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The Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center.

American Shakespeare Center Forms New Leadership Model

The multi-department management group includes longtime company member Brandon Carter serving as artistic director.

STAUNTON, VA.: After cancelling its fall 2021 season, citing internal struggles, American Shakespeare Center (ASC) has announced a full 2022 season and new leadership model that emphasizes collaboration, equity, and diversity, spreading its leadership among a multi-department management group. The newly organized management group will include a programming team led by newly appointed artistic director Brandon Carter alongside community programs manager Aubrey Whitlock.

Carter was part of the team of four actor-managers who were charged with leading the company following Ethan McSweeny’s departure in February 2021. The other three actor-managers—Christopher Johnston, John Harrell, and Zoe Speas—have all since left the company, though Carter said in an interview that he hopes they’ll return to ASC in some capacity in the future. In the meantime, Carter said he will remain in the acting ensemble in addition to being ASC’s artistic director moving forward. But rather than acting as a sole leader of the company, Carter said he believes the future of ASC still lies in having collaborative artistic leadership, which includes the model of a management group that will keep him as an artistic leader accountable to a group of other leaders within the company.

Other members of the management group include Carol Innes leading the operations team, interim production manager Adrienne Johnson Butler leading the production team, and associate director of marketing and sales Amy Wolf co-leading the engagement team with development and engagement manager Stephanie Cabacoy. This co-equal group will provide leadership and oversight over ASC’s operations, programming, production, and engagement in support of ASC’s mission and vision.

Carter said he’s hoping this model will be more heavily rooted in lateral decision-making, ensuring that more people are at the table where choices are being made and hopefully keeping departments from becoming siloed. One of the companies he pointed to as an example was Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Much like OSF, Carter said that ASC is hoping to add associate artistic directors to the mix, including an associate artistic director of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Brandon Carter. (Photo by Lauren Rodgers Parker)

“Even though I oversee or curate the artistic product,” Carter said, “I’m accountable to my production manager. I’m still accountable to my ensemble of actors. My role is kind of translucent.”

Moving forward, the board will still oversee the company in general, while the management group will run the day-to-day decisions of the company. Carter and Innes will report directly to the board, and the company will move forward without a managing director. Though Carter acknowledged that COVID had dampened some of the excitement around the company’s previous leadership model, he said he has recently been able to take more time to develop a closer relationship with the board, pulling back the curtain that often hangs between boards and artists, while making sure everyone is on the same page moving forward.

“It’s about really peeling back the layers and being real with your board,” Carter said. “I’ve had some really deep conversations with them, and it’s been sort of a trial-by-fire thing. But I think, on this end of it, I’ve found them to be more optimistic. I’ve found them to be super supportive of this direction that we’re going in.”

Carter, who has been a resident actor at ASC since 2018, believes his institutional knowledge, and the fact that he’s regularly on the ground with the company’s acting ensemble, make him the right person to lead ASC right now. Chicago’s Steppenwolf has famously pulled from its company of actors for its artistic leaders for decades. It’s key, Carter said, for ASC to have someone in leadership who knows both the spirit of the company and how the company interacts with and affects its community.

Once in place, he said, leadership needs to ensure that the company’s new foundation is completely set so they can start building and developing their regional voice while uplifting their artists. Now that he has the keys, Carter said he hopes to give more people the codes to come in and innovate with him and the rest of the ASC team.

“That’s the only way we challenge the relevance of classical theatre,” Carter said. “What’s the relevance of these classical texts right now? Why are we still producing these folks and not having plays that are in conversation with them, new voices that are rocking the boat?”

To answer those questions, Carter said the company is reconnecting with the community, seeing what speaks to local folks and what they want to see onstage. He gave the example of their newly announced 2022 season, which will open with Romeo and Juliet in late February. With the rise of COVID cases alongside the rise in depression and suicide among teens as the pandemic drags on, he noted, a play like Romeo and Juliet has the potential to speak directly to what ASC’s community is experiencing.

The rest of the season includes The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night (running alongside L M Feldman’s exploration of the Shakespeare play in Thrive, Or What You Will), The Tempest (and Aimé Césaire’s adaptation Une Tempête), and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Branching out from the Shakespearean works, ASC will also present a special performance of Duncan MacMillan’s Every Brilliant Thing as they head into the summer and wrap up their season with the staple A Christmas Carol.

“As long as I stay in the community and even push myself more in there, I think we become stronger,” said Carter. “I really do believe in this community here, and we’ve sort of turned our backs to it—maybe because of the times, I’m not sure. But it’s time to face them again, because that’s where the answer is.”

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