The partnership between an artistic director and managing director becomes dysfunctional if one person is supposed to light the spark and the other to contain it,” observed Jack O’Brien, artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. Addressing the 65 participants from theatres across the country who gathered in San Diego June 19-20 for Theatre Communications Group’s Artistic Director/Managing Director Forum, O’Brien contended, “We also have to acknowledge that every relationship of this kind is going to be different like fingerprints.”
Co-moderating the session on partnership and communication was O’Brien’s managing director partner, Tom Hall. “If you don’t share a common value about what you’re trying to do, then one of you should get out,” Hall elaborated. “My greatest concern is that we’re turning out very articulate business managers, but managers also need to be passionate and knowledgeable about the art form and how it works. ”
Welcoming the group earlier that day, TCG executive director Peter Zeisler underscored the daunting pressures faced by today’s artistic and managing directors. “The easy solution he warned, “would be to opt out and each do your own thing. It’s hard to work through to a viable compromise.” The forum, he noted, was a continuation of a series funded in part by the Pew Charitable Trusts that began in Philadelphia last December, aiming to open up a dialogue between artistic and managing directors about their dual responsibilities to artistic ideals and institutional health, and how they define and redefine their pivotal partnerships.
Over the course of the two days, the broad range of artistic, management and governance topics included building new institutional models, developing broader audiences, prioritizing artistic goals in the face of financial limitations, improving management capabilities, addressing space needs, reflecting diversity and developing new audiences for the future.
In a session on economic issues, San Diego Repertory Theatre producing director Sam Woodhouse and artistic director Douglas Jacobs described how crisis management can place a strain on the partnership, while forcing the theatre to evaluate everything in terms of money “If it’s not essential, don’t do it!” while making long-range planning impossible. “The only reason we’re still here,” Woodhouse observed, “is we believe in our mission statement. And we’re not going to change our mission because of economics.”
The recent financial crisis caused the theatre to eliminate the position of managing director and split the duties between the two of them, as well as to lay off a third of their staff. The picture is greatly improved now, after months of struggle, but Jacobs acknowledged the toll it has taken, telling the group, “Sometimes I’ve had to lay myself off in order to dream.”
One potential solution to coping with hard times, some participants felt, may lie in co-productions, which allow resources to be pooled, larger theatres to “adopt” smaller theatres and provide access to a broader audience. But several participants warned against seeing co-productions as a way to reduce costs, especially at larger theatres, and in cases where spaces are not compatible for the physical production.
“Co-productions are most useful for continuing the life of the play and enlarging contacts with artists you haven’t worked with before,” said Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. “But it’s a double-edged sword–every time you do it you are giving up someone else’s chance of doing something else.”
Co-moderating the final session on community and diversity, Davidson discussed how much the Taper has learned from its recent production of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angles 1992. “It taught us that we are all |the other,’ and I think it has permanently altered our perceptions. All too rarely,” he went on, “do the outside and inside worlds connect so that the audience doesn’t have to check their thoughts and feelings at the door.” He believes that programming must expand to embrace a wider constituency, but, he cautioned, “Programming also has to do with who is on your staff. Inclusion and empowerment are key.”
Co-moderator Benny Sato Ambush, associate artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, agreed: “There is historical suspicion in communities of color. Suspicion and fear are often the very things that divide us, and if we don’t at least acknowledge them, we can’t transcend them.”
Some participants worried that theatres caught up in trying to be everything to everybody may be straying away from their missions. Others stressed that doing plays with a wider world view is as important for traditional white audiences as for communities of color.
Some participants were hopeful that nontraditional casting, by making audiences see things in new ways, will eventually develop a new, colorblind audience. But Ambush favors a dramaturgical approach: “Audiences know what’s bogus. I hope more and more writers will write about interfacing it’s the promise of our American democratic ethos. I would like to propose an American theatre where any of us could go and say, |This place is about me.'”