Despite the word advisor being in her title, Cynthia Mayeda, 2050 Fellows Senior Advisor for New York Theatre Workshop, doesn’t really dispense advice per se.
“My style is more about listening to what the artist is saying about their needs,” she says. But one piece of advice she does give emerging directors and playwrights in the residency program: Always ask for what you need. “I attempt to provide helpful feedback and support.”
Mayeda’s philosophy is to “keep the lens open as wide as possible,” she says. “If you know exactly where you’re going, and someone in the periphery says, ‘Over here, over here!’ I think you’re more open to it if you’re not so focused on getting straight ahead.”
Years ago Mayeda left school to wait tables at a hotel restaurant when she got her first call from an unexpected place. A regular customer asked her if she wanted to run his new business, which did Photoshop-style touch-up work for the pre-computer age. From there, she became a commercial agent, a business manager for Minneapolis’s Cricket Theatre (long since closed), and then a grantmaker for the Dayton Hudson Foundation (now Target), all in Minneapolis. She stayed at Dayton Hudson for 12 years, eventually becoming chair of the foundation.
Ben Cameron, a former TCG executive director who now works for the Jerome Foundation, was one of her program officers and has been Mayeda’s friend for more than 30 years.
“She said two things that I’ve always tried to model every time I had a grantmaking job,” Cameron says. “First of all, she said, ‘It’s not your money.’ Your job is to be a conduit from the source of the money to meaningful things that the source would be proud of.” She also always told Cameron to know the fields he was giving grants to like an insider. “Every single field should believe you are one of them.”
That integrity and willingness to dive deep into a field is displayed in Mayeda’s varied career moves after she left Dayton Hudson: consulting for the National Endowment for the Arts dance program, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and for Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J. She next worked at the Brooklyn Museum for 17 years.
“When I was ‘growing up’ as a professional, I thought that leadership looked a certain way,” she says. “It was largely the white male model. I’m not saying that there was one white male model, but that’s what it looked like to me. Those of us who didn’t look that way or feel that way or act that way had the challenge to figure out how to either mimic it, or somehow become it in order to succeed. When I came into my own and looked around, I thought, ‘This is so interesting!’ You can actually lead without aspiring or pretending to be somebody you’re not.”
Now, Mayeda shares that attitude with the 2050 Fellows at New York Theatre Workshop. “The things I hear [the fellows] say they learned from me, I think, ‘What? I never said that,’” Mayeda says. “But you lead by example. So, maybe I did without saying it in words.”