Listening and Finding Common Ground

Chris Coleman and Marya Sea Kaminski in Conversation

Chris Coleman: We’ve now had a couple conversations about running theatres, and something you mentioned last time was advice you got about how to build relationships with board members: getting together with each of them to do something they’re individually interested in. What has that looked like?

Marya Sea Kaminski: I have to give credit where credit is due. It was Courtney Sale, who’s leading Seattle Children’s Theatre now in a really victorious way, who suggested that. She said, “Don’t just meet them for coffee. Try to see what their lives are like. Share an experience with them.” She went to yoga classes and things like that. Now that I’m at the Pittsburgh Public Theater as artistic director, none of my board members have invited me to a yoga class, but I have taken long walks in the rain, in parks, in their neighborhoods. I’ve gone to breakfast at diners in little storefront plazas in the suburbs. I went to my first Steelers game.

Chris: This makes me think of when, after I arrived here in Denver to be artistic director at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the very first board member reached out and said, “Hey, let’s get together for dinner.” A colleague told me, “He’s going to want to take you to this very special cigar bar that he loves. It’s where all the politicos go. It’s thick with cigar smoke. Don’t let him take you there. It’s too old boy’s club, and you’re going to hate it. Tell him you’re allergic to smoke.”

My assistant told him, “Chris can’t go there,” and we ended up going someplace else. We had a good time, and as we were leaving, he said, “So you don’t like cigar smoke?” I told him I hated it. And after he said, “But you would love this place, it’d be so great.” I asked if he knew any gay man who wanted to hang out in cigar bars. He mentioned a bunch of people he’d taken, and I said, “They’re just terrified to tell you to your face they don’t like it. I’m not going there.”

three people sit at a table reading

Chris Coleman in rehearsal for Oklahoma!. Photo by John Moore.

Marya: It’s great to be honest with your board members right from the beginning.

Chris: You’ve become a cultural leader in Pittsburgh. How does that feel?

Marya: It feels like a huge responsibility. Honestly. Especially for a city I’m really only starting to get to know. What does it mean to be a true public theatre? I’m very inspired by Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater in New York, and am really interrogating on my own what that means.

I think it does have something to do with being a cultural leader, which is distinct from being a cultural curator. Being a cultural leader is a lot about listening, not just selecting. A younger version of me thought it was the other way around.

When I first moved to Pittsburgh I experienced some culture shock. Seattle, where I’m coming from, has such a unique point of view and is so progressive in so many ways, and I knew moving to western Pennsylvania would be different, but I didn’t really know how. In one of the first productions I did here, Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice, we had some real blowback to the cross-gender casting and the gender bending. It was, for some audience members here—some long-time subscribers—a real challenge.

Chris: Confusing or offensive?

Marya: I was told it was offensive, but actually I think it was confusing. They were expecting a different Pride and Prejudice. It was a real wake-up call for me, and I’ve spent some time talking with those folks and trying to understand their experiences. That’s led me to what I think is the answer to your question about what a public theatre is in Pittsburgh. I think it’s one of the few places where you can sit side by side with a person who politically disagrees with you and share a common experience, share an emotional experience.

The stories that move me are not all about social debates or what’s going on in our heads, it’s about our hearts. It’s tricky to create that programming and walk that line of what’s populist, what’s equitable, what will sell and keep the doors open, all of those things. But I would like the theatre to serve as that, to serve as a hub and a home to all, or most, of Pittsburgh to share a common experience.

Looking back at your tenure in Portland, I feel like you really accomplished that with Portland Center Stage at the Armory. You didn’t start in that building, right? I’m curious how that transition happened.

Chris: When I took the job in Portland, I was coming from a tiny theatre, Actor’s Express, in Atlanta. I had a budget of about six hundred thousand dollars and we were the scrappy, edgy theatre in the city. But my fantasy was to lead a flagship theatre and get the opportunity to transform its relationship to its community. I had some theories about what that would look like, but they were just theories. I just felt like the way communities interface with arts organizations is much more static than the way we interface with so much of the rest of our culture.

When it became clear that Portland Center Stage was going to build a new home, I thought, we’ll put a gym in it, we’ll put a Starbucks in it. We wanted to activate the public spaces in the building from ten in the morning to midnight, six days a week. Our board member who was helping us figure out what we wanted to do said, “I don’t think anybody has done this successfully. We are just shooting in the dark, and we need some way to test our theories.”

I think [public theatre is] one of the few places where you can sit side by side with a person who politically disagrees with you and share a common experience, share an emotional experience.

We met with a couple of cultural anthropologists, people who spend their days researching what the culture’s going to want next. They’re really looking at behavior. We talked about what we wanted to do, and they talked about trying to figure out how to make the building, the public spaces, sticky psychologically, so when somebody wanders in for something else, their curiosity about the space is raised. That framing made it a very interesting problem to try and solve.

We also met with Ed Schlossberg, whose expertise was designing interactive user experiences primarily in the museum world. He is responsible for the redesign of Times Square twenty years ago. He talked about the transaction of our art form—that audience members sit in the audience, politely, and the performers stand on the stage, and at the end the audience claps. He got us to think about how to move the proscenium elsewhere, how to move it into the lobby or outside the building. And then he said, “One of the major things the culture is trying to figure out is what are we going to talk about?” This surprised us. We’re around theatre people all the time, people who always have things to talk about. But he said, “People are trying to figure out what they talk about. We can give them that, and how can we facilitate that more actively?”

Those guiding principles led us to begin designing what the experiences of the public spaces would be. If someone wandered in randomly, how could we raise their curiosity level? And if someone came in for a specific event, how could we build relationship with them if they’d never been in the building before? Those principles were wildly successful. We had about thirty-five thousand people a year come in for something other than a theatre performance. And about 12 percent of those folks went on to be single ticket buyers.

Marya: Wow.

Chris: We’re trying to figure out what of that is replicable here in Denver. It’s a much bigger canvas. All of that work in Portland required staffing that we hadn’t budgeted for prior to moving into the building, but it became central to our brand in the community, about how people built relationships with us. It wasn’t just about coming to see plays.

Marya: I remember stepping into that building for the first time. I loved how high the ceilings were. It felt like there was room to think. And I think there was a sculpture hanging from the ceiling. I remember wandering around, wondering, Is the bar open? What can I do in here? It all felt very possible.

I’m in a very specific part of downtown in Pittsburgh, literally in a cultural district. And it’s wonderful. And it is saturated. I’m across the street from a symphony. The Broadway series is around the corner. There are theatres everywhere, which is wonderful, but also a challenge. There are a lot of options down here. I’m curious: When you envisioned the Armory, was it urban renewal? Were you filling a need in the neighborhood, or were you selling a vision for the theatre?

Chris: It was both. We were extraordinarily fortunate that the Armory was a prime piece of real estate in a portfolio that was about to be redeveloped into a very progressive urban landscape. They couldn’t figure out what to do with that building, because it is a historic building. You couldn’t punch windows into it. It was no good for retail. They were trying to figure out how to activate it, and how that incredibly cool neighborhood would draw people in the evenings. We wanted to experiment with this community-building idea and have better public performance spaces. So it was a win-win. We were fulfilling something for them and they were fulfilling something for us.

In terms of your experience so far at Pittsburgh Public Theater, is there anything that’s puzzling you about how you are going to realize this fantasy in your head?

Marya: It’s all puzzles. That’s the wonder of it, you know? One of the things I say over and over again that people seem to understand is that we want to throw the doors open. We want to invite more people not only into the audience but onto the stage. We want to center different voices. I want to stretch the canon open, because traditionally Pittsburgh Public’s programming—and really the lane this theatre occupies in the ecosystem here—is very eclectic. City Theatre does great new plays. Quantum Theatre does site-specific work. Bricolage does immersive. There are some very specific parts of the ecosystem. From what I’ve gathered so far, the Public serves as an entry point, for audiences to figure out what they like and then dive in deeper.

In a typical season at Pittsburgh Public, there can be a new play, and then a Shakespeare, and then a musical. I am inspired to keep that eclectic mix and relationship to the canon, but I want to be innovative in who we collaborate with, who interprets those works, who stars in them, who gets to own those stories and dictate how those worlds are conceived. That’s very exciting to me, finding the potential energy in that balance. And finding the right balance. Balancing our need to welcome new people in and still honoring, valuing, and serving the traditional subscribers. I mean, if I’m humble and I’m honest, it’s their theatre. I’m new to town.

Chris: Artistic directors are going to come and go.

So I am going slow now with the hope that after a couple of years the board will trust me, and I can then put my foot on the gas a little bit more.

Marya: Yeah. How do I find that Venn diagram of my values and my taste and the appetite that my core audience has? None of these are new questions, and probably more seasoned artistic directors have been walking this line and trying to move this needle since the beginning of time. But it’s my turn to try to figure out how to do that. And that is definitely a puzzle.

Chris: I love the phrase “who owns the stories and who gets to tell the stories.” I think that’s on all of our minds right now. And what does it mean? How does that manifest inside the organization? Each of us are choosing a different path to guide our team.

We had our all-team meeting last weekend and I presented on the history of this organization in relationship to the birth of the larger regional theatre movement, because it’s a very particular organization. If you’ve been here thirty-five years, you don’t realize how particular it is. I also wanted to show how some of our stats compare to our peers in our budget group, because a lot of people have no idea where we’re doing really well and where we’re behind.

six people around a table

Chris Coleman in rehearsal for Oklahoma!. Photo by John Moore.

One of the comments afterwards was about how much the board weighs in on programming—that it feels like we’re not as innovative as we could be, and did the board get in the way? I had folks in Portland ask me that, too. I had donors ask me that. I was like, “The board doesn’t really weigh in on those choices. It is my sense of where the audience is and how fast I can go and still keep the people who got us here in the seats.”

I’m not thirty-eight anymore, which was how old I was when I moved to Portland, and where I was like, “Fuck it. We’re just going to go for it.” I paid that price. I know what those financial ramifications are. And I know what those sleepless nights look like. So I am going slow now with the hope that after a couple of years the board will trust me, and I can then put my foot on the gas a little bit more. I don’t know that you ever stop trying to figure out how to navigate what you just described.

Marya: That’s something I’ve been thinking about as I just announced my second season. My first season I planned from afar. I didn’t know the audience. But I feel like my second season is a bit more about building credibility, with both my core audience and what I hope is my new audience, building that trust you’re talking about.

It’s interesting to hear you say go slow. I just heard this wonderful anecdote about a director who was starting an ambitious process and said, “We have an enormous amount to do. We have very little time. We must go very slowly.”

Chris: I think that’s a Liviu Ciulei quote. The guy who used to run the Guthrie. I remember hearing that and thinking, that’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard.

Marya: I love that. And it resonates with what you’re talking about: go slow so that we can put the foot on the gas.

Chris: You talked earlier about some of the surprises to programming, the responses. Is there anything else about living in Pittsburgh or moving into the organization that’s been like, Wow, I had not anticipated that? Has the fact that you’re the first female artistic director in the history of the Pittsburgh Public Theater been a factor?

Marya: I think, as a woman, I do tend to be underestimated, and that often serves me. If I can keep it from getting personal, those dynamics of being underestimated or condescended to when I walk into a room, I can often find an opportunity to surprise people with my intelligence or my clarity and then accomplish what I came to do.

It has definitely been a point of conversation, that I am the first woman here at the helm and what that means. I think it was important for the board. There are a lot of people who are really proud of that fact. But I also think it’s been a real challenge for some of our subscribers and donors.

Chris: I’m a middle-aged white guy, but I’m also the first non-straight man who’s ever run this organization. And my husband is black. People could not have been more welcoming, but I do think occasionally, on some of the programming from last year, I would have folks talk about their discomfort with the gay content or something like that.

Did you see Pete Buttigieg’s town hall on CNN?

Marya: No, I didn’t.

Chris: He’s the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who’s running for president. He said, “Changes happen so fast in the LGBT arena and I am a beneficiary of that. I am legally married to my husband, and I am deeply grateful for that.” And then he said, “But I’m also really sympathetic to how disorienting it has to be for those who have conservative views, how quickly it’s changed.” I liked his word “disorienting” and his willingness to be generous with giving people space to be where they are. I think that’s hard, because it can hurt your feelings sometimes.

I love that you said sometimes it’s an advantage for you, if you can not make it personal, that they underestimate you. I agree with that, because you’re going to win. You’re going to move them forward.

I like to call our budget our shared values, to just remind everyone that it is our moral document. More than our mission, more than our value statement.

Marya: We just announced our new season, and I’m getting some feedback from the box office. One gentleman was very adamant that the programming has become too feminist. I called him—I wanted to let him know that I heard him. It was a surprisingly delightful conversation.

You asked earlier about being a cultural leader, and I used to think that was about being out in front. I now think it’s about being in the middle—having the conversation, finding the common ground, always working to keep moving forward. That’s what that conversation felt like. I focused on: “I hear that you haven’t been loving the programming, and it’s felt really feminist to you. I’d love to hear more about that.” And he took a couple of steps back. We got to talk about some things, and I feel like that’s a rare occurrence in America right now, to actually reach out and talk about the hard stuff.

We get to do that. What a great responsibility and what an incredible privilege.

Chris: How political our role is in that regard, listening and finding common ground.

I remember, I think in my third year in Portland, I programmed a very controversial production of Merchant of Venice. A Hungarian director came over and did it. In the opening scene with Antonio and Bassanio, they were clearly gay. When I saw the director’s production in Budapest, in that scene they were in their underwear. It was super sexy and very provocative. And I thought, Awesome. By the time I got to tech in Portland, they were naked. And I was like, Oh no. It was on our main stage, and I thought, Okay, it’s a short scene. It’s dimly lit. And the guys look great. It’ll be fine.

Oh my god, you would’ve thought I killed a goat on stage. We lost five hundred subscribers, and there was a very, very painful board meeting where some folks said what they were hearing in community was that I was trying to turn Portland Center Stage into a gay theatre. I was so mystified by this.

My managing director at the time had been at the Alliance Theatre when Kenny Leon was artistic director. She said, “Here’s my theory. When Kenny was running the Alliance, when he did a Black play, some audiences felt that he had a Black agenda that he was trying to shove down the audience’s throat. If you had done a Black play and you’d been the artistic director, you would have been ‘progressive.’ When he programmed Angels in America, he was progressive. If you do gay programming, it may seem you’re trying to shove it down the audience’s throat.”

It’s about my identity, your identity, and how that intersects with our programming choices. I am hyper aware of that and how to balance it. I think sometimes I’m too cautious on that front. So I think it’s fascinating that you are now accused of “pushing the feminist agenda.”

Marya: I’m starting next year with A Few Good Men.

Chris: That’s hysterical.

In terms of reading budgets and sitting in finance committee meetings and all that stuff, has there been anything totally out of your range, that you don’t like or you don’t know what to do with, or that feels uncomfortable?

Marya: I’m a business school dropout. I tried to go to business school, and all I was doing while I was there was writing the play about being at business school. But I like the challenge of budgets, though it’s not something that comes naturally to me. I ran Washington Ensemble Theatre with ten of my closest friends in my twenties and we just made it up.

Chris: What was your budget there?

Marya: Two hundred thousand a year max. When I got to Seattle Rep, I learned a lot, and I had a lot of mentors there to help me sort through that financial process.

We’re budgeting now, and there are still some things about the budget here that I don’t understand. Some of the practices, some of the formats even. But I actually find that’s not the most important thing. I like to call our budget our shared values, to just remind everyone that it is our moral document. More than our mission, more than our value statement. Andrea Allen at Seattle Rep used to say, “Want to see my values? Look at my checkbook. You’ll see what’s important to me.”

Chris: One of my board chairs was really brilliant at distilling very complex information into something that the least financially savvy person in the room could track. He said to me one time, “Coleman, you need to know two numbers to run your business: Do you have enough cash to operate? Are you on plan?” If I’m on plan, great, no discussion. If I’m off plan, what are the actions I need to take to offset that or catch up?

When I’m sitting in a meeting and everybody’s going down the rabbit hole, those are the two things I come back to because that’s what informs the decisions that are critical for the organization to survive.

Marya: When I was just starting to learn about fundraising, you gave me some of the best advice: “Just do it every day. Have lunch with someone every day. Make an ask everyday.” I’m not always successful at that, but I do feel like it’s a good goal. It gets easier the more you do it.

Chris: The fear starts to diminish.

Marya: I’ve been here in Pittsburgh for seven months. The way I’ve been successful so far is by calling people like you, and asking them my questions. Asking for help. Thank you for that.

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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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Thanks for this Marya and perfect timing! Some interesting insights (PPT is becoming too feminist? I had to laugh at that!)  As much as some Pittsburgh audience members may be adjusting to the new Public theater, many of us are also excited about the new sense of direction, in terms of variety: of collaborators, voices and possibilities.  I'm looking forward to continuing the conversation!