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Our Versions of Better

Glenn Davis and Ken-Matt Martin in Conversation

Smiling man standing in front of a theatre with his hands in his pockets.

Ken-Matt Martin in front of the Victory Gardens Biograph theatre. Photo by Nolis Anderson.

Glenn Davis: What has it been like taking the helm in the middle of everything that’s happening? I imagine if you saw yourself leading an institution that it would not be under these circumstances.

Ken-Matt Martin: It’s interesting. In many ways I felt like my entire career led to this moment, right? When I think back—shout out to [Robert] Hupp who’s now at the artistic director at Syracuse Stage, who was the artistic director with the Arkansas Rep. When I was like fourteen, he took me under his wing and let me just follow him around and ask him questions. That really planted the seed for me of wanting to be an artistic director one day.

I’m for four and a half months on the job right now, and honestly it kind of sucks. Not the job itself, but that I had to take on this job in the middle of a global pandemic. I’m coming off a very public, tumultuous leadership transition in my institution, which creates problems. In addition to that, there is this rising labor movement within our industry that I am a passionate supporter of. Now here I am, taking over a theatre that is facing what I like to call white flight of donors and board members. There are a lot of people who’ve decided that since me and some of the other leadership happen to be Black that they no longer want to support this place. We’re watching a dwindling market of donors who are taking their money elsewhere because there are new leaders who look like you and I.

So these first couple of months have just been really, really hard. I am hopeful for the future, but that’s how it’s been for me so far. What is it like for you at this point?

Glenn: So last week was my first week, and what you said is absolutely true. There’s so much to navigate in this moment before you even get to the fact that I’m Black, right? There’s a world that is changing very quickly. I’m not casting aspersions, but there is a reckoning and a conversation being had about people who’ve historically garnered and had proximity to power.

Then there’s the dealing with, like you said, essentially white flight. I’ve been warned several times by folks. Our counterparts who are not of color don’t get that same questioning. So that’s something too essentially for us to navigate as well.

Ken-Matt: I tweeted about this recently. [Stephanie] Ybarra, a colleague at Baltimore Center Stage, had retweeted someone who had written about being at a party with a group of their mother’s friends in Baltimore. They had unsubscribed from Baltimore Center Stage because there were too many Black shows. Steph retweeted it and said, “If I had a dollar for every time I got feedback like this.” And then I tweeted about my story about what was said to me by a donor.

All of us have had to say goodbye to racist folk who, in many cases, are the types of folks who voted for Barack and consider themselves liberal, right?

Glenn: That’s the insidious lack of nuance in the conversation around race. But everything is not racist. Every time someone does something that seemingly is pejorative around race doesn’t mean it’s racist. I tell this story often. Years ago, a friend and I were talking about actors. He was like, “Who’s your favorite actor?” I said, “Denzel.” And he said, “Oh, cool.” And I asked him, “Who’s your favorite actor?” He said, “Daniel Day Lewis.” I was like, “Oh, dope. What did you think of Denzel?” And then he said, “Definitely the best Black actor.”

Ken-Matt: Someone said this to your face?

Glenn: Yes. This is years and years ago. But I remember when he said that I was like, “Dude, if you’d have said to me what do I think of Daniel Day Lewis and I would have said definitely the best white actor, what would your response have been?” And he went, “Oh, shit.” So what I did was show him how he added a racial component to a conversation that had nothing to do with race. That’s what they do to us when we’re coming to lead the institution and they say, “Hey, don’t do all Black plays next season.” I’m like, “I’m leading the institution. You put race in the conversation—”

Ken-Matt: I hear you. What I’m hearing are the moments where we want to call people in, as I’ve experienced it with my dear friend Carmen Morgan at artEquity. The way that I’ve seen her utilize this practice, it’s something that’s rooted in love.

Yet I don’t want to let anybody off. There’s still some racist stuff going on. A call in is not going to fix that because racism is connected to power. To be clear, you and I are in positions of privilege and power in these roles, yet I think many folks in the industry don’t always take the time to look at the entire power structure. So I agree with you that there may be opportunities to call some people in with love, yet there are many of us—especially Black folks—who are tired of feeling like we have to be the ones correcting folks. It’s also within our purview to not have to do that when we don’t want to.

We’re watching a dwindling market of donors who are taking their money elsewhere because there are new leaders who look like you and I.

In my case, that donor had made a commitment to give a gift and had only given half of their gift. I was trying to connect with them as a new leader to see if they were still going to give the rest of their gift before the end of the fiscal year. That person warned me not to do too many Black things before the donor decided. That’s racist. Let’s call it what it is. They’re wielding some power in the form of their financial capital. So I don’t want to let those folks off the hook either. There’s no call in moment there.

Glenn: Thank you for making that distinction. In my case, that was a moment to say, “Hey, I don’t think you heard yourself. I don’t think you quite heard what you just did.”

Ken-Matt: And he corrected himself, which is key. That’s the difference.

Glenn: But what you just said right there—

Ken-Matt: Oh, that shit’s racist.

Glenn: And needs to be called out.

Ken-Matt: In a different meeting, a different donor, who also was withholding his money, said, “Well I know you’re probably going to focus a lot on Black and Brown stories, but what about true diversity? What about Asian stories? What about Jewish stories?” I was like, in your mind this “true diversity” means “am I still going to see my white self represented?” It’s just fascinating how people try to weaponize the tool of diversity against us without a full understanding of what that actually means.

To be clear, of course we will still be doing stories by and about every other ethnicity that we can because our mission literally says, “Your world on stage.” It’s meant to be a place for everyone.

One of the biggest problems that we have in the American theatre right now is that there are many leaders who have overstayed their welcome. And I am hell-bent on not being that leader.

Glenn: When you took on this role, how did you sort of see in your mind’s eye how long you would do something like this?

Ken-Matt: I’m also curious to hear your answer to this question. I came in knowing that I don’t see myself staying in a role like this much longer than a decade, if that. One of the biggest problems that we have in the American theatre right now is that there are many leaders who have overstayed their welcome. And I am hell-bent on not being that leader. I just don’t think that’s healthy for any institution.

It skews our idea of who’s even qualified for these jobs in the first place. People think if you don’t have fifteen or twenty years’ worth of experience running one particular institution, then you may not even be a viable option. I deal with a little bit of ageism because I’m still in my early thirties. If you look at those who have been in their leadership roles for twenty plus years, many of them were much younger than I am now when they assumed those roles. They had far less experience and education than I have. Yet I’ve had to deal with a myriad opinions about whether or not I have enough experience.

Did you come in with an end in mind as well?

Glenn: Yeah. Running an institution was not on my to-do list, if I’m being perfectly honest. The answer to this question is that I want to come in and do some things to make the institution better with our co-artistic director, Audrey Francis—our versions of better—and then leave it to the next person.

I am someone who believes in term limits, and I think it’s healthy. There is a thing in sports about when a coach loses the locker room, when the team has heard every speech. They can finish the sentences of the coach, and they’re just like, “I’m good.” It’s time for some new blood to come in. This is a larger conversation that I’m glad that we’re all having, but I believe that there should be a conversation with the institution and leadership about a pathway to a succession plan.

Ken-Matt: I completely agree. To give a shout out to my predecessor, Chay Yew—what many people don’t know is that was Chay’s play coming in. Chay did nine years and he was out. He blew the door open for me in so many ways. I hope I can be the one to forge that path for whoever my successors are, which leads me to the big question. How did it come about that you and Audrey got to come in as co-leaders?

Glenn: Anna [D.] Shapiro, who proceeded us as artistic director, let the ensemble know about a year ago that she most likely would not be renewing. We started thinking about who was going to step in. We’re an ensemble of artists, but mostly actors, and we have a self-imposed mandate that it will always be an ensemble member. That means that there are very few directors to choose from, and most artistic directors around the country are directors. I’m an actor and a producer, and Audrey is a director and an actress. The ensemble had a very democratic process about who should be the next artistic director, and Audrey and myself got the most votes. That was the natural conclusion to a very long conversation we had been having with the ensemble.

A Woman and a man in a theatre sitting across from each other and facing the camera.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company artistic directors, Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis, in the Steppenwolf Round Theater. Photo by Frank Ishman.

So Audrey said, “What does it look like if we’re doing this together?” If it’s shared, then there’s a division of duties. I have a list of things that I’m the point person on, and I’m in conversation with Audrey about every single one of them. Same thing with her. So we never feel like we’re making decisions in a vacuum. We’re in conversation with Brooke Flanagan, who’s our executive director, in the same way.

This allows Audrey and myself to have personal lives, but also it allows for us to have a flourishing career outside of the institution. In other models, if I’m in a play in New York or Audrey’s doing a TV show somewhere, then now there’s no one at the institution. Our model allows us manicure scheduling and say, “Hey, go do your show. I got this here at home.”

As a leader, particularly of an arts organization, I think it’s important to disavow yourself of any notion that you know what the other person is going through.

Ken-Matt: I think that is the future of our industry. You noted that it’s shifting, that it’s not just directors as artistic directors any longer. I think that is both good and a bad thing. To be clear, I want to see some more designers as artistic directors. There are a handful of dramaturgs that are breaking through now. My worry and my concern, however, is that there are also a lot of artistic directors who are now also assuming these roles without knowing what it means to be a freelance artist. I want there to be artists in these roles as artistic directors.

I do think there are a lot of career administrators these days because of this shifting landscape as it relates to fundraising, management, and the skills that one needs to be able to navigate the industry. I am watching a shift where career administrative folks who’ve only ever been on staff who… like me and you know what it feels like to do eight shows a week. I know what it feels like. From May of 2017 to May of 2018, I directed like eight plays back-to-back, and I still made less than fifty thousand dollars. That sucks, and yet that’s the life that we lead as artists. These are the lived experience of the artists that we are responsible for creating opportunities, space, and overall havens of opportunity for. And if you are an artistic leader and don’t have at least a cursory understanding in any of those roles professionally, I always get a little nervous.

It’s one of the reasons why I took my time to go over to the Goodman Theatre in 2015 to get the general management and contract experience. It’s why I threw myself into my job at Williamstown Theatre Festival, where my title was producing director. I wanted to understand the business side of it because I was watching artists getting boxed out of leadership roles and opportunities because they didn’t have the business acumen and experience to point to.

Glenn: As a leader, particularly of an arts organization, I think it’s important to disavow yourself of any notion that you know what the other person is going through. Everyone comes into the institution with a different thing. I think it’s significant that you and I are both Black men, men of color. Our perspective is going to be different than many of our counterparts who are white just because of who we are and what our history is.

Ken-Matt: I remember—I’ll name it—It was in production meetings when I, had the kind of stark realization as a director. I did a handful of shows where I didn’t get to choose the design team myself, but I was doing a show with mostly folks of color or Black folks. I would look around the table at these production meetings, and I was the only person who looked like me.

Glenn: I have a friend of ours who runs a theatre, a Black man. I asked him, “Hey, what will be the most surprising thing to me as I step into this role?” He said the most surprising thing will be that 90% of the people you work with have never been led by a Black man, and that will manifest itself in different ways.

Ken-Matt: Let me ask you this as a closer: What, if anything, can you name at this moment feels like the thing you’re the most excited about going into this first year of leadership?

Glenn: I think the thing I’m most excited about today is getting back into the rehearsal room. Doing a workshop of a play, building something with a community of artists, making room for artists who have historically not been able to have their voices be a part of the conversation.

I’m going to list off a few things. I’m excited about sitting in a dark theatre with strangers, and the curtain goes down and I have no idea what’s about to happen. And then the curtain lifts up, and you’re in it and don’t have anything to think about for the next two hours. I’m excited about being in conversation with arts leaders like yourself who are at the forefront of the necessary change that’s happening in our industry. I’m excited about being back home in Chicago. And the last two things I’ll say: I’m excited about bringing the staff, the ensemble, and the board together to be in conversation as we address some of the many concerns in our industry right now. And lastly, I have to say partnering with Audrey Francis. She is a dynamic leader, a fantastic teacher, and a wonderful artist. I get excited every day about partnering with her. Those are the things I’m really excited about. And with that I have to throw it back to you.

Ken-Matt: I mean, I have to make sure I try to shout out and say her name as many times as I can: Roxanna Conner, Roxanne Conner, Roxanna Conner, who is my partner in crime as our acting managing director. She was our former education director who, in this last year—as is so often the case for Black women—had to take on the role of literally putting this institution on her back and keeping it afloat while they navigated the really intense process for my role. We’re co-leaders at the moment, and Roxanna will stay on in a more elevated role. So I am most excited about continuing my partnership with her.

The final thing I’ll say is, and I’m copying you a little bit, but it’s being able to connect with people like you. It’s such a beautiful, pivotal moment, I think in Chicago in particular. I’m excited to continue making connections with all of you, to figure out how we can be collaborative and build. I’m hopeful that we can continue checking our respective egos at the proverbial door as we figure out ways to support one another. Because that is the key to all of our collective success: that we’re invested in one another just as much as we are invested in the success of our own programming within our institutions.

Thoughts from the curators

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 sharing this great conversation. As a longtime fan and occasional collaborator at both theaters, i look forward to watching and supporting your work!