“Who are you when scared?”

Confidence, Fearlessness, and Artistic Direction

Joe Haj: I read with such interest that New York Times article about all the new artistic directors in the country. While I’ve been artistic director at the Guthrie Theater for several years, you’re part of this wave, having recently been appointed the new artistic director of Houston’s Alley Theatre. What’s that like?

Rob Melrose: It’s a fabulous change for the theatre, but of course there were leaders like you, Emily Mann, Bill Rauch, and Oskar Eustis who were opening up their theatres to more diverse work earlier on. I got a chance to see what all four of you were doing up close, and I’m excited about this next wave. We’re carrying a torch that you guys lit.

Joe: There have been torches carried in our field for a half century—we all stand on the shoulders of a number of giants. It’s interesting to look at this wave of leaders, mostly in the American theatre, because for so many years companies have chosen their artistic directors from the ranks of freelance directors. And now several of these appointments are folks who have been largely producers, which of course is an artistic and creative effort. But it’s different, and I’m very interested to see what that means for the field, how these individuals choose to lead their theatres.

Rob: I read Maria Goyanes and Stephanie Ybarra’s HowlRound article, part of this Changeover series, where they said, “We think it’s great for producers to run theatres, because when the artistic directors are in rehearsal, they’re really out of commission for a while, for the regular goings-on.” But, as the artistic director who is also directing the first two shows of my season, and a third show later on, that’s the way I’m going to get to know the acting company and everybody who works there. That’s my best foot forward. I’m meeting everybody and saying, “Hi, how are you doing? It’s great to know you.” I’m talking about my vision, but I’m also collaborating with people, solving problems with people. I really feel there’s still a case to be made for the active director in rehearsal being the artistic director.

Joe: I think we have to be a little careful. When I see artistic directors who have a five-show season directing three of the shows, I think: nobody’s that interesting, nobody. I don’t care how beautiful and thrilling a maker you are, your community deserves and wants a variety of aesthetics and voices and approaches. I don’t want a season that looks too much like me. When other directors are hired to come make plays, I give notes, but I don’t meddle. If you meddle too much, all the work looks like yours, whether or not you made it. And that’s not healthy either.

Rob: That’s something I’ve always loved about working for you at your theatres, both at PlayMakers and at the Guthrie. You provided a canvas, and you were a great ally and someone with an eye on the process who I could bounce ideas off of and who had insights, but you weren’t trying to make it your show. I’ve had that experience too at other theaters, it’s no fun.

Joe: And the outcomes aren’t good. Switching topics, I read something recently—I actually don’t remember if it was in relation to Nataki Garrett’s appointment at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) or maybe Stephanie or Maria’s recent appointments, but somebody characterized one of them as fearless and confident. What is your view on those as value propositions? I’m not sure that either of those things are actually characteristics of outstanding leadership.

Rob: It’s a good question.

Joe: As an artistic director I’ve been fooled by it any number of times.

Rob: Confidence?

Joe: Confidence. Somebody comes and sits in the office and says, “Hey, Joe, here’s my idea for Saroyan’s The Time Of Your Life.” And they talk, and you think, “My god, I’ve never heard anything so smart. That’s the best way to approach that, we have to hire this person immediately.” I then very often find the gap between the confidence and the competence is fairly significant. I’ve really come to the conclusion that confidence is just a personality trait. It’s neither good nor bad in and of itself.

Rob: It’s way overvalued in the United States. In Europe people with too much confidence are not trusted and are even mocked. They instead value someone who is curious and smart and asks questions. In Europe they also have a longer rehearsal process, so they can hire many more directors who start the process not quite sure of where they’re going; and there are a lot of brilliant directors. Having conversations with European directors you get much less, “I’ve got it all figured out” and much more, “I’m curious about this. This would be interesting.”

Joe: I think confidence and competence are simply non-corollary. They simply have nothing to do with one another. There are very confident people who are also very competent. And many who are not. And then there are people without much confidence who are spectacular. And of course some who are not. It’s much like fearlessness. I don’t know that being fearless is a value. The real question is, “Who are you when scared?”

I don’t know that being fearless is a value. The real question is, “Who are you when scared?”

Rob: You were an actor for many years, so you know from the audience’s perspective that you look fearless. But you know from being backstage that feeling of, Oh my god I’m going to be on stage in front of seven hundred people in a second. I don’t know anybody who’s fearless.

Joe: You and I talked so much while you were going through the search process. But I haven’t talked to you much since, and obviously you’ve been busy. I expect there are any number of things that are precisely as you expected, and I wonder what the things are that were less expected. What are the challenges that are maybe greater than expected and maybe vice versa, what you thought would be hard that has proven to be, “Oh, no, I’ve got this.”

Rob: You gave me the best piece of advice going into my interview: “You’ve got to figure out why Houston and why the Alley Theatre.” Not just why I wanted to run a big LORT theatre. I went out a day early so I got to see Houston, and it just so happened to be their theatre district open house. So in one day I got to do a tour of the Alley, saw their production of The Mousetrap, and went to a free symphony, a mini opera performance, and a mini-ballet performance. I got to see the best of Houston’s arts in one day and got a sense of the city’s diversity.

Houston’s been named the most diverse city in America, and it’s something they’re very proud of. The Alley itself has a ways to go. It’s not the most diverse theatre in America. But I think that there’s a tremendous opportunity for the Alley to reflect what we all love about Houston and for it to own the fact that it’s Houston’s LORT theatre, that it can really become a leader in this new generational push. The cool thing is I don’t feel like I’m pushing against anything, or that my ideas are unwelcome. I feel like the board, the staff, and the artists all long for an Alley Theatre that is more diverse and reflects the diversity of Houston better.

three people in conversation, one in focus

Joe Haj in rehearsals for the Guthrie Theater’s 2019 production of his adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo by Nathan Dale Studios.

Joe: I’m really interested in your view on the idea of a company. I grew up with company. I’ve always belonged to one it seems. I was in graduate school as a part of PlayMakers’ Company. I was part of Garland Wright’s Company for a couple of years. I was an original member of SITI Company. Then I ran PlayMakers for many years, which had a resident company. I’m in such favor of company.

On the institutional level, thirty years ago, if you had an acting company of twenty to twenty-five people with even a tiny bit of diversity in it, you could make every play that everyone in the American theatre was making. A company made sense. Now if your institution is going to say, “We’re doing a Lauren Yee play and an Alice Childress play, and a Luis Alfaro play,” there is no company of twenty people that can go across those plays.

As much as I am sad about the dissolution of companies in this country, unless you have a company that’s like OSF’s, which can only be done because they’re in a festival format, you can’t have one big enough to make the work we’re required to make on the institutional level when it comes to the diversity of our programing. There’s no acting company that can satisfy that range of plays. Of course, you have a company at the Alley. How do you wrestle with that question?

Rob: I’m wrapping my head around it. It’s the thing that the Alley is most proud of, their acting company. It’s in every brochure, every document.

Joe: You have great actors there, too.

Rob: Great actors and wonderful people. The nice thing is we have two theatres, and the way I solved it for this upcoming year is that I have the entire company upstairs in the Hubbard Theatre doing The Winter’s Tale. And downstairs in the Neuhaus Theatre we’re doing Vietgone. Then we also have a slot on the Hubbard the company can’t be in, the one right after A Christmas Carol, because the whole company is in A Christmas Carol and it’s too fast. So that show on the Hubbard has to be people from outside the company. We’re doing Octavio Solis’s Quixote Nuevo.

And then we’re doing Amerikin by Chisa Hutchinson. It’s a fascinating play about white supremacy. Chisa’s an African American writer, and the cast is five white actors and two African American actors, so our company can do that. And then Michael Gene Sullivan, a wonderful African American writer from the Bay Area who I know, did an adaptation of 1984, and of course a diverse company can do that... There’s no requirement about who plays what.

My goal is diversify the company. Eventually, I’d like to add a couple more shows in the Neuhaus geared for young people and their families in the model of Sweden’s Unga Klara theatre, which would create a need for more actors. I’d like to add four more company members. And all this will be more expensive than what we are doing now, but I can see my next fundraising effort to be: “Listen, if we’re going to have a company and do diverse work, we need to add more people to the company. We need to have two more shows. This is how we’re going to move forward.” In some ways it was the requirement of this job. Because they want the work to be more diverse, they don’t want to get rid of their company, and they want to keep doing classics.

But, you asked, what’s harder, what’s easier? I ran the sixty-seat Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco for many years, and people would ask what it was like running a small theatre. The budget was smaller at Cutting Ball, but the work was very similar: there are just more zeroes after the numbers now. I’m having a really fun time with Dean Gladden, our managing director. He’s worked with many different artistic directors, and one thing he’s appreciating about me is how I actually understand the finances. Because at the LORT level, especially in the past, there have been artistic directors who don’t want to understand the financial aspects and don’t want to be bothered with them.

Joe: It can’t be that way.

It’s harder to feel the pulse of these larger organizations, to be close to their concerns across the building.

Rob: The work at the Alley is actually way more fun than it was at Cutting Ball. At the Alley, my days are filled with giving speeches, going to meals with donors and guest artists, and having meetings with some really qualified staff who are then going to execute the decisions we make at the meeting. Where at Cutting Ball it was like, Okay I’m going to have to do this because if I don’t do this nobody’s going to do it. A long night at Cutting Ball would be pumping out a grant after putting the kids to bed. Just kind of grueling, grinding work. At the Alley, it’s really long days but the work is much more enjoyable.

Joe: I get everything you’re saying. It’s amazing to be surrounded by such utterly gifted, skilled, qualified people on a daily basis who can do the work and do it better than you could anyway. Even if you had the time or appetite for it.

At PlayMakers, we had thirty to forty people who worked for us. So if I had an idea at 10 a.m., I could touch every stakeholder in the organization that day around whatever the question may have been. I would know really quickly whether I was onto something or whether it should just fall away by the weight of it’s own idiocy. And in a much larger organization, you can put something into the world and it can be days, weeks, even months before you recognize, Wow that decision has had negative impact in parts of the organization I didn’t even think about. It’s harder to feel the pulse of these larger organizations, to be close to their concerns across the building.

Rob: That’s really helpful to hear. I haven’t made enough big decisions yet. I mean, my first big decision was announcing the season, and it was very welcomed. People felt like it was a long time coming. So I didn’t get a lot of negative pushback.

I’m not a micromanager, but I was forced at Cutting Ball to learn every job myself. There were many times when I had to do the graphic design. I had to design the website. I had to design a set and build a set. I have good relationships with everybody now because, on one hand, I know how to do their job on a rudimentary level. I understand what they’re doing. And on the other hand, I’m wildly impressed with how good they are and delighted with what they can do.

a bald man with glasses and a beard in a navy suit sitting on red stairs

Rob Melrose. Photo by John Everett.

Joe: What’s the adjustment like, going from being a single leader of a meaningfully smaller organization to being in a co-equal leadership model, working alongside a managing director? Has that been a learning curve of some kind? Or has it been intuitive and fairly easy?

Rob: It’s been a journey for me. Cutting Ball actually had two models. First, we couldn’t afford a managing director. So I was the artistic director, but in essence I was the executive director. I knew there were skills I didn’t have, so I applied to be a part of Theatre Bay Area’s mentorship program and I mentored at American Conservatory Theater with Heather Kitchen, the executive director. Heather taught me how to run all the administrative parts of a theatre.

I learned how to be an executive director, but I knew it was something I didn’t want to do forever. I wanted to focus more on the art. When Cutting Ball got to a certain point, I said, “I would really love it if we could hire a managing director.” And we hired Suzanne Appel right out of grad school. Suzanne was great, and we had a great partnership, but she reported to me and it was simply because I had been running the theatre for like fifteen years at that point. It just didn’t seem appropriate for us to be co-equal.

The Alley has a co-equal model. Dean’s had a forty-year career and he is really good at his job. I think he sleeps five hours a night. He works very, very hard, and he’s really smart. He’s having a good time with me because I actually care about the finances.

Joe: That’s really great. People sometimes go, “Oh, I could never be an artistic director, all you do is spend your time fundraising.” Which of course, a) is not the least bit true, and b) all I do anyway is talk about the theatre. So why wouldn’t I talk about the theatre to somebody who could actually be helpful in helping us accomplish our vision and mission and goals?

Rob: That part of the job has just gotten so much easier for me for a number of reasons. One, at Cutting Ball, I had to tee it all up myself. I had to make the initial contact. I had to do the cultivation. I had to make the dinner date. I had to make the ask. And because it was a theatre I founded, there was always a little tinge of: I’m asking money for myself. Which didn’t always feel that great.

Now, I’m a guy who eight months ago had never even been to Houston, and I’m here to make your city better. I’m bringing my enthusiasm about theatre  to help you. It’s very easy now to ask people to step up and support what I think is an important part of any city. And it’s just taken that aspect of I’m asking money for myself out of it.

Joe: That’s really beautiful.

Part of the narcissism of the age is that if it hasn’t come from our own lifetime, it has no validity. As if the writing itself isn’t magnificent.

Rob: You and I are both committed to diversity and the classics, and I’ve been so impressed with what Bill Rauch has done at OSF in this regard. At the end of Bill’s tenure there, if he were to talk about the most successful thing he did, I’m guessing he would say American Revolutions and not the fact that he was one of the first artistic directors to consistently program non-Western classics. He came right out of the gate with the play The Clay Cart. And he said every year, I’m going to do a classic outside of the Western canon, and he really committed to it.

I think that was really forward thinking and an important part of his legacy. OSF is a destination. You travel there for a week, and you go because you want to see a bunch of Shakespeare. But you’re also kind of game to see whatever else Bill has picked for you.

Joe: The company has a captive audience for four days. It’s a fantastic gift.

Rob: If he says, “I think you should see this Sanskrit play” or “I think you should see this Nigerian play,” then you do it. So he has a situation that is unique to OSF.

Joe: We have that so much on our mind here at the Guthrie. In fact, we have it written into our strategic plan. We need to know more of the world’s classic plays. And then we need to know if we can have them adapted or translated in an appropriate way and give them developmental time to expand our idea of what a classic is. There’s no question that at the Guthrie, historically and now, when we say classic we’re talking about the Western European and American canon. How we expand that notion is very much on our minds here.

Rob: It’s something I’m looking at. I’m learning first what Houston audiences are game for. We actually had a Molière play in my season originally. And we looked back into our box office history and saw that Jeune Lune had done their production of The Miser at the Alley. I can’t imagine a better production of that play than their production, but it didn’t do very well at the box office. That was a shock. I realized, “Oh my god, Molière had a hard time.”

Joe: I’ve had a couple of conversations with major funders about this as well. Thirty years ago there were so few new play generators in this country. And the field has really responded to the fact that we were not doing enough to support new plays and playwrights. Funders have responded. In 2017, Theatre Communications Group did a survey of what was being produced at not-for-profit theatres across the country and, for the sake of counting, they used the metric that a play written fifty years ago or more would be counted as a classic play.

The result of their survey was that 85 percent of everything done in this country in 2017 was a play written within the last fifty years. Only 15 percent was fifty years old or older. And of that 15 percent, 40 percent were plays by Shakespeare. We simply don’t make a lot of classic plays in this country. And if places like the Guthrie, the Alley, American Conservatory Theater, OSF, and those who came up with a dedication to these classic works don’t hold that space, it will be gone in a generation. It’s thinning all the time.

So, Molière didn’t do well for the Alley Theatre, probably because it’s a long time since they did Molière. We have conversations here where a dramaturg will say to me, “You know Joe, if the community goes six years without seeing a Chekhov play, they no longer know how to look at a Chekhov play.”

Rob: That’s fascinating.

Joe: So what does one do? Even as we move towards supporting new plays in meaningful ways, I’m not among those who believe that twenty-five-hundred years of Western culture ought to be burnt to the ground. 

I want to share a quick story. I was giving a lecture at a university. I made my usual argument for the classics, why they have resonance and relevance in contemporary life and why we should be doing them. I talked about The Persians and Aeschylus and how, in addition to being the oldest surviving play in Western drama, it may also be our first anti-war play. And this one young person said to me, “I don’t get it. If you’re going to do a play about war, why would you be doing Aeschylus? Why wouldn’t you take a new play that somebody like me has written today?” And I said, “Well let’s just talk about that for a second.”

Aeschylus was a war veteran. He fought at the Battle of Marathon. He fought at the Battle of Salamis. He lost his brother in battle. And he came out of those experiences and wrote a play about war from the Persian’s point of view; from the point of view of the defeated enemy. So Aeschylus wrote from his lived experience what it means to participate in war. And what you’re saying to me is that I should choose a play about war by somebody who graduated with an MFA from a writing program and who has spent most of their young life watching cat videos? No. I mean, no. Obviously, I’m being glib, and perhaps this young person has a magnificent play that should be produced everywhere. But my point is that part of the narcissism of the age is that if it hasn’t come from our own lifetime, it has no validity. As if the writing itself isn’t magnificent. As if people weren’t writing from their own lived experiences.

Rob: Absolutely.

Joe: At some point funders have to respond because it is many, many times easier for any of us to do the three-person play in contemporary clothes at a dining-room table than it is to do Cyrano with twenty-six actors, three hundred costumes, and forty wigs. The scale of these classic plays, the expense that goes along with them… We have to think about this as well as how we can continue to support new voices and young playwrights. Some of us need to be making this argument. And dead playwrights aren’t around to argue for themselves.

Rob: That’s a beautiful story to end on. We will hold that space together.

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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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