How To Prep A Board For An Organizational Pivot

Rob Orchard and Susan Medak in Conversation, Part 1

Part 1: The Leaving

Rob Orchard: Give us a sense of the arc of your relationship with the Berkeley Rep Theatre over the years. Have you always been the managing director? Or did you enter the world of Berkeley Rep in another position?

Susie Medak: I was recruited as their manager in 1990. And there’s only been one other manager here. Mitzi Sales had preceded me for eighteen years.

Rob: How many years have you worked with Tony Taccone, the company’s artistic director? Was he there in 1990 as well?

Susie: He’d been hired the year before me as the associate, so he was in that wonderful gadfly position for about seven years. At that point Sharon Ott and I were partners. She’d been the artistic director since about 1985. And she and I had known each other from when we worked together back in Milwaukee. But Tony and I have actually worked together for twenty-eight years. He was hired as the artistic director in 1997.

Two people smiling in front of a theatre

Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s artistic director, and Susan Medak, Berkeley Rep’s managing director. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Rob: So we’re talking decades. And I gather that the two of you began talking, just in a sort of unpressured, speculative way, about this potential moment, a while ago.

Susie: Oh, for years. There was one point when Tony was coming up for his contract negotiation and he said to me, “If I stay longer than two years, shoot me.” At that point, I called [consultants] Greg Kandel and Albert Hall and I said to both of them, “I want to bring a board member out to come and talk with you.” Then the recession happened and Tony said, “I’m not going anywhere. This is a terrible time to leave.” And he signed another four- or five-year contract. But each time his contract came up, we’d have this discussion.

Tom Hall really clarified something: he said with a new artistic director coming in, it was going to be much more important to have a veteran manager, than for a new manager to come in and have a veteran artistic director. That I could be more helpful to the new person than Tony could be.

Rob: Right.

Susie: It meant that I actually had to stay longer than him. What had started out as a theoretical discussion actually became, at a certain point, tied up in my own sense of what my obligations were.

For two and a half years, I was getting the board and the staff ready. And one of our board members was really effective in helping Tony take the plunge and commit to leaving. Because we kept saying we can’t live with this uncertainty forever. Once he made the decision, he was really ready for it.

Rob: It sounds like you played a role in preparing the board for the process before it began. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Susie: Before Tony made his announcement, when I already knew it was going to happen, a production of ours was opening in London. I organized a board trip to London and purposely put together a whole set of interviews with people who had worked with us in some capacity over the years. One of them had been involved with our new play development program. And Emma Rice had just been fired from the Globe Theatre; she’d worked with us for years.

Rob: It was a perfect storm of opportunity.

Susie: In Emma’s case, what was so great was that she hadn’t signed any non-disclosure agreements and she was really raw and really willing to talk. What was interesting about her conversation with our board members was that our board went in thinking, “How could the Globe’s board do this to Emma?” And they came out of it going, "Boy, there was naiveté on the part of both the board and Emma. We would not want to be in that position. We would not want to do that to an artist by being so unclear in the first place. And we owe it to ourselves to know ourselves better." That was a very interesting learning moment for them. There was also somebody who had worked for us who was now running a children’s theatre. And the way she talked about her audience was very exciting, but the way she talked institutionally was intriguing to our board. In each case, there was a lot of discussion about coming and leaving.

At one point, during one of those evenings after we’d all gone to the theatre together and we were sitting in a bar, somebody said, “What if Tony leaves?” It was just this gorgeous moment. I was actually able to say to them,

You know this theatre. And even though it wasn’t you, in the DNA of this organization, this board has made great choices over and over again. You picked Sharon and that was a huge and ambitious thing. You picked Tony, and that was a huge and ambitious thing. And, frankly, you picked me, and that led to a lot of organizational change too. Over and over again, this board has made really good choices. You have it in your DNA to make another good choice, whether you yourself have done it or not.

It was the beginning of getting people to imagine what life would be like without Tony.

This was a board that I had built around Tony. So of course they would be terrified at the thought of change. At the same time, this company has undergone a lot of changes and I think having context for their anxiety, but also context for the choice-making, became helpful. By the time they came back from London, that group of people had moved to a whole different place. And then I put together what I thought of as a Berkeley Rep University for the board and brought in not only a number of staff members to talk with them about all of the ways that an artistic director works with a staff that a board will never see, just so that they could understand that.

In addition, I brought in about twelve to fifteen people who would speak with the board about things that Tony and I don’t talk about, or would speak with them about it in a different way. We’d laid a whole slew of ideas on the table for the board about if they wanted to maintain the current leadership model, when there were two people running the organization. I brought in Joe Haj and Michael Ritchie, who work under different organizational structures, so that the board could actually imagine what it would look like if they wanted to go another route. And I interviewed Joe and Michael for about an hour and we videoed it so that other members of the board, who weren’t able to be present, could participate as well.

We wanted to talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), because the way we do EDI is very different from the way a lot of other companies think about it. So we asked Joe Haj and Bill Rauch, “Would you talk about the way you think about that in your organization?” I wanted our board to understand why some people might not even want the job. For instance, Liesl Tommy had said to me, “I’m not interested in running a theatre right now.” So I asked Liesl to come in and talk about why she wouldn’t want to and what’s the difference between being a director in a rehearsal hall and actually running a company, which she had fascinating and astute things to say about. I asked people to come in and talk about community engagement. At the end of all of that, when the board was going to have to start talking about a search, they could talk about it in a way that they would hear what was being said to them.

Rob: Right.

Susie: That was really the issue. I wanted them to be able to have a deeper sense of what the coding is in our field. I kept saying I didn’t want them to jump at the shiniest penny when we finally started the search.

I wanted them to actually be able to engage in deeper conversations with artists. We even had a conversation about whether it had to be an artist running the theatre and talked about the fact that Joe Papp was not a director. That Gordon Davidson really was a stage manager. Oskar Eustis is a dramaturg. So by the time we actually got to the search, the board had been inculcated in a lot of the language. This is stuff that Tony and I don’t necessarily talk about in the same way that other theatres do, and we just felt it was important that the board hear more of that.

By the time we actually got to the search, the board had been inculcated in a lot of the language.

Rob: So Johanna Pfaelzer, who is taking the helm from Tony, begins when?

Susie: Poor woman. She began the day we announced.

Rob: And so, all of this process leading up to her start date, how far back does that go? We’re talking years, really, aren’t we?

Susie: Yes, we are. Let’s see. Tony gave us, formally, two and a half years notice. One of the reasons for that was that he felt very strongly he should not be planning the incoming artistic director’s first season. In order for that person to be able to plan their first season, we needed to have them hired at the latest by the end of the summer before. I will say it does create some weirdness in that this is Tony’s season. Even at the same time that we’re beginning to celebrate Johanna, introduce her around. And the staff is unquestionably pivoting.

Everybody’s jockeying to make sure they’re part of the new team, that there’s a place for them. There’s no question this year’s been awkward. On the other hand, in order for Johanna to be able to pick her season, it had to be this way. For Tony to leave now when he’s created this season... This is a year in which he’s going to be heavily committed to dramaturging or caretaking a couple of very big, complicated projects. And then the godsend was being able to commit to the new John Leguizamo musical, at the end of this season, that he’ll direct. It sort of gives him an artistic home up until practically the end of his contract. So he’s not just twiddling his thumbs. In the meantime, there’s no question he’s using this year to be building whatever is going to be his next career. And all of it is right, and as it should be.

I have scheduled a whole series of phone calls with Johanna to debrief how we have constructed seasons in the past. We’re beginning to talk about plays and their implications. We’ve had a session on development—every month, she’ll get a list of donors and background about them and she’ll be on the phone with them, introducing herself.

Rob: So even though it’s awkward for Tony, because he is sort of in limbo, he has to step back and see the organization pivot, which is inevitable.

Tell us a bit about your role during the search.

Susie: Because our board had done interviews with the staff, they felt that selecting the new artistic director was their responsibility, which I fully supported. As a result, they didn’t have any members of the staff on the committee other than me. Tony was actively advising throughout, but with such tact and humility. There were many staff members who were frustrated that they were not going to be part of the search. But we felt that they—particularly the artistic staff—had such a vested interest in preserving the status quo that they’d help create it. It would be very difficult for them to be as open as the board would be to people who might think very differently.

That proved to be true. The board ended up being open to very different kinds of new voices. And when we brought candidates through to meet the staff, we found that the staff was much more resistant than the board was to those who might really alter the company. And that validated the board’s decision to make this a board decision, not a staff decision.

When we hired Tony, I actually had veto power, in that the board said they would not hire anyone who I couldn’t work with or wouldn’t work with. When I went into this I said, “I’m not going to be here that long, guys. I don’t know whether I’m going to be here for two years, four years, or eight years. But I don’t think that this decision should be informed by how I feel about the candidate, whether this is somebody I can work with or not.” I was very actively on the committee, I was helping frame questions and asking them myself. The board president and I worked collaboratively.

There were times when it was important that I appeared to not have any opinion at all, and there were times when it was really important for me to have an opinion. But this was the first time in thirty-five years that the board had to own the decision. Tony’s decision was a big one. But when they went from our founding artistic director to Sharon, that was really the last time that they had had to think about a total DNA transformation.

Rob: Bringing somebody in from the outside.

Susie: I was disruptive. There’s no question, as a manager. And there was a very difficult year after I came here, when I expected to be shifting the board from a management one to a governance one. That was a complicated time. But I would say Sharon had a much more ambitious vision for the theatre than they’d had at that point, and then Tony became an extension of that. So this was the first time in years. That was why I insisted they go back, that they rewrite the mission statement and develop the value statement.

Rob: I am fascinated by that. The notion that, and I think it’s absolutely appropriate, that you clarify your mission and your values in advance of a search, so that the person or the people you’re talking to have an up-to-date articulation of that important part of who you are. While, at the same time, you probably want to allow for some reflection on the mission and the values after you’ve hired somebody, too.

Susie: Oh, yeah. There was one relatively new artist on our London trip who was talking about her manifesto. That the board had asked her for a manifesto, a statement of what she believed. And there was something about that conversation with her that was really clarifying to me. Our board, for a few years, had been asking Tony and me if we could just clean up the mission statement. And we kept not feeling like we could do it. We’d look at each other and put it aside, and we’d go, “Eh.” Nobody used the mission statement, it was actually a terrible mission statement. But there was something about it that kept us from doing it.

And when this artist started talking about her manifesto, it became clear to me that there was a distinction, which is often conflated, between an organizational mission and an artistic vision. That in an organization no longer led by the founder, where we expect the trustees to be the stewards of the place over time, the mission had to be affirmed and reevaluated by the board before we did the search, because otherwise they wouldn’t know who they were looking for. They wouldn’t know what values they cared about and didn’t care about.

Rob: Right.

Susie: What became clear in our search was that our board really had inculcated what was first Michael Leibert’s, then Sharon’s, and then Tony’s—intense passion for the work being the thing that drives us. All of the ancillary programming, all of the ancillary everything, while it is an extension of the work, in this company, everything starts with the work. And that enormous value is placed on risk-taking—even at the same time that enormous value is placed on stewardship and prudence.

But the fact is: all of those are values in the organization that had to be articulated and the board had to have their conversation about it. What was the role of EDI in the organization? What was the role of community? Who is community? What do we mean when we talk about excellence? Ultimately, I think what happened was that, in rewriting the mission, the board re-owned the organization in a very healthy way. In writing its values, they had to have the conversations they were then going to have with candidates about what takes precedence, what is most important to us.

As a result, when we started talking with candidates, it became pretty clear pretty quickly who was going to have that artistic vision that fit within the context of our mission. And who didn’t. And that, in the end, made it possible to make a choice that felt right.

In rewriting the mission, the board re-owned the organization in a very healthy way.

Rob: That makes sense because it’s dynamic. It has enough strength to it so that it informs you in many, many different ways. Because it’s true, it’s not just something crafted for thunder. It’s actually something that’s deep into the DNA of the organization. And the to-ing and fro-ing with the staff and the board about the values, that porous relationship in putting it together is very, very important.

What do you mean when you say that the mission really articulates the centrality of the work? When you say “the work,” do you mean what’s on stage?

Susie: Yes, and in this theatre, when we talk about the work, we say, “Everything starts with what’s on stage.”

Rob: Okay. And then you have ambitious new play initiatives. And you have projects on stage that have a certain breadth to them, because you’re an organization that needs some box office income from time to time.

Susie: I would say it’s even more than that. The way I describe our programming, thus far, is that about 70 percent of our work falls within the range that almost any other company in the country would produce. You know, A Doll’s House, Part 2. Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, Watch on the Rhine. They are pretty accessible.  They have an intellectual heft and content that engages an audience like ours, which is heavily educated. But they don’t challenge fundamental assumptions—nor do they set out to do so they don’t confront in any kind of assaultive way, either populism, populist impulses, or very uncomfortable experiments in structure or content.

What makes us an unusual company is that we always produce something that falls—and I’m going to use left and right, not in a political sense— to the left and the right of that 70 percent. So 15 percent is work that we do that has the potential to be wildly populist but will challenge our organization on that.

Rob: Can you give me an example?

Susie: Ain’t Too Proud. We keep saying we could never have done Tony’s extraordinary production of Angels in America if we had not done Ain’t Too Proud first. Because, every time we do a project like that—a commercially enhanced project where there are more tools, and more toys—our staff learns things they just wouldn’t otherwise. It makes them better and better.

If you’re going to have a staff that stays for a long time somewhere, you’ve got to keep challenging them. You’ve got to keep forcing them out of their comfort zone, and a project like that does that. Every year we’ve done a project like that.

On the other side are projects like Fairview. This is a production that was wildly successful in New York, but in Berkeley in a four-hundred-seat subscription run? We don’t know. We started finding out last night. Does the theatricality of that show hold up when it moves into a larger house? And for a very different kind of audience? We’ll do that at the same time that we’ll do an Ain’t Too Proud.

We’re producing Home, which is an exquisite piece in which nobody talks, which challenges an audience’s expectation of what it is to produce a play. You have to wear a different hat when you walk into that production. We can do a Paradise Square, which is a very traditional musical but based on 1861 race riots in New York, and put that next to Metamorphoses and Fairview or Home. That’s what makes this company a difficult company to program for, but also a pretty interesting company to come to.

Rob: Absolutely. If somebody reading this were to Google Johanna, they would see what she’s done, which follows pretty much the breadth and depth of what you’ve just described.

Susie: Yes. And the thing that was fun about the search was that we found her.  

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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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That's such an interesting point "They wouldn’t know what values they cared about and didn’t care about." The "They" referring to a Board. But isn't it a complicated thought, who holds the reigns when it comes to values. I am almost certain that collaborative is better. That everyone has one hand on them, but is that always possible?