How To Prep A Staff For An Organizational Pivot

Rob Orchard and Susan Medak in Conversation, Part 2

Part Two: The Onboarding

Rob: How are you forging a relationship with Johanna Pfaelzer, Berkeley Rep’s incoming artistic director? Is there anything for us to learn from that to date, or is it still too soon?

Susie: The first thing we did was agree to share information about ourselves with each other. Johanna asked me a question that I loved: “What’s the stuff that makes you prickly?” This gave me an opportunity to write my own little manifesto to her about the stuff I care about. It gave me an opportunity to say, “’The way that I work best is…,’ ‘The things that make me frustrated or angry are…,’ ‘I can forgive anyone doing anything to me, but I am unforgiving if I feel that you’re doing wrong by the company.’”

Why should it take her years to know this about me?

Rob: For sure. So you’ve shared that with her?

Susie: Yeah, some. Simple things like I want information that’s meant for me to come from her, not from somebody else.

Right now, I’m sitting in on all of the conversations that she’s having with everybody. Not because I want to eavesdrop, but because if I’m going to absorb the language that she’s using and if I’m going to know where she’s coming from on things, I need to be present. In the same way, over time, with us doing this together, she’s going to also begin to understand the language I use and the stuff that’s baked into the organization because of me as opposed to Tony.

What’s the stuff that’s likely to change more quickly because Tony is leaving and Johanna is coming in? What’s the stuff that, because I’m still here, is more likely to be altered as a result of a long series of conversations between us? Part of the culture is undeniably a result of Tony having been here for twenty-two years. Part of the culture is because I’ve been here for twenty-eight years. I’ve been saying to people, “As long as I’m here, this is the way the company is likely to operate. When I leave, anybody’s free to change it, but this is something that I care about.”

And I’ve also been saying, “As long as Tony’s here, this is the way it will be. But let’s all remember that when Tony leaves, this may be very, very different.” That’s been a hard thing for some people to absorb but very easy for others to absorb.

Rob: It’s like you’re kneading the dough of the staff to a point where you’re keeping them open to a new cook, another oven. And yet, at the same time, there’s a certain anxiety they have that you have to manage.

Susie: I will say we value some level of discomfort, whether it’s with the audience or staff. Discomfort is what makes it possible for there to be change and surprise. If we don’t value more than just comfort, we can’t be an organization that’s as flexible as we want to be. But acting on it is really, really hard.

I’ve felt it was okay for there to be a certain amount of organizational discomfort these last few years. If not, then the shock of the change would be brutal. I’ve said to people over the years, “When a new artistic director comes in, these are the positions that can change within an organization.” And I’ve said it because I want people to be thinking about it.

We had to hire a new production manager before we were going to hire a new artistic director. And I said to the person we brought in, “I want to be very clear with you. This is one of these positions that often changes when you have leadership changes either with the manager or the artistic director. So while we’re offering you this job this year, I have to be honest with you, I can’t promise you that you’ll have it in the next year.” It just so happened we had the perfect candidate and it worked out well. When Tony came in twenty-two years ago, we had a marketing director who I loved, but he and Tony were like oil and water. And even though it was my position to hire, I was not going to keep somebody in place who made Tony really uncomfortable.”

Rob: Yeah, of course not.

Susie: To the artistic staff, I’ve said, “Our whole structure, the way we produce plays, may be different in the years to come. The way we develop new work may be different. And we all have to be aware that what our board has said is that there is no position in this organization, other than mine, frankly, that is sacred. We’re not going to say to a new artistic director, ‘You have to keep these people.’” I’ve said that not because I want it to be harsh, but because I think people need to hear it over and over again to internalize it.

To the artistic staff, I’ve said, "Our whole structure, the way we produce plays, may be different in the years to come. The way we develop new work may be different. And we all have to be aware that what our board has said is that there is no position in this organization, other than mine, frankly, that is sacred."

Rob: I’m sure you’re articulating this to the staff in other ways, too. Turning it into something that could be exciting and positive, that will be stimulating to the entire organization. Not necessarily threatening to their jobs but really engaging them in constructive change.

Susie: Oh yeah. Now that Johanna is here, people are over the moon. The excitement of having a different kind of conversation, different people in the room. Even the initial conversations about the next season and who’s participating in them. The kinds of questions the staff is being asked that will inform the decision-making—it’s a totally different way of working. And it’s exciting to people.

an angel hovers over a man in a bed

Angels in America, directed by Tony Taccone. Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Rob: Those first observations are key, so that’s very good news for you to see how they’re opening up to her.

Susie: It’s fun to see what we’ve always known, which is that people can love Tony and adore Tony, and also be ready to love and adore somebody else. It doesn’t take anything away from what Tony’s accomplished.

Rob: We’ve talked a lot about the process that led to Johanna’s hiring and how she’s being folded in to the organization. What is your process for Tony, for his leaving the organization? It’s a celebration, right? It has to be.

Susie: It is. We said this year was going to be Tony’s year. Tony’s not somebody who likes to draw a lot of attention to himself. Throughout all the years we’ve worked together, when there’s been stuff he just doesn’t want to have to deal with, that’s when he wants to be in a rehearsal hall.

When we opened the new theatre, Tony spent twelve weeks there rehearsing The Oresteia. At one point I checked in with him and said, “Are we okay?” I was doing everything external, and we hadn’t talked to each other in weeks. And he said, “Yeah, we’re both doing the same thing. We’re just doing it the way we do it.”

That was a great affirmation of how, between the two of us, we covered all the bases that the theatre needed covered. Tony is at his best under pressure, when he’s in a rehearsal hall. So when we talked about this last season, we knew he was going to want to handle Paradise Square very carefully. We knew that with Fairview. We were worried about what was going to happen in the second half of the year. When the John Leguizamo musical Kiss My Ass came along, I kept saying to Tony, “You have to direct it. You have to direct something in your last season.” He hadn’t wanted to direct something just for the sake of directing. But this was like throwing him a life raft because he will dig in to that show as we get closer and closer to the end of his tenure. He will be able to be in a rehearsal hall, lock himself in a room with a group of artists. That’s the way he deals with uncertainty and unease.

And then, at the very end of the season, we’re going to do a gala that honors him. But, frankly, he’s said over and over that he wants a party. So we’re going to do a big fucking party.

Rob: Fabulous.

Susie: Tony will also be as present for Johanna as she wants him to be. Initially, when we were doing the search, he had said, “We have to keep this separate. What you’re doing there is fine. What you do with the other person is fine.” But he really admires Johanna, he’s very happy with the choice. He realizes that if we can find some ways for the two of them to be present together, it will give a lot of comfort to the staff and community. We don’t know what that’s going to be yet, but we know that we’re going to do that.

Rob: Obviously it’s very smart of Johanna to create a context in which that’s possible. There’s so much she’s going to be able to glean from that.

This is a huge change for everyone, including you. I want to know how you’re doing.

Susie: I’ve worked with eight different artistic directors in my career, and I’ve been through four of these transitions. Knowing that I’ve done it before is helpful; I have a lot of information at my fingertips. But it’s a very different kind of transition now than it was twenty-two years ago. I am moving toward the end of this career as I’ve known it. That has made the stakes lower for me. I’m not expecting this to be a twenty-two-year relationship. Before when we went into this, I said to the board, “I’m not sure I’ve got the stomach to fall in love all over again.” To be a good partner requires an act of falling in love. As Tony says, “You don’t necessarily have to like your partner, but you do have to respect them.” And you have to be willing to imbue them with the qualities that you value, whether they have them or not. That said, I’m having a wonderful time with Johanna.

For a number of years now, I have been very conscious that my job at the theatre is to provide historical context, to share the wisdom I’ve developed from doing this for over forty years. My job is to make sure I connect the past to what I think is going to be the future. This is something I think about every day and have for years.

When I bring on new trustees now, I’m thinking, “This is somebody whom I hope is going to be there after me.” The job that I do of orienting them, the job that I do of making them a good trustee, is not for my purposes any longer, it’s for the person who comes after me. The staff members whom I’m bringing in now—many of them will be here long after I’m gone. So what are the things I can do to help make sure they have the context that can make them the best they can be?

When a marketing director gives me a three-year history on something, I say, “I don’t want a three-year history. I want a ten-year history. History did not begin with you. You need to know that when we did this seven years ago, it had a different outcome.” Whenever a long-time or past board member, staff member, community member, comes to visit me, I walk into the building and I introduce them to everybody else because if they come by in ten years, I want somebody to know them. I don’t want them to feel that if I’m gone, they no longer have any reference point in the organization.

This is a lot of what I felt my job has been in the last few years: being the connective tissue between the past and the future.

Whenever a long-time or past board member, staff member, community member, comes to visit me, I walk into the building and I introduce them to everybody else because if they come by in ten years, I want somebody to know them.

Rob: You’re doing what any good manager’s doing and that carries you through. You’re managing it.

Susie: Johanna is a very different person than Tony. Tony has no interest in organizational culture. Tony cares deeply about the stage. A lot of the decisions that were about making the company, making the organization, were things that I made. Tony would say, “This is not something of interest to me. You do whatever you want to do,” until something would come up that he would care about and we’d have to figure it out.

But that meant the work on our stage has been very much a reflection of Tony. The organization is probably a reflection of me, and of both of us. In each case, we gave each other room. I was thinking: Berkeley Rep is an amoeba. We’ve always made room for whomever has come in. Everybody has had to move around a little bit to make room for that person. With Johanna coming in, I’m going to have to make room for somebody who’s much more interested in organizational culture. At first I thought, man, that’s going to be hard. How am I going to do this graciously? How am I going to make room for this? What are the things we’re going to disagree about? And then I began to realize, this is going to be wonderful.

Rob: You have somebody to share the burden with.

Susie: There are going to be things that Tony just wouldn’t have given a shit about, but Johanna will. And I’m thinking, “Whoa. This is going to be a totally different conversation and isn’t that going to be stimulating?” At the same time, there’s going to be somebody here who cares with equal affection for every single project that we do. Tony has been a very good producer, but when Tony’s directing a show, that’s the thing we talk about as opposed to, “What’s the next one, what’s the one that came before it?” I’m excited about having somebody who’s going to have love and affection for every single project.

The other thing is that Johanna has a very different interest in the relationships we have with our audience and donors. I don’t know yet about the larger community, which is something of deep concern to me, but the fact that Johanna’s interested in those kind of relationships... In many ways, I feel like an enormous weight has been taken off of my shoulders.

I’ve been the caretaker of those external relationships and I’ve worried about who I will hand them off to when I leave. It may not be that all of them get handed off to Johanna, but I think a number of them will. She’s going to be willing to share those relationships until I feel like I can’t carry them any longer. And I think if she doesn’t take them on, the organizational structure will become different because she cares about those relationships, too. But there will be somebody else who will take on the burden of them. I can’t tell you how liberating knowing this has been.

Rob: It seems to be providing a pathway for you. Now you have a partner who’s going to share some of those external relationships that you’ve been carrying yourself. And if you feel there’s somebody who has the capacity to continue that when you’re thinking of leaving, that will make your departure that much easier.

Susie: I feel like the other piece of my job—and this was going to be true regardless of who we hired—is that, until I decide to leave, I have to help make sure that whomever we bring in understands the value of partnership, how to use partnership, how to be a good partner.

Rob: Clearly that’s going to be the case.

Susie: I hope so. With Sharon, even though there were times when we fought like cats and dogs, we actually made really good work together. With Tony, the organization has grown in ways we’re both so proud of, because there was room for both of us to shape it. And, there was an enormous amount of mutual respect. We honored the notion of staying out of each other’s lanes, which made room for each of us to be the person we wanted to be.

I would love for that to continue to be one of the hallmarks of this company. That you can have good and strong-willed and independent and powerful people, being really effective, as leaders. That’s how we’re going to attractive a good person to replace me, whenever that happens.

I am really proud of how we’ve handled this. I feel as though, as an organization, we did this the way we were supposed to do it. We’ve made a great choice; we found the perfect person. And that feels great.

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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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