Zen and the Art of Leaving

As I look back on the twenty-one years I’ve been with Mu Performing Arts (originally known as Theater Mu), and face the reality that I am soon to become the dearly departed (so to speak), there are many experiences and thoughts about my leaving that I hope might be of interest to some theatre and artist types—or anyone who’s been in a position of leadership for some time.

The idea of leaving came from within me. Mu has been quite successful over the past seven years and its future seems exciting with lots of talented local Asian American theatre artists eager to work with the company. So it wasn’t a case of burnout or the string running out as can happen after twenty years at the helm, that caused me to announce my leaving. In fact I have found a new, exciting role as the stage director for our musical productions. And though staff changes have been a regular part of our work, I continue to enjoy working with the company personnel. But as I approached the usual age of retirement, sixty-six, I decided I wanted one more kick at the can as an individual artist. The thought was exciting at the time, and since I was not caught in any desperate financial straits (due to circumstances fortunately beyond my control), I felt I had some adventures to explore separate from Mu. So the impulse to leave was my own.

The moment I crossed that bridge, I found myself in a rather fascinating process of navigating the internal needs of the company and the external responses from the theatre community. It’s been a good news/bad news saga since the announcement, in big and small ways.

I let the company know my decision in the fall of 2011, so there was plenty of lead time as I will leave my position in Sept 2013. I wanted to give the company plenty of time to make the transition as smooth and effective as possible. They didn’t make the announcement public until the spring of 2012. As soon as the news got out, I was greeted with a generally positive response by the folks at Mu and in the theatre community. Many people thought I was being very smart and generous in making the move to open the way for new and younger leadership. In fact I began to get questions asking me what retirement was like a year before I was to leave.

I decided to give some early input on the candidates I knew who applied for the position, but stayed out of the interviewing and selection process. I preferred not to look like I was choosing my own successor. I believed the company needed to lead its own decision-making process and I couldn’t protect it from bad decisions in the future anyway. And I didn’t want to be blamed if the person I pushed for turned out wrong for the job. Since I knew some of the candidates I didn’t want it to get out (as it often does) that I chose one person over another. As you can see, for a person WHO’S been a responsible leader for twenty years, I have a very cautious relationship with responsibility (it comes from my earlier days as a freelance playwright).

Hiring my successor turned out to be an energetic process with several candidates and a board committee that worked hard to find it’s own consensus. In the end the board hired Randy Reyes. He has already had a tremendous impact upon the company in several different staff and artistic roles (as an actor, director and dramaturg) and so his selection came as no surprise. That decision was made in February of this year, so Randy and I have been working closely together since then with Randy making progressively more of the decisions that will impact his work in the coming seasons. Since he was already working for the company in a part time role, the transition process began almost immediately and by September of this year he will know the ropes and be running the company.

I’ve become a “lame duck” leader. Gradually, staff have begun to look past me to Randy when asking questions. It’s a peculiar feeling but one of subtle relief. I can feel my work as AD coming to a close and I am losing steam for making important decisions for the company. The immediate demands for everyday and long-term decisions have become less urgent. They have become the core of demands for another leader and a new configuration of leadership needs to emerge and take its place if Mu is to become an institution capable of thriving in the future.

Rick Shiomi
Rick Shiomi. Photo by Wikipedia. 

They have become the core of demands for another leader and a new configuration of leadership needs to emerge and take its place if Mu is to become an institution capable of thriving in the future.

My announcement has resulted in numerous celebrations and an ongoing outpouring of thanks. In September 2012, I received the Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement (the local Twin Cities theatre awards). My twenty years at Mu were definitely not a lifetime but I think the community recogned the impact Mu has had on the issue of diversity in the Twin Cities theatre scene and my role in that. It was great to get the pat on the back, one of the benefits of leaving before those around you begin hoping you will.

Astrological Aside: I check my astrology sign every day in the paper (one of my morning rituals) and though I don’t truly believe in the forecasts, they at times prove fun and strangely accurate, such as this one in the midst of all the celebration and attention I was getting. “It’s nice to be praised, but you already get enough attention for what you do. Tell people that what you need now is the kind of attention you can put in your wallet.” Soon the regular check will be gone and I’ll need more than that proverbial pat on the back.

I began last fall to start coming to grips with my decision to leave. This included conversations with peers with whom I had developed some working and friendly relationships. What I found of course is that those with whom I had already worked were ready to hire me again, but those who hadn’t, had to make some adjustments in how they perceived me. In looking at me as a freelance director or playwright, they were not sure exactly how I might fit into their seasons. I had some success directing and playwriting at Mu but because I was the artistic director, I wasn’t evaluated as an individual artist. So the transition to freelance artist is coming along slower than anticipated.

I began looking at individual grant possibilities for projects that would become a part of my new life. But I am already two for two in that department, and the news is not good. And though I have been highly respected for my work with Mu, I have not found my niche (so to speak) in the world of competing for individual artist grants. I have one more serious application and now face the possibility of striking out on my first three swings. This has been a good lesson in changing the framework of one’s work. It’s not so easy being an individual, independent freelance artist. And that’s good to remember.

Second Astrological Aside: On the day I got turned down for one grant, I read this: “Blaming one person is cowardly. Blaming everyone is meaningless. You’ll take a lesser known road and refuse to blame at all. You’ll accept what is. “ The “what is” was an accurate description of all the shortcomings of my grant application but it was a good lesson for my next application.

Sometime during the winter I started to experience some anxiety dreams, those familiar experiences where you’re supposed to do something but you don’t know what it is and you can’t figure out why you are naked and very scary things are chasing you. It happened for a one-month period but seemed to ease off when I got around to filling out my grant applications. But since that’s now not going so well, I wonder whether those anxieties will return. Welcome back to the freelance world.

Certainly I have projects in the works next season that will keep me engaged. I will be directing the Imaginary Invalid at the Theatre in the Round in August/September of this year, A Little Night Music next season with Mu, and a school touring show Tales of Minnesota Trails for the History Theatre. I am also co-directing Starry River of the Sky at Stages Theatre, working on a new musical based upon the classic Spanish play Life Is A Dream, dramaturging a few plays by friends, giving some theatre workshops and working on a couple of my own plays. So it’s not as if I will be sitting around, and yet there is some unease about it all.

I have not even departed and the transition experience is already overflowing with twists and turns, ups and downs, ins and outs. And I am beginning to realize that the best approach for me will be to take the Zen path. When I was younger (like some decades ago) I used to have an image of my life’s journey—the image of myself in a dark room. I’d crawl around to explore it until I had a sense of what it was and how it worked but then I would sit in the center and wait for a trap door to open. I’d fall through and find myself in another dark room and begin exploring again, discovering new things and people. And each room was different, satisfying in some ways and not so in others, but always different. So I think I am again sitting in a room I know as Mu and am waiting for the trap door to open. And all my planning and strategizing will not help me control or understand what the new room will be like. But it will be a new adventure, and that’s what I set out to experience.

In many ways, my life in Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, Toronto and Minnesota were all rooms that I fell into. I took a job as a festival coordinator in Vancouver because a friend asked me to do it. I knew nothing about festivals or coordinating but that experience changed my life. It turned my world inside out and made me realize my true identity as an Asian American activist/artist. I had never written a play until Philip Gotanda suggested I submit my short story to the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco. That story turned into Yellow Fever and it turned me into a playwright and theatre artist. I happened to be visiting the Twin Cities on a semi-regular basis, when a young man asked me to help him start an Asian American Theater company. That turned into Theater Mu and I became the artistic director for twenty years. So for me I think it has not been so much about planning and strategizing, as being open to what is possible when something happens that I hadn’t planned. I am a believer in that old boy scout saying “Be Prepared” but my closing thought to those considering such a transition is “to respond to whatever comes your way.” It’s a form of Zen, I think, and I have had rich and rewarding life experiences whenever I responded to whatever came my way. But the challenge is that responding in this way means that you have to embrace the uncertainty, because that’s when exciting things happen. If you have faith in the gods and the cosmos, then life often opens up for new adventures.

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