Frosh Bites—Eleventy-One Nuggets for Being a Successful and Ethical Artistic Director
1. Lead with generosity.
2. Know your place and role on the privilege-inequity-responsibility continuum. Diversity, inclusion, and equity are nonnegotiable.
3. Your role with board and staff—the buck stops with you. There is no “Mommy.” It is always good and important to surround yourself with talented, smart, responsible people to advise and support you, some of whom you may report to, but the final call is almost always yours to make.
4. Dream as though you’ll live forever. Live as though you’ll die today.
5. Be an active listener and trust your instincts.
6. Know the rules well—break them often.
7. Don’t lead a transactional life. My father preached, “Do good and disappear,” meaning that one does what one does for another person or organization or industry or society without conditions and doesn’t keep track of those niceties or favors or acts of generosity in hopes of reciprocation. By doing it repeatedly for a long time, the rewards are many and come back in a myriad ways. It has never failed to be true.
8. Don’t get addicted to stress. While many perseverate over avoiding, reducing, or managing stress, for a leader it can be a seductive aphrodisiac that allows one to feel alive, needed, pleased, and vital, even if they feel burdened by it.
9. When you’re certain that you’re most right is when you’re often most alone.
10. People die. Know how to speak in feelings embodied by words.
11. Hurt-people hurt people.
12. It is not enough to know right from wrong. It is important to right that which is wrong.
13. While it is important to align with community—geographic, professional, ethnic, etc.—it is also important to create community.
14. The world may segment your career into whippersnapper/wunderkind, has-been, and sage while you’re doing exactly the same thing or getting better at it.
15. Facilitating the dreams of others is the most rewarding work of all.
16. There is no “they.” All people, but especially those with a public profile, find themselves worrying what “they” will think, an amorphous undefined body of humanity that will have a collective opinion of an action, decision, or appearance. It’s just not true, and when it is, it passes very quickly.
17. Do what you can do really well.
18. It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.
19. Be careful not to think you don’t have control issues when you’re in control. Assess that when you don’t control something.
20. Adhere to the following adages:
- Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Choose your words, for they become actions. Understand your actions, for they become habits. Study your habits, for they will become your character. Develop your character, for it becomes your destiny.
- Be the master of your will and the slave of your conscience.
- Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the places that you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, for as long as you ever can.
- Start doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.
- The best preparation for tomorrow is to do today’s work superbly well.
21. Nurture talent without compromising excellence. There is a myth in the cosmos that creating opportunity for young, early career, cross-discipline, less experienced, or any type of marginalized artists mandates acceptance of diminished quality. It’s simply not true. Both can be accomplished simultaneously.
22. Be imperialistic—your theatre’s talent and material appearing at theatres everywhere is good for your theatre. When other arts organizations clamor to utilize talent that you have developed and inadvertently screw you for the chance to work with them, be flattered. You’re doing something right. That talent will eventually, if not immediately, return and perhaps even be appreciative.
23. Trust your taste—eschew validation. All too often decision-makers look to see where or with whom someone has worked/performed as a determinant of quality rather than trusting her/his own eyes, ears, and judgment. Similarly, awards are frequently used to verify the quality/value of someone or something. Try to avoid such behavior.
24. If you aren’t the best theatre in America, what do you need to do to become that?
25. Size doesn’t matter—don’t think small size, midsize, or large based on budget or number of seats or any indicator, but think in terms of “right size”: those that do what they want to do at the caliber they want to do it with the resources they have.
26. Befriend literary managers, dramaturgs, and writers—they know where the ideas are hidden.
27. Audiences don’t care about “hard”—they care about “good.” Sometimes while we’re producing, it’s easy to become convinced that amazing technology, multiple languages, remarkable casting, and other extraordinary challenges will be appreciated for sheer ambition. They will not. Theatre is a meritocracy. It is virtuosity that earns kudos.
28. “Can’t” isn’t in our vocabulary. Be in constant conversation with your limits.
29. “Good enough” is never acceptable.
30. Mission. Mission. Mission. Mission must be glue.
31. A mission is something to be achieved.
32. Representing and realizing the mission and providing vision define the job.
33. Absolute excellence is non-negotiable. A falsehood circulates that the “right to fail” is a birthright of non-profitdom. It is not. Bad theatre is unhealthy for not just theatre, but all live events. The longevity of the art form will be reliant on the reduction and elimination of bad theatre. That “bad” is in your hands. If you think it’s not absolute virtuosity, then don’t show it to an audience, please.
34. The art of an artistic director is producing. An artistic director’s work as a leader is judged by mission realization and providing vision and balanced budgets, but the art of an artistic director is gauged by that person’s producing skills—assembling stellar talent to accomplish amazing art in a healthy atmosphere on a realistic budget (income and expenses) in pursuit of a successful conspiracy for artists, mission, venue, and audiences.
35. When casting with a freelance director, your opportunity is to nominate and veto, but not elect. The director’s mantra regarding casting is (and should be), “Be good or perish.” As artistic director, you may tell a freelance director that certain roles are cast… before that director accepts the job. After that, you may invite countless actors in to audition and you may, with justification, veto a director’s choice. Coerce, cajole, and persuade all you like, but that director, within those parameters, has final say.
36. Go to plays. How do you know what’s good if you don’t see what’s better and worse?
37. Your favorite or best show is always your next one.
38. Trust the material. If you’ve chosen good work to offer your stakeholders and have a lapse of faith in the people charged with executing, trust that you’ve got great taste and the material will prevail. It is sometimes unbelievable what can be accomplished in the final day or days.
39. Aspire to the crossroads of virtuosity and authenticity.
40. See, learn, do, teach. Ushering the next generation of theatre leaders into the field is a responsibility of the job.
41. Make work. Make world.
42. The artistic director of a nonprofit theatre does not ask audiences what they want to see and program that. They lead audiences to see that which they don’t yet know they want to see.
43. Theatre is not a democracy.
44. Talent over type. Chemistry trumps both.
45. What people say in the nine days before an opening doesn’t count. During tech and the final stretch before opening, people say and do things that they otherwise might not do or say. Have a short memory and don’t hold it against them.
46. Avoid power imbalances—treat each freelancer like it is your privilege to work with them and treat each funder as a partner.
47. Manage expectations—avoid surprises.
48. Be selective about opportunities to be trained, to sit on panels, to be the voice of the field or community. There are an infinite number of learning, judging, and teaching sessions to which you’ll be invited—sometimes with compensation, but often without credit or pay. Be careful not to seize so many that you don’t have time to do your core job.
49. No matter how attracted to, enamored of, or in love with someone you are, if that person is or may ever be an employee, contractor, or vendor, do not act upon your feelings. Know it now. Don’t learn it the hard way.
50. Think simultaneously of the organization, community (however defined), and the field.
51. “No” is a complete sentence.
52. The competition of live theatre is not other live theatre or even other live events.
53. Deal so good, they couldn’t say yes. Sometimes, for some people, nothing is ever enough. It usually has nothing to do with you or the specific situation. It can be that person’s frustration with the field and its treatment of freelancers, past unfair treatment of that individual, the cost of childcare, or that the dog pooped on the pillow. While rare, recognize it and move on.
54. What does compromise mean to you? For some, compromise is the devil’s tool, leading invariably to a diluted result and insisting on mediocrity. For others, it is the result of good diplomacy. Case by case, both can be true, but know its influence on your psyche.
55. The media are equals, not pawns or adversaries. The ecosystem of a theatre community is comprised, generally, of theatremakers, those who see theatre, those who write about the theatre that is made, and those who read what is written. It may often be unfair, but over duration it is unfair equally in both directions: your best work is poorly received by those writers as often as your worst work is unduly praised.
56. Honor and encourage honesty, self-criticism, and dissent.
57. Plan, implement, analyze, replan. (Strategic plan. Communication plan. Marketing plan. Fundraising plan.)
58. There is never enough time for strategic planning. Tough shit. Do it and do it well.
59. The formula for good management: provide information with ample time, proper resources (human and financial), articulated expectations, support from the top and bottom, and hold accountable.
60. Spend as much time and attention finding audience as you do to making the programming, whether it’s mainstage, workshops, residencies.
61. Employees who work inspired by mission outperform those who perform for compensation.
62. Try not to let others’ crises become your emergency.
63. Retention of audience is overrated but retention of staff is undervalued.
64. Aspire to be the parent of the future and not the child of the past.
65. Avoid dual reporting. In structures in which two people report to the board, it yields the board as “Mommy,” called upon to iron out disagreements between staff leaders. Eventually board recruitment is jeopardized and board function diluted. Similarly, no employee should be the direct report of more than one person lest troubles ensue.
66. Leaders eat last.
67. Responsibility without authority can be unfair.
68. Even though you are officially management, be pro-labor. The unions are your friends, even when it doesn’t appear so.
69. Ask for help before you need to be rescued.
70. “You can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living.” The rewards of making a career in the professional theatre are not financial, but they are substantial. This oft-cited phrase is usually used in connection with commercial theatre, but it is, to me, about a fulfilled soul.
71. Answer the question, “What is capacity?” (Don’t let yourself be flagellated by, “We don’t have the capacity.”)
72. Eschew institutional models.
73. Disallow the phrase beginning with, “It’d be easier if…”
74. Use your vacation.
75. Know what branding is and live the brand 24/7.
76. Don’t fuck with people’s money, ever. You may need to hold vendors and utilities and rent and an endless list of payables at bay, but manage cash flow such that the freelance employees and contractors get paid when contractual obligations commit to said payments. When necessary, communicate frequently and specifically about relevant issues and the anticipated timing of their resolution. The consequences of mishandling missed compensation take a long, long time to reverse.
77. There is no downside to transparency.
78. Solving complex problems is profoundly rewarding.
79. Work/life balance may just be for everyone else. It’s okay to accept and honor that.
80. Don’t let your gag reflex show when a full-time staff member says, “That’s not my job” when times are difficult.
81. Follow the data. It has been said that “the best indicator of future behavior it to examine past behavior.” It is also true that a futurist is not someone with a crystal ball, but someone who recognizes trends and stays ahead of them. Analyze data of all kinds all the time—of your organization, of the field, of the community, of society, of the cosmos. It only lets you down if you a) don’t track it, or b) assess it poorly. Analysis is an undeniable avenue to a successful tomorrow.
82. Learn when to do nothing. Visualize.
83. Learn to write from the heart, not head.
84. Always listen and listen hard. Things may be said privately and publicly about you, your organization, your work, and more. These things may offend you. You may vehemently disagree with them. They may simply be inaccurate. Never stop listening and you will continually get wiser and smarter about what you are doing. Disregarding what is being said may be the road to your undoing.
85. Avoid the word “innovate.” It cycles in and out of fashion, cycling out suddenly and without warning, rendering you unintentionally passé.
86. Don’t be passé.
87. Think of contracts as one-way agreements and be pleasantly surprised when they’re not. When you offer anyone a contract for anything and they accept, you stop looking. Yet for some (maybe even for many) that contract is a placeholder and they keep looking for a “better job,” feeling absolutely justified when letting you know that the better opportunity has been accepted, nullifying the earlier mutual legal agreement. But woe to the artistic director that would ever sign someone to a contract and then give that person notice because a greater talent had been identified who would work for less and accepted an offer. Accept the double standard, unfair though it may be.
88. Embrace risk. Move swiftly. Capitalize risk.
89. “Don’t tell me a question.” People will ask a question for which they will accept only one answer, which indicates that a question is not really being asked. They are rarely prepared for the consequences of any alternate answer.
90. In the eyes of others, an “expert” is always someone from out of town.
91. It is far more important to be respected than liked. The job description of an artistic director inherently includes making subjective judgments on the quality of others’ work and choosing to utilize those persons’ abilities. Those decisions are met with scrutiny and opinion. That comes with the territory. Treating people with kindness and dignity and honor while making the organization or project your best friend and doing absolute right by that organization or project will garner respect that, in the big picture and long run, endears you to those who choose to judge. Being liked as an ambition can, sadly, lead to mediocrity that can dilute respect.
92. Don’t comment publicly on your thoughts of another artistic director’s choices or decisions.
93. Loyalty is an unparalleled virtue.
94. Talent complements tenacity. Talent without tenacity is flaccid.
95. You will attend innumerable meetings in your career as artistic director. Be prepared, not just present, for every one.
96. Never take for granted the amount of free food and free travel that comes with the job. It’s awesome!
97. You will learn about things you never imagined would be part of being an artistic director: a plethora of government regulations, insurance minutiae, building codes, political ramifications, and so much more. Educate yourself and know them thoroughly until you’re virtually scholarly on the needed topic. No one will sympathize with ignorance and you will find that a little knowledge can be, indeed, dangerous.
98. Go to the dot!
Go directly to any problem. Don’t circumnavigate it in hopes that it will resolve itself on its own.
99. Be public and specific in praise of people who deserve gratitude and appreciation.
100. People often imagine that the people they really like and admire are really good at what they claim to do. It can be difficult to dissuade them of that notion.
101. Lead a culture in which gender is not binary.
102. Be very involved with fundraising and budget management. Know the budget better than anyone. Your numbers aren’t numbers—they are people and things and activities with a narrative.
103. Don’t follow the money. Try to never rationalize that something is good for the organization for which money is possibly available. It is a tempting trap that is often unhealthy in the long run and for the field. Would you have chosen to pursue that course of action had those dollars not revealed themselves? Ask and answer that question honestly and know that staff and board may declare it a missed opportunity.
104. Constantly be successfully on top of projected year-end (PYE) and cash flow and you will thrive. For theatres of all sizes (and probably for any business of any type of any size), knowing that the end of the year will reveal income equal to or exceeding expenses and that cash flow can always be managed to be positive allows fiscal health. Be vigilant and know this to be true 365 days a year.
105. Use restricted funds for only their appointed purposes. In the nonprofit world, cash is not king. The road to ruination for many nonprofits is spending dollars that have been designated (usually by a funder/donor) for a specific activity, for an identified time period, or for a geographic area on general operations with the internal promise to pay them back.
106. Value is on a continuum of quality and cost.
107. Don’t let programming be considered variable costs. When financial times are tight, staffs and boards needing to fill budgetary gaps may view programming—the very delivery system of mission, vision, purpose, and quality—as the most vulnerable cells in the budget to be adjusted. Resist this and share the burden across numerous, if not all, administrative, financial, and programmatic areas. The majority of dollars come into the organization because of programming and an institution’s ability to accomplish that to which it aspires.
108. Don’t acknowledge the game. People in the field often offer sage advice on “how the game is played” so that you can be informed and succeed at the game. If you don’t acknowledge that there is a game to be played, you get to invent your own way to navigate the field and its players that can very often serve you better than the rules of an amorphous, undefined, nameless game.
109. When things look bleak, ask yourself not what the community would feel like without your organization, but what the community would feel like without theatre! Then work an extra ten hours that day and right the ship.
110. Lead change management.
111. Know your grade. As I entered high school, my sister gave me this sage advice:
The freshman knows not that he knows not.
The sophomore knows that she knows not.
The junior knows not that he knows.
The senior knows that he knows.
For each decision you make, be aware of what grade you’re in regarding that decision-making.
Years ago a St. Paul kindergartener named Reuler was asked to demonstrate that he could count. As he got into three digits, he counted one hundred eight, one hundred nine, eleventy, eleventy-one… at which time he was stopped by his teacher and corrected, being told that it is, correctly, one hundred ten and one hundred eleven. The five-year-old responded, “If 81 is eighty-one and 91 is ninety-one, then 111 is eleventy-one!” and held his ground. While that may have, in another time, led to a diagnosis of oppositional defiance disorder, that young contrarian became determined to live a life in which things aren’t always what they appear to be or what others name them to be. My fascination with the symmetry of numbers remains to this day and so having 111 (eleventy-one) nuggets that I have gleaned through decades of leading a regional theatre in America will, hopefully, save years of discovery through trial and error for new artistic directors.