Revolution in Theatre, Evolution in Staff

Working for a theatre, especially as a person at the beginning of their career, is like being a crew member on the starship Enterprise™. People are constantly flying in every direction, a lot of them seem like total aliens, and it can feel like the course of the ship is set by Spock, Kirk, and whoever else is on the bridge. If my Star Trek simile is falling flat here (come on, you beautiful nerds!), what I’m trying to say is that your voice as an entry-, lower-, or mid-level staff member may not always feel heard in the rush and rumble of a theatre filled with established artistic leadership and boards of directors. Big ships turn slowly, and they take time to accelerate or brake, but the artists and administrators working beneath the senior management level can fundamentally shape what a theatre does as they evolve and grow with their institution.

To those of you waiting to become leaders: what’s stopping you from becoming one today? It’s not your job to simply maintain the status quo—it’s your job to take risks, to not be afraid to talk to people, challenge assumptions, and pump your theatre up with the energy and enthusiasm that can only come from not being jaded and locked into habit, and through your own growth grow your theatre. Zelda Fichandler, one of the pillars of the American regional theatre movement and an extraordinary artistic leader, once wrote in “Whither (or Wither) Art,” published in American Theatre, that at the beginning of her career, she and other aspirational theatre makers asked themselves questions like, “Who else could define the culture of a theater but its artists? Define its style? Didn’t a collective art form require a collective?” Fichandler founded Arena Stage when she was twenty-six years old, and the theatre grew and developed as she did. What passions define the grass roots in theatre staff today? How will you, piece by piece, redefine how theatre is produced and shared tomorrow?

When you’re starting out in your career, you have to bring up issues and challenge preconceived notions and traditions because you’re new and have new ideas. Senior staff, artistic leadership, boards of directors, they already know what they’re thinking. The ones worth working for want to know what you’re thinking.

Younger staff members of theatres are uniquely driven people, doggedly pursuing exciting work and companies worthy of the sacrifice of their time. These theatre artists and administrators have not chosen their careers with the idea that they’re going to one day own a mansion, adopt their three monochromatic nephews, and dive happily into a swimming pool of gold doubloons (that perspective doesn’t permit unfair exploitation of passionate and talented theatre workers, though, who are due a fair wage). The best theatre employees want personal growth, an institutional mission they believe in, and a variety of artistic and logistical challenges. When the job starts to feel routine, it’s easy for technicians to lose steam, for administrators to become complacent, and for artists to suddenly become more interested in the work happening at other theatres. The folks working on the ground at theatres across the country are becoming more perfect versions of themselves, and as they develop they want their theatres and their responsibilities to grow with them.

There are potential pitfalls and possible benefits to this kind of staff evolution.

Let us examine the fictional case of Astrid. Astrid started out at the Whatley’s House of Theatrical Tricks (WHoTT) a few years back, and is a totally stand-up, excellent lady who has accomplished a great deal. Over the last decade or so, Astrid has helped make WHoTT a cultural institution. In her role as the Operations Director for the theatre, she’s helped kick off a renovation to the theatre’s main stage, and because of her passion for community engagement, Astrid helped expand WHoTT’s volunteer corp. She’s recently started handling the management of private events for the theatre. Nobody knows what the theatre would do without Astrid.

That’s a problem. Let’s say that Astrid takes a job at a different organization (I mean, millennials are supposed to hold on to a job for like three seconds, right?), or turns abruptly to a life of crime. Could the theatre find someone who has both the qualifications to be an Operations Director, Events Coordinator, and help manage the small army of volunteers WHoTT depends on for support? Is Astrid’s institutional knowledge recorded somewhere, or accessible in some way to answer the hundreds of questions her abrupt departure would bring up? Does it make sense to try to find a single person to replace Astrid, or should WHoTT divide her duties between two or three people, and if so, does it have the money to pay those new positions?

Let’s say that Astrid stays at the organization forever. What if Astrid becomes so focused on the work she loves doing with WHoTT’s volunteers that she loses focus on maintenance issues at the theatre? What if her big plans for making the new theatre qualify as a LEED-certified and sustainable building fall to the wayside as she takes on more projects related to volunteers and events? Is Astrid causing conflict with WHoTT’s Volunteer Coordinator, Jerry, or has Jerry been skating by on 15 percent effort for the last seven years because Astrid has been carrying his dead weight? Is Astrid creating organizational confusion with other members of WHoTT’s staff and their community volunteers who don’t understand why ushers are replacing light bulbs instead of handing out programs?

Astrid is fantastic, and her theatre is benefiting from her service and from her ambitious resolve to find more and more fulfillment in her job. Unbridled and unchecked growth turns every theatre’s Astrid into a blessing and a liability if no one (including Astrid) is tracking her real function in the organization and managing her progress towards the goals for her department. Despite Astrid’s best intentions and tireless efforts on behalf of her theatre, she may not be setting WHoTT up for success.

a group of women in a panel
Younger theatre staff members, like those pictured here, lead conversations and develop relationships with communities nationwide at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Photo by Bill Brymer.

At the same time, giving a theatre’s younger staff room to explore their passions can be incredibly uplifting. Lower- and mid-level employees who are working very directly on the day-to-day operations of the theatre, who have the freedom to go beyond the duties strictly spelled out in their job descriptions, provide the theatre with a wealth of creative energy that can be poured into the most frustrating conundrums an organization has. Leadership transitions are marked announcements all over cultural media, and when a new managing director or artistic director comes on the scene, the theatre world collectively holds its breath waiting to see what that person will do. In reality, a vibrant, creative, and empowered staff creates an environment where anyone can help facilitate advancement or to keep a theatre focused on key mission ideas.

I am lucky enough to work at a theatre that embraces new ideas and tries to embrace new and challenging ways of making great art. Maybe you’re working for a theatre right now that feels like tradition is holding it in one place, or where your supervisor or your teammates aren’t going to listen to you. Maybe you’re scared, because you’re just starting out and rocking the boat doesn’t seem like the thing to do. To that end I’d say this: Your theatre didn’t hire you because they thought you were stupid, silent, or uncreative. They hired you because they thought you’re smart, innovative, and creative. When you’re starting out in your career, you have to bring up issues and challenge preconceived notions and traditions because you’re new and have new ideas. Senior staff, artistic leadership, boards of directors, they already know what they’re thinking. The ones worth working for want to know what you’re thinking. Your theatre is counting on you to lead the way in movements about inclusion, sustainability, or any of the dozens of other things that will define what theatre is to the next generation of artists and audiences. Maybe your theatre won’t grow right now, right this second, but you can plant the seed of an idea that might change your theatre’s whole approach to making art. Theatres evolve, just like people. Junior staff, the people working on the ground who know how the theatre works, are the people most primed to change it.

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Interesting article. How many folks who work full-time on staff at a theatre or any arts organization are really committed to that organization. Many folks take a position to help support them while they await for their big break as an artist. In essence, their focus is diffused between the organization and what they really want to do (act, paint, direct). And if it great gig comes along, the organization is left holding the bag. Can arts organizations help channel people's passions?

Outstanding article my friend. My favorite part: "Your theatre didn’t hire you because they thought you were stupid, silent, or uncreative. They hired you because they thought you’re smart, innovative, and creative." I have to remind myself of this every day. Not just in my theatre job, but in every artistic thing I do.

"Big ships turn slowly, and they take time to accelerate or brake..."

Not sure if that was an intentional reference to the fate of the "Titanic" or not... but either way it seems apt. (That is, if the subordinate had voiced more strongly to the caption his concerns about going at top speed when the ocean was so unusually clam [making the icebergs harder to see from a distance without any surf at their base], tragedy might have been avoided.)

Hey Neal - it definitely wasn't an intentional "Titanic" reference, and hopefully the situation of most theatres isn't as dire as that (although sometimes it feels it). However, I think you're absolutely correct that all theatres can benefit from the input of of their staff and the reception of that input from their supervisors.

Love this! It is great to be reminded to be brave enough to share a new idea. That as the next generation of theatre makers, we have worth and value.