A Super Seven

A Few Leadership Lessons from Superheroes of the American Theatre

This week on HowlRound, ten rising leaders from TCG's SPARK Leadership Program examine leadership, vision, diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well exciting trends and trend makers in our field. Find the full series here

Justice League #6, Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams, written by Geoff Johns.

Leaders are made, not born. According to the Marine Corps Leadership Handbook, there are sixteen qualities a leader must have. I’m going to talk about only one: service. It’s the key to everything else. When I was a kid growing up, I learned about service from my comic book heroes, the Uncanny X-Men. While serving Charles Xavier’s dream of peace, this super-powered family of outcasts risked their lives to save a world that hated them. As a young Asian American boy growing up in the face of racism, they inspired me. That inspiration led me to serve my country, and then later, disenfranchised artists who wanted to make a difference. So today I want to share a few leadership lessons I’ve learned serving in the American theatre, with a little superhero inspired wisdom. This is dedicated to my fellow dreamers who’ve taught me valuable leadership lessons, with much gratitude.

Lesson 1. Vision comes from values

Cover of Avengers #57. Art by John Buscema.

If the prospect of living in a world where trying to respect the basic rights of those around you and valuing each other simply because we exist are such daunting, impossible tasks, then what sort of world are we left with? And what sort of world do you want to live in?—Wonder Woman, WW#70

Vision arises from values. Values are the key to vision because they help us decide what’s most important. As a leader, I form my vision from the idea of humanism. This beautiful quote from Wonder Woman sums it up: that’s the kind of world I want to live in, a place where we respect everyone’s rights. It’s not a daunting, impossible task, but an everyday practice. So that is the place that I try to lead from, and to inspire others to do the same. We begin with our values, and then ask, “What would it mean for this organization to live and act on those values? How would that change the world?”

To me, nobody better exemplifies this humanistic vision than Bill Rauch and his work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. OSF has become a beacon of cultural transformation, playing home to TCG’s new ArtsEquity Diversity Training Institute and hosting the National Asian American Theatre Festival next year. Bill’s leadership has helped key an organizational shift towards the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion that is now causing ripples across the field.

Lesson 2. Social justice is not an option; it’s a necessity.

Ultimate Spider-Man # Vol. 2 #3. Written by Brian Michael Bendis; Art by Sarah Pichelli and Justin Ponsor.

With Great Power comes Great Responsibility.—Uncle Ben, Spider-Man

Uncle Ben had it right. Leaders know that what you do, how you act, and to whom you give opportunities all matter. Look at what Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director at Centerstage, did in Baltimore. During a one-year period in which the community rallied against police violence against African Americans, Kwame programmed One Night in Miami, which spoke to the long continuum of violence. He also brought the cast of Marley to perform at protests, and capped it off by filming short plays on the streets of Baltimore, Ferguson, and Charleston as part of CenterStage’s “My America Too” project. All this was done during the highest grossing season in CenterStage history. This is using your power with great responsibility. It’s understanding that we in the arts have to do more than just invite our communities in the door; we must join them as civic partners in helping to shape our society.

Vision arises from values. Values are the key to vision because they help us decide what’s most important. We begin with our values, and then ask, ‘What would it mean for this organization to live and act on those values? How would that change the world?’

Lesson 3. Diversity transforms storytelling.

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Click to view the animated GIF: Justice League #1. Art by Bill Mund.

I can’t ask the audience to forget fifty years of comic books. But the world is a little more diverse in 2015 than when the Fantastic Four comic first came out in 1961…Some people may look at my casting as political correctness or an attempt to meet a racial quota.—Michael B. Jordan, on being cast as The Human Torch

In comics, Johnny Storm is white. Jordan, who is playing him in this summer’s Fantastic Four movie, is African American. Diversity is not quotas or political correctness. It’s a movement towards equity, towards recognizing the structural racism that we were all born into and moving towards a place where we are all truly equal. It’s an enormous challenge, and one that is less about donations, spreadsheets, and email blasts and more about using theatre as a tool for social justice. And it’s happening right now:

Look at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changing production, Hamilton.

Says hip-hop theatre artist Danny Hoch in American Theatre Magazine:

Hamilton…is a strategic coup d’état, its own duel between ruling-class theatrical storytelling and subversion by theatre artists of color who have recast themselves as white founding fathers…LMM has flipped the script by casting all the main players with actors who are themselves descendants of the immigrants and slaves notably missing from the story of the founding of the US…Gotcha, bitches!

Lin-Manuel Miranda uses casting and performance to point out the inherent structural racism in American history and theatre. It’s a plan that Batman would be proud of.

You don’t have to be a billionaire playboy or Broadway star to help diversify the American theatre. Start at the source. Change the people who sit behind the table in the audition room. Theatres are always talking about doing plays by writers of color. But every writer of color knows that the more white people they put in their play, the higher the chances of production. So if you want diversity, hire diverse director candidates—they have connections to communities that your theatre may not have access to and many of them will prioritize diversity in the casting. Where do I find these candidates?

Lesson 4. Mentorship is key to sustainability.

Young Justice promo art. Animation by MOI Animation, Inc.

Holy Mentorship, Batman!”—Robin (OK, so I made this one up).

Batman had Robin. Eventually, Robin became Nightwing, who became the leader of the Teen Titans, and even at one point, the Justice League. Sidekicks grow into leading roles, and mentorship is a big reason why.

Early in your career, when you’re learning to lead, you need examples. This whole piece is a thank you to those people, but I want to point to one in particular who’s had a huge impact on my career: Joe Haj. Even as his star has risen, Joe has continued to make time to champion people of color as a member of the LORT Diversity Committee. Joe makes it a point to “send the elevator back down,” giving opportunities to young directors.

Mentors help keep you in the game, especially when you get lost or disheartened. Joe’s advice has had a tremendously positive impact on me and many others. So when looking for diverse directors to transform your theatre, start by asking people like Joe who’ve been doing the work for years.

Lesson 5. Change is gonna come.

Batman vs. The Penguin (Criminal Underworld). Art by Simon C. Page.

You either die as a hero or live long enough to be the villain.—The Dark Knight Rises

Are you still a champion of daring, vital work? Or are you just programming “what’s hot” plus “what you’ve always been doing”? Are you the problem or the solution? The villain or the hero?

In the beginning, we all have good intentions: make great art and save the world. As time goes on, we rise in rank, and now the system is working for us. Now we need to maintain that system, and now we’re the villain. Far too often, this is the story of the American theatre at the board and executive leadership level. Many leaders have been in place for too long and are no longer as effective.

We face tremendous challenges at every level in transforming our institutions. “Every one wants diversity,” Board President of Center Theatre Group Kiki Ramos Gindler said in one of our SPARK workshops, “but nobody wants to change.”

Change is inevitable. Leaders must not only manage change, but through vision, strategy, and culture forge a better future.

How can we make our boards understand that by diversifying our organizations, we are not changing our vision, but expanding it to become more inclusive? We must emphasize that the culture will be transformed in positive ways. Fresh perspectives can renew focus.

Lesson 6. Stand together or fall apart.

Siege: Young Avengers #1. Art by Mahmud Asrar and Scott Hanna.

And there came a day, unlike any other, when earth's mightiest heroes were united against a common threat! On that day the Avengers were born! To fight the foes no single hero could withstand!—Intro to the Avengers comic book

Even Thor and the Hulk need friends. The work of transforming the American theatre needs allies. It’s far too easy for board members, audiences, and staff to hear the protests of people of color and dismiss it as sour grapes; that if our artistry and leadership skills measured up, we’d really have the jobs.

No. It’s a lack of perspective, one that can only get those to check their privilege by those who speak their language. Some problems need a Wonder Woman and others an Uncle Ben. As our SPARK Leadership Cohort discovered, creating your own Justice League has deep power—support, opportunity, fellowship, and a deeper bench to help when things get crazy.

Each of the above missives highlights a bright spot, where people do rather than just say. My colleagues at SPARK are doing just that. Lisa Portes is creating a revolutionary new producing model with the Latino/a Theatre Commons and the Carnaval of New Latina/o Work. Snehal Desai is working with Tim Dang on the See Change movement. Victor Maog is working with The Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA) to bring their festival to OSF. Like Superman in Metropolis and Batman in Gotham, SPARK leaders are having a tremendous impact in their communities.

As a US Marine, I know culture plays a key part of the Corps ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome. Culture is the force multiplier of any organization. If vision begets mission, then culture begets identity: this is us; this is what we do.

Lesson 7. Act like a hero and become a legend.

Justice League promo. Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us and on my soul, I swear until my dream of a world where dignity, honor, and justice becomes the reality we all share, I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.—Superman, Action Comics #775

Joe Papp had a dream for The Public Theater; he dedicated his life to the ideal that Shakespeare belonged to everyone. That ideal continued beyond his passing, and The Public is a legend. A leader’s vision is the torch that lights the way; it inspires others to carry on. While it begins with a vision to inspire, what allows it to endure, to become a legend is culture.

As a US Marine, I know culture plays a key part of the Corps ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome. Culture is the force multiplier of any organization. It allows companies to achieve more, retain more, work longer, and face seemingly insurmountable challenges. If vision begets mission, then culture begets identity: this is us; this is what we do.

My dream is to create a theatre culture without yellowface, redface, crip-face. An equitable, diverse, and inclusive theatre. A theatre built on the values of humanism, equity, and inclusion. A company that serves its community as an active and engaged civic partner. A space and place where people love the work they create, honor each other, and reflect the audience in the stories being told. A theatre where that scared kid can get courage from stories of heroes that look like him. An American theatre where All-American is not code for white. Where “universal” becomes unique.

It’s a dream, I know. Superheroes aren’t real. But I grew up to serve with real heroes. It’s their courage that inspires me as a leader. I thank them for helping me learn how to better serve, and it’s time to put those lessons to work.

Now we’re the ones telling the stories. Creating new heroes. We have the power and the responsibility. But life isn’t a comic book. The good guys don’t always win. So here I am, with all of you, trying to fight for a better America than I had growing up. How we get there is an epic saga whose pages are now being written. One in which we are all superheroes, moving from an origin story that begins in a time of darkness and moves into the light. Our light. Our time.

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In this series, ten rising leaders from TCG's SPARK Leadership Program examine leadership, vision, diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well exciting trends and trend makers in our field. 

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What a wonderful teaching moment this article presents. ‘Withgreat power comes great responsibility”. How many times have we heard thosewords since 2002 (or much prior if you’re an avid comic reader like myself)? I’msure most have understood that the meaning digs deeper and applies to more thanjust super powered tight-wearers; a sense of duty that applies to everydaylife, and even more so to those in the armed services as referenced in thisarticle. But how many of us have thought of it in terms of theatre? I know, formyself, the thought of duty in theatre only applied in a distant manner. “Ohyeah, people do protest theatre or convey important contemporary messages withtheatre, that’s awesome!” I’d think and go about my day. It wasn’t until DustinLance Black’s “8” held auditions at Arizona State that I knew what it was liketo be called to heed the call of responsibility and be a part of somethingusing the power of theatre for a greater good.

I very seldom have an opportunity to read howlRound uponreceipt and generally pile back issues to review article titles later thatsound stimulating. I felt inspired to immediatelyread this because I just completed reading and generating a response to an LATimes article on the lack of diversity among museum upper level administrationsas noted by a Mellon Foundation study.

While I find these efforts by Nelson and the Foundation tobe heartfelt and sincere, the challenge I have with this new, recurring conversation regarding diversity is that likethose previously held, it seemingly tends to be valued from a single perspectiveand thereby empowers primarily white organizations; a continuum of the sameold-same old.

I can definitely speak at this point with some amount of perspective.I think diversity has been among the most incentivized efforts that I canremember in the arts. Sometimes, whoseperspective the art derives is as important as the art itself.

when you can get literally millions to do stories about meand I can't get that same funding to do stories about me or you well...whatdoes that say about diversity? It is aset up for that same old circular support to those same old administrationssupporting the same old organizations. Ican't think of one company of color or African-American in particular that hasreceived a diversity incentive grant in excess of a million dollars or evenfive-hundred thousand like so many other organizations whom I have watchliterally fail at so called diversity. And, they tend to get more funding totry again and again. I don't admit toknowing everything, but I try to stay apprised of what's happening.

Even the tone of Nelson's article as beautiful as it iswritten tend to discuss diversity from a single bent. in a review of structural leadership I often wonderwhat kind of world, particularly for theatre, it would be if we couldappreciate a more well rounded perspective. Maybe Some organizations of color and in particular African-Americanorganizations might still be in operation if lets say having received adiversity grant to support infrastructure and capacity to do outreach. The issue of diversity is much, much, much deeper as Nelson so eloquently pointed out. Butit cannot be ignored that there issignificant merit in a broader approachto this issue. It will require participantsin sustainability from all sectors including individuals at the community levelshowing an appreciation in the value of its own culture.

As the great Judith Jamison says "we all have something valuable to say to the world in ourown unique and special voice." I trulythink the key to this is promoting self worth and how that can transfer to supportover the long-term that matters most.

This post is so, so great, and I want everyone to read it.

Nerd point: that Young Avengers picture is drawn by Jim Cheung, though ;)

Thank you for this. What a beautifully thoughtful ode to those really doing and making the most of it! We can all be superheroes if we look deep inside ourselves and follow that yearning to learn more, be more, and do more! This was so inspiring! :)

I believe in this future. It's a fight, sure, but it makes better work when everyone has a voice. And we as community need to be at the forefront of civil rights.

Wow. Just wow! This was awesome. This article made me get a little teary too. Thank you for this inspiring article Nelson!