fbpx Friday Phone Call # 54 | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Friday Phone Call # 54

Deborah Cullinan of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts



My guest for this call is the Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Deb and I have worked alongside each other for decades now—though that must mean we started when she was in kindergarten. If you don't know her work, or her ideas, you owe it to yourself to poke around a bit on the internets. In particular, take a look at this visionary 5M Project she was behind in San Francisco with the beloved Intersection for the Arts, where she was before her move to YBCA. There is so much here, because she is Deb and she's a huge thinker and a generous heart. Together with her artistic partner at YBCA Mark Bamuthi Joseph, she is coming at the questions of audience, impact, and participation in inspiring ways. We also share the journey from small, spunky community-focused arts organizations to major institutions and get into it a bit about what that feels like, on a personal level, and how it comes about. A career in the arts has a throughline just like any story. It's interesting to figure out what your own is, the farther you get along the path of your own life. I am fortunate to live and work in a time of extraordinary thinkers, leaders, and mentors. Deb is all three for me.

Listen to weekly podcasts hosted by David Dower as he interviews theatre artists from around the country to highlight #newplay bright spots. You can subscribe to the series via Apple iTunes or RSS Feed.


David Dower: Hello, Debra.

Deborah Cullinan: Hi, David.

David: I'm talking with Deborah Cullinan, who's the executive director now of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and a fairly recent move for you, formerly the executive director of Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco, just down the street.

Deborah: That is right.

David: Yeah. But it's ... So you didn't move very far; it's really just blocks away. But you moved context severely. Like completely, right?

Deborah: Yeah, it's ... It feels like it's both very, very, very much the same in a lot of ways, and also just worlds apart. And you are correct: it's just a couple of blocks walk. 

David: What's the same in it? I'm surprised to hear you say that, and I'm delighted that there's sameness, because I ... For me ... And I have to say, for me, I moved from ... well, from San Francisco to Arena, but from Arena to ArtsEmerson, there was such difference. But I was able to find what was a home inside it right away when I got here, and that was crucial. What's the same to you in there?

Deborah: I think that one of the things that's the same is the fact that they both are these multidisciplinary organizations. Now Intersection is much smaller, but just having so many years of working with performing arts, visual arts, literary arts, community engagement: that piece of it is the same.

Interestingly enough, too, I think that there's... at least in terms of YBCA's history and kind of continually developing approach to community engagement and how it defines that, that there's a lot of sort of similarity in intention, which is really cool when you think about it, because YBCA is much larger organization. And I think when we think about innovation around community engagement, participation, new ways of thinking about partnering in community settings, we often look to, I think, smaller, more nimble, more flexible organizations... I personally think tend to be able to lead the way. But in YBCA's case, there's a real, kind of cutting edge flavor to how the organization has historically thought of community engagment and how it is continuing to think of it moving forward. I feel like I can talk about that. I can... I understand that. That's certainly a big part of what drove me at Intersection. So those are... Those are... Probably stops just about there with what's similar.

David: Yeah, but still, it's critical, right? You're not entirely out of your skin, you're ... There's something that's... Zelda Fichandler used to talk about the... institutions need a through-line, and I always wondered if individuals do, and I can spot mine, and it feels like that would be part of your through-line there that would keep you grounded.

Deborah: That's such a... It's a beautiful way of putting it. I really wondered, when I was considering making this move, I wondered who I would be without Intersection, and I wondered what story I would tell. I mean, everything about my grownup life has related to my work with... had, up until now, related to my work with Intersection. And one of the things that has been so grounding and repurposing to me is that it is my story. I'm pretty clear about how it all connects, and how ... that very first day that I walked into Intersection to be its executive director, having had no experience in any formal way in the arts at all... I can tie that first day to my every day here. And not only here at YBCA, but in terms of the other work that I do outside and in the world and as a citizen. So to me, that's been one of the great gifts of making the transition, is that I understand that it's not... the organization isn't me, it's me.

David: Yeah. I just want to say to people who are listening that I had the privilege of working really next door to you for all those years at Z Space, and learning so much from what you were doing as a citizen of San Francisco, and benefiting so much from what you were doing as citizen of San Francisco. Recently I got a phone call from somebody who had... I didn't really... hadn't worked directly with her on any of these things, but she had been sort of touched by a bunch of work that I had done, as it turned out. And she just called me to say thank you. And saying... recognizing, as she was doing it, that we don't do that so often with people who just had sort of made... paved ways or shared journeys, and she just wanted to make sure that I was aware that she was grateful for that... what I had done. And it was so moving, that somebody made that phone call. We're used to saying thank you to each other when we're actually doing direct things with each other, I think, but not so much when it's indirect like that. And I... that's a thank you that I owe you, and I really want to acknowledge that—

Deborah: Oh, that's so beautiful. That's so beautiful. It's so funny, because it... that really resonates of me, because as you know, a lot... I've been in San Francisco for so long now, and a lot of what I do ends up being related to larger public policy, and advocacy, and collaboration across organizational size, across sector. And it is immensely rare to be thanked for it. It is perhaps more common to be either demanded upon, or to be even criticized for it.

David: Yes. Exactly.

Deborah: So this is really interesting. Yeah, yeah. So—

David: Exactly. When she said that to me, I was like, "Oh... " She said, "I bet you don't get 'thank you' so much for what... That you don't get thanked so much for that work." And I said, "Yeah, you know, actually, sort of, I get the opposite."

Deborah: I'm so with you. I am so with. But that doesn't change that it's worth it. I mean-

David: Exactly.

Deborah: Yeah.

David: Exactly. When you started at Intersection, were you... You saying you're coming without any arts experience: what was the chief experience you were bringing with you that made... that defined it as your opportunity and you as its leader?

Deborah: Well, I think what attracted me to it, because I was coming from... at... the situation that I was in was working in development, and I was actually interim executive director for a pretty small community-based organization doing social service, and— ... I feel like I couldn't have articulated this then, but I can now, which is the beauty of getting older and understanding things better, which is that I... I'm certainly here and very interested in... I'm here too, and very interested in solving problems. I think we do that best when we come together across difference. I think her ein San Francisco, you see... even today, there's so much tension in the town around rapid change and the inequity in that change, but unfortunately the conversation itself never allows us to get somewhere different. And there's something about how we gro together around similarity, and in so doing, we kind of, I think, make it even harder to just get at some of these big challenges.

And I was really struck, in my own young way, around how in the social service sector, in some ways there's almost... and I would say it's not intentional... but there's almost a perpetuation of problems. Because organizations exist ... actually exist to solve them, but yet, they're perpetuating them. And there's a lack of creativity in it.

And so I had... I'd certainly dabbled in the arts. I love to write; I hang out with people who make theatre; my mother is in community theatre. It's not a foreign thing to me at all. But I think I understood deeply how important artists and creativity are to really healthy community life. And that is what I brought, and that is what I continue to bring. And it's that simple. It's just a simple through-line: that I think art is absolutely, uniquely situated to be the game-changer. It can bring people together; it can illuminate; it's all these things that we in our field talk about. And what I'm interested in is getting out of the conversation just in the field, and being in the conversation in the world.

And I think when I'm able to bring artists around the table, or the perspective of arts organizations, or we're able to create projects that really are engaging people across difference around some of our biggest challenges: you really do see movement, and it's generally forward.

David: Yeah. And you were saying that you think this is true and you feel this is true, and you also have evidence now the work that you've done in San Francisco, you've actually been able to make this case... an evidentiary case... about how art is the game-changer.

Deborah: I think that's right. I mean now, even just today, this morning I had a meeting with folks from the planning department. We have a big infrastructure project called Better Market Street project, which you will... you probably remember. It takes a long time to get things done, David. But this is a project that really looks at what... this central corridor in our city that, instead of acting like the spine and sort of the zipper, the thing that ties us and knits us all together, all of our different and distinct neighborhoods, it really has been this sort of very challenging dividing point.

And so there's this big plan to make it better, and to really think about how it can be an active street life, and how it can really draw people in, from the new technology companies that are moving in to the folks that are indigenous and have been there for a really long time: the grassroots organizations, the social service amenities, all that stuff. And the planning department comes to YBCA because they want to collaborate with us to figure out a sort of citizen-based and collaborative kind of design process that would allow for people who are living and working and playing and struggling in the very neighborhood to really contribute to what the long-term design is going to be.

So to me, that's a... it's one of many examples of not only the role that artists and an arts organization that can organize across these boundaries can play, but also what happens when you put really different kinds of thinkers together. Because it's a very unique model, it's a very unique approach for a city to take. And what's cool is that not only will we do this, but we'll very likely leave behind a model that the city will use often, whenever it's considering big projects.

David: Yeah. It's interesting to be here in Boston after all the time in San Francisco, Boston having a new mayor now and being right at the cusp of possibility around so much in relation to...really, in relation... Let's just talk about the cultural...the arts and culture community and culture policy... and being very far behind other cities as we start, but having really a wide open road ahead. And it's interesting to me how the experience in San Francisco was that people made that road, through a lot of time and a lot of effort, and with a lot of challenges in relation to how to knit the city together around the cultural equity and diversity and difference and sameness, and all of the kinds of things that came into play. And how creative that time was, how thrilling... as much as it was exhausting and frustrating... to live through. Looking back on it, how creative a time it felt to be involved in those things.

Deborah: I think that's so true. And I feel like there's so many moments like that. When I hear from the folks that were around when YBCA was born... As you know, it was born out of immense strife and struggle and heartache—

David: Talk a little bit about that, actually, so people understand what we mean by YBCA, because we're using it as a bit of shorthand. But talk a little bit the organization-

Deborah: That's right, and it sounds like "YMCA." It is—

David: Yeah. Yes, and the "M" is a lot easier to make than the "B" is at a basketball game—

Deborah: I know, it's so true. We, we just—

David:"Y-B-C-A" just doesn't look so good.

Deborah: We had that whole thing in our staff meeting this morning. That's funny. So Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is part of a former redevelopment project. So in the state of California, our redevelopment agency went away a couple of years ago. Prior to that, this was a redevelopment project. It is probably one of the largest and complicated former redevelopment projects in the state of California. It's a set of mixed-use assets that all work together; it's several city blocks. And it is... Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is the... There are three nonprofits: YBCA... Or, there's actually more than three, but there are a couple of nonprofits. YBCA is the biggest, and we're the cultural institution; there's a children's museum; there's a children's center; there's also an events festival; and a beautiful park, restaurants, the Metreon, and the Moscone Convention Center is... sort of surrounds... or is a part of it. And so—

David: And the Metreon is kind of a mall, right?

Deborah: It's a mall, it's got—

David: Shopping, restaurants, and movies—

Deborah: Yeah, shopping, and movies, an arcade, and event space. And it's just like today, it's a gorgeous day in San Francisco, and if you wanted a piece of lawn, you would really have to fight for it. It's a really thriving downtown green space with cultural amenities that open onto it. But it was born out of urban renewal...not a particularly bright moment in our history either as a city, or maybe as a country...and there were people who were displaced. This piece of town was considered to be blighted and problematic, and there was a real need for a new, kind of new energy, new economic driver: all the things we know that cities need. And so, as part of the negotiation, which took a really, really long time, YBCA was born. And it was imagined to be the "people center" for the arts. And it was meant to be both very supportive of the local arts community, and also a connector to the national and international community. And so...that's it in a nutshell.

David: Yeah. Well, yeah, it's a big nutshell. And so you have a 750-seat theatre that you have under your...under YBCA proper, right? There's a 750-seat theatre?

Deborah: Yeah.

David: And then there's a big white box. It's kind of a black-box space, but-

Deborah: There's a big white box, yeah. You can get 200 to 600 people in that space. It's used for dance; it's used for theatre; it is used for events. And then we also have multiple galleries, a meeting room, a strong film and video program, and this sort of gorgeous grand lobby, and the gardens that surround us.

David: It's a kind of San Francisco version of Lincoln Center, and I mean that very directly. It feels like San Francisco; it has ambition and scale in the way that San Francisco does; and it is aimed at the "people's palace," instead of some of the organizations that made up the original vision of Lincoln Center. This is really a different feel and a really interesting feel. And it's also got its challenges, because there's quasi-governmental, or there's a real close relationship to the local government, right, and to...?

Deborah: Yeah, and—yeah, so it... We are contracted by the former redevelopment agency to take care of these buildings and to activate them. And these are all questions, as our agency went away and we're negotiating with the state now, this is all part of the questioning. People feel concerned: "What will happen?" "What will happen with the contract?"

But I think it's a kind of gorgeous opportunity, because here's this organization just about twenty-one years old, and it gets to look back on why it was born, and it gets to reflect on its first two decades, and really think about why art and an arts organization, or a center of this kind, should be the heart of its city, and how it does that today, which I think can really sort of reverberate off of the original vision, but also can look wholly different.

We're in the twenty-first century, and we're in this crazy moment in San Francisco, and there is so much happening around us: big buildings and cranes and new people and resources, and folks who are struggling, and questions about what people want today. All of that, I think, is just a pretty extraordinary opportunity.

And we happen to be...which I think is very cool...we are not only known for very strong artistic programming that our community partners bring to us, we work with a number of local organizations every year. We're opening a show with ODC, I think Thursday night; we just recently had Alonzo King in the house; Robert Moses; so this sort of really powerful collection of local arts organizations. We curate our own programming: we just had a dance company from Brazil, and it was totally, completely, ridiculously sold out. It was just wonderful-

David: Which space was that in?

Deborah: That was in the forum. And just prior to that, we had Young Jean lee here with her Untitled Feminist Show, and that totally, ridiculously sold out too, and that was in our big theatre. So—

David: Wow! That's probably the biggest theatre she's sold in that...with that space.

Deborah: It was pretty awesome. And this goes to something that you and I have talked about before. We've been working quite a bit around gathering folks in sort of intentional ways, across sector, to look at the questions that we are exploring in our programs, that the artists that we want to work with are exploring in their work. These... We call this the "creative ecosystem." These are think tanks. We've launched two: one of them looked at the future of soul and futurism, and that related to a couple of projects that we were doing; and then the second one we launched with actually ... really inspired by Young Jean Lee and the questions she was asking herself when she made that show, or when she started to make that show. And so this was... We called it The Body Politic Think Tank, and it looked at questions of shame and joy and body and identity.

And these cohorts: they meet, we host them, they eat, and they collaborate and they co-create together. And then on a regular basis, when we're having...when we're presenting stuff that relates to the questions that inspired the cohort, we'll sort of... kind of give them the keys, like let them have at it. And for Young Jean Lee's show, we had probably, I don't know, thirty or so installations and projects that members of the cohort had put together, and it was literally from dance to kind of intervention-style work to film to poetry, and this stuff was installed all over the campus.

So what's beautiful is: (a) it just kind of turns the whole place upside down. It really challenges your notion of where art can happen. And what's the big stage and what's the...what we're all aiming for. So these artists are showing us stairwells and doorways and spaces between buildings and just completely transforming our thinking about how vacant...these spaces can be programmed.

And on top of that, it's amazing stuff. And on top of that, they draw all these people. And so instead of just trying to get folks to care by saying, "Hey, here's two-for-one," or "Spread the word for us," we're basically saying, "This is your home. You show us the way." And it's a much different invitation for someone to be able to call their friends and say, "Come home. I want to show you what I'm doing." And so we—

David: Yeah. "Come over to my house. I want you to see my etchings."

Deborah: Yeah, right? That's what it's like. "This is my house." And these people...so we had, I think, 1,800 people come through in one four-hour block of time, just to engage with that moment for that think tank.

David: Unbelievable. Is the think tank... So the cohort members are largely artists, all artists, some artists... ?

Deborah: No.

David: How do you—

Deborah: There's so many different kinds of things.

David: Yeah.

Deborah: Yeah, there's so many, and I think that's really one of the keys there, is that we're super-interested in a pretty expanded notion of who can get creative around these questions and in what ways.

David: Yes. Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Deborah: So yeah—

David: So you're kind of ahead of me on that one. You guys are way down the road in understanding how to activate a space with art that has an expansive definition of who gets to make art or claim their work as artistic work.

Deborah: Right.

David: You're very expansive on that notion.

Deborah: Yeah. I think it's interesting because it's important...at least, it's important for me to make sure that people understand that...there's... We've talked about this. There's sort of... There can be a kind of binary response. Like, "Oh, why...What are you doing? Is it no longer curated? What about..?" You know, all that kind of...you know those questions. But it's—

David: Yeah.

Deborah: It's like it's all... What we're saying here is, "We can do all of this. We can curate, commission, and support deeply those artists that we know are that greatest artists of our time. At the same time, we can create an ability to meet those who we do not yet know." And a curatorial structure is immensely important, maybe more so, in the chaotic world we live in, right? I feel very grateful to those who were born to help make beautiful experiences, and know how to do it. But they're only who they are. And so I think we have a responsibility to continue to evolve who is showing us the way, and who is not here, and who should be here, and what don't we know.

And so I really like that about the way we structure our community engagment department, and how we're looking at this creative-ecosystem model, that it values...It's a "both-and." It values all of it, and it's very mindful of how we are limited and what we're striving for.

David: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. That's so beautiful. That's really wonderful. This is not something that you started when you got there X months ago; this is something that was kind of in the water, with what Marc Bamuthi Joseph was doing already, yes?

Deborah: Yes, it is absolutely his baby. And Marc and I—

David: And he's the artistic director? Is that his job?

Deborah: He is the director of the performing arts program.

David: Director of the performing arts program. Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Deborah: Yeah.

David: And I know you. I know how much you hate titles, and I—

Deborah: I know. I'm like, "Let me have different ... " No, that's his title. I'm ... he ... yes—

David: That's his title, and you guys are partners in this.

Deborah: Yeah. Yeah. I mean ... Fortunately, this thing that he's doing ... had been doing before I got here ... I mean, it's one of the reasons why I was like, "Yeah, that sounds fun!"

David: Yeah, right.

Deborah: It's a super ... you know, Intersection was quite known for a methodology that we called "open process." Though not the same, it's quite similar. And, I think, intention-

David: Again: through line.

Deborah: Yeah. Again. Yeah. So I feel ... yeah. And among the many beautiful things about being able to work with Marc is that he's so ... he's just super-generous. He's so interested in what we can do. And so this thing that he dreamed up is as much ours as it is his.

David: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. And I want to ask you something ... Switch gears for just a second, because this is in the back of my head on all of this stuff, is ... So you spent a long time with Intersection. I forget how many years. How long were you there?

Deborah: Do we have to do it? Do we have to—

David: Well, it was over ten years.

Deborah:... say it? Yeah, that's ... Yes, it was.

David: Which, I was ... at Z Space for over 10 years too. And there came a moment when you thought, "Oh, my next challenge is right over there." How did that come about, Deborah? What ... What's the path for you to this change? People who are listening are always ... People are always wondering, and they're always asking me, "What happened?" First of all, people say, "Well, what happened?" Like something happened. And I guess if anything happened, it was ... I really take from Zelda so much, but one of the things that she gave me was this sense of ... "You're asking your questions, and if you're not in the container that's best suited to pursue those questions, it's time to look for where that is." So nothing happened other than my questions were developing as I developed. But in your case: what was going on?

Deborah: I have to say that I had absolutely no intention of leaving Intersection. This is a particular exciting moment for that organization, and one that ... At least, as we had progressed and really dove into some new territory, very tied to me in ways that maybe made it much less comfortable to leave.

David: Yeah.

Deborah: So—

David: And this is a project ... This is the 5M Project, right? Is that ... that—

Deborah: Yeah. Yeah. So this is—

David: And I just want to point people to it, and I'll do it in my little intro too, but I think people should look at the 5M Project. It's extraordinary, and they can see it on the ArtPlace website, right?

Deborah: Yeah.

David: It's documented there.

Deborah: Yes. That's a good place to look for it. Yeah.

David: Yeah. All right. So they can go there and they can find it, and it's an extraordinary project, and it's really very tied to you, and it's at sort of a crucial place in its unveiling, unrolling, its maturation. And suddenly you have this other epiphany. Or it seems like it must be an epiphany, or a set of questions.

Deborah: Well, so I think one of the ... One of the, just the basic and less-interesting things is, first of all, Ken Foster, my predecessor, said, "I want you to pursue this," and I thought, "What? Why would I do that?" Like that was literally my reaction. And then along came Bamuthi and said, "Throw your hat in the ring," and I thought, "Oh, now, that's more interest ... That something is interesting now, and I don't know exactly what it is.

And so I have to say that part of it really was just that I have always made it a rule to pursue things, because I think, especially for someone who sat in the same place ... You could argue that I was in the same place, even though it was so different over the years, with Intersection ... I just think it's really good practice to explore and to let that either guide you back home or to something new. So really, that was kind of what I was doing, and I will say that there ... I've already done that a couple of times, and learned a lot about what I know now I wouldn't want to do.

David: Yeah.

Deborah: Definitively. I just know that there are certain kinds of things that might look like natural pathways that are just not interesting to me, or that I don't think I'd be very good at.

David: Okay. So let's just ... Let's just mark that. I don't know where this occurs in the conversation, but that's, I think, a crucial piece of information, Deborah. The exact same thing. I went through the exact same process. I did several times look and discover, "Oh my God. The natural pathways are really anathema to me." I mean, they're not natural to me. They're what the field seems to suggest or be nudging me toward, but those are not my home.

Deborah: Yep. No, I think that would ... That was really helpful to me, which is why I always encourage people to pursue. And pursue with seriousness. Because that's the only way you can learn, I think.

David: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yeah, you can't dally in it. You have to actually do-

Deborah: No, throw in, and really believe it. So I think that was ... that's a big part of it. There are probably three things. That's one. The second thing is what I think I knew in my bones, but I couldn't quite ... There's a difference between ... So the 5M Project: I ... Intersection came through a really radical transformation in the last several years of my time there. And it came ... It was as ... What I realized during the process is that I had brought it as far as I could, and that it would require someone else to either continue it forward, or shift the path. That there was a sort of hitting of the wall that I can't really articulate that was probably a combination of things around change and around length of leadership, and just my own limitations: all those things. And I don't think I fully understood that until I started really considering what I had done there and what the opportunities would be for me at YBCA.

So that was really, for me, really important. Just ... It's just ... You ... We get ... We're so dedicated, and we take so much responsibility for where our organizations are, and we don't get any help. Or we get very little help. And so kind of realizing that I did ... I didn't ... I just didn't have any more, or didn't have the right thing to sort of contribute to it in its next few ... its next moment was really important to me. And then that kind of combines with, as I started digging into what happens at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and who's here, and what the possibilities are, it became something I really, really wanted to do.

And I can say that it's a profound shift to go from an ... a very small, never-not-struggling organization to one that is much more resourced. It's ... It's ... You know, I dream at night, which seems sort of funny, but I didn't realize that I literally worried about money in many aspects of my life for years. That's just a simple thing, and ... I have absolutely no regret. It was the most extraordinary job I could have ever had, but I think it feels ... It feels good. There is an opening. I feel alive and energized. I can imagine things that I wasn't able to imagine after so many years with one organization.

David: Yeah. Yeah, it's really very analogous. I think ... You know, I had the benefit with the Z Space, which was similarly at a place where I had taken it as far as I could. And you look what's happened since I left: they now have two theatres, and this sort of thriving energy around these technical residences, and things that I couldn't even have imagined. We didn't have any theatres. We had these studio spaces that were really basically glorified conference rooms in a carpeted ... offices that I couldn't get us out of.

I really had hit a wall, and therefore the organization had hit a wall. And the opportunity to rethink myself and what were my opportunities, but also my choices, and my ... where I was ... well, really, my questions, where were my questions going to be best entertained, was also an opportunity for the organization. And it was terrifying. I'm sure it's terrifying for everybody at Intersection; it was terrifying for you as well, to think that it could survive the change.

Deborah: That's right. Yeah, and I think that ... I guess I feel like it's sort of a beautiful thing to be both the person leaving and the person coming, because I'm literally in both places at the same time. I know what it's like to leave, and I know what it's like to be taking over from someone who was here for a really long time. And I just feel like we have a little bit of an overemphasis on singular leadership in—

David: Individuality.

Deborah:... our field. Yeah, and I just ... It's a baton pass. It's energy, and it's a whole bunch of other people also that are contributing to it. And we certainly leave our mark, and we can be blamed for lot of things, but at the end of the day, it's ... these are ... they're like organisms. They grow and they change, and we are passing along and sharing forward. So to me, that's been really interesting.

I feel like the one thing that took me a little bit by surprise ... and I don't know if this is just me being sensitive, but ... I hadn't really thought a lot about being a woman leader when I was at Intersection, perhaps because there are more women in leadership positions in small and struggling organizations then there are in larger ones. And it also hadn't ... It was not often pointed out to me, and it is pointed out to me now, which I just think is interesting. But I also feel like that leaving a place, as a woman, might be different than leaving a place as a man.

I'm a mom, and so that's the kind of best analogy I have for it, which is that there's a sort of like, "How can you leave us?" kind of thing, which I just don't feel would ever be applied to my predecessor, Ken. We wouldn't say, "How could you leave us?" We'd say, "He's moving on!", which is just interesting. It's a little ... and I'm probably over-emphasizing that, and there's other elements that contribute to that, because when we're in these smaller organizations, it is like family.

David: Yeah. Yeah, very much. Yeah, that's so interesting, this notion that it's pointed out. At a certain scale, it's pointed out. And it's probably also true for Bamuthi, right, that there's a lot more emphasis on the fact that he's a person of color at Yerba Buena than there would have been with Youth Speaks.

Deborah: Yeah, and there's ... and we talk about that. There's a ... there's just an interesting response, like when I'm meeting folks who knew John Killacky, who was here before Ken, and Ken, and now they're meeting me. It's not uncommon for there to be some sort of surprise when they meet me. And it's not like anybody articulates it, and maybe I'm reading into it, but there just seems to be like ... So I think ... And then there's also the expectation that big, big, big, big change, big, big change, is going to happen. Which is probably maybe more related to, especially locally, folks who know me and what my work has been, and also Marc and what his work has been. I think that's a fair expectation.

David:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yeah.

Deborah: Yeah.

David: Well, and also, you're twenty-one years old now as an organization, so you're drinking age, and it's time to actually articulate yourselves as adults in the world.

Deborah: That is exactly right. And it's great that you say that, because the staff here, prior to my arrival, had decided, very specifically, that twenty years was not worth celebrating, but twenty-one was.

David: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Deborah: Yes, for that very reason.

David: That makes sense to me.

Deborah: Yep. Yep. It's perfect.

David: And so are you in a process now of trying to articulate what it is that ... twenty-one is going to be a good year, and what that's ... what you are ... how you are going to individuate now, at twenty-one?

Deborah: Yeah, actually, we are, and we just had part of that process today. We're doing a process where we are identifying ... We're doing our refreshes, mission, and vision, and we're really identifying what our strategic priorities will be over the next three years. And part of that ... and I think this is pretty typical for organizations that are multidisciplinary and also have very robust rental and facility programs ... is that we ... we're very discipline- and department-based, and so it's easy for us to fall into kind of silos that are almost like several small, well-run businesses just sort of hanging out side by side. So there's a lot of opportunity for looking at what the overall driving ambition is, how it knits together, and where the opportunities are for leverage and possibility.

We have this really, really, really robust situation with rentals, because we have ... as I mentioned earlier, we have these really extraordinary community partners, but we also have this pretty amazing collection of technology innovators and designers and others who want to use our space for gatherings or for product launches. And these are the creative ... The conversations are extraordinary. We just had Bloomberg Design in here; we've had Code for America; we work with the Aspen Institute; we do TED talks. And it's natural ... Coming out of the twentieth century, and kind of the way we're so discipline-based, it's natural for the organization to kind of silo those things off and think of them as very separate items.

But I actually don't see them that way. I think it's all content, and it's all about aligning and really building partnerships and really sparking kind of the most interesting conversations across all these differences that we can. And it's really exciting to me that we get ... we have all these different ... We have crazy-different kinds of people who come through this space every day. Crazy different. Like it's the spectrum. And that's—

David: How do you go about sparking conversation? And this is really, for me, the big adventure I'm on. And I'm at the beginning of it. I'm learning from you; I'm learning from Melanie Joseph; I'm learning from a bunch of different people. But how do you actually do that? Like, okay, so I'm getting to the point where now I'm getting a crazy range of people. I'm, "Wonderful! Starting to look a little more like the city." And then how are you guys going about the process of capturing the potential of that to turn into something meaningful in terms of conversation?

Deborah: Well, so I think it's a whole bunch of things, and it's ... To me, it starts with identifying and building partnership, right? Like partners. So it's one thing for us, and it's a little different than I think what you guys are doing. But we're a facility, and so people often just want to use us that way. And so they miss ... they sort of miss the opportunity to actually sit down and think about what could be more mutually beneficial beyond the use of our beautiful buildings.

And so looking at those that are coming through and really are interested and kind of loyally interested in being her, looking at how we could deepen those partners ... partnerships. And that's just simple stuff, from inserting ourselves into conversations. And by that I mean: if Bloomberg is here, and they're talking about great design and city-making, then let's get artists into the mix on the panels, and let's be in the room and make sure that key people on staff and amongst our collaborators are also invited to those conversations. And literally that sounds so simple, but that's not what ... that's not necessarily what happens.

David: Yes, it's not natural to it. The process could happen—

Deborah: No.

David: ... without that entirely

Deborah:That's right. And so there's a certain kind of intentionality, where you're saying, "Let's do this together. Let's ... If we agree that the more different kinds of people that we can all get together in a room, the better, then we're great partners." And so there's that part of it, and then I think there's this more intentional thing around questions that are very specific. And I think the think-tank model will be one that we're going to probably explore much more deeply and across the organization.

So if you're paying attention to San Francisco right now, you know this very big, controversial discussion about gentrification and displacement, and I could imagine that YBCA could be ... and actually a real break-through leader around that conversation, because we have the ability to draw in key people who are decision makers, policy makers, and have resource, and are creative; to really lock them up in a room for a couple days and really try to think through what could be different about this.

And so I think it's in that kind of intentionality around not only, "Well, what are we going to talk about?", but, "What's going to come of it? Why do we ... Why is it important for us to talk? What's going to be different if we do?" And I think it's tying it to that without being afraid. I don't think we should be afraid of over-promising what an arts organization, or what art, or artists, can do. I think we can promise the moon. And we just need to be bold and say, "Let's do it. Let's talk about it until we have come to somewhere different."

So there's a lot of that. And I think we also ... fortunately, because we have all this programming ... we have the opportunity to create dialogue by looking at how a visual art, film, and performing arts all together can look at something more deeply.

David: Yeah.

Deborah: Yeah.

David: Yeah. Wow. Well, I have so much work to do! Luckily, I've got people who are excited about it all around me, which is really nice, and a community that we're building. And I have the specific benefit of HowlRound as a kind of way to make connections like this as a regular part of my day, so that I'm not isolated in doing it. Where are you finding your ... kind of your collaborators on that front, the intellectual collaboration? I know you have a great relationship with Marc Bamuthi around this, but where else are you finding your bearings conceptually?

Deborah: Well, I ... Whenever I have time to read, I literally ... and this is so not a plug, but I ... HowlRound, to me, is so resonant beyond the theatre confines. It's ... It is often the articles that we are floating around here on staff. And I ... The group of people that you and Polly and Jamie and Vijay gathered in Boston, what was it: a couple years ago now?

David: Yeah.

Deborah: I can't remember, but they're ... Many of them-

David: Like a year-and-a-half ago, yeah.

Deborah: Yeah. Many of those people are actually the people that I now go to, right? And so-

David: Yeah. Right.

Deborah:... In some ways ... I know you were just with ArtPlace and I missed not being there, having left Intersection, and YBCA not being a grantee of ArtPlace, I missed not ... I really missed not being there, because I had been part of that community and that conversation since the beginning. And I think this is very similar to work that Judilee Reed was doing at LINC, and others that were gathering folks around what seemingly looks like a funding initiative, but in fact it's cohort-building, and it's a place of shared values, and in that, you find these colleagues who are pushing forward in really interesting ways, and will have your back or will push you forward when you get stuck. And so to me, that's been really, really helpful.

David: Yeah. Yeah, and I think-

Deborah:... More of that.

David: We ... especially in these ... you say these "change efforts," and they really ... They're about evolution. It's not so much about change for the sake of change, but it's about ... This is a twenty-one year old organization we're talking about. It was started in a time, it went through a time, it's now in a time: all of these things add up. The city's changed; everything ... everything has ... argues for keeping something in an evolutionary state. And it can be really hard, I think, to be only locked into a relationship with the people inside the change.

For me, it's been really valuable ... The Arena period was really instructive to me on a lot of levels, and one of the things that it gave me was a real appreciation for the wider circle of people that it took for me understand where I was and who I was. And at the Z Space, I had this great big community of artists ... of San Francisco artists ... that really sustained me as a local artist and as a community organizer in San Francisco. But moving to a new context, I needed a new set of collaborators, of intellectual collaborators, conceptual collaborators. And I feel like you've just done that: you've just made a leap that you will be needing to have a set of collaborators who can help you understand where you are in relation to what you're trying to learn and do.

Deborah: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And you find yourself craving it when it's not around, so-

David: Yeah.

Deborah: Yeah, which is why I feel like these small ... I don't know, they're just sort of magic moments where you find yourself in a cohort and ... or in a group, or you've been gathered in a meeting, and out of that, there's this ... there's just this sort of kindred thing that goes on, and ... Literally, I really mean this, you guys have made ... you made it possible for some of the most important relationships that I have right now, because you happened to gather this interesting group of people around a really, really beautiful conversation.

David: Yeah—

Deborah: And it's not—

David: But—

Deborah: Just that we gathered, because maybe I met some of those people before: it's more that you ... it's around kind of how we're gathering and what we're giving each other permission to explore.

David: Yeah. Yep. Well, I am so grateful for it every day. I can't imagine how I would be making my way at this moment through it without that ballast. And it didn't really exist in this format prior, which is kind of remarkable how much we depend on it, and it wasn't there two years ago, or three years ago.

Deborah: It is. It is.

David: But I'm really very grateful—

Deborah: You know what I would say about it? I would just say, too, that in particular, when I think of what you guys are doing, and HowlRound, and all of it, is that it really is that we have to keep looking as far into ... as far beyond where we are today as we possibly can. Right? And you know we're doing this collaboration with this organization called "Institute for the Future," and they told me recently that they've been rethinking kind of their mission statement, or maybe it's their tagline, and they were saying, "We want as many people in the world to be able to imagine a future, or the future, a future that is different than today. We want as many people in the world to be able to do that."

And I thought this was really profound because so few people can, right? And it's not because they don't want to. It's because life doesn't allow them too, right? You're struggling to barely get by; you're thinking of what's right in front of you. And I guess I feel like if you cannot see beyond and into a different kind of future, you're never going to get there. And it was in your ability to see beyond and into a different kind of thing that brought a whole community there.

And so that's what we need in each other, and we can't sort of rest once we get there. We have to keep looking beyond.

David: Yeah—

Deborah: And I feel like that—

David: Yeah, and I think this is ... To me, people talk about "privilege" all the time, and I feel ... I know the privilege that I live with, and I hope I feel it more often than not. And it's not the same privilege that people would assume. I am a white male, and I ... working in the theatre, and I didn't come from money, I didn't come from any kind of status place, but what I have made for myself, with the support of an enormous amount of people ... that's such an egocentric way to say it ... but what I do have is the privilege of being able to think. And think long arcs, and think into the future. And that comes with that kind of responsibility that I feel about privilege in general, like it's always a responsibility. It needs to be. But that's something I really do have. I have that capacity in my life now, the structure in my life, to be able to do that. And it's not everybody who has that, and it's really a mistake to think ...

You talk about leaving the circumstance of something like Intersection or Z Space, and the real close-to-the-bone-ness of a place like that, where you have just landed and where I am and have been for some time, that's the main freedom that came with it. And people will talk about other kinds of resources and every other thing, but really, it's the dream space that I see as this kind of really precious kind of resource that now I have, that I need to unleash into the water, into the field. Like put it back in the field somehow; put it to work.

Deborah: Yeah, that's so beautiful. And to think that we have created a structure that does the opposite of that most often, does not allow for the dream space, is just so fascinating do ... we all do for a living.

David: Isn't it?

Deborah: Yeah.

David: Yeah.

Deborah: Yeah. Beautiful.

David: Well, we have ... Oh my god, we have so many things that we could talk about. We're just scratching the surface. We had told ourselves before we started recording the call that we were going to pretend we were having dinner, and now let's commit to ourselves that we will have dinner and not record it. Another time.

Deborah: That sounds really beautiful. I cannot wait to do that.

David: Yeah. And really good luck, and you know how to find me any time, and I know how to find you, and we do, and we will. And just thank you for this time, and for the generosity of sharing the journey you're on here.

Deborah: Thank you. I will see you very soon.

David: Very soon. All right. Take care.

Deborah: Okay. Bye-bye.

David: Bye.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

Listen to weekly podcasts hosted by David Dower as he interviews theater artists from around the country to highlight #newplay bright spots. You can subscribe to the series via Apple iTunes or RSS Feed.

Friday Phone Call


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First