NEW YORK CITY: Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) has announced that longtime artistic director William Carden will step down from his position. Carden became a member of EST in 1978 and has served as the company’s artistic director since 2007. He will continue with the company until a restructuring process of the organization and the artistic and executive leadership team is completed.
“Having worked with Billy since 2007, I am continually awestruck by his ability to honor the rich history of EST, while evolving it into a dynamic, forward-thinking arts organization,” said EST board chair Bob Jaffe in a statement. “My respect for him and what he has brought to EST, to the lives of the member artists and to people who are touched by this theatre, is unparalleled. His legacy has been permanently established and will be a sterling model for future leadership.”
During Carden’s 13-year tenure, EST was granted an Obie Award for its Youngblood program and a special Drama Desk Award for its commitment to producing new works. Carden oversaw the production of 36 mainstage productions, including the award-winning shows Hand to God, Headstrong, Finks, Year of the Rooster, Boy, Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, Behind the Sheet, and Georgia Mertching is Dead.
The organization plans to examine and reconfigure its leadership structure, specifically through the inclusion of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) staff at the senior leadership level and within decision-making positions. The internal review and hiring search processes will determine the timeline for succession.
“As we headed into 2020, I began talking about leaving because I felt it was time for a change, for the theatre and for me,” said Carden in a statement. “I didn’t know then how quickly our world would change. As our attention was rightfully drawn to the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that my stepping down at this time could create a vital opportunity for our company. Over the last five years our largely white community has been learning about the systemic nature of racism and how—to one degree or another—it exists in each one of us and is embedded in the structure of our institutions. We’re also learning that our denial of that fact hinders our ability to fully acknowledge the legacy of oppression we, often implicitly, are perpetuating and to take the actions we need to change it.
“The Black artists in our community have been generous in collaborating with us as we have worked to become a more inclusive institution,” he continued. “We need to recognize that while we have produced their plays and given them space on the stage, the structure of our organization remains almost completely white. We may be empowering our Black artists artistically, but not institutionally. If we are going to become the just and equal community we aspire to be, we have to address and change the implicit racism in the structure of our theatre, and we will be doing that as part of this process.”
As EST enters the last year of a five-year strategic plan, this leadership initiative will be an integral part of the development of EST’s next five-year plan. Arts, Equity & Justice facilitator and consultant Rebecca KellyG has worked with EST since 2019, and now she and her team will lead a committee to guide this process. “In order for EST’s transition to new leadership and potential restructuring to be action steps toward dismantling structural racism and oppression, it must be led by EST’s artistic community, particularly the BIPOC voices, and by the movement for justice in the theater at large,” Rebecca said in a statement. “This process of evaluation and review will enable community input to be unearthed, uplifted and integrated into any restructuring of programs and positions.” Rebecca’s team will work to assess the current leadership roles as well as analyze power structures and pathways to create a hiring plan and process that will allow EST to move forward in their work towards becoming a more equitable and anti-racist organization.