What Do I Want This Next Decade to Be?

Kim Whitener and Mara Isaacs in conversation

Kim Whitener: Tomorrow’s my last day in the HERE office, as a butt in a seat. It’s very weird to think I’m not going to be here after tomorrow.

Mara Isaacs: Remind me, how many years?

Kim: Almost twelve. How long have you been independent?

Mara: I’ve been on my own now for five years. Before that, I was at McCarter Theatre for eighteen years. Before that, Center Theater Group for five years. Twenty-three years total in the institutional world.

Kim: I started in the institutional world, first in Boston at Suffolk University and the Boston Music Theatre Project, and then went to American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia. After that I was with Playwrights Horizons for about three years, then made the journey downtown to be the managing director of Wooster Group. That was really what introduced me to the world of contemporary experimental theatre. After the Wooster Group, I was six years independent. Then I went back into the institution and eventually to HERE. Now I’m going back out of the institution.

Mara: Was there an “aha” moment, or was there just a gradual inevitability that made you make this decision?

Kim: The move is not about some kind of negative energy that built up, where I thought, “Aha, I need to take the leap.” It was much more of a slow burn, of looking at what I wanted in the next phase of my life. How was it for you?

Mara: It was a combination of things. For so much of my early career, I had been groomed to follow a particular path. You start at this place in the organization, then you move to the middle place in the organization, then you move to the high place in the organization, and then you go to some other organization, and then you take over.

We’re all sort of brainwashed into thinking that’s the inevitable path. I bought that for a while. In the process of both considering and being considered for a number of leadership positions at other organizations, I started to realize that the frustrations I was experiencing were frustrations with a model of producing, not with any individual organization. That idea started percolating. And then there were some very specific artistic projects that I was getting really excited about that didn’t fit within the parameters of the organization where I was working.

I started to realize that the frustrations I was experiencing were frustrations with a model of producing, not with any individual organization. 

One of them was a musical that I thought had commercial potential, and one of them was an experimental, devised work that I was making with Israeli, Palestinian, South African, and American artists. I asked myself, “Where can I work where I can develop a commercial musical and this crazy, devised piece?” Nowhere. I thought, “Well, the only way I can really follow my gut and be truly free to respond to the work that excites me the most is to create my own umbrella.” That was the impetus for going out on my own.

Kim: Exactly.

Mara: The timing of technological developments also helped. Suddenly technology allowed us to have video conference business meetings. All of my files are on Dropbox, so I can have a virtual office anywhere. All of these things came together at just the right moment, when I realized I could live wherever I wanted, as long as I was near an airport. The work I’m interested in is happening all over the world. I don’t have to be tied to a single building or a single subscription audience or a single board. At the same time, I rely on and collaborate with those organizations and those people; we’re all still part of the same ecosystem, I’m just filling a different place in it.

It was also terrifying, because I had always had a paycheck my entire life, and suddenly I was becoming a freelancer. Most people do it the other way around.

Kim: One of the reasons I actually stopped being independent was things changed in my personal life. I had a long-term relationship end, and I was more dependent upon myself as opposed to sharing expenses. That was a trigger, going from the personal to the professional. The confidence I feel about leaping out now has a lot to do with having had that experience and knowing it is going to be easier now, and also having this much broader, deeper, more intense community that’s built all around us in the kind of work that we do.

It’s so interesting what you say about that pattern of ambition. We start as a younger arts administrator with this sense of, “I’m going to go from one thing to the next, to the next, to the next,” exactly what you were saying. Building and growing until you’ve reached some senior level or leadership. But over the last few years, I too have had a lot of possibilities, a lot of opportunities to consider senior positions at other institutions. I would put that hat on for a few minutes and for a little while, and I’d think about it. Then I’d say, “No. That’s not really what I want. What I have the ambition for is the deep, connected relationship with artists and the sense of community, but at the same time I also want greater control over my life.”

What I have the ambition for is the deep, connected relationship with artists and the sense of community, but at the same time I also want greater control over my life.

Mara: Everything you’re saying resonates. We’re in this moment right now, in our field, where there’s a tremendous amount of transition. If you had said to me ten years ago, “The following theatres are going to come up, and you’re going to be recruited by the various search firms, and you’re going to say no to every one of them,” I would have laughed in your face.

Three people smiling at a party.

Basil Twist, Kim Whitener, and Heather Henson at the HERE gala. Photo by Carl Skutsch.

Kim: Exactly.

Mara: It’s been a really remarkable paradigm shift, to realize that this thing I thought I wanted is no longer what I want. That’s really satisfying.

It’s been a really remarkable paradigm shift, to realize that this thing I thought I wanted is no longer what I want. That’s really satisfying.

Kim: There is a shift in the field, too, with the embrace of ensemble-created work or the acceptance of the individual artist creating. But there is such a great paucity of people like us out there, people who have the experience, knowledge, and relationships, who are willing to take that risk. I can think of a few examples of people whose plates are just absolutely and utterly chock-a-block full, and it’s a struggle to keep it all going because there’s so much need and there’s so much interesting work and not enough people doing it. And yet you have to have a really full plate to be able to afford this lifestyle.

Mara: You’ve completely hit the nail on the head. The first biggest surprise—happy surprise—when I left to be an independent was the amount of generosity in the field. I think I expected a great deal of cynicism. Instead, everywhere I turned, there was a, “Let me take you to lunch.” “Let me throw you this connection.” “Let me introduce you to this person.” It gave me such hope for the collegiality of our field. I’ve tried very hard to grasp that and pass it on, pay it forward.

The other surprise was actually how much need there is. My whole plan was, “My last day is going to be June 30. I’m going to have a really relaxing summer. Maybe in fall I’ll start to make some phone calls and develop some projects.” Well, there was no relaxing summer.

Kim: No. There is no downtime.

Mara: There was no having to make phone calls. It was immediately; I was overwhelmed. That hasn’t stopped.

Kim: How do you make it work, financially?

Mara: It’s a constant juggle, the balancing of the finances and the activity and the flow. Some of it’s not predictable. If you’re working on a project that takes several years to develop, how do you balance the fact that usually the producer gets paid last but you’ve got to pay your rent, and you’re working on this show for three years.

Kim: Exactly.

Mara: It’s very challenging. For me, there are some practical strategies. I do teach at two different educational institutions, CalArts and Princeton University. I am an occasional visitor in both places. But there’s no question that it allows me a certain foundation of freedom. I will say that one of the privileges I have is that my life partner is a member of a union with a very good health plan. I didn’t have to worry about health insurance, which was a big part of what allowed me to make this decision.

I don’t take that for granted at all, although I had looked into the Freelancer’s Union and their insurance policy; I had some backup plans ready.

Kim: That’s what I did when I was independent, Freelancer’s Union.

Mara: My husband, who is himself a freelancer and has been for twenty years, really taught me how to have the right mindset. I’m a planner: I need to know where everything’s going, where the money’s coming from. I’ve got it all worked out with spreadsheets, what’s coming in and what month.

My husband is very zen. I can’t say I’m totally zen about it, but he’s taught me how to have faith in the future, and that things will continue to appear where they need to. I know that sounds sort of naïve and hokey. But that is what has happened. Just when I go into a little bit of a panic because I don’t know what the next project is going to be, I get an email, or my phone rings, and there’s some deal on the table.

Kim: That’s so true. I think it’s exactly the same for me, that sense of having faith. If you do good work, if you have good relationships, if you deliver, then these things do come along. I think that’s very true of all freelancers. You have your ups and downs, but it really works. I love the flexibility of it, and I love the variety and the ability to do different kinds of projects.

If you do good work, if you have good relationships, if you deliver, then these things do come along.

Mara: I remember when I was trying to make the decision to hire staff; I spent a lot of time talking to peers and colleagues in the field, asking: “How did you do it?” It was Rachel Chanoff who had made a comment to me about just having to do it: “It’s the same with anything. Believe, expand your capacity, and you’ll be able to afford it.” She was right. That’s exactly what’s happened.

Kim: That’s excellent.

Mara: Everybody else, I hire on a project-by-project basis.

Kim: You’re not a 501C3?

Mara: No, I am not. I am an LLC, which was a deliberate, interesting choice. There’s validity in going both ways. But I really wanted to be nimble. I created my company in response to what I was seeing happening in the not-for-profit institution world, and I didn’t want to replicate what I thought some of the problems were.

Kim: I’m exactly the same way. I’m such a tiny little thing right now. I don’t know how large it will become. But I have the same philosophy. Again, it’s about partnership.

Mara: The majority of my projects live quite wonderfully in the not-for-profit world, and I do exactly that: partnerships. But I’m free to do something commercially, which I am also doing.

Kim: Yes, you are. Big time.

Mara: Knock wood.

Kim: What things did you discover along the way that you wish you’d known prior to starting out?

Mara: I will say I had no idea I was going to work this hard. I am working harder than I have ever worked. Which was not my intention.

Kim: Well, I know about that. Here I am trying to make a personal change.

Mara: That’s what you said: “It’s going to be about balance and life.” And I thought, “Uh oh.”

Kim: Really?

Mara: If you figure that out, please let me know because I have not.

Kim: I look at the next six months, and I think every single minute of my time is going to be nose to the wall with the projects I already have on my plate. It’s going to take a while to adjust to being on my own. I also have a little bit of institution-building to do, like getting a website up.

I want to be careful about not taking on too many things so that I can be effective and not just get completely and utterly burned out, and not make enough money to boot. It is a big concern. A big problem in our field is that what we do is really not that highly valued. I think it’s partly our own fault that we haven’t figured out how to make it clear that what we do and what we offer is worth a reasonable investment. In my own planning, I’ve been saying, “I’m just not going to take on projects that aren’t going to be lucrative enough.” I know that sounds harsh. But I think it’s a reality.

A big problem in our field is that what we do is really not that highly valued. I think it’s partly our own fault that we haven’t figured out how to make it clear that what we do and what we offer is worth a reasonable investment. 

Mara: I think it’s essential. You have to do as you need to go on. You can’t train people, “Oh, well, she’ll do that for nothing because she’s grateful to be associated with this project,” instead of, “No, actually. There’s a contribution I have to make. I have a value.” That’s one of the concrete things I’ve discovered in the transition: the more I am upfront about what my value is, the better the relationship goes.

Some people walk away. They say, “No. You’re too expensive for me.” And, it’s like, “Okay, I’m fine.”

Kim: I have the fault of not properly advocating for myself or putting a high enough number on things. I’ve gotten myself into trouble that way in the past.

Mara: It’s interesting to me that this field-wide transition seems to be almost synchronized in an odd way. We’re still waiting for the outcome, but I’m very encouraged by the kinds of appointments that have recently been announced, and what it’s saying about the future of leadership in our field. I just hope those leaders are supported by their boards and their audiences, and for the transition to be more than just a superficial one.

Kim: I hope this new generation is going to bring some new energy and new ideas, and flip some of the old ways of doing things on their heads.

Mara: But they have to be supported by their boards.

Kim: They do. I think there’s a bit of a generational shift happening. I don’t like to think of myself as the old generation moving out; I think I’m at a very creative, very accomplished point in my career. It’s not about a retirement. It’s about a new structure within which to work. In fact, I have a very good friend who’s interested in the concept of life not being divided into three sections of youth, middle age, and old age, but actually into four sections of youth, growth, consolidation, and then older age. That period before older age, which is sort of between maybe fifty-five and eighty, you have a tremendous amount of knowledge. You have a lot of accomplishment. You have confidence. You actually don’t care, anymore, about what people think of you.

That period before older age, which is sort of between maybe fifty-five and eighty, you have a tremendous amount of knowledge.

An actor and a puppet on stage

Dai Matsuoka in Falling Out by Phantom Limb Company, one of the projects Mara is currently working on. Photo by Tiffany Bessire 

Mara: That is the most liberating thing that happens, I have to say.

Kim: It’s very liberating. I think that helps to power moves like this, where you just get to a point where it’s like, “I’m going to do this.”

Mara: Twenty years ago, a good friend and mentor told me, “I think of life in decades. Each decade is a phase. You don’t think about ‘what do I want to accomplish over my career.’ It’s like, ‘What do I want this next decade to be? In your twenties, it might be this one thing. In your thirties, it might be something else. Same with your forties and fifties, and so on and so on.”

It’s been really great for me to think about it that way, and I think, “Oh, yeah. I did that thing I wanted to do. Now I’m doing this other thing I wanted to do.”

Kim: I could certainly look back on my life and career, both personal and professional, and see those decades. I’ve been at HERE almost twelve years, but I would say it’s been a really solid decade.

Mara: My early thirties were really liberating for me as a young woman. I was recently married, I was trying to figure out how children affect your career, and I was thinking I had to do it all at once. That’s when I realized, “Oh, I don’t actually have to do it all at the same time. I can do this part here, and then I can do that part there.” Yes, you can still do it all. You can’t just do it all at the same time.

Kim: You were very wise in your thirties. I was a little more of a late bloomer.

Mara: Well, I had some good voices in my ear, too.

Kim: That does help.

Mara: I think one of the interesting things about seeing this generational shift in leadership is whether or not we’ll see an aesthetic shift. I’m looking at these large theatre institutions outside of New York, whose programming has looked a certain way for a long time. I’m curious to see if there’s both leadership and an appetite, from an audience point of view, to shake that up a little bit, to see what this new generation of leaders this might actually create in these places that reflects how people are now. 

One of the interesting things about seeing this generational shift in leadership is whether or not we’ll see an aesthetic shift.

Kim: How they’re making work.

Mara: How they’re expressing themselves and making art. Art looks different now than it used to. I think that’s going to be interesting.

Kim: I think it has to happen. But I do think that, as with everything, it’s slow. It’s incremental. The new leaders come in, they’re going to have to be careful to walk the tightrope between their established audiences and the ones that they’re looking to attract. Still, it’s an interesting time of major transition.

I think new, young leadership is really key to pushing everybody to take that first taste of something.

Mara: I’m excited to see what the outcomes will be.

Kim: I feel really hopeful about it. I’m not necessarily a Pollyanna; I’m very much a realist. But I do. I feel very excited and hopeful, too.

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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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