Redefining What Tomorrow Looks Like

Hana Sharif and Kwame Kwei-Armah in Conversation

Hana Sharif: How are you, Kwame? Given that you’ve now transitioned back to the UK, how’s it been to be home?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: It’s interesting—and the British subtext always makes “interesting” sound as if it’s not a good thing, but I actually really mean it in the fullness of the word. One of the hardest things is that I have settled back into being in England as if I’d never left. But I’ve never been an AD in Britain before, so most of my references, my experiences, are based on the American model, and not all of those things automatically translate. In some respects, I go, “Yeah, I know what this is,” and for other things, I go, “Oh my God, I don’t.”

A big example is knowing who the artists are who have made their mark during the time I’ve been away.

Hana: I think it’s a very different moment from what I’m experiencing. I’ve been in the field now for twenty years and we’re in the middle of this very real transition of leadership across the field. Of the thirty-four AD-ships that have opened in the last two years, seventeen of them have gone to women, which is exciting and kind of monumental. And the overwhelming majority of those are women from my generation, so I feel like we have an understanding of who the rising stars are. But how do you know—or, this is a question I ask for myself—how do I know who on the inside I can trust as I enter into a new space to get excited and help execute ideas? Who are you tapping for info?

Kwame: I tend to have a very small circle of people that I really trust, and I need to make sure that, whoever is speaking to me or giving me information, I understand either their subtext or their agenda. We are in a chaotic field in the United States and here. We’re in a huge transitional moment in terms of what artist we want in our houses.

What kind of behavior are we willing to accept? And what is the impact of any abuse? What is the impact of that on an organization? And is it worth bringing in artists who you know are brilliant but come with emotional and psychological anguish to an organization?

Hana: Right.

Kwame: We need big hits straight away and therefore we go to five or ten people that we know, but all of sudden new information has come up about many of those people. And many people in the institution will think, “Well, I like them, and I like their work, but now that I found this out, I don’t know if we really want to invite them into our building.”

Hana: I remember growing up in the business and in my first ten years often working with really out of control stars. The excuse was, “It’s okay. You can tough it out. They’re gonna shine on stage and that’s what it’s all about.” But, ultimately, there is a very real tax on that, and for me it’s really important to bring the best artist to the city, but “best” is curated by best in talent and best in temperament. Are you the most talented and do you have a temperament that fits the culture of the institution that I’m trying to build?

Kwame: I would argue with you, how are you defining what is best in talent and best temperament? Some who have been behaving badly are used to being allowed to create their art in that way.

Hana: It’s one of the things we were experimenting with at Baltimore Center Stage and it has made such a profound difference in the way I view the work we do. When you started talking to us you see very clearly that the culture and the way we define ourselves—the way we see and make the art, how we work—is as important as the final product. I have felt for a very long time that being able to 1) have the language to articulate it and 2) know that was a value for executive leadership was incredibly liberating as a producer working to execute, in every way, the ideas of the organization.

It became very clear that if I want to judge temperament, it begins with the temperament I bring into the building. It begins with layering that as a value in every conversation, that it’s like anything else. It isn’t one person’s responsibility—everyone at the organization has to start to think about how their temperament practically applies to the work they do. It’s a reframing of the way you think and of the work that you do and the reason you do the work.

Kwame and Hana stand with their arms around each other.

Kwame and Hana. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Center Stage.

Kwame: You were on the frontline of helping us design that culture, right? And you know it’s really easy to talk about it as executive management, but actually those who were executing it on the ground at the next level of management are actually the real conduits. You know that bandwidth tax of defining temperament.

Hana: Absolutely.

Kwame: And it’s hard, isn’t it? How do you negotiate that tax, even with your board, who say, “Why isn’t X star here?” and you have to say, “Because he or she doesn’t fit the institutional culture”?

Hana: That’s a real question. My husband, who was in the military and was in the Operation Iraqi Freedom, would say that his first job was winning hearts and minds. That became my mantra the first year of Baltimore Center Stage.

If you’re going to produce a cultural shift, you can’t expect everyone to hop on board to your language trend. You’re going to have to be a chameleon and speak many languages—going department to department and seeing what their core concerns are, where their tensions exist, how this cultural shift might positively or negatively affect the way they have been working in the past, and trying to address those issues, helping paint a picture of what it means to actually have agency and control of the environment and the culture around the work we do.

If you’re going to produce a cultural shift, you can’t expect everyone to hop on board to your language trend. You’re going to have to be a chameleon and speak many languages.

The first two years we cleared a lot of ground—most people had bought into the new vision for the company. Many of those who did not self-selected to move on because they realized the tide had shifted and the company was moving forward in a direction that was not in alignment with their goals and that that was okay. That there was no value judgment on it—life is too short and in our field no one gets paid enough money to be unhappy.

Kwame: Correct.

Hana: There was a very small window of people that needed to be assisted in understanding that they were not a cultural fit for where the organization was going. Having that experience, I went into my interview process speaking really specifically about not just the type of work that I wanted to do, but the way I wanted it to work. And the importance of defining both talent and temperament.

We hope to lay the groundwork and know that it will not be enough because, ultimately, change is hard and even when you want change, when you say I’m embracing change, when you say this is absolutely the direction we want to move in, an organization that’s been run by the same leadership for twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty years—it’s not for lack of will, that the gears shift slowly, or that there’s pain sometimes in the shifting of the gears. It is literally about the changing of the guard. It’s literally about stretching new muscles. It’s literally about understanding the nature of change and the nature of transition.

Kwame: I support that. I would say that that 80 percent of my senior managers have self-selected to move on. That’s a large number. And I have said to everyone from the day that I arrived that my job is to help anyone who wants to stay. I’m going to give them all the love that they need to stay need. And anybody who needs to leave, I’m going to give them all the love that they need to feel that when they leave, they leave with love and support and no judgment.

I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm around the idea of a new voice, but I also recognize that I come with new practices, with new ideas, and there’s a level of building capacity that has to happen in order to be able to achieve the things I dream about.

Hana: The exciting opportunity in that is that everyone you hire, you hire on in alignment with vision, right? Those who gravitate towards your organization are doing so very much like the experience in Baltimore—once the turnover started to happen, everyone who walked in the door, walked in the door because they were enthusiastically in pursuit of passion and vision.

Kwame: And we felt it, a palpable change where those who were with us had come because of the message we had put out about who we want to be. And that was fantastic.

Hana: The entire building had a new charge and a new energy. It felt like we could fly. New ideas, new programs, really had the opportunity to soar. Fast-forward another six or seven months and you’ve rebuilt your staff, full of people who are excited and engaged about your vision. How then do you build institutional capacity and tolerance for the risk factor that comes with new ideas? It’s a question that I’m asking myself, going to an organization that has served its city for the last fifty-four years under leadership, in both management and on the artistic side, that has been at the helm for more than thirty years. Where people are in love with the work that’s been happening in the last thirty years.

I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm around the idea of a new voice, but I also recognize that I come with new practices, with new ideas, and there’s a level of building capacity that has to happen in order to be able to achieve the things I dream about. I wonder what you are thinking in your institution. Are there key things you feel you learned as we built capacity for risk at Baltimore Center Stage?

Kwame: I think it’s a brilliant question and one that A) I don’t think has a straight or a singular answer and then B) will keep you up at night for at least the next three years. And if it doesn’t keep you up for at least the first three years, you’re doing something wrong. Or, the community has accepted you at a superficial level that will not sustain itself.

My previous artistic director is a legend. And he built the stage for eighteen years. It’s uncharacteristic in Britain; people normally stay between seven and ten. He was there for eighteen years. And, particularly in the last five, he started redefining what success looks like. So in a really odd way, I’ve come into a theatre that is my dream. A theatre that is firing on all of the cylinders that matter and that matter to me. It’s a unique problem. Everybody’s going, “You’re taking over huge success.” And it’s not just success in terms of getting five-star reviews, it’s success in its outreach to the community. So I really do have to say why I’m different and not just in terms of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).

Tony Taccone once said, when I first started in Baltimore, “One year in the mind of an artistic director is three years in the real world.” We’re going to be impatient, but the world moves slower than we do. And change looks different. Oskar Eustis used to say another thing to me: “It’s one thing to get the job, then you have to earn the job.”

Hana: Absolutely.

Kwame: And the earning of the job will take you a good couple of years. So, first of all, I had to define what really matters to me. And what matters to me is that I’m able, in the first couple of years, to show that I can do all the good things that are expected of me. We can create shows that are critically acclaimed. We can create shows that can transfer west or across the world. But that for me isn’t what I came to the business for.

I came to the business to catalyze debate. I came to the game to not just be the colored version of the white artistic director who came before me, but to redefine what success looks like to me through my cultural lens. Period.

I came to the business to catalyze debate. I came to the game to not just be the colored version of the white artistic director who came before me, but to redefine what success looks like to me through my cultural lens. Period.

Hana: Mm-hmm.

Kwame: I’m reminded of bell hooks’ comment on post-modern blackness. The need to redefine the universal and oversubscribed notions of identity. How do I superimpose that on a building that allows me to be my black self, but that allows my black self to be as broad as anybody’s white self.

And then how to redefine what a “classic” is. I’m having internal discussions with my team in order to let them understand that my destination is to redefine success through my lens. I have this conversation with the press at every interview. I accept that some things will not work. And I accept that some things will work. But what is the kind of theatre I will hand over to somebody when I get to the end of my tenure? It simply can’t be the theatre I inherited. No matter how great that is.

Hana: Absolutely.

Kwame: I’m having conversations daily with all of my stakeholders, saying, “Help me redefine what tomorrow looks like.”

Hana: There was this moment when, after the announcement came for me and social media exploded, I had to unplug for a little bit. I had to go off Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and find some time for meditation and prayer because—and I know so many of the women who have been announced are struggling with the same thing—there’s a clear level of expectation coming from different cross-sectors of the community. People are invested in the next steps that we take, and it’s important for me to know I cannot hold everyone’s level of expectation.

Knowing that the responsibility I have to myself as an artist, to the organization that I am now stepping in to helm, to the city that I am moving to—knowing that these responsibilities and the vision are not short-term, that no matter how long I stay up at night, tossing and turning, stressing about programming, some people will be disappointed. It will never be radical enough or traditional enough or diverse enough to serve everyone. It’s a long game that I’m invested in.

Kwame: But what we have to understand is that we’re not doing this for anybody else. Whatever we put into play, we’re putting into play for ourselves because we believe in it.

Hana: Absolutely.

Kwame: I’m finding the anxiety trap we have. I don’t like it, I can’t bear it. It is also a necessary hot prod, a thing that’s there ready to burn you, that allows you to refine your thoughts through the lens of “who is going to hate this and why?” It doesn’t matter if you hate this. I know my way of serving, I chose this to serve. This is three years—three years minimum at a high level of anxiety. It never goes down.

You sleep better after a bit. But the, “Do I please you? Can I please you?” I don’t think we ever lose our anxiety, we just get used to the anxiety. But it took me three years to get to the place where I wasn’t in absolute pain and agony every opening night, waiting for their reactions the next day.

I will also say—and this is a big and important point you raised earlier, even as we laugh about it—who can you look to? Who do you have? Even when you’re not making sense. Even when a whole sentence starts in one place and ends somewhere else. Who is there for that? Do you have that person? That person who understands the business inside out, or doesn’t?

Every one of the seventeen new women who are coming in are breaking new ground. And then you have a couple of them that are of color.

Hana: Absolutely.

Kwame: I like to talk about leadership through the lens of female dramaturgy, and this shift will change the organization in a profound way, particularly with this generation of women who are empowered, who say, “I don’t have to create what came before.”

We can create new principles. We can create new ways of doing. But it does mean that the pressure is immense. One of the things I found helpful was to have someone who I could tell: “Switch off the rest of your brain for the next thirty minutes while I rant.” And who is that being?

Hana: Good question.

Kwame: You’ve got to find that. And to come home and moan to your wife or your husband about what’s going on in your workday, and that’s the only thing you can talk about, before you know it that’s your mode of exchange. So we have to be very aware of who are, where are, the valves for release.

Hana: I hear you. That has been the leading question, and that will continue to be the leading question. When I think about how I’ve been managing expectations and the pressure, part of it has been releasing myself and remembering that the way I’ve done the work for the past twenty years has been one that was filled with passion, with vision, with artistic integrity, and with the sense of purpose. That’s what I have to lean on, when everything else starts to squeeze in, remembering the how.

The unifying thing, the center of it, has been a deep and abiding passion for serving through art and the integrity around the work. As long as that leads, everything else will fall in line.

All of the experiences you were talking about, the work that we’ve produced together, the work that I produce with others. The unifying thing, the center of it, has been a deep and abiding passion for serving through art and the integrity around the work. As long as that leads, everything else will fall in line. And sometimes we will win, and sometimes we will fail. That is the game, that is why we are in this business.

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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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