, that all it takes is a new hire at the top and the change will magically trickle down. In a HowlRound post about this remarkable turnover moment, David Dower, of Emerson College in Boston, instead envisioned change as a collective effort: “The responsibility for the success (or failure) of a leadership transition is shared across the whole team,” Dower wrote. “The incoming person, the outgoing person, the board, staff, and funders all have significant roles to play.”
Caitlin Lowans had never run an institution before she took the helm of TheatreWorks, a $1.9 million theatre in Colorado Springs, Colo., after its founder died. What she’s been learning in her time there has been that while there is an outward desire for a new path, sometimes a board’s eyes can be bigger than their stomachs.
For example, when she first shared her ideas for the 2019-20 season at TheatreWorks, there were “strong reactions on both sides,” from board members who were liberal and others who were conservative (Colorado Springs is a decidedly purple town); there was “excitement for the work, and also fear and sadness,” she says. (She also notes that the meeting was so intense that she felt like she “had to go away and have a stiff drink.” She then laughs, exclaiming, “Oh gosh, we’re on the record!”)
In the back of her mind is always the fear that things will go south, especially since Lowans previously worked in Chicago, where she watched Will Davis get appointed to lead the American Theater Company after its founder died, only to be blamed for the eventual demise of that company. She says she’s been training the board and the staff to think of TheatreWorks not so much as “Caitlin’s theatre” where she alone is responsible for change, but in terms of the question: “What do we want and what kind of work does TheatreWorks want to make? The idea of shifting people’s thoughts away from ‘one person equals the entire artistic organization’ to ‘there are many of us—we’re all serving a community.’”
As these institutions enter middle age, with multiple generations having led them, one trend that has emerged is a move away from the personality-driven model, à la Papp or Fichandler, to a more collaborative and democratic approach. For some in the field, this may denote a lack of vision or risk-taking. But for others, with the #MeToo movement in mind, an emphasis on consensus-building means there’s less room for abuse of power in the shadow of a cult of personality.
“I just have a very different idea of leadership than this outgoing generation, where leadership means there’s usually a white guy who has all the good ideas and he’s a genius and everybody is tasked with realizing his amazing vision,” says the Alley’s Melrose. “My view of leadership is that I’m a collaborator and I’m curious what other people think about things.” This isn’t surprising, given that Melrose formerly ran an ensemble-based experimental theatre, Cutting Ball.
For his part, Louisville’s Fleming believes that the notion of a singular genius is no longer conducive to today’s culture of coalition building—if it ever was. He points out that figures like Joe Papp may have been considered visionaries, but they also had “incredible staffs” who were responsible for making their dreams a reality. “It isn’t one person that does it, it’s a collection,” Fleming says. “One person certainly can give direction and lead and give insight, but it is a myth that they’d be doing it by themselves.”
If any of these leaders are worried about an uncertain future, they are not showing it (at least not on the record). All are clear about the time, space, resources, and collaboration they will need to succeed. They are intentional about making time to get to know their community and their staff, and to wait to discuss strategies and plans until those listening sessions are complete. They also know that change may move slowly—more slowly than they, or others, would like. “There is no way I can move forward without disappointing someone at some point,” says St. Louis Rep’s Sharif. “I have rid myself of the expectations there will be a sweet spot where everybody will be happy.”
In fact Dower warned that any theatre making a big change should expect an audience drop-off in the first year, calling it “a natural part of the process, not a referendum on the new person.”
Sharif is also aware of conventional wisdom that says an artistic director has three years to make an impression. And though there are many leadership success stories, there are just as many stories of breakups and bruised egos. What’s needed is the consensus that this is a long game and everybody has a stake.
“The expectation that we are the Avengers with our capes and superpowers, and we’re going to magically fix all of the deeply flawed structural issues of the American theatre is absolutely not realistic,” she says forcefully of the new wave of leaders. “What we have to temper is the timeline in which people expect us to do this work. If we’re going to talk about what concerns me the most, it’s not just what we’re expected to do but that somehow there’s a clock ticking. To shift the status quo and to crack it open and find answers to the structural issues, there will need to be innovative thinking, and there’s trial and error to that shit,” she says, pausing to chuckle at her choice of words. “We need the space and resources and capacity to do it.”
Maybe the pioneers had the answer all along. As Margo Jones once said, “Let us stir up the practical realization of a potential, of a dream, of an ideal!” May the practical realization begin.
*A version of this article appears in the April 2019 print edition of American Theatre but this version has been modified to include more up-to-date information.
*A previous version of this story erroneously stated that the Alley Theatre season featured three people of color. There are actually four.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!