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Collective Leadership

A Conversation with Red Eye’s Artistic Directors

The upheaval of 2020 caught the organization we lead, Red Eye Theater—a venue and incubator of experimental performance in Minneapolis, Minnesota—already in the midst of a major transition. Not only had we lost our space of nearly thirty years to a wave of gentrification, but the co-founders had recently passed the torch to the seven of us as new leaders under a collective leadership model, with a horizontal structure and consensus-based process.

Now two years into the experiment, we co–artistic directors gathered to discuss collective work and how it intersects with our artistic lives and close communities, so others can think about alternative models for organizing their own work.

Andrew Lee Dolan: It feels like there’s an assumption from some in the field that hierarchy is the way. But collective leadership makes sense to us. We are seven people—we all got this. Why would we place one of us above another person?

Theo Langason: Did we create a collaborative dynamic or did we choose the structure and then the dynamic created itself?

Hayley Finn: From the beginning, we wanted all of us as new leaders to continue our own artistic practice while still being part of Red Eye—our artistic processes would feed into how we were working together as a collaborative.

Everyone brings not just different skill sets but different perspectives into the conversation, which makes it richer and more alive and dynamic. It challenges my assumptions.

Andrew: We all have really strong opinions, and we have to duke it out. That’s what collaboration is.

Valerie Oliveiro: Collective leadership is a huge opportunity for complexity. But what has been really meaningful for me is the ability to learn about how to make space in my own body for us to be with each other consistently.

Emily Gastineau: It’s important to practice not knowing in advance, so you can arrive somewhere you maybe didn’t expect, and at something that could only come about between that particular constellation of people.

Jeffrey Wells: In the performing arts world, it feels like there’s a lot of risk right now. There’s something about working in collaboration that provides a real sense of support and safety, that allows me to push forward the creative risk, or the helpful or exciting risk, that I want to take. And it mitigates the system risk I would rather not have to deal with alone.

There’s something about working in collaboration that provides a real sense of support and safety, that allows me to push forward the creative risk, or the helpful or exciting risk, that I want to take. And it mitigates the system risk I would rather not have to deal with alone.

Hayley: In more traditional structures, there is a separation of management, finances, and the artistic work. By having seven people working together, we’re all leaders in all the areas.

Theo: When you say traditionally, Hayley, it’s like, whose tradition, right? What the seven of us are doing isn’t terribly revolutionary. The only difference is that we backdoored our way to traditional funding structures and resources. Now we have the backing of a thirty-eight-year-old organization but can apply a more community-focused, person-focused lens to it.

Rachel Jendrzejewski: Totally. This is making me think of the article you shared a while back, Theo, about white supremacy culture in the workplace. Collective leadership isn’t especially new, and it definitely doesn’t magically make everything equitable, but it does push against a lot of norms in United States nonprofit culture that are deeply entrenched. We’ve acknowledged that multiplicity is a value that we share, that collaboration takes longer.

Hayley: Yes. And we’ve carried that concept of a multiplicity of voices in all aspects of our work and have collectively created structures to get our work done. For example, all work is done in subcommittees. Originally there were only one or two people in each committee, but then we decided most committees should have three people to ensure a multiplicity of voices.

Andrew: Everybody has a specific area of responsibility that they must hold, and the group will hold them accountable to that responsibility. But I think we still have seven different definitions of collective, of consensus, of how we make decisions.

Emily: I got bothered by how we are using the word “leadership” just now. We haven’t interrogated that as much as we have “collective” and “collaboration.” I think we’re really talking about our responsibility to each other and our responsibility to the artists we work with, our supporters, and people in our community.

Red Eye Theater's seven artistic directors.

Red Eye Theater co-artistic directors. Photo credit: Valerie Oliveiro.

Hayley: There are different ways of thinking about leadership. Some models are more about stewardship or serving artists; not every vision of leadership is top-down. We need people to be leaders for society to move forward.

Val: Being a historically successful and now majority white-led organization benefits us. I think of our collective as a prism, where through our experiences and perspectives of power, the structure creates dispersion and allows its interrogation. We know that power amongst us is inequitable, and I hope we can cultivate the impression that just because we are a collective, our power is not monolithic, but open, porous, and accessible. It exists and it can hurt people, and it can bring about joy.

Jeffrey: I think a challenge of ours as leaders of a collective model, both pre-pandemic and during the pandemic, has been reconciling or meeting each other in terms of conceptions of workload and work ethic. Who is carrying any task at any certain time? How do we help each other or hinder each other in our individual or subcommittee tasks?

Rachel: It’s like, Theo’s responsible for this particular area, but anyone else who wants to can participate. But we know that Theo’s going to bring that task to the finish line, whether or not anyone wants to be part of that process.

Emily: There’s a question we haven’t resolved among the seven of us: Should we all be doing an equal amount of work? Andrew has said that the distribution of work is not equal, which I agree with. An unspoken principle is that whoever is doing the work we trust to make the decision. So if someone is doing more work, do they have more power within the group? We also talk often about how our various identities intersect with each other within the group dynamic.

Collaborative work takes practice.

Jeffrey: Conceptions of time is another challenge that has come up a lot. What is a timely way to get things done? I think we have seven different versions of that too.

Val: Labor and time invested is a long-term process. It has to find equity in the moment. I don’t want to say that we even each other out, but we all contribute differently, and it is all valid.

Theo: It’s also important that each of us who are making those decisions have that power because the group wants it that way. We’re in active conversations all the time about our values, our dreams, our ethics—as a collective and individuals. When we are making decisions, it’s informed by those conversations.

Andrew: The collaborative work takes practice. One reason why we’ve had success is because we’re practicing it four or five times a week, meeting every week as a team for a few hours and then meeting once, twice, three times a week with our smaller groups. We’re encouraging ourselves to live in that world.

Rachel: I’m curious how everyone reconciles being independent artists and running an organization that supports our own work as well as the work of other artists. Because our version of a collective is so different from many companies that are collectively run. Most of them make their artistic work with each other, and we mostly have separate practices. Do you all still identify as independent artists?

Val: This structure allows the complexity for me to identify as an independent artist, an artistic director, and the other jobs I do, like being a lighting designer. I feel like that is practice for everyone in this room to be able to see me as the many things I am.

Hayley: I view myself as having many different roles. My hope is that I’m always learning from one thing to the next, so that my other work informs my work here, but also what I’m learning about collective leadership and collaboration I’m bringing back to my other work. And my own artistic practice is informed by everybody in this room.

Emily: What has shifted in your practices?

Jeffrey: I have been way less creative or productive since taking on this job. There’s definitely the trajectory of my own artistic life, my age, and the life I share with my long-term collaborators, but there’s also a new pressure in this context to question what’s really worth bringing to this realm of Red Eye. Maybe there’s an internal sense of not wanting to squander this exceptional opportunity.

Emily: I do think we’re in the middle of a shift related to that within the group. Because we’ve said since we took over, two years ago, that we’re going to support our own work, but we didn’t actually place emphasis on it or make a structure to do so until a couple of months ago. But I’m starting to see our actions line up with our values there.

Andrew: When we all came together and decided on a new organizational structure that was different from the last structure, we had to determine how to run the organization. We had just lost our venue not more than five months before due to our landlord breaking the lease and selling the property the organization was in for twenty-eight years. So there was a little bit of administrative work frontloaded on us coming into what used to be producing theatre. There was a lot we needed to figure out to be able to get to where we are now.

This structure allows the complexity for me to identify as an independent artist, an artistic director, and the other jobs I do, like being a lighting designer.

Rachel: The thing that so many people in our community valued about Red Eye was the space. And we’ve been figuring out what a new home could be for the organization, both in terms of the values and structures, but also an actual physical home so that we can support artists in our community. That became really a pressing need.

Val: We’re such different people, and we have different communities that hold us and that we hold.

Rachel: I think the spread of all of our different networks is really significant. The Red Eye community is already a complex convergence of people from a range of disciplines, identities, career stages, reasons for gravitating to performance. And with seven people leading the organization instead of the original two, there’s an organic expansion that was bound to happen. But we also talk about being really deliberate in that expansion, being aware and proactive about it through an equity lens.

Theo: Sometimes folks use the word “community” as shorthand for “anyone who isn’t an artist.” Artists are a major part of our community, and it’s important to recognize that as valid. Our community looks all different kinds of ways and each person has all different kinds of experiences they’re bringing to Red Eye’s work. They also have all different kinds of communities they intersect with in addition to Red Eye, which is a beautiful thing.

Emily: We know their names. We’ve worked on projects together. We text each other.

Rachel: And at the same time, we’re also committed to inviting other people in, beyond the ones we know and text.

Hayley: Could we go around the room and say one thing we’re looking forward to in our work with Red Eye?

Val: I hope we can find complex and beautiful language for how we want the world to experience us as a group of people. And I hope we can continue to define the loving ways in which we can be with the people we want to hold around us, and to hold us.

Theo: I’m heartened to see the ways in which collective leadership is rippling throughout the world in general. The ways individualism has been valued is shifting and the ways collectivism has been valued is shifting. It’s showing up in a lot of different places in my life.

Andrew: I’m excited for our first season in our new space, because we will have seven people giving seven different curtain speeches on all different nights. So many small organizations are led by an individual vision. But seven people pushing forward their ideas—we have to have a shared vision that then becomes the shared vision of the people we’re working with.

Emily: I’m seeing some real seeds of big shifts that are going to happen in the culture. People are also going to be so fucking hungry once we can be in the same space and make things happen, so I expect a lot is going to materialize really quickly. Our job is to be ready to support and catalyze it, and to respond to the ways the world is going to be different once we’re back.

Hayley: I also think there’s an exciting moment that’s coming up, specifically with the opening of our new space, to figure out how to present our values within the space and how we’re inviting people into it and creating community with and around it.

Rachel: I’m curious about what we’ll learn as we do come together in a central gathering place again. Will we see each other every day? Maybe not every day, but often, in person. We have established this sturdy foundation where we don’t have to be in person, and that flexibility is really valuable. I’m looking forward to the integration.

Jeffrey: I’m thinking of holding precious space for searching, space for contemplation and uncertainty. And time. Not getting seduced by the work that needs to be done, but really trying to do the work that brings joy and creates deep connection within our ecosystem.

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