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Taking Risks and Minimizing Failure

Johanna Pfaelzer and Lisa Steindler in Conversation

Lisa Steindler: Where are you?

Johanna Pfaelzer: Right this second I’m in the conference room at the New York Stage and Film office in New York City, with construction outside the window, sirens blaring down 7th Avenue. It’s all a little absurd.

Lisa: Just the way you like it.

Johanna: What about you, where are you?

Lisa: I’m sitting in the dressing room at Z Space cause it’s the only quiet space I could find. Hopefully our rehearsal won’t start.

Johanna: The glamour of it all.

Lisa: When do you start your tenure at Berkeley Rep Theatre?

Johanna: I’ve started already, at least in a very part-time way, in that I’m planning the 2019–20 season. But I won’t be there full-time until next September. It’s been a while since the Bay Area has actually been home. I left American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) to come back to New York in June of 2007.

Lisa: So it’s been a decade. Things have changed, but you know the Bay Area still. We’ve been through a couple of booms and busts since then, artistically, economically, socially.

Johanna: That seems to just happen there; the ups and downs are dramatic.

Lisa: They are. That’s a question I’m interested in because four of our large theatre institutions here—Theatre Works, A.C.T., the Aurora Theatre, and Berkeley Rep—are all undergoing leadership transitions within two years. I’m very excited and hopeful about this next phase for the artistic community of the Bay Area. What will it look like in five or ten years? What sort of partnerships can be forged? What kind of work will be done? It’s the Wild West again.

How do you envision yourself in your new leadership role, working with the artistic community of the Bay Area? What are some of the partnerships you hope to forge; how do we become stronger together? I believe if Berkely Rep is strong as an arts organization then Z Space is strong as an arts organization. It’s not about competition. We all make each other stronger, ultimately. Although a little competition is inevitable, and healthy.

Johanna: I couldn’t agree more. Programmatically, I don’t yet know what that could mean and it would be super presumptuous of me at this point to walk in and say, “Hey everybody, here’s the plan.” But I do feel like there’s a real openness and Pam MacKinnon, the new artistic director of A.C.T., and I have started talking about this, and I know Susie Medak, the managing director at Berkeley Rep, and Jennifer Bielstein, the new executive director at A.C.T., are having these conversations as well, about what we can collectively do to make the Bay Area a viable place for artists to lead grown-up lives, and therefore for them to continue to commit to the community.

Lisa: That’s a great start. I’ve been thinking about creative ways to address those very challenges. I’m part of a kind of think tank put together by the Rainin Foundation. We’re focused on creating the best possible conditions for art to be made and looking at different models of sustainability.

Did you read the article David Dower wrote about these transitions in leadership positions?

Johanna: Yes. I felt immediately years behind in my own thinking.

Lisa: One of the things he touched upon is that any organization transitioning leadership will inevitably lose artists, board members, patrons, and subscribers. All organizations undergoing these transitions are vulnerable to these losses. It’s hard to walk in as the new person, so how do you position yourself and implement your own ideas and aesthetics while honoring the past? What are your thoughts on how to navigate that or where you do you see the challenges?

It’s hard to walk in as the new person, so how do you position yourself and implement your own ideas and aesthetics while honoring the past?

three actors on stage

Good Men Wanted by Kevin Armento in New York Stage and Film's 33rd Powerhouse Season. Photo by Buck Lewis.

Johanna: I went from New York Stage and Film to A.C.T. and then back to New York Stage and Film. So it was a funny trajectory, but I think you’re asking an incredibly important and really, really complicated question. When I first came into New York Stage and Film, it was a company with three founders—Leslie Urdang, Max Mayer, and Mark Linn-Baker—who deeply identified with and were hugely invested in the organization. And, at that point, in 1998, they were very hands on in its day-to-day operations.

One of the things that the four of us learned over a period of five years was how to share not just the management of the company but the relationships of the company. But we had time to do it because there was essentially a multiyear transition in that case, so there was time for those artists to get to know me and there was time for me to get to know them. And it was a conscious choice to say, “These are people who are extraordinary in their field and who have this deep sense of identification with this company and I want this to continue to be a home for them.”

Lisa: Was it two or three years that you worked side by side with them?

Johanna: Two years before they made me an equal partner with the three of them. And then there was a slow shift where we evolved our leadership structure, but it didn’t really formalize until I came back in 2007, after five years at A.C.T., and they stepped back and made me the company’s first artistic director. I think the reason we all felt so comfortable with it is that we knew each other deeply, there was a real shared sense of values. And not just values, but practices. One of the things we’re anticipating here now as we embark on the beginning stages of a search for the next artistic leader for New York Stage and Film is realizing that we’re going to have to do it in a very different way. And that feels both exciting and a little daunting.

Lisa: Different in how it normally happens? As in you can’t just hire a headhunter and put it out to the field, but that you have to be much more creative, transitional and invested?

Johanna: Yeah. New York Stage and Film is such a uniquely structured company, and I think there’s a real openness on the part of the founders and the board to think about what leadership might look like going forward.

Lisa: There was a study that Emiko Ono from the Hewlett Foundation wrote in 2016 called Moving Arts Leadership Forward. It was about looking at organizational structures and how we can rethink and prepare for the next twenty-five years, which I took to heart. We just celebrated Z Space’s twenty-fifth anniversary this year. And so what do the next twenty-five years look like. We have started the process of creating a distributed leadership model.

Johanna: What does that mean to you, and what does it mean specifically about Z Space?

Lisa: Like all executive artistic directors, I bear the burden of the failure or success of my organization. It’s on my shoulders alone, or at least it feels that way. I think, organizationally, that can be a very precarious place to be. The idea of distributing leadership, and this burden or joy, depending on the moment or month, is to share all of that, but also to share the creation of the art as well. It doesn’t necessarily mean there are four artistic leaders—it’s about being very thoughtful in where everyone’s expertise lies. Someone may be more creative, someone better with finances, someone more operational. And you work together from those zones, but you are working as equals.

On an organizational chart those are equal leadership positions because they are all integral to the success or failure of the enterprise. But you have your expertise in each of those places, and that hopefully creates more ownership. You need to be very clear about who has the responsibility for what, who’s accountable to whom, who is consulted and who is informed, so there’s not redundancy. But it’s critical we create opportunities for the next generation to enter the field and let them know there is opportunity for growth and leadership potential.

Johanna: Absolutely.

Lisa: Hopefully we’ll have young leaders running mid-size organizations sooner rather than later and, in ten years, they will be running the regional theatres with so much more expertise under their belts. With so many people leaving the field after many years in leadership roles, I’m not sure we have adequately developed or created opportunities for the next generation to take up the reigns.

With so many people leaving the field after many years in leadership roles, I’m not sure we have adequately developed or created opportunities for the next generation to take up the reigns.

one person sitting behind a desk, another standing

Lisa with Z Space resident playwright Peter Nachtrieb. Photo by Rose Oser.

Johanna: I think for women, especially, figuring out how to balance parenthood and these jobs is a real issue that we must pay attention to. How can we retain women as leaders and create the flexibility in our structures that will enable them to stay within these organizations? I was really lucky to be working for a working mother—Carey Perloff—when I became a parent.

Lisa: One hundred percent agree. I feel most excited about that right now, in this moment in my career, to foster and mentor three incredible millennial women who are all way smarter than me. They have a lot more knowledge about the world of twenty-year-olds and the technology that goes along with that, and I believe that is crucial to the relevance of an organization. That merged with the historical knowledge of the organization and the field that I bring to the table, we have a pretty robust cauldron.

Johanna: I also think different generations of theatremakers are thinking about what theatre can do as an art form in really different ways. I don’t think it’s solely generational but I do think there’s a reason that, when we look at the twenty-year-olds and the thirty-year-olds in our field, they’re thinking about collaboration, about the process of how and why and you make work together, in a much broader way. They’re going to demand that of the institutions, and the structures are going to have to adapt to their vision, and they should.

Lisa: Absolutely, they should. Here at Z Space we’re all about failure in a good way, being able to take artistic and organizational risks without fear of failure. Taking on a leadership role involves a steep learning curve and the navigation of multiple relationships, during which myriad risks are encountered where one might potentially fail. But if we’re intentional about creating this new leadership model, supporting young leaders, and building from within the Z Space family to engage and invest in new and diverse leadership, we can quite possibly achieve much greater milestones while taking risks and minimizing failure.

Johanna: Indeed! And that question of failure, not like I’m obsessed with it right now as I’m in the middle of season planning or anything, but the model of New York Stage and Film is based on the idea that you get to take huge risks. And that we as an organization can turn to a body of artists in any given year and say: “Go big. We’ve got you and we can keep the stakes low.”

One of the challenges for me, going into an institution with Berkeley Rep’s scale, is to make sure that some piece of me can keep that notion alive. For myself, for the artists in the building, and to bring an audience into that as well, to help them understand that the task of an artist isn’t to give them polished perfection. Because theatre is this ephemeral, living, breathing thing, how do we let that notion of transformation and risk and change and attempt and failure be part of the process, delight, and specificity of how the show is then experienced?

Lisa: Once you put it into a context of process, people are super excited about that. They’re generous. And failure can become a very nourishing aspect of the creation of great work. If we’re afraid of failing, we will get a certain type of work that can be calcifying, potentially. That frightens me. You and I have both dedicated our lives to new work and to creating space where these things can be explored and then actually happen.

We’ve been looking at a strategic plan and one of the classic questions that came out of it was: “Who are we serving?” And my answer was very different than the answer of these younger women leaders I am working with at Z Space now. My answer was: “We’re serving the artists.” And their answer was :“We’re serving the audience.”

Johanna: The younger people working in your organization said serving the audience?

Lisa: Yeah.

Johanna: Wow, that surprises me.

Lisa: It surprised me too, it’s fascinating. But they’re really clear about, “If we don’t have a fully inclusive audience, we don’t have an institution.” And I said, “If we don’t have artists creating excellent work, what are we serving the audience?” It is chicken and egg, but it exemplifies one of the many benefits of distributed and intergenerational leadership.

[Younger workers are] really clear about, ‘If we don’t have a fully inclusive audience, we don’t have an institution.’ And I said, ‘If we don’t have artists creating excellent work, what are we serving the audience?’

Johanna: One thing you mentioned, which I thought was really interesting in these moments of transitions, was about new work, because it can take a company so long to partner with an artist to make something new. From first conversation through commission through early drafts through development, to realization in whatever form that is… When a transition happens at some midpoint along that trajectory, what happens to the piece? What happens to the institution? What is it for an artist who has a deep relationship with the artistic leader who first made that commitment to them and a real, honest expectation of realization within that structure? What is it for the incoming person to say: “Oh, great, here’s a bunch of stuff I get to fall in love with” or “The pipeline has been primed for me in fantastic ways.”

That’s not an entirely hypothetical thing, given where I sit right now, because the Berkeley Rep team has been so extraordinarily generous in saying: “Let it be a clean slate for you.” And, on the other hand, there are decades of relationships with artists that Tony Taccone, the outgoing artistic director, has established that I want to make sure I’m aware of and honoring in appropriate ways, and, frankly, can avail myself of.

Lisa: I think it’s tremendous that Berkeley Rep has handed you a clean slate. It’s a little scary to have that responsibility in a relatively new community for you, in which all those relationships already exist. But the blend is potentially so rich. And because you’ve been doing this for quite a long time, especially with new work in New York, and now again on the West Coast, you’ve got really established relationships with a vast roster of great artists. I imagine there’s a lot of crossover from those relationships. But the question is what do you inherit and what do you blend in of your own to open those doors wider to achieve your aesthetic.

I’ve always thought about creating pipelines and working in concert with other organizations here. So if an artist begins working at Berkeley Rep, moves to a project at the Magic, comes to Z Space, and then goes on to A.C.T., we’re really working in concert with one another, and together we make it possible for these artists to actually make a meager living. And hopefully we are creating a pool of artists who will stay and see a viable career here in the Bay Area.

Johanna: That also provides the opportunity to marry an idea or a particular piece to the organization that would best serve it at a particular place in its lifespan.

Lisa: That’s true.

Johanna: I think of the vibrancy of what Campo Santo does in a space that is inherently smaller than at the Geary Theater, which is part of A.C.T., for instance. If we can all be thinking a bit more collectively, one of the things to consider is what stories demand to be told in which mode? What is it to sit outside at California Shakespeare Theater and experience the story in that environment?

Lisa: When Mark Rucker first got to A.C.T. as associate artistic director, I remember he was very interested in how we keep the Bay Area artists here, how we create an environment they will invest in, so they stay here and don’t go to LA or New York? An idea he had that I loved, but we never got to bring to fruition, was to sit down as six, seven, eight organizations and say, “Let us create a season for these actors. Let’s look at these fifteen actors and make sure that six or eight of us can find roles for them.” It’s a challenging idea, but it’s something we could revisit. Because there really is an issue here.

The pool of artists has shrunk over the last decade plus, and it’s not being replenished to the degree it should be. I think it’s largely due to the cost of living. And I do think that there is a way that we as organizations can be better, do better, at creating those opportunities and being thoughtful about how we build and sustain a larger, more diverse pool of artists creating great new work. Which in turn will serve our audiences… Back to the interests of my younger colleagues.

I can’t wait for you to be here, to play with you and support you in any way I possibly can.

Johanna: That makes me so happy and so reassured. The only thing that’s making this transition not entirely terrifying is that I feel like I am walking back into a place I know and love, one where I have such admiration for the people who are there, doing the work.

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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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