Aligning Values with Actions
Bill Rauch and Diane Ragsdale in Conversation
Bill Rauch: I have to tell you it’s very surreal to have a conversation with you about leadership transition because our executive director, Cynthia Rider, just announced to our company that she’s leaving. So Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is in dual leadership transition. The topic could not be more raw or relevant to my life.
Diane Ragsdale: When’s her departure going to happen?
Bill: We’re working on identifying an interim executive director, and we hope they will be able to start at the end of November, when Cynthia would step down.
Diane: And you’re still planning to leave next summer, right?
Bill: That’s correct.
Diane: And the search is ongoing for your replacement?
Bill: Yes. That’s on schedule and doing really well.
Diane: Fantastic, I’m so glad to hear it. Dual leadership situations, with the two individuals at a top of an organization, are so much like a marriage at times. And getting that dynamic right is so important.
When you first arrived at OSF in 2006, one of the two main areas of focus for you was around equity and diversity and inclusion, which at the time seemed really radical to a lot of people in the field, for an organization like OSF. I read an article last week in the New York Times by Wesley Morris that was essentially asking, have we moved into an era in which culture is being evaluated for its moral correctness more than for its quality? I’m wondering whether, when you first got to OSF, if you encountered similar arguments or concerns from people that you would somehow be shifting away from excellence in favor of... moral goodness? And, if so, how did you respond to that?
Bill: Honestly I feel like that’s been a lifelong argument I’ve been part of. In my twenty years at Cornerstone the argument about social service versus artistic excellence… I once had a meeting with the then-deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), when Cornerstone was just a few years old. And he said to me, “Look in my eyes. You people will never receive a dime of federal taxpayers’ money because we are here to reward excellence and nothing that involves amateurs will ever be of national excellence. So don’t waste our time.”
I became obsessed with getting an NEA grant then. The narrative that social good is a separate goal from artistic excellence, and that the two cannot be linked, is one I’ve been fighting a long time. And I agree that at OSF our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion is our responsibility to social justice. Some people very, very much want to create a false dichotomy between artistic mission and social justice as expressed through diversity and inclusion. In recent years at OSF, I have taken to saying that our mission is to reveal our collective humanity; that’s the action statement at the heart of it. And you cannot reveal our collective humanity—whether across time, eras, continents, or any number of differences we have as human beings—without engaging in social justice work. So it’s not that we’re a social justice organization instead of an arts organization, but as an arts organization there’s a social justice component to our mission.
We have a new program called Company Connects, where company members can send anonymous emails to raise questions about the things that trouble them, to try to get information. And the ever-brilliant Allison Carey, a member of the executive team, tries to get answers to these things, and then we share them.
One of them this week was a response to some of our financial challenges, as we just eliminated sixteen positions. The question was: “How can you eliminate jobs and still spend money on equity, diversity, and inclusion? We’ve done company-wide training, so haven’t we finished with that? How can you possibly defend spending a dime on this when people are losing their jobs?”
And our director of equity, Sharifa Johka, gave the most extraordinary speech in response that got thunderous applause from the company. It was one of the most affirming moments I’ve had in artistic leadership, frankly. That somebody felt safe enough to ask the question, that we had a director of equity on staff with unbelievable analysis and just brilliant clarity. And that she was able to give this speech and that the speech got this incredible applause. I’m so aware of how far we have to go on this never-ending journey, but it made me very, very proud to work here today.
Diane: One of the things I think about all the time is how powerful economic constraints can be, and how often economic exigencies become the defense for the status quo. And how if arts organizations aren’t equally strong with their aesthetic and ethical constraints, maybe self-imposed by leadership, that the business model gets out in front of everything else. And by “aesthetic and ethical constraints” I mean the ideas about what kind of art gets made and for whom, what the process is, what price point it’s sold at, et cetera. As you try to make these shifts at OSF, do you operate in this way—that is, with strong boundaries or constraints, or by mandating certain practices or policies that are grounded in your aesthetic and ethical values? How did you do it?
Bill: In terms of the example I just shared, we knew we needed a director of equity long before we got one. And the argument was always that we couldn’t afford to expand our staff because of our many conflicting priorities. So yes, I agree with your point about the economic argument keeping people from being grounded in what they say their values are, and there’s so often a gap between stated values and actions, which we all struggle with in life. Organizations certainly struggle and non-profit organizations certainly struggle. But the goal has got to always be to have the best alignment between one’s stated values and one’s actions. We have to. I know that we’ve gotten better alignment when it comes to the value of inclusion over my eleven years here. But that’s been hard-won.
The narrative that social good is a separate goal from artistic excellence, and that the two cannot be linked, is one I’ve been fighting a long time.
Diane: Did you have to go to battle? Did you have to, for instance, insist on certain policies being made? Or certain things happening? Did you have the board support in this? Did you have a team advancing this with you from the very beginning?
Bill: When it comes to racial equity, the heroes of the story at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival are the people of color who have had the patience and courage to move the dialogue forward and to push the company. Without a doubt. And that’s true of every marginalized community. It took transgender company members to ask that people self-identify with pronouns, although a measure of progress was when the cisgender members of our crew said we should publish pronoun preferences in our playbill—which I’ve gotten tremendous flack for from audience members ever since we started doing it.
But had it not been for transgender company members demanding equity and then allies stepping forward and pushing that demand further, we would not be where we are today. And where we are today is so far from where we need to be.
Let me back way up for a minute and say something about the transition from Libby Appel to me as artistic director. There are so many things that OSF did right in it, and I think the primary thing was the tremendous clarity around how Libby was responsible for the 2007 season and I was responsible for the 2008 season—everything from selecting and hiring artists to all of the marketing. I had been appointed in August of 2006, so there was a fifteen-month runway before my first season began.
I know there’s a philosophy about the old person being out on Friday and the new person is in on Monday. That has not been my experience. Micheal John Garces and I had a long overlap at Cornerstone. Libby and I had a long overlap. And I’m going to have a long overlap with my successor here. And I have a long “on” ramp to my job at the Perelman. I know there’s no one size fits all, but in my experiences, the long overlap combined with mutual respect for the outgoing and the incoming leaders, combined with rigorous clarity about who’s responsible for what, has largely been a great recipe for success.
Diane: That’s great. And that’s rare.
Bill: Libby didn’t like any number of decisions that I made, and I wanted to change any number of things she had done. But there was mutual respect and professionalism through it all. There was one point of conflict, or one gap in our carefully prepared approach, and it involved in-venue audience surveying.
In 2007, her final season, the marketing department was eager. We had always surveyed ticket buyers, never the people sitting in the seats. And as the new artistic director, I worked with the department to formulate the questions that were going to be in the in-venue surveys. One of the things I was obsessed with learning about was people’s predilections when it came to Shakespeare and other classical work in terms of period approach versus contemporary approach, so there were a couple questions about that. The team ran it all by me; I approved of everything. They were put on the chairs in the three theatres, and Libby discovered one and was so upset. She said, “These are the shows I have selected. This is my work as an artistic director, and you’re asking questions that I find completely inappropriate and that I would never want our audience to be asked. This is still my season, it’s not your season yet, and you can’t ask these questions of our audience.”
Honestly, that was the only time I can think of when there was a big gash in our understanding and communication about who was responsible for what. And I share that with all its specificity because with fifteen months overlap, that was the only real moment of conflict we faced.
Diane: You had hinted at this, and I think it felt, to outsiders looking in, like you were taking OSF in a pretty radically new direction, both with ambitious new plays and equity, diversity, and inclusion. Was one of those two riskier for you?
Bill: I was very cautious in the search process—Do I really want to go to this theatre? Does this theatre really want me? Is this the right match? I had studied the last audience survey, which had been done three years earlier. And on the Shakespeare question in particular, there were so many audience comments about preferring traditional Shakespeare, which is not my taste. But, interestingly, many times they said, “We really prefer traditional Shakespeare, except for that Comedy of Errors that was set in Las Vegas, we loved that.” Which of course I had directed. And that made me go, Okay, people have their own aesthetic preference, but if a production is well acted, well directed, well designed, it’s not that the audience is so locked into a certain period. They respond to work if it’s got integrity. That gave me a lot of hope.
But I’ll tell you the big mistake I made when I arrived. Remember, my first season was 2008, which was the presidential election year. And late in ’08 and early ’09 was when President Obama was inaugurated. In all of my early speeches, I used the word “change” so liberally—it was a positive word to me.
As a new artistic leader, I had brought energy and excitement and the promise of change. It was my first time working for a much older organization, where some people had been here for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years. And I did not understand at all that every time I used the word change, it was a dagger in the heart of people who’d been here a long time. Because they heard it as, “He doesn’t respect what we’ve done. He doesn’t respect where we’re coming from.” And even though I felt like I grounded all of my comments and all my speeches and all my actions in a respect for the institution and what had come before, my language was not reinforcing that.
After a couple years, I learned that I was not being an effective communicator. And it wasn’t that my views needed to change; it was that my language needed to be more sensitive. I began to talk about the tradition of innovation and the insane risks that my predecessors had taken. You know what it took to go from being a fully amateur theatre to willingly signing a contract with Actor’s Equity in 1984 to commit to hiring Equity actors? Or what it meant going from doing only uncut, intermission-less, Elizabethan-dress productions of Shakespeare in an outdoor venue to building a new theatre and opening it with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which at the time was a two-year-old play? There were all sorts of moments of risk-taking and commitment to new work. And there was a woman of color in the company in 1938!
I learned that, yes, I had my vision and my agenda that I hoped was responsive to what had come before and what we would build on—we’re standing on the shoulders of the giants. But it’s about how we can be responsive to this moment that we find ourselves in, both at the institution and as a society.
I know there’s no one size fits all, but in my experiences, the long overlap combined with mutual respect for the outgoing and the incoming leaders, combined with rigorous clarity about who’s responsible for what, has largely been a great recipe for success.
Diane: That lesson learned—about having to trace the throughline back to the beginning so that people could make sense of what you were doing—was the shift that you made. Having now done this a couple of times, do you have a philosophy of artistic leadership? Some articulation of the artistic director’s purpose or role?
Bill: I always say that as a director I’m lucky enough that I get to edit other people’s good ideas. And I feel like artistic leadership is partly that. Obviously I have to be the spokesperson for the company, but the job is more about listening than speaking. Certainly listening before speaking. And I keep relearning that lesson in deeper and deeper ways the older I get and the more I do this work.
Diane: Do you tend to build a team of people who share your vision, who buy into your worldview? Or are you more of a team of rivals person, surrounding yourself with people who challenge your perspective?
Bill: It’s got to be both. There has to be enough synchronicity of core vision that we are all moving together. But I have to be surrounded by people who are going to challenge me and who are going to question my decisions.
I’m collaborative perhaps to a fault, both in artistic leadership and in the rehearsal room. I think I’ve become a theatre artist and a theatre leader—an arts leader—because I can’t do things on my own. I have to be in dialogue with people who are smarter than me, who know more about any number of things, who will question how I’m living my values with any given decision in ways that it would not have dawned on me to question.
I think so often we support a leader to their face and confront them behind their backs. But it’s about the respect of conflict of ideas as opposed to interpersonal conflict.
I can’t function without the wisdom and collaboration of people who are in deepest sync, in terms of what matters the most, but whose daily approach is to ask hard questions. And to not agree with me. One of my mantras has been: support me behind my back, confront me to my face. I think so often we support a leader to their face and confront them behind their backs. But it’s about the respect of conflict of ideas as opposed to interpersonal conflict. It’s actually a sign of great respect to contradict somebody’s idea and go to battle for another one.
Diane: Can we veer for a moment to #MeToo, #TimesUp?
Diane: What do you think the responsibility of an artistic leader is in this changed cultural environment?
Bill: Anytime a community that’s been marginalized sees progress, or progress on injustice is made, or marginalized communities are given a voice—that’s good for the entire world.
Diane: Drilling down specifically into this issue of sexual misconduct, there have been some high-profile cases that have come to light. The Town Hall meetings that happened at the Public Theater in NYC and at this past year’s TCG conference raised awareness that we perhaps have a widespread issue in the arts and the theatre. And it seems to me that a major barrier to the change that is needed is perhaps this taken-for-granted notion in the arts that it’s somehow okay to expect people to tolerate certain abuses, whether those are verbal or exploitation or sexual misconduct, if the art is great. Right? That we somehow justify harms to people in the arts on the basis of not wanting to perpetuate harms to art.
There are power dynamics that play into this. As somebody running an organization, I want to ask you how this changes? Do you think it’s about new policies? New rules that are rigidly enforced? Or is it something else that begins to allow a shift, or require a shift, to happen?
Bill: How many times have we seen artists or arts leaders put stories on their stages of abusive power, of economic injustice, of the evils of misogyny, that critique violence in the world? And then who in their leadership perpetuates that violence and those injustices, right? We see that again and again and again.
To me it goes back to alignment between stated values and action. Are all those organizations in alignment? Are they working toward being in better alignment? What is their mission and what are their stated values? Is the organization living those through with what it puts on its stages and with how it treats the people who work unbelievably hard to make the work happen? That is what we’ve been striving to do at OSF—have better alignment. Because that’s the only way that, in our daily practice, we live the lessons we are preaching on our stages.
Diane: If we think about the role of art in society—a way of helping us share with one another what it means to be human, and the fragility and the vulnerability and the beauty of that—and then contrast that with behaviors that really don’t speak to that at all… It’s ironic.
Can we shift a little bit to your transition underway? The World Trade Center site, which will be the home of the Perelman Performing Arts Center, has been fraught with controversy and it’s been more than a decade in the making. You have the opportunity to create what this important new organization will be. Is there a basket of questions or animating ideas that you’re carrying with you as you head into the Perelman? Is there anything that you want to do differently based on what you learned at Cornerstone or OSF?
Bill: Isn’t our whole journey through life: How do you become yourself with less fear and less apology and more courage and more love?
Diane: Yeah. Hallelujah. Yeah.
Bill: I would just say I hope I’ll do even better next time. That’s all we can do as artists and as leaders.