A User’s Guide to Leadership Transition in the North American Theatre

We are in the midst of an historic shift in the North American theatre. Dozens of smart, capable, talented people are stepping into leadership positions for the first time in their careers. While many have been leading in areas both inside and outside their organizations, few have any direct experience at the helm of an institution the size they are about to take on. More importantly, the unprecedented length of tenure of many of the departing leaders means many of the institutions themselves—the staff, board, audiences, and funders—have very little experience with a transition at this level.

There is a lot at stake here. Not just for the individuals or the institutions directly engaged in transitions. These risks are ours as a field. If the institutions with incoming individuals—many of them women and people of color who have been long kept out of these roles—stumble, we open the door to old arguments about “readiness” and “qualified candidates” that have masked and abetted the dominance of the white male in our field.

I want to be clear that the underlying presumption is that the incoming leaders are qualified, talented, exciting hires. It is the readiness of the environments, and our readiness as a field to foster their success, that I speak of here.

One area of real abundance in our field is the accumulation of expertise among leaders who have been through it before. This expertise is a commons resource, already bought and paid for by philanthropic dollars and the tax exemptions of the nonprofit. As someone with nearly thirty years of leadership positions in the American theatre and four significant transitions of my own under my belt, I have been wondering how I can contribute.

This series is, I hope, one way. I’ve aimed to include conversations between a range of leaders, both incoming and outgoing, across a variety of contexts, as a means of supporting every single person and organization who find themselves in the middle of this historic moment. Here are some things I have learned.

David Dower and David Howse stand next to each other.

ArtsEmerson Artistic Director David Dower and Executive Director David Howse at an event. Photo by Jeanna Shepard.

Success is a Shared Responsibility

It is easy to cite a number of examples of transitions over the years that didn’t go well. And there are stories about why they failed, which often seem focused on assigning blame. “It was a bad fit.” “The Board didn’t step up.” “The AD moved too quickly.” “The founder never really left.” "The two leaders never gelled.” “They didn’t bring the audience along.” “There were surprises in the details.”

The fact of the matter is that, in every case, the responsibility for the success (or failure) of a leadership transition is shared across the whole team. The incoming person, the outgoing person, the board, staff, and funders all have significant roles to play. The path to success, particularly for the incoming person following a long-time leader, requires the full engagement of the team in fostering that success.

The job of replacing the previous leader is not done at the point of hiring. It begins there. And there can be no “wait and see” period. No matter the disagreements or differences that were part of the previous tenure or that surfaced in the search process, the board and senior staff must immediately shift into fostering the success of the incoming leader and work as an ensemble, with no cracks or factions present, in order to land the transition solidly.

You Are Now Entering the Wilderness

During one of my transitions, Joan Lancourt, one of the many mentors who has lighted my path at significant moments, pointed me to the work of William Bridges, which helped me understand both the process and my role in it. Among the things in his work that were revelatory and proved to be powerfully true in my case were the following:

There’s no new beginning without a definitive ending. Each person on the team needs to mark the ending of the period. When I left Arena Stage, I shaved my beard for the first time in decades, and my bare face was a reminder that my time there was over. People often find it useful to write something they intend to leave in the past on a piece of paper and then burn it. You can do it as a whole staff, even. (We did this to mark the ending of the Scarcity to Abundance Convening in 2011 and wound up setting the table that was holding the urn on fire. So there’s that….)

You will not move from “past” to “present” in one step. There is no switch to flip between the exiting leader and the entering leader. Rather, there is a period of time between then and now. Bridges calls this “the wilderness” and uses the story of Exodus to illustrate it. Give that story a close read. Share it with the whole staff and board. Talk it through. Bring everyone on your team into the mindset that this period of wilderness is a step in the transition process.

There is no looking forward without looking back. Among the many useful elements in Exodus is the detail about the Jews arriving at the edge of the Red Sea and wanting to go back. This instinct for every individual to want to turn back to the old, familiar thing is deep and human. Your organization will experience this, and it needs to be confronted as a team. The new leader’s job is to walk the community into the sea, yes. But first it’s to take a moment to look back, with their team, and then together make the decision to move forward into the unknown. If you can’t tolerate the desire to go back, if you can’t talk that through together, you will never fully transcend the earlier period and be present together in the new one.

There will be murmuring. In Exodus, the time in the wilderness is full of references to unhappy murmuring among the community in transition. There is no way to avoid the grumbling and gossip on this journey, it seems, but it is not a sign of failing. It is a needed release of anxiety about the future. It can overtake the journey if it’s not managed. But it will also doom the journey if it is entirely squelched, as people will arrive at the other side of the transition with all those anxieties and petty injuries intact, infecting the new terrain with old maladies. The trick is to support the productive expression of anxiety without becoming distracted by it or allowing it to become the dominant voice. I found it very helpful to let people know that we heard them, and that this was both a natural part of the process and something we would expect to leave behind as we moved out of the wilderness.

There is no clock, no mile marker, in the wilderness. The whole organization will want to know how long you will be in the wilderness. They will ask: “Are we there yet?” And there’s no real answer. I found it was helpful just to be willing to talk openly about that—that we were still wandering—whenever the questions came up. And they came up from every part of the institution in one way or another: staff, funders, and audience. I couldn’t tell you the day we left the wilderness. One day we realized we were no longer asking that question. And we then realized we were there.

The fact of the matter is that, in every case, the responsibility for the success of a transition is shared across the whole team.

Every Institution Has a Throughline

Another mentor of mine was the inimitable Zelda Fichandler. Early in my tenure with Arena Stage, I took the lead in developing the programming strategy for our new building. As part of that work, I interviewed people around the institution, including Zelda. She had founded Arena with her husband, Tom, and their partner, Edward Magnum, and had retired from her role as artistic director more than a decade earlier after forty years. I think she was quoting her husband when she told me, “Every good institution, like every good story, has to have a throughline. So whatever else you do, find and connect the dots between the starting impulse and this push to the future.”

This proved profoundly important both at Arena and when I accepted the baton at ArtsEmerson from founder Rob Orchard. Though Arena’s current artistic director Molly Smith and Zelda represented very different chapters in the organization’s institutional history, there were powerful and essential points of convergence in their individual visions that traced the spine of the story of Arena Stage and pointed toward the next chapter.

In terms of ArtsEmerson, when Rob founded it he made certain commitments to the city, Emerson College, the artists, and the audience about what its role and purpose would be. My colleagues P. Carl, David Howse, and I inherited those commitments. And we set about building the institution in our own voice but in continuity with Rob’s. We did not rupture the spine of the place Rob and his colleagues had launched five years earlier.

Importantly, stakeholders in both cases felt certain that we had abandoned the founding principles in our new strategies. They were in the wilderness and murmuring.

Be a Trimtab

Still another mentor of mine, Buckminster Fuller (via the still urgent one-man play about Fuller's life written by Doug Jacobs, The History [and Mystery] of the Universe) has this epitaph on his tombstone: “Call Me Trimtab.

It is natural to want to “make a mark,” to create a distinctive legacy as a new leader. And it is also natural for the team in place to want to preserve the legacy they’ve worked so hard for up to the day of your arrival. The inertia of this direction is a powerful force, much like the current in a river.

A large boat has a rudder to steer the ship, but it also has something called a trimtab. If you throw the rudder over and there is no trimtab, you can capsize the boat. Airplanes also use a trimtab to break the force of the forward momentum of a plane before it actually begins to turn. The trimtab breaks the inertia of the current direction, enough for the boat or plane to absorb the turning of the rudder and change direction safely.

Maybe you want to create a trimtab team from across the organization, board, and audience community. A few people at first, taking the time needed to articulate, test, and develop what comes next.

In taking the baton at ArtsEmerson, we moved too quickly. We immediately switched the brochure, changed the format of the annual fund appeal, and eliminated a membership program that we felt was confusing. And, though we had not changed the focus of our programming and had not changed the benefits for our members (we’d simply extended them to everyone), our closest stakeholders felt we had capsized the boat. Specifically, they felt we’d abandoned our World on Stage focus because we removed it from the name of the organization, though our first season had seven countries and three languages represented—more than any other season up to that point. If we could do it again, we would have planned for a trimtab moment. We’re fortunate that we were ultimately able to right the ship. But it was a mistake in leadership.

There Will Be Fallout

Nearly every artistic director I have spoken to has a story about the falloff of audiences in their first year on the job. It’s particularly dramatic when replacing a founder or a long-time leader who had a charismatic hold on donors and subscribers.

Prepare for it.

In particular, I’m speaking to the boards and funders of the organizations in transition. The first year will be critical for everyone, but most critical for the person you have just hired. This is a career-defining moment for the new leader. Boards and funders have to make plans for weathering the wilderness with them, especially as it relates to the audience. There may be a drop in subscriptions. There may be a drop in single tickets, or in annual fund donations. There may be snarky reviews from generally supportive press. It seems baked into this process of transition. With luck, there may be an initial honeymoon period. But it will be followed by a moment of retreat. Remember the looking back instinct? Turns out the audience has the same instincts. As do donors. As do critics.

This is a natural part of the process, not a referendum on the new person. But it will become one if there is any friction between the board, the recently departed person, and the newly in charge. Work that out in private. Quickly. And get on one page, speak with one voice, and lead through public expressions of mutual support. Also, budget for it. It could be two years. Maybe three if the change is dramatic, like a forty-year tenure followed now by a first-time leader. This is what I mean about success being everyone’s responsibility.

Every good institution, like every good story, has to have a throughline. So whatever else you do, find and connect the dots between the starting impulse and this push to the future.

What Are We Supposed to Do With You?

Our field is full of stories, mostly whispered in bars after the curtain comes down, about problems between the person who left and the person who arrived. It cuts both ways. I’ve seen situations where the person leaving has been boxed out entirely by the person arriving. I’ve seen situations where the person leaving never really leaves the floor and becomes a liability for the organization as a result.

When I left the Z Space, which I’d founded and led for thirteen years, I left town entirely. Moved across country. I didn’t participate in the search for my replacement, which did not commence until after I was gone. I had planned my exit with the help of another mentor: executive coach Emily Hall, our former board chair. I offered to be available at any time to answer questions, fill in gaps in the history, and just generally lend moral support. For the first few months there were questions and calls every couple of weeks, but then they tapered off. Lisa Steindler, who took over, has grown the organization into something more glorious than I could have ever foreseen. And over the years, I have stayed connected to the work, and I am welcome there whenever I go back.

When Carl, David, and I took over ArtsEmerson, we created a part-time contract for the outgoing executive director, Rob, to act as a consultant. And he’s still here. Not only did he not leave town, he still comes to staff meetings sometimes, and to openings all the time. And his presence has been entirely positive and was a crucial part of our ability to succeed in the transition.

Why did this work?

A defined role. The contract we created gave Rob real responsibilities in areas that were consequential to our success. He was on call to scout for us and help connect us to the artists and managers he held relationships with, to support our fundraising efforts, and to mentor us on the challenges of navigating the political landscapes of the city, the local arts community, and the campus. We specified the number of hours. We committed to renewing the contract for up to three years if it was deemed effective for all parties—which it was. And we maintained regular communication. He was never boxed out. He never heard something “on the street” that he didn’t hear first from us. He was part of our trimtab team.

A generosity of spirit. On both sides of the equation, there was a generosity of spirit. Rob’s transition to retirement was a huge deal for him, having spent nearly forty years leading theatre institutions. It was emotional. We respected that. And he fully respected our need to lead, our vision, and our goals for ArtsEmerson, and he celebrated them with us and with his loyalists at every turn. Any concerns or criticisms he had were delivered to us as gifts from his experience. Any concerns or criticisms we had were delivered directly to him in the same spirit. We shared responsibility for the success of the transition.

We got a coach. Rob and I had a coach to get us through the handoff: Joan Lancourt. We worked out the process, with all its volatility and challenges, between us and with her help. It was incredibly vulnerable, intimate, and honest. If it hadn’t been, I’m not sure the rest of it would have been possible. Because we came out of it clear about roles, clear in our relationship, and in full support of each other.

Every Old Battle Will Be Fought Again

This is perhaps the most exhausting part of the transition for the person coming in. Whatever cracks existed previously are likely to reopen, whether on the board level, the staff level, or even in the donor and audience communities. People who lost on a decision important to them, but are still around, will be tempted to try again. I would like to be wrong about this. I don’t think I am.

This is part of the “looking back” impulse. Deal with it directly and quickly, gracefully and definitively. And if there are old battles at the board or leadership level that have left unresolved feelings there, expect the new leader to be lobbied and drawn into factionalism. This is a time suck and destroys morale. And it’s a test. If you can be battled on these old fronts, you will be, ad nauseum.

If, as a staff member, board member, or donor, you really don’t like the direction the organization is headed, or if your attachment to the organization was primarily to the person who has now left it, or to their particular vision, you can step away. But do that with the same spirit of care and generosity in which you would stay. The organization is now vulnerable, and you can inflict real damage. Is that the legacy you want for yourself?

We had to fire a significant donor when we took over ArtsEmerson. The person was very unhappy with elements of the direction we were headed in and uncomfortable with the language we were using. She felt we were redirecting the organization toward social service, away from art for art’s sake. And she was holding out her support as provisional, dependent on our willingness to turn away from where we’d set our course. We had to say that we could not accept her conditions, we would not be retreating from our vision, and could not in good conscience take her donation. But we invited her to return at any time, when she felt comfortable with what we were doing, rather than trying to dictate what we could do. There were several years without her in our audience and donor pool. But she did return and she was welcome. And she now picks and chooses her moments with us that match her interests.

A Moment For Mentors

A constant for me, in all the leadership transitions I’ve been through, has been the invaluable presence of a mentor. Organizations and individuals swept into the process of leadership transition can all benefit from effective mentorship. There are many qualified mentors, coaches, and colleagues around the field who have important insight, experience, and capacity to contribute to this discussion, and I hope many will. Consider this an invitation to enter the conversation—right here in the comments section, for instance—in the manner of an online town hall about the moment we are in and how we can move through it successfully together.

As one friend involved in a leadership transition recently put it, “The quality of the outcomes in this transition will be, in part, dependent on the quality of the mentorship as we move through it.” Mentors needed.

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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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This is a great article, thank you, David.  I have given a great deal of thought to where the leadership is going to come from in this important time for the nonprofit theatre and what can I do to support this big shift.  I agree with many of the points you brought up.  I think mentorship is so important for all theatre artists.  I talk about it on my weekly radio show. I think these new Artistic Directors can't be afraid to ask for help and also can't be afraid to say "I don't know". Don't pretend that you have all the answers, but continue to search for the answers. I read a great article on the Ted Website Called "Five Types of Mentors You Need in Your Life" by Julia Fawal.  I found it very helpful in my artistic leadership role.