There seems to be this idea in the arts that the artistic and administrative sides are distinct and need to be siloed. And if you start out on the artistic side of the business, those are the ranks through which you rise, so to speak, and vice versa.
This is not a delineation that Artists Repertory Theatre‘s new managing director, Kisha Jarrett (she/her), has any interest in adhering to. As she noted when we spoke last week, our life’s journey, in all of its twists and turns, informs who we are and how we interact with those around us, even how we lead.
Jarrett’s varied background includes experience as an actor, director, producer, and sound designer. She’s a musician who has performed at South by Southwest and a storyteller who has won the Moth’s GrandSLAM. As an event producer, she’s worked with Oregon Media Production Association, Boys and Girls Club, Invisible Children, and World Monuments Fund, to name a few. She serves on the LORT Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee—and, by the way, she was once also an independent bakery owner.
Her journey had taken this Virginia native across the country before settling in Portland, Ore., where she started at Artists Rep in 2016. Now, after working in both the theatre’s marketing and development departments, Jarrett has been promoted to managing director, with a path to her eventually become the theatre’s executive director. Currently that position is occupied by J.S. May, the company’s former managing director, who plans to retire as early as 2023, following Artists Rep’s capital campaign to revitalize its facility. Jarrett noted that both she and Artists Rep have an out if, for instance, either party feels like things aren’t working out. For now though, working alongside May and artistic director Dámaso Rodríguez, Jarrett feels like she’s in the right place.
JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: I was just looking through everything you’ve done in your career, from work in the arts to owning a bakery and writing a novel. I’m so curious, how did you end up landing on this administrative side of the arts?
KISHA JARRETT: I used to say that I’m really good at a lot of things but I’m not excellent at anything. And that was really born out of something where I just had all of these interests. I was really into just letting experiences or offers come up for me and just taking them and running with them, and seemingly they all were disparate things.
All of the things that I had done leading up to this is my job. I know how to plan events. I know how to talk to donors. I’m really emphatic, and I think that just the excitement and the love that I feel for projects comes out. I love to work collaboratively with people. It’s super odd. Like, yes, the time when I was opening up bars and restaurants for people seems so far away from this. But really, it’s just like a theatre piece where you’re building up from nothing and you can be like, what do we want this to be? And then let’s all work together to do it.
That’s so cool. It definitely seems like you could be the kind of person where you’re so good at so many different things, that people just keep coming to you and asking, “Well, can you do this too? Do you happen to have the ability to do this as well?”
And I’m like, “Maybe, let’s try it, let’s see what happens.”
Exactly. What prompted your move to Portland?
I’m going to give you a short version of a long story, which is that I had moved from New York to Austin. I had been in a band and we moved. I was going to actually record an album because I had played South By Southwest. I feel like all bands that don’t live in Austin that go and play South By are like, “We’re going to move here.” And so I moved there! I really only spent a year in Austin and I couldn’t afford to move back to New York. So I moved to Charlottesville.
I was the production manager for the American High School Theater Festival and the marketing director at a community-based theatre, and that went well. Then—I was ashamed at the time, but I’m not ashamed now—I was fired from that job. What I was told was that I wasn’t doing my job. At the time, it was devastating. For somebody to say, especially to me, that I wasn’t doing my job, that was gut-wrenching. I was having a very hard time with processing that.
Really what happened was that, in the same breath, the same person was saying to me, as a Black woman, “Hey, we did this Black show, where’s all the Black audience for it?” And I was like, “Well, maybe they’re not here because we don’t talk to them all the time; it’s been disingenuous.” I didn’t have that toolbox yet; I didn’t have those words, in terms of being able to say that to someone yet.
What that did was start me on my path of where I am now, as far as building an anti-racist theatre. Artists Rep was the right place for me to come to after that. I had friends that I had met when I was living in San Diego who were gracious enough to let me stay with them when I first got here.
So I moved across the country without a job. I remember being halfway across the country, in Kansas City, I think, and I happened to remember Artists Rep, because four years ago or two years ago or whatever it was, I had come to Portland for an arts marketing conference and I saw a show at Artists Rep, Foxfinder by Dawn King, and I fell in love with that show. I remember even emailing Dámaso to say, “I loved this show, I thought it was great. Do you think you can connect me with Dawn or her agent?” And he was like, “Yeah, I think that play is going to be tied up to go to the West End.” And that was it. Here I am years later. That’s such an odd trajectory to go on.
Speaking of that trajectory, and looking back at that theatre that fired you, did that experience inform the way you’re approaching this managerial position and how you have those conversations with people who now work under you?
Absolutely. I think that’s another lesson that I learned, which is that not all of your mentors are positive. Not all of what happens is positive. What that taught me was like, “Oh, okay. So, this is what I will not do. This is how I will not act. This is how I will not respond.” At first, it was something that I actually did end up thinking a lot through, it was something that would continuously go on in my mind. Now it’s just like anything that you continuously practice; I don’t have to think about it.
I will say that people management is something I don’t think the majority of audiences or even other theatre workers even put into the lexicon, as far as what a managing director does. But so much of it is sociology and meeting people where they are, and then trying to consider all of these different people’s personalities and work ethics, and even times that they like to work, and then let’s add on a pandemic and people that have children, and also the mental issues that have developed during COVID because of being alone and anxieties and how other people learn. It is a lot to try to say, “Okay, now you have this many people and you just got to produce a bunch of stuff.” Or, “Find all the money for us to do this particular thing.”
A lot of what we’ve been doing internally at Artists Rep has been like, okay, let’s get our interior house right. Let’s go through some trainings. Let’s get out some of those feelings as far as biases, whether they’re known or unknown. Let’s get out some of those things as far as, how has Artists Rep been functioning in the world as a predominantly white theatre? Now we’re a theatre that, yeah, is still predominantly white, but here we have a Black female managing director, a Cuban American artistic director, and at the turn of the fiscal year this year, our vice-chair will become our board chair, and he is a Black male.
So that’s a whole different setup from what I know as any other LORT theatre that’s predominantly white. Dámaso and I have talked about this a lot. It feels strange, and it’s felt odd for us to be like, yes, we are a part of a predominantly white institution, even though we’re clearly people of color.
When looking at the efforts to make change in a predominantly white theatre, a theatre you’ve been with for a while, were there goals in mind when you were approaching this additional responsibility and this promotion? Or were there already things in motion because you were with the company?
Dámaso has always supported anything that I’ve wanted to do, and I’ve had a lot of autonomy in that, which has been fantastic. J.S., who is now our executive director, used to be the managing director; he also just gave me a lot of room to spread out and say, “Hey, I believe that this is where we need to go and this is the direction.” So there’s really not been a huge change in terms of power that’s associated with me, other than externally. I think externally, people see or hear the title managing director, and that just adds some weight to what I am and who I am.
But I’ve been a part of the LORT EDI committee for two and a half years. I’ve been speaking at the LORT managers round tables for a solid year. I’m on the NNPN conference circuit and talking about that. So I have felt very comfortable being in rooms with these powerful people within theatre, some of our greatest theatre hive minds.
What’s always interesting to me is that, I don’t know if it’s my own personality or what, but a lot of times I’ll say things in rooms, and then later on I’ll have people text me or email me and say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you said that. That’s amazing.” And in my head, I’m like, what? It’s normal. This is a normal thing.
I think for a lot of theatres—especially before the We See You, White American Theater document came out, but even after that—the speed at which people are really getting moving, as it pertains to being anti-racist and anti-biased, has been slower than what a lot of their BIPOC workers are wanting. There’s a lot of situations in a lot of rooms in a lot of conferences that could benefit from having some of those people that don’t have director in their title being in those spaces, because that’s at the level that they’re in.
I’d love to talk more about your work on the LORT EDI Committee. I was looking into the mentorship program and looking at the kind of pipeline you took at Artists Rep to kind of rise through the ranks there. Theatre has had this, I don’t want to say tradition, but this penchant for, when there are high-level positions open, to hire externally, and to consider candidates from all over the country. So can you tell me a little bit about how you see the pipeline to fill these positions? Should it be more about raising your own, so to speak, or do we need to still have that kind of national search? How do you see that working?
I think that’s an excellent question. And my answer is, it’s probably both. There’s strong indications and strong reasons to witness people that have a spark in them and then try to provide them with every opportunity to grow, whether or not that growth means that they stay within the current organization they’re in, or they leave to go find a better opportunity or an opportunity to move faster than what they would have had if they had stayed. I’m a product of that. I was coming to a place where I think I was ready to take on this responsibility. If it wasn’t at Artists Rep, it was going to be somewhere. So I think that Artists Rep did the thing that’s best for them, but also best for me, in terms of preparing me to fully take that on within our own company.
Now, we just launched a national search for our artistic director fellow, an inaugural fellowship in which they will get a mentor-mentee relationship with Dámaso. Its whole mission is that it actually sets that person up so that at the end of the two or three years, they would be ready to actually go be an artistic director at a theatre somewhere.
But a lot of people, especially those people who are directors or who are actors, get pigeonholed. I don’t know why theatre is like this, but it’s like this unspoken rule that anybody that’s artistic is on the artistic side, and those are the people that get to go out and do all these artistic things, and anybody that’s on the admin side, you’re fully computer and numbers and that’s all you do, even if it’s marketing. But there’s nothing to say that you can’t be on the admin side and also be artistic—also be a writer, a filmmaker, an actor, a director. That’s what I’m hoping to change, at the very least at Artists Rep, but really throughout the field as a whole.
The best possible partnerships are when both of those things can come together and actually have a more creative, communal experience. That way I can be beneficial to Dámaso to be able to read all the things and be like, “Yeah, this seems like an Artists Rep play because I really don’t know how we would do it,” which are the ones that we happen to do well. Those are the ones I can sell. Those are the ones I can get people to get behind to donate, to sponsor. It’s an example of how theatre used to be. Sometimes we’ve let certain people have those positions for eons with nobody else saying anything against whatever it is that they program, and then you have seasons of living room plays that have nothing but white people in them.
Do you see any way for the field to start remedying that kind of divide between the artistic and administrative tracks?
I would hope so, but really it’s going to take a whole lot of people that are unwilling to give up either/or positions. That’s got to be a priority for the organization to then say, “Okay, if I want to keep you, then I need to give you the space to be able to do both.” We’re coming up on a generation that is very used to always going, always viewing, always trying, always doing. I think that is what’s going to change the workforce.
I want to pivot to fundraising for a minute. Because of course we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, I’m curious, what’s been the biggest challenge in fundraising as you try to get through this pandemic and head toward hopefully staging shows in person?
Fundraising is such an odd duck, at least in theatre. It’s an odd duck because it’s forever been held as like, “Only I know how to do this,” for so long by certain people. I used to work at World Monuments Fund. It’s totally different. Way more transparent; they’re way more inclusive. Theatre seems to be like, the way to fundraise is exclusivity, which is then alienating.
So part of what we’re doing is really expanding the reach of what fundraising is and what fundraising means, even by taking out subscriptions. Everything’s a membership. Much like your public radio station that’s member-funded, the theatre is member-funded. So that’s a part of our goal, to shape it like that.
The other thing is, there’s so much uncertainty. COVID has wreaked so much uncertainty on economic status, and that uncertainty closes wallets. I think the more that we can have people believe in the passion, the mission, how we’re expanding, how we’re changing our organization, that we’re opening up our exclusivity into inclusivity—we’re seeing that right now, like 75 percent of our core audience is 65-and-up white women. That’s only a part of the population. If we break that apart, and we actually get 15 percent of the population of Portland, we’re well above over what we formerly had.
The thing to me is erasure of theatre being for rich, white people, erasure of theatre being something where it doesn’t tell stories that are for me, erasure of theatre I don’t understand. There’s a place in Portland called the Doug Fir Lounge. If you go to the Doug Fir to hear bands, theatre’s for you. If you go to the Moth when there’s live performances, or you listen to the Moth radio hour, guess what? Theatre’s for you. If you listen to OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting) or This American Life, theatre’s for you. If you go see exhibits at BAM when you’re in New York, or at the Brooklyn Art Museum, or MoMA, guess what? Theatre is for you. It covers all of these other bases other than just, “I’m going to sit here and listen to stodgy people talk at me for hours.” It can be interactive. So yeah, that’s where I am with fundraising.
I was going to ask follow-ups, but I think “theatre is for you” encapsulates so much that I don’t want to mess with it. So finally, I would just like to open the door. Do you have anything else you’d like readers to know, or anything we haven’t covered that you you’d just like to address?
I think what I would like to say is that, if anybody has an inkling that they want to move into a management position within a theatre, the best way to do that is do all the jobs and read all the things. And when I say “read all the things,” I’m not speaking about solely nonfiction books; I’m talking about, like, be well read so that you know what your own artistic sensibility is. Because even if your artistic sensibility isn’t the same thing as everybody else’s artistic sensibility, you’ll then have your own point of view. That’s the most important thing, formulating your own point of view and then being able to disseminate that into usable terms for people.
Learn how to work collaboratively, be truly collaborative. That word is get thrown around and misused a lot. “Collaborative” doesn’t mean that I have an idea and then I just work with a bunch of people on facilitating that idea. “Collaboratively” is like, “Hey, I want to work on something with you. Let’s figure out what that is.” Then everybody comes in and brainstorms produces to then have an outcome in which everybody is put together.
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor at American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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!