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From the Top Down: The Importance of HR in Theatre

Kit Ingui uses her role as managing director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut as a way to build Human Resources (HR) practices that create a supportive and inclusive work environment for all of employees and visiting artists alike. In this conversation from April 2021, Kit sits down with Iris McQuillan-Grace, a global HR leader and former managing director for Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL), to speak about the value of HR in the arts, how creating change is time-consuming, how an organization can prioritize HR, and more.

Iris McQuillan-Grace: How did you begin at Long Wharf?

Kit Ingui: I worked In company management on Broadway for eleven years, where I had a blast. And then I had a kid. So I was in my tiny Brooklyn apartment with my husband and son, was tired, and thought, Maybe there’s something else. And it wasn’t two weeks later that the job posting for Long Wharf came up. It just felt a little kismet, a little destiny. I applied and it worked out.

The thing I was most concerned about when I took the job was the HR responsibility. And it was very clear to me that there was a need for good HR support at Long Wharf.

Iris: What do you mean?

Kit: Long Wharf’s previous artistic director was terminated because of his sexually harassing behavior. The allegations that came up against him in the New York Times—that behavior led to his termination. In the wake of that experience, there was a significant amount of trauma for the staff. They needed to feel safe moving forward to work at Long Wharf. And the culture that was identified out of that termination, the fear-based culture that existed at the theatre because people were afraid that if they offered their opinions or perspective, they would experience harassment or be shut down or bullied… We had to do something about that. Attention to HR helped us put policies and practices in place that address that type of toxic culture.

Reflecting on my time working on Broadway, I noticed HR by its absence.

With most Broadway production companies, there are minimal traditional organizational departments, right? There is not typically a human resources department or manager. The company manager carries much of that. They—and the production stage manager—often serve as “human resources,” but are rarely given training or guidance on how to perform those duties. So, when I got to Long Wharf, I knew this was a gap in my formal knowledge.

Reflecting on my time working on Broadway, I noticed HR by its absence. There were moments where someone needed the support an HR professional could provide and it was missing. If there was ever any intimidation or harassment in a workspace, or when somebody needed to be replaced for any number of reasons… Those are places where I’d notice something was missing, but I didn’t know what it was.

Theatre folk often pick up the ball—we see a ball is dropped and so we pick it up—but maybe we don’t have the time to identify why the ball dropped.

Iris: Or what the ball is?

Kit: Yeah. And that’s not meant as a critique of us. We have a project-centric mindset, like, “Let’s just keep things moving.” Or, “We’re going to try to solve the problem in the short-term to keep the production process moving” instead of looking at the long-term impact of the company structures or decisions. There is a lot in the news about some bullying producers. And the impact of that type of a leader, of that type of producer—

Iris: —and the culture that it promotes…

Kit: Yes. That could be helped if we talked more about the responsibilities we as theatre producers and managers have as people managers. We don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the fact that a company manager or a stage manager is a people manager. When I stepped into the associate managing director role at Long Wharf, it was when that light got bright. I walked in confidently with, “I see this list of responsibilities. Okay. I know how to do this job.” But the first time I needed to handle an HR investigation, or the first time—within my first few weeks at the theatre—that I had to terminate someone, I was like, “Wait, what?” These are skills that theatre administrators are not—but should—be trained to have if we’re not able to engage trained HR practitioners.

It is not acknowledged that there is not trained HR support on most Broadway shows or at many regional theatres. It doesn’t often exist. And then we see inappropriate behavior and harassing workplaces.

Iris: And cultures that aren’t inclusive or safe. Can you talk me through how you’re using all of your previous experience to fuel how Long Wharf is emphasizing and prioritizing HR now?

Two people sitting across from each other on a stage.

Kit Ingui and Jacob G. Padrón at Long Wharf Theatre during the theatre’s virtual gala and benefit event in 2020.

Kit: There are small things we put into place. One helpful thing is having a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) membership for Long Wharf, because it offers access to excellent HR information. If we have a question about instituting a policy or need guidance on managing an investigation, SHRM is an excellent resource. This costs almost nothing, and it provides some templates and support from HR professionals especially helpful for those folks who are taking on HR responsibilities for the first time.

We’re in the midst of transforming an organization that had gotten a stuck in its ways. We are trying to transform the culture into one that is radically inclusive, that attends to its people, that considers its staff its highest priority.

Prioritizing people’s needs is huge. We were just talking about our budget... We’ve all heard that your budget reflects your values, right? So how do we show that when it comes to HR? How does that not become the line that all the dollars get cut from? Where it’s like, “I know we budgeted $25,000 to support the function of the HR department. But I need $10,000 more dollars for the scenery budget, so let’s just cut HR to $15,000.”

Jacob Padrón, our artistic director, and I were recently talking about how we both really want to prioritize professional development for our staff; we want to prioritize building systems that support staff growth. How does a company build those systems when we don’t have an HR department or a reasonable HR budget? This is a place of tension for folks in leadership roles—the financial limitations of the organizations and creating a culture of inclusivity and growth. I think we need to accept that there is not a choice there—we must acknowledge both and do the hard work to find and allocate resources towards HR.

Another small but impactful thing we have done is engaged with Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL). PAAL provides exceptional HR support through office hours offered, and we’ve engaged in 1:1 consulting to help revise our performance review process.

We are learning together that even if you are in the company of folks who all want the same end goal, everyone’s process to get there can be different.

We are prioritizing creating a culture that acknowledges power dynamics but encourages open communication. We want people to shed the fear of bringing their ideas into the room, for people to feel safe speaking up and offering an alternate perspective. We encourage our leadership team to model that in our weekly all-staff meetings—to model speaking up and having robust conversations. We use meeting agreements created by the full staff to set company-wide expectations for how we will treat each other and support healthy communication in meetings. Prior to the pandemic, Long Wharf Theatre was focusing on becoming an inclusive company and probing the question of what it means to be an anti-racist, radically inclusive company.

The We See You White American Theater demands came out of a reckoning around racial justice in 2020, and they are feeding into how we are building our culture moving forward.

I realize I’ve technically gotten a bit off track, but I just see an incredible connection between good HR practices and how that can support building an inclusive, anti-racist culture.

One HR practice we are prioritizing is updating all our job descriptions to create clear expectations at the time of hire. We need to have clearly defined job descriptions that identify specific job duties, which are then used by both the employee and their supervisor during performance reviews. That is something we are working to improve—building a performance evaluation process that works for all positions and encourages growth.

We have been discussing implementing 360 reviews, a process based on feedback from multiple raters aimed to reduce bias, to have really great feedback loops, but we are aware that we have not given folks the tools yet to respectfully give and receive feedback in the workplace. So we need to address that training gap first.

We’re also working on benchmarking salaries, which is a massive undertaking. We need to do all of this work, and it all seems to happen a little slower than I wish it would.

Iris: From an HR perspective, I think that’s also a potential tension about why HR has not been more greatly adopted in the theatre. The theatre moves very quickly. Shows are open for X amount of weeks, they close, we’re done, we call it a day, right? Culture change, audits, year-over-year data, setting up performance review processes… Those things are much more time consuming, and maybe there’s an inherent tension there.

Kit: Yes. It’s so true. Theatre productions are ephemeral, but culture lasts a long time. Good human resources practices take time to build but contribute to a healthy organizational culture.

The We See You White American Theater demands are an example of how culture change takes time. We do not believe that the right move is to read those demands, issue a statement, and be done. We are working through them as a team. We have facilitated all-staff meetings every month, we have had small group meetings every week, and we provide tools—an anti-racist library and things like that—to help do the work. We are learning together that even if you are in the company of folks who all want the same end goal, everyone’s process to get there can be different. We reference adrienne marie brown’s Emergent Strategy a lot and move at the speed of trust. It takes time.

Iris: And consistency, right? It’s the consistent practice and not just a reactive practice.

Do you have any advice for either other theatre leaders or anyone who’s struggling with where to begin engaging in HR?

Kit: Reach out to PAAL—it is a great place to start whether you’re an individual or a company. They offer hours with an HR professional as a benefit of institutional membership and can also provide tailored support for particular projects.

The other thing I would say is to remember to listen to and believe your staff. The majority of people doing this job, working for theatre companies, are here because they believe in the power of the art that is being made. Give them a reason to know they are in the right place. And just because people are working because they love the job does not mean they can be compensated unfairly. Check your compensation levels. Consider how a small adjustment to the overall budget can have significant value to an individual staff member. Make the changes slowly if needed, but start making them.

There is a mythology that there is so much job scarcity in this industry that people are willing to be squashed and stepped on, and not respected, and companies have been willing to let it happen. Leaders must create the conditions where this is not acceptable. Having an HR team, or at least strong HR practices, supports leaders in doing that, sets the conditions for people to speak up, and that will change things for the better. We can make the theatre a more inclusive, a more generous, and a more beautiful space—all of it will be better.

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