PHILADELPHIA: Theatre Philadelphia, the city’s marketing and leadership organization, and longtime presenter of its Barrymore Awards, has named performer and producer LaNeshe Miller-White to be its new executive director, effective this month.
Miller-White has more than 15 years of experience on the Philly scene. After graduating from Temple University, Miller-White worked as the marketing manager of Painted Bride Art Center for over nine years. During that time, she also co-founded Theatre in the X, a company dedicated to breaking down the barriers to the art from by providing accessible productions in Philadelphia’s Malcolm X Park for no cost. She is a two-time Leeway Foundation Art & Change grantee, and is the Philadelphia co-chief pepresentative for the national organization the Parent-Artist Advocacy League (PAAL). She was named a 2012 Knight Foundation Emerging Leaders Fellow, a 2013 National Performance Network Wesley V. Montgomery Memorial Mentorship & Leadership Award winner, and 2015 and 2017 City of Philadelphia Performances in Public Spaces grants recipient. She is also a Philadelphia Arts & Business Council Designing Leadership Program Graduate.
“LaNeshe has all of the traits we were searching for in a new executive director,” said Theatre Philadelphia board president Jason Lindner in a statement. “She has leadership and community-building experience, is a strong and unifying voice in the Philadelphia theatre scene, and is trusted as someone with integrity and insight. And what’s more, she is just an inspiring person to be around. I can’t wait to see what she does in this role.”
As a leader, LaNeshe will be joining Theatre Philadelphia at a pivotal time when they are seeing significant opportunities for evolution, including restructuring of the board, and the launching of a new strategic plan.
I spoke to Miller-White last week about the Philly theatre scene, this cultural moment, and how she plans to meet it.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Philly has a reputation for a very strong and tight-knit theatre scene. Has that been your impression?
LANESHE MILLER-WHITE: Absolutely. It’s a great theatre community. When I came to Temple, I hadn’t intended on staying in Philly, but the city won me over.
As great as it is, some have pointed out that the city’s stages haven’t always reflected the city’s diversity. Is that why you co-founded Theatre in the X?
Yes, there weren’t a lot of diverse opportunities for actors of color in the city. Especially in 2013, when we founded the organization, theatres would have their one annual Black History Month production, and the content of that was often quite similar. So my co-founders and friends, Walter DeShields and Carlos Campbell, and I were like, “Let’s put on a show.” It was kind of a twofold mission: Let’s give some opportunities to artists of color in the city, and also let’s get some good quality theatre happening in West Philly, where Carlos was from.
Even before you started that theatre, though, did you feel like there was a place for you in the local theatre scene? Or was it more like, “I’m staying because there’s a lot of work to do”?
What drew me to stay here is that there’s always been a lot of self-producing in Philly, definitely for artists of color, who aren’t getting opportunities in the mainstream theatre scene. That kind of initiative was really appealing to me, and something I didn’t think I would have at home in Detroit.
As a theatre leader, what are some producing models you’ve looked to that have inspired you, and that you may take lessons from as the leader of Theatre Philadelphia?
So I really was intrigued with Orbiter 3 model. They are no longer together, and that was actually by design. It was a model where you were coming together to self-produce as a collective, being able to share those resources. The fact that they always intended to have an end to the project made it feel even stronger to me; they dedicated themselves to do these six shows by these six writers supporting each other, and then disbanded. I feel like everyone who was a part of Orbiter 3 has grown from the experience, because they were able to self-produce so strongly in that model.
So one thing that Lee Edward Colston II, a playwright from Philly, told me recently is that he feels like he had to leave the city to be produced and recognized, and that he and others really feel that Philly stages, apart from Theatre in the X, mostly don’t represent the diversity of the city. Would you say that is true?
I would. I think generally it does not reflect the city’s diversity.
As leader of Theatre Philadelphia, what do you think you can bring to that conversation? What changes would you like to see?
Theatre Philadelphia sits in a unique position, being the marketing organization for the city’s theatre community, especially doing the Barrymore Awards. Theatres work toward being eligible for the Barrymores, and being a company that Theatre Philadelphia will promote. So I’m excited to bring in some equity requirements, in addition to the traditional Barrymore eligibility requirements, where we can kind of set the parameters of diversity that need to be fulfilled, whether it’s onstage or in admin or at the board level. We’ll be able to say to organizations, “This is the diversity we’d like you to work toward.”
So you’ll setting a bar for them to clear if they want Theatre Philadelphia’s support?
Right. Because right now the question everyone has is: What is enough? What is the point that companies should get to, to feel like they are moving in the right direction when it comes to diversity? So we’re able to set those parameters, and to kind of lead with the marketing cachet we have, to encourage those organizations to follow through with it.
I need to ask you a version of the question that is on every theatremaker’s mind: What’s it like to take over a theatre organization when there’s no theatre?
It’s a great question. What I’m excited to look at and do is to create a kind of platform for both audiences and organizations to utilize until we can actually produce theatre in person again. There’s already a Theatre Philadelphia YouTube channel that organizations can send in either new recorded content or content that they’ve recorded before. That’s one place where we can help, because many theatres who weren’t doing robust digital content are doing it now. Any way we can help them within our marketing offerings to promote their digital content will be good. This is new for everyone; even people who were doing online series like that, it wasn’t all they were doing.
Yeah, there’s been a lot of conversation about how much effort and money to put into digital—whether it’s a revenue stream or a creative outlet, or just a way to stay connected with audiences and remind them you’re there. There’s also the question of whether, even after COVID, these media are going to be a bigger part of theatre. I don’t know if you have thoughts about which direction it’s going to take.
Philly theatre leaders have been having weekly meetings since COVID happened. And this was a big question: How much time, effort, and money do we put into the digital content? Especially when it first happened, and we thought it’d be two weeks, and then it was a month, and now here we are months later. I think it’s worth the investment at this point, because it’s going to be a long cycle of time before we are legally allowed to come back together, both in terms of city and state ordinances and also being signed off by the unions. And the last thing we’re going to have to contend with for even longer is audiences’ comfort and willingness to go into a theatre. So looking at all of those touch points, we’re looking at a while till we can get back into in-person theatre. So I definitely feel like digital is worth it; coming from a marketing background too, it’s worth the effort to still be producing.
Finally, I want to ask about funding for the arts, whether it’s public support or even private support. Does Theatre Philadelphia have an advocacy wing, both for local and national support?
I do know that the focus of the advocacy work over the past few months was more directly connected to city funding. We just got over a big campaign that Theatre Philadelphia was a part of organizing, because the mayor’s original proposal was to cut the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which is very important, especially to small organizations. We were able to save a bit of that budget.
I know it’s not a normal time right now, but in normal times do you feel like Philly is a really arts-positive city?
Yes and no. The foundation community in Philadelphia is definitely not as robust as in other cities, and when it comes to access to it, it’s very difficult, because there are a small set of funders, and it’s hard for organizations of color to break into that foundation giving. Theatre in the X has been fortunate, because our model is so different. We produce outdoors for our main programming, and we’re very community centered, and I think that has helped us. Also just me being an arts administrator for what seems like forever—I have that skill. I’m able to bring that to Theatre in the X,
And presumably to Theatre Philadelphia. Bottom line, would you say Philly is a place where folks are proud of their local theatres?
Absolutely. Philly has some good theatre, top to bottom, from small self-producers, from solo shows all the way to the big theatres. There is just such wonderful work being produced in Philly. Anyone who does not count Philly as a theatre town is wrong.
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