Following the "Knowing"

Joanie Schultz and Sarah Rasmussen in Conversation

Sarah Rasmussen: I’m the kind of person who likes to start by reading a poem. Bear with my weirdness. Do you know Krista Tippett’s show On Being?

Joanie Schultz: Yes.

Sarah: My happy place is to listen to Krista Tippett. I listen while I swim. And I heard this poem by David Whyte the other day and I thought of you: “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn that anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

Joanie: That’s beautiful.

Sarah: I feel like he was able to name something I have been circling around in leadership, of learning the difference between when a feeling of discomfort is failure and when it is frustration. For whatever reasons, perhaps as a female on this planet, I’ve been conditioned to think of discomfort as my own failure, rather than a frustration that is leading me towards needing something bigger or something different. Or something more. Maybe when things are hard, it’s cause they’re actually too small for us and we need something different.

Joanie: I’ve been reflecting recently on lessons I learned during my two years as artistic director of WaterTower Theatre in Addison, Texas, which I just wrapped up. One of them is that I think we, as an organization, took certain turns where I wish we had taken different ones. I had instincts about those things, and I said, “I really think we should go this way. I think we need to do this thing.” But I let myself get talked out of those things. I wasn’t trusting everything I actually know. And I attribute that to many things, including the quieting of our internal voices that we are taught to do as women. That was a big lesson for me; I am not going to do that anymore.

Sarah: I agree: Say what you think in the moment. Don’t swallow that intuition or that gut feeling when you know something doesn’t feel right. I wrestle so much with this in my role as artistic director of Jungle Theater in Minneapolis: Wanting to be porous, to take in all perspectives—you and I both took over founder-led organizations, where we’ve been creating a different culture of conversation, of collaboration. But also balancing that openness with trusting my gut intuition on what feels like the right next step.

It’s hard when it’s a first artistic job. It’s all new terrain. A lot of the skills from teaching and from being in the rehearsal room transfer over, but in the rehearsal room I completely trust my gut and have no problem saying what’s working, what’s not, and where we need to go in the moment. A big learning for me is to trust those leadership skills in the broader management of the theatre.

Joanie: In the rehearsal room, I feel confident making a strong choice and failing. In our institutional jobs it can be harder to bring that same spirit, especially when you’re first starting and everybody’s looking at you. And—I don’t know if I even mean this in a negative way—judging. They’re wondering, “Who is our new leader?” You feel like you’re under a microscope, being studied by the community, the board, the critics, and your staff. And yourself even. So it’s hard to make those bold choices and say, “Some of these are going to fail” because it might be really hard to bring some people back around. But these are creative institutions and we have to lead them like creative leaders, even if that’s scary.

Sarah: Absolutely.

Sarah Rasmussen backstage

Sarah backstage. Photo by Myrtle Lemon.

Joanie: In a recent conversation I had about those moments of intuition, I decided to rename it “knowing.” When I know something, I know something. It’s not intuition. It’s not something magical. I have to trust that so I can convince everyone else. And, if I end up being wrong, then that’s the challenge of leadership.

Sarah: I love that word, “knowing.” Because you’re right, it takes the magical quality out of it. All of it is practice, right? It takes practice and time on the ground to trust the knowing, to name it, to contextualize it. The biggest risks we’ve taken at the Jungle have been the things that have paid off the most, but they were the most terrifying in the moment to embark on.

How do you get people on board with trusting and following that knowing? What do you think helps foster the environment where that can happen?

Joanie: In my case, the staff, managing director, and board had all been at WaterTower longer than I had. But it is also a founder-led theatre, so, for better or worse, everything has been built for the style and the evolution of that human being. We would get to crossroads and I would say, “We really need to be doing this instead of that.” And if people had strong reactions to that, of course I would take a step back to listen. I had a lot to learn because I was the new person. The leader and the new person at the same time.

Sarah: Right.

When I know something, I know something. It’s not intuition. It’s not something magical. I have to trust that so I can convince everyone else.

Joanie: You need to listen to the people around you. But one of the things I don’t think I totally understood until I was in the thick of it was that each of the people I was listening to had their own history, and stake, and vision for the organization. Every single person on the board, on staff, and in the community has a different vision for what the leader’s going to do next.

Even if you’ve been hired because of your vision, you have to continue to get everybody on that same page constantly. Every choice you make—not just the artistic choices, but how you budget, how you structure—all of that is part of the vision. And every level of the organization has to be on that same train.

Now when I look back at some of these nodal moments, each of those “if/buts,” I see where other stakeholders were pushing in a different way. Those small choices all build up, taking the train off the tracks. And the business and the art lining up is essential to success.

Sarah: Coming into a founder-led institution opens up a whole era of inquiry into “why.” Why do we do it this way? As the new leader, you’re the new person in a whole culture that was created around one person’s personality and strengths and weaknesses. There’s something beautiful about founders; they started something from nothing. And in order to start something from nothing, it takes so much selfless love and volunteered time. That becomes the culture, and that’s not inherently bad. I’m trying to find a different word for cult here—it’s like you’re taking over for a charismatic cult leader who was able to mobilize something from the ground up. But founder-led theatres are not conventional institutions yet. They’ve never experienced leadership change. They’ve never experienced that level of questioning. What’s the budget size of WaterTower?

Joanie: $1.7 million.

Sarah: Okay. We’re almost identical. It’s not like we are mid-size or large regional theatres where new people were coming in to design or direct. It was all the same family for so long at the Jungle. It’s not really an institution yet. It’s been built on blood, sweat, tears, and love.

A big thing for me has been how do we transition into an organization that’s not asking people to work for free? Our business model was built on the previous artistic director’s decades of deep connections in the community, with his donors, with his people. Transitioning the business model and vision takes a lot of time and a lot of questioning.

During our leadership transition, the person who did our search stayed available to me. I felt like I really needed the encouragement from an outside not-for-profit expert to say, “It is okay to keep asking why.” And the answer can’t be because that’s how we’ve always done it. That is ultimately not a sustainable answer.

Joanie: I wish I had also had somebody in my transition a little bit longer. The search firm that hired me was gone when I started. I only had other stakeholders to trust. And it’s not that they’re untrustworthy, it’s just that they all have their own vision and thoughts. You need a neutral person who is experienced coming from the outside.

A lot of the things I felt like I walked into, then I would find out afterwards that I changed something. I think we all have our own assumptions about how theatre is made. And you know this from freelancing. You go into another person’s theatre, as a director, and often times—even at a regional theatre that’s used to having a lot of freelancers come in—they don’t always know what they do differently than other people.

Sarah: Yes, yes, yes.

Joanie: I’ve worked a lot in one city. I think I know the way theatre works. But that might be a Chicago way, where I’m from and where I’ve mostly worked. When I came to WaterTower, I made a lot of assumptions about what we do and how and why theatre is made. Then I would find out that it was completely different than how they’d ever done it. There were so many culture clashes.

Joanie sits in front of a festive background

Joanie at the photo shoot for WaterTower Theatre's 2018-19 Season brochure. Photo by Evan Michael Woods.

Sarah: I want to go back to one thing you said about that neutral third party. Because if there’s anything I can impart to a new artistic director, especially somebody taking over for a founder, it would be that. Having that third party was key. We stumbled into it, it wasn’t our plan.

I’m thinking about David Dower’s intro article in this leadership series, which we both responded to really strongly. He talks about raising money for the transition because there will be a valley. Subscribers will fall off. Your audience and donors will change. You will be doing epic vision work while trying to keep the doors open. I wish I had David’s article three and a half years ago, when I started at the Jungle, to know that was normal. It would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights.

Originally, I thought it would be important to me to have artistic director mentors. And that has been really important on larger philosophical things. But the thing that has made the biggest difference is having an expert in not-for-profit systems and business models, and an expert in the culture of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

Looking back, I wish the theatre would have raised money for the transition. Between the time I took the job and the time I got to Minneapolis, which was a couple of months, the finances of the theatre had changed fairly dramatically. Nothing untoward, just the nature of not-for-profits. So I was coming on board with all this excitement about change and knowing—my intuition—that it would be really important to be bold and take risks. But cash flow was challenging. And that’s a horrible feeling, to know I need to take risks and yet there is no cushion, no support, and a board that is justifiably concerned about finances.

That crisis moved us quickly into having third-party strategic thinkers come on board to help us: Kathy Graves at Parenteau Graves and Robin Gillette at Arts Progress. That was a gift because they were able to speak to the board in a different way than I could. Or the board could hear them in a different way because of their decades of experience in not-for-profit leadership. That then allowed me a little peace of mind to feel like I could drive the artistic vision forward. And I knew that somebody else was in my corner to talk to. Even with good board members and board leadership, it’s really hard sometimes to be as frank or as vulnerable with them as I could be with a neutral third party.

I would encourage people to do strategic planning as soon as they can, so that conversation gets started in a visionary way, not an emergency way.

Joanie: I don’t know how frank and vulnerable one should be with the whole, you know? Even if you lead with vulnerability, you can’t just unload on everyone. You’re still the leader.

Sarah: Absolutely.

Joanie: That’s important for the stability of the organization and the trust people have.

Sarah: One of the biggest challenges for me is to not see it as a weakness to be honest with my board about what’s challenging for the organization. Instead, I try to contextualize concerns in a way that isn’t scary or negative, just an honest reflection of where the organization is and where it needs to grow.

We did strategic planning soon after I joined the organization, which was a really important reset for the culture of the board. I think a board’s relationship to a founder is different than to a new leader. I would encourage people to do strategic planning as soon as they can, so that conversation gets started in a visionary way, not an emergency way. It feels like not-for-profits are always in a state of emergency, and that’s tricky. As freelancers, we’re wired for this really short timeline, this sprint; we’ve got to get a show open. And I’m finding, in terms of the longer landscape of institutional leadership, that it’s a marathon. I can’t treat being in the office like being in rehearsal, or I will kill myself.

Joanie: Yes. When I first moved to Dallas, I really felt like I was just doing a freelance gig for a little while. My body didn’t understand. When it went on for about six months, finally I realized I was working too many hours a week. Intellectually I knew it was a long game, but when you’re used to working so much more quickly because you’re a director, it really is necessary to adjust your pace at a cellular level so that you don’t burn out.

Sarah: What have you found in that? What have you learned about managing people and boards long-term, or transferring or adapting your skills from rehearsal into the longer arc of leadership?

Joanie: I read a lot of Michael Kaiser’s work on arts leadership, and I think his advice to think long-term and to plan projects further into the future is essential. It’s good for fundraising and creating stable organizations, but it also pulls you out of the day-to-day or even the month-to-month or season-to-season. You’re thinking three years out, five years out, all the time. I think that can automatically help you slow down and think about the actual steps to get there.

Sarah: Talk to me in a practical sense, though, in terms of when everything feels like it’s always on fire, how do you carve out the time to think long range? Or is it just that, in the pockets of time you have in your subconscious, you’re working out those larger ideas?

Joanie: I think it’s really hard. I’m not going to say I’ve mastered that. That’s why it’s important for all of us, in all our nonprofit organizations, to put boundaries around our time. Make sure we take personal time. As an artist and creative thinker, I’m a secret introvert. So I have to go away.

Sarah: I’m also a secret introvert.

Joanie: Yay for secret introverts!

Sarah: It’s been a big learning for me to advocate for that. So much of life is overcoming one’s own worst enemy in that way of thinking. “I don’t have time for….” Or: “This is going to inconvenience someone.” Rather than saying: “I need to claim this space.”

Joanie: I read a book early on in my tenure at WaterTower, Todd London’s The Artistic Home. It’s a bunch of discussions, from the eighties, with a group of artistic directors. They’re talking about what their issues are and what they’re trying to do. It’s an interesting book to read because many of the things they’re struggling with are exactly the same as ours now.

One of the topics is about how to still be creative artists, as directors, in planning long-term artistic projects and in leading the organization itself. I think—especially right now, in this moment where the culture is changing and we’re all looking at how our institutions are working and not working—we’re going to see a lot of creative rethinking about how these institutions are even structured. In order for us to participate in that, we have to have that creative time.

Sarah: And it’s an opportunity to recreate structures—not just to mirror what has been done before, but to find our own.

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Thoughts from the curator

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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There is so much value in this conversation. (Spoiler alert: the conversation is being published in two parts, there was so much exchanged in their call.) In addition to the wisdom, I am struck by the pain and the sense of groping along in a dark room trying to find the light switch. This is the very thing I was trying to help with, and I am indebted to Sarah and Joanie for their openness and their generosity in sharing their experience, their questions, and their challenge to the field. I'll wait for the rest of the discussion to land and pick up some of the threads here.

Joanie, Sarah: thank you both. 

Thank you, Sarah and Joanie, for honestly and thoughtfully sharing your experiences in leading complex artistic institutions. The failure of theaters to support leadership transitions is field-wide. That prompted me to found TheaterLeader.com two years ago, and its Artistic Director Entrance Program. The entire organization and its constituents go through a transition with a new leader. Boards need to spend a fraction of a search cost to ensure the new artistic or managing leader have the best chance for success. There are many of us ready to help.