Ronee Penoi: I find, and I hear this from any new leader that I’ve worked with, that there’s this sense of being so hungry to hear what the new person wants to do. I know for me, the last thing I want to is to come in and just bring in a sweeping set of “here are all my ideas.” If there’s anything I feel like I’ve learned up until this point, it’s that any good work has to be layered onto what’s already there. And it has to start from listening, and everything is about people. So you need to understand the people. It‘s funny. It‘s like asking folks, “How do you work?” Well, we work five different ways. “And what do you need?” Well, I’m not sure yet. “And also, what kind of agenda are you bringing?” And I’m like, I don’t know, I’m just listening.
Shanta Thake: It’s such a challenge, but you’re right. You come in and, in my own experience, too, they’re so hungry to find out, “What is the plan? Tell me what the plan is.” And it’s like, “Well, isn‘t the reason I‘m here because of collaborative leadership?”
I was telling somebody it will feel like you’re still interviewing yourself for months until you do have a plan that is built on what has been heard and hopefully is nestled in the lifeblood of the organization. It feels a little bit… there is definitely an ongoing tension there, where I’m like, “Okay, every board member, every staff member, I just have to really hold the space for their ideas to still have room.”
Ronee: Exactly. Exactly. And it’s such a tricky balance. It’s even harder over Zoom until you can really get face-to-face with folks. I wanted to ask you—there was this wave of new artistic leadership that just felt like, “Great! There are all these BIPOC leaders that are coming into leadership.” You know, Maria Goyanes and Stephanie Ybarra… and then there’s the COVID crisis, there’s George Floyd, and there’s, in this moment, a real sense of climate crisis. What is the responsibility of what an organization is doing—running the ship and trying to change the entire design of the ship at the same time—to try to address the moment? So I’m just curious how you’re holding all of that with the kind of newness of the role. It’s a huge question.
Shanta: I think it’s one that I’ll be asking for a long time. I’m somebody who really likes stability. I like working in an institution. I think I‘m very aware what the freelance life looks like, and I’m very aware of what an independent producer’s life looks like. And for me, I came to New York to be an actor.
Ronee: I didn’t know that.
Shanta: Yeah. And right away, I was like, “Oh no, no, no, this is not for me.” I want to grow something that is not gig to gig to gig. I know that that’s possible in a freelance life, but for me, I found a lot of safety and freedom in an institution. I think people assume that, by virtue of being an institution, you’re a rigid, huge behemoth and you can’t do anything. And I think that the opposite really can be true. That within the framework of an institution, you have a baseline of support. You have an incredible group of people who are signing up to work for a mission that is bigger than themselves. A group of people that are dedicated to service and their community. That’s such a gift and it allows for really hard conversations to exist. It’s important to make sure that that center is not rotten, and that takes time and work and trust.
I think if the foundation is good, then the institution can hold so many things, become so many things, and change radically. I found it really freeing to work in an institution. And I’ve said it before, but I believe that I have worked in about five different organizations at the Public [Theater]. It changes all the time, and when I leave it will change again. And that’s great. That’s incredible.
Some of these things can only happen in big institutions. It can crush a small company to feel so tied to one person or a set of individuals that you just lose the focus so easily. But at a big institution, I think there’s a lot of space for these things to happen and for magic to be happening in corners all over the place. It’s just about noticing and pulling that closer to what everybody’s focusing on.