For the last 30 years, most nonprofit theatres’ organizational charts have looked the same: An artistic director makes the decisions about what happens onstage, and an executive or managing director oversees administrative duties, though ultimately or implicitly (sometimes explicitly) the artistic director is at the true helm. But as research about organizational leadership expands and employee expectations of leaders evolve, some nonprofit theatres are reshuffling their org chart. The era of the singular artistic genius acting as a theatrical Moses is ending, and in many cases it’s being replaced by a more collaborative leadership model that includes more voices in all areas.
The umbrella of shared leadership is wide, and the definition seems to vary depending on who you ask. According to Harvard Business Review, shared leadership involves maximizing all of the human resources in an organization by empowering individuals and giving them an opportunity to take leadership positions in their areas of expertise. Arts Hacker defines it as a dynamic in which multiple leaders are passionately invested in programs and responsible for management decisions. No matter which definition you prefer, the aim of shared leadership is to maximize creativity and institute diversity.
At Syracuse Stage, the producing artistic director/managing director model still stands, but decisions are no longer being made top down or in silos. Artistic director Robert Hupp (he/him) and managing director Jill Anderson (she/her) both report to the board of trustees and share decision-making responsibilities, and the theatre recently brought on associate artistic director Melissa Crespo (she/her). (Kyle Bass had served in the role of associate artistic director since 2016, but earlier this fall became the theatre’s resident playwright.)
The move toward a shared leadership model has happened gradually over the last six seasons, said Hupp, as he began to realize that the demands on a singular artistic leader could easily lead to burnout. Similarly, Anderson recognized that even as people move in and out of jobs, their relationships must outlast their tenure with the company. Both realize that the industry is changing.
“I have succeeded a founder at two of the three theatres where I’ve been an artistic director,” said Hupp. “The founder has this magnetic energy of creating something from nothing, but to build on that you have to have a more collaborative model. The field is too diverse and too rich for the idea that one person gets everything right.”
Crespo, who has directed Yoga Play by Dipika Guha, I and You by Lauren Gunderson, and Native Gardens at Syracuse Stage, cited the spirit of collaboration at Syracuse as her primary motivation for joining the staff. “I’ve never subscribed to the idea that the artistic director has carte blanche,” Crespo said. “It was easy to say yes to Syracuse Stage, because that’s not the model. I’m excited that the idea of power and leadership is being dismantled throughout the industry. It’s healthy to have checks and balances.”
As at Syracuse, this shift in leadership has largely taken the form of adding associate artistic directors: Jungle Theater in Minnesota has a cohort of artistic associates working closely with the artistic director, at Virginia Repertory Theatre in Richmond the plan is to share power among a cohort of co-artistic directors, and at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland the model is a team of associates under a lead artistic director.
Other companies have moved in another direction: At City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh, for instance, the board of directors approved the promotion of Clare Drobot (she/her) and Monteze Freeland (he/him) to the position of co-artistic directors. The decision came as a result of a succession planning conversation at the theatre. Drobot and Freeland currently serve alongside Marc Masterson (he/him), who has been the artistic director since 2018. The plan is for Drobot, Freeland, and Masterson to rotate their duties as lead artistic director for a year, each serving in turn as the point person for staff and the board for a given season. Masterson is starting in the lead co-artistic director role for this season, with Drobot following in 2022-23 and Freeland in 2023-24.
Still, the leaders insist, they are sharing responsibilities from the outset.
“We each bring something different to the table and we have backup on all of it,” Masterson said. “The point person for this season is me, since I’ve been here for a while and it allows them to step forward without the full weight. We’ll continue to work collaboratively. We are also dividing up the shows and taking a turn in line producing a particular project. We’re all board liaisons and we’re all staff contacts.”
In addition to a kind of succession planning, the leaders see it as an opportunity to engage with the community. At City Theatre, elevating young talent early serves the two-fold mission of holding onto developing talent and getting peers into the audience.
“I see City Theatre becoming a complete artistic hub so that artists in the city can come not just for a product but also a process,” Freeland said. “I hope we become an example of breaking down the gatekeeping that has occurred in the American theatre. I started in the box office and I found an artistic home.”
Providing the next generation of artists and administrators with an artistic home is mission critical for Missouri’s Kansas City Rep, which is following the associate-artistic-director route. Earlier this year, they added three new positions and filled them: Nelson T. Eusebio III (he/him) is associate artistic director, Hallie Gordon (she/her) is director of artistic development, and Yetunde Felix-Ukwu (she/her) is artistic associate. They join artistic director Stuart Carden (he/him) and executive director Angela Gieras (she/her). Eusebio and Gordon started in their new roles this fall and Felix-Ukwu will begin her role next year.
“There’s a generational shift happening in the industry from a singular artistic vision to a more collaborative approach to serve the mission of the organization,” Carden said. “I just came from a programming meeting with Nelson and Halle, and we were starting a conversation about our artistic core values. I’m hoping that will allow us to bring a multiplicity of perspectives to the core values, who we’re serving, the breadth of the aesthetic, and the audience experience.”
The trend toward shared leadership models is a welcome counterweight to a broader trend in the economy. According to a 2016 study conducted by the Hewlett Foundation called “Moving Arts Leadership Forward,” Baby Boomers are retiring later. The study reveals “the field can expect a durable Boomer presence through at least 2034, when the youngest Boomers will turn 70.” Between aging parents and boomerang kids, Boomers have an overwhelming amount of financial responsibilities in an industry where good salaries are hard to find. Plus, this is the generation that often seems to forget that it practically invented the idea of following your bliss, and as a result, many have no desire to leave the work they love while they can still do it.
This creates a leadership bottleneck that younger generations can find frustrating, pushing them to leave the field. Which is why more collaborative leadership at the top is going to be key for the field to attracting and retaining young talent. The Hewlett study found that “hierarchical and measured leadership styles, which are often associated with Baby Boomers, can leave more collaborative Gen Xers feeling stymied and innovation-minded millennials feeling ambivalent about their long-term fit in the sector.”
There are also generational differences in expectations about work and leadership. Being tethered to a desk eight hours per day is a nonstarter for most millennial and Gen Z workers. Younger generations expect paid leave, work-life balance, compassionate supervisors, and transparency in decision-making. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kansas City Rep instituted a five-day rehearsal week and did away with 10 Out of 12s. They’re now also reevaluating their paid leave policies and working to find ways to prioritize people over their product.
“There’s an underlying current in almost every artistic organization that you can’t put your finger on,” Gieras said. “It’s the culmination of furloughs and people who stayed on feeling guilty. Our motto is to make one decision at a time, focus on one show at a time, and help people feel as safe as possible in our work environment…We are focused on caring for people and making sure they have a life outside the theatre.”
As noted above, there are also shared leadership models in which the top spot is shared among a two- to four-person team, such as at No Dream Deferred in New Orleans, Detroit Public Theatre, and the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia (though that is designed more as a rotating carousel of leadership). At Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, the leadership model has usually been for an ensemble member from within the company to step up to the plate. When Anna Shapiro announced she was leaving after six years leading the storied institution, after the long tenure of Martha Lavey, the company decided to appoint two people to replace her instead of one.
Ensemble members Glenn Davis (he/him) and Audrey Francis (she/her) now lead the company, alongside executive director Brooke Flanagan (she/her). Davis has been a part of the ensemble for four years and on the board for six years. Francis attended the School at Steppenwolf in 2004, co-founded Black Box Theatre, and has been an ensemble member for four years. All three are still in the learning stage of figuring out where their strengths lie in running the theatre complex.
“For 26 years, Steppenwolf put one ensemble member forward,” Flanagan said. “Audrey and Glenn represent moving us in the opposite direction, and it’s moving us closer to our roots as an ensemble theatre.”
As they navigate this tripartite leadership structure, they’ve given themselves time to plan for the future. Shapiro left behind plans for programming through 2022-23, so their first season entirely picked on their own won’t come until the theatre’s 2023-24 season. “When we raised our hands, we wanted to try really hard not to divide duties,” said Francis. “Just in the first 30 days, we’ve noticed where our strengths are, and we fall into certain tasks. My dream is that three of us are very up in each other’s business over the next 365 days.”
Davis has already announced one step in a familiar direction: He will play the lead in Rajiv Joseph’s King James, a play about LeBron James that will premiere at Steppenwolf next March.
In addition to more collaboration and retaining younger talent, shared leadership is sometimes a way to usher in diversity. According to information collected by directors Rebecca Novick and Evren Odcikin, 117 regional theatres have had artistic director changes since 2015, and in that time 42 of the open positions have been filled by people of color. This is better than in years past, but the overwhelming majority of artistic directors—and theatre administrators and board members—remains middle-aged and white, even as America becomes increasingly multiracial. It’s also worth noting that many of the new BIPOC artistic director make less money than their white predecessors.
After the Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many theatres found themselves at a point of reckoning. The programming on- and offstage wasn’t representing their communities as their missions claimed they should, and the urgency to diversify intensified. Shared leadership is one solution to creating equality of opportunity in the field by creating positions for people of color to lead. Though creating and filling the positions is just one element: A welcoming environment must also be created in which those leaders can thrive.
That said, giving more diverse people a seat at the table also helps theatres attract more diverse audiences and talent. This is one of the primary motivations for the team at Steppenwolf.
“There are areas of this industry that are devoid of diversity and that we would like to address,” Davis said. “The notion of shared leadership is not the end-all, be-all of diversity. If you look at football teams, they are well diversified with Black men on the field, but there are only five non-white coaches. If we walk this thing all the way out, how far can a non-white person go?”
Added Francis, “Speaking from a white lens, diversity at the top is instrumental in preventing bubble mentality. When there’s diversity at the top, everything starts with diverse experiences and that trickles down. You can see it on our stages and now we want to see it in our audiences.”
Kelundra Smith (she/her), a writer based in Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to this magazine.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro’s tenure as eight years and that Shapiro left programming through the 2023-24 season. Additionally, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jungle Theater had co-artistic directors.
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