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Managing the Impact of the Pandemic

Emika Abe and Sarah Williams are managing directors who each started their first executive leadership roles at regional theatres only the autumn before COVID-19 kickstarted a weekslong shutdown across the United States—Emika at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC, and Sarah at California Shakespeare Theater in the San Francisco Bay Area. As the manager of the Press Play Digital Theatre Initiative at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, and a former coworker of Emika’s, I was curious about how their experience managing the impact of the pandemic has shaped their views on art in virtual spaces, leadership amidst crisis, and the future of the American theatre.

Patrick Myers: I want to kick things off by asking: How has COVID-19 impacted your organization?

Emika Abe: I had been on the job for about five months when we put a sign up on the door that said: “We’re temporarily closed!” last March. Naively, I thought, Okay, this is going to last for maybe a month. Obviously that timeline has just gotten longer and longer than any of us really anticipated.

Sarah Williams: We canceled our season probably two weeks after the Bay Area went on lockdown and people were like, “What are you doing?” They were also thinking the shutdown would be temporary. In retrospect, that was a great decision. But at the time it was—and it still is—completely gut-wrenching to have to do that. There’ve been a lot of sleepless nights, but particularly in those first few weeks.

The other thing that keeps me up at night is that here in the Bay Area, the length of the fire season has really expanded. Our theatre sits squarely in a fire zone, and had we been performing this year we would have lost three weeks, easily, because of the fire season and air quality. So that too makes us wonder, How do we start mitigating for all of these risk factors that we can’t control? That is not a class they teach you in grad school, but they should.

two actors onstage

Marcel Spears (Bottom) and Robyn Kerr (Puck) in Cal Shakes’ 2019 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare and directed by Tyne Rafaeli.

Patrick: Do you think your approach to leadership has changed from when you started to now?

Emika: I think so. One of the things I’ve been reflecting on is how that first month of the pandemic felt like really high-adrenaline emergency mode, so that was different for sure. But it does feel like I’ve been in some sort of emergency mode this whole time. And I don’t think I’m always my best self when I’m in that place. I’m someone who loves leadership theory and how you can be adaptable to what different people need, so I came into this position really wanting to be intentional around how I show up as a leader.

In this kind of crisis it’s so much easier to fall back onto your default, so instead of being adaptable in my leadership style to what different people need, I find myself being less adaptable or less intentional about how I show up with different people. You’re also really trying to find that balance between being understanding and empathetic, especially right now, but also trying to create art to keep the organization strong. There’s tension there and while that’s useful, I still want to be a leader who is responsive to and cognizant of different people’s needs. I’m much more aware of that now and how that impacts the art we create.

Patrick: How have you learned to lean on your community when quarantining begets isolation?

Sarah: One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic is how it has brought communities together. All of a sudden we had time to build community in a way that we had never had time to before. My social calendar has been far more full with weekly meetings and check-ins and cocktail hours with colleagues or friends from across the country—moments sharing space with one another virtually, which never existed before. That is something I hope we continue to make space for whenever we can go back into our theatres again, because I have found it to be incredibly vital to my sanity.

Emika: Sarah and I are part of a group of managing directors that speak every week. Sometimes it’s about personal stuff and sometimes it’s about work stuff and a lot of times it’s about both. A much more experienced managing director once said they thought we had an advantage by being so new to the role because we were naive enough to not know just how unprecedented and extraordinary this moment is. Because at first, there was an element of “Oh! This is just another thing I don’t know how to deal with,” you know?

Sarah: All of a sudden we’re on the same playing field. None of us have ever dealt with anything like this before, so it doesn’t matter if you have been in the industry for thirty years or for six months, you know? We’re all figuring it out together.

All of a sudden we’re on the same playing field. None of us have ever dealt with anything like this before, so it doesn’t matter if you have been in the industry for thirty years or for six months.

Patrick: How do you think this period is going to transform the field once protocols are lifted and it’s safe to gather in public again?

Sarah: In my mind, there’s no going backwards. Things have to change and they will have changed.

Emika: Even with projects without a live in-person audience, we are learning a lot about safety protocols. We’ve developed this mindset that we are going to need to implement these safety protocols for a while in some way or another. Even when the vaccine is available, not everybody’s going to take it or it’s not going to be 100 percent effective. My concern is really how people feel safe coming back to the theatre. Because one of the only times I actually turn my phone all the way off is when I’m seeing a play. And I love that. I miss that.

I’m also thinking about this within the administrative side of our organization. What are we learning about what’s possible? When we are hiring positions, can we ask ourselves the question, “Could they be remote?” And what would be lost if the answer is yes? I do think there’s something lost in terms of personal connection, by losing the little conversations we have in the office kitchen.

Sarah: The cries for racial equity are asking a lot of the industry, and if theatres aren’t coming back into the theatre changed, what were they doing for this whole past year? There’s a demand out there and we’re being asked to be better as organizations, as theatre practitioners, as theatremakers, as makers. That’s going to be a huge part of what it means to return.

I’m grateful for the really big visionaries out there, the Marias and the Erics and the Natakis—this whole group of leaders who are running organizations right now. When I stop and remove the layers of anxiety that I live with on a daily basis and think about the opportunity for innovation, it’s super exciting. We’re an industry that’s been around for sixty-plus years doing things the same way. Let’s try something new and see what happens. Let’s experiment and fail and bring in new voices and bring in new perspectives. Emika and I wouldn’t be here if that wave of thinking hadn’t already begun pre-COVID, but it still feels like a huge part of this too.

a group of actors onstage

The cast of Cal Shakes’ 2019 production of The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Tony Kushner, translated by Wendy Aarons, and directed by Eric Ting.

Emika: We’ve been saying for a long time that the business model is broken. Literally the first day of grad school is learning about cost disease and how the cost of creating theatre keeps getting more and more expensive and the revenue doesn’t catch up and how there’s not an easy solution—otherwise the smart people in the field would have identified it by now. But I do think we are re-examining some of those models and these assumptions to see if maybe there’s something that’s very different that could grow out of this moment.

Sarah: I was part of a cohort in 2019 of Bay Area theatremakers who were studying the principles and practices of transformative justice. One of the biggest takeaways for me was about resisting binaries and being able to hold more than one truth at one time. I think the notions of, “What is the business model that will work for the theatre?” and “What are these changes that we’re saying are going to come out of this moment?”… A lot of that creativity feels like a product of holding multiple truths at one time, because none of it is easy and none of it can happen in a vacuum.

But it’s vital to this moment. It’s hard to do it, and it’s hard for everyone, but the alternative is so limiting. Being able to practice this idea of multiple truths and holding onto those multiple truths is the only way I can start to understand the world and educate myself about how the world works so I can try to be a better person. Wouldn’t Brené be so proud?

Emika: She would be so proud.

Sarah: Emika and I listen to a lot of Brené Brown.

The art form that we traffic in is so human-centered. In that context, our responsibility becomes about not perpetuating stereotypes. We should demonstrate the fullness of humanity.

Patrick: Do your personal convictions influence how you choose to lead and do they ever clash with the priorities of your organization? If they do, how do you manage that dissonance? How do you hold both things at once?

Sarah: Cal Shakes forces me to reckon with my own personal convictions more so than my personal convictions force me to reckon with my organization. Cal Shakes as an org had been living and breathing and working in equity, diversity, and inclusion in a way I hadn’t been prior to my arrival. I was nowhere near as far along as many of the staff. I’ve been really pushed to respond a certain way or to look at a problem a certain way. It has pushed me out of my comfort zone far more than I expected it to. It’s been good but uncomfortable growth.

Emika: Everybody says the work never ends, that it is a lifelong commitment and journey. When I think about the last year, and how I have been impacted and transformed by the work we’re doing organizationally, the questions I’ve been asking are, “Why must we do this as a theatre company and what is our responsibility as storytellers and culture creators to say whose stories deserve to be told, and how?”

That interrogation impacts the whole organization. It’s not just about the artists in the room. At the Ten Chimneys Foundation’s racism in theatre summit that took place in August, we talked about how the starting points of racism are stereotypes, and stereotypes then open the door to dehumanizing, and then people who get dehumanized are treated differently. The art form that we traffic in is so human-centered. In that context, our responsibility becomes about not perpetuating stereotypes. We should demonstrate the fullness of humanity. That is the essential work.

Sarah: We’ve been having a ton of conversations about that but through the lens and context of a classics theatre that’s based in the work of Shakespeare. It’s part of our Direct Address series called Resisting Shakespeare. We’re asking the questions, “What does that mean to be ‘in resistance?’ What does it mean to be interrogating the context and the connotations of the playwright, or of how those plays have been used in colonizing different parts of the world?” We believe the arts are part of making a more just society. How do we reckon with that as a classics theatre?

Emika: And how do you not just throw it all out? In some ways, that’s the easier way out rather than asking how we actually reckon with this and then sit in that messiness.

two actors onstage

Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017 by Anne Washburn. Directed by Saheem Ali for Woolly Mammoth Theatre in co-production with The Public Theater.

Patrick: Is there any art that’s bringing you comfort right now?

Sarah: The last play I saw was in New York—Anatomy of a Suicide at the Atlantic Theater Company. It was beautiful and devastating and I can’t believe that was the last play I saw in 2020. It’s been really hard for me because what I love about going to the theatre is being amongst people and breathing together and feeling people around me. I was having a really difficult time at the beginning of quarantine concentrating on anything, but I’ve started to find comfort in books. But I’m really missing performance, more than I give myself time to think about.

Patrick: Do you need to mourn that loss?

Sarah: I don’t think I’ve properly given myself time or space to mourn the loss of live performance in my life. And I don’t know what those emotions will be—I imagine quite overwhelming. I tend to compartmentalize—that’s just how I cope and get through when things are hard, and things are hard right now. I’m making the choice not to mourn it and instead to wrap those feelings up in a little box so I can focus on other areas and know that someday I will go back to it. Because theatre doesn’t die. The arts don’t die. Distraction, distraction, distraction. That’s my tactic.

Emika: What would Brené say?

Sarah: “Don’t do as I do,” that’s what she would say.

Emika: Last weekend we filmed a project inside the theatre and it was really meaningful and moving. I was stunned by the level of artistry by our production staff, and I remember the last time I felt stunned was when I went to a museum this September after they started reopening in D.C. and saw this giant painting. I was struck by the scale of that and realized how small my world had become. The opening up of that scale and vision and execution, it really struck me.

It has become less about mourning the loss of performance and more, “Oh, right. This is why we do it, and this is the impact it can have.” It made me more excited to get back to that. This year has been a lot of not having that visceral connection to the thing that drew us all to it in the first place, so as much as I think that some version of technology and online productions will be in our future, there are probably a lot of people like me who are really excited about getting back to the in-person version.

Sarah: I just say, “It will happen, that day will come.”

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