Contiguous articles in Variety announcing that the contracts of two artistic directors would not be renewed made me think once again about the process of recruiting our theatres’ leaders and ways to then nurture relationships between artistic and managing directors and their boards and communities.
At this time of economic fragility in the field, sudden and frequent leadership changes–especially ones that are not for mutual reasons–are of concern to all of us, since they affect the stability of the field.
The divorce rate is increasing rapidly. Over the past several years there have been no fewer than 45 changes in artistic and management leadership at Theatre Communications Group’s 242 constituent theatres. We seem to have developed a pattern of musical chairs, where the firing, resignation or retiring of one leader leads to a search that creates an opening at another theatre, which in turn leads to the recruitment of someone from yet another theatre, and so on. As a field, I think we need to consider carefully the domino effect of this pattern, and whether we can do better. I call upon boards, and artistic and managing directors alike, to consider the following questions:Order now
* How good is the recruitment process? Does it involve preparing for and establishing an actual process for the search–reviewing the mission statement; deciding on whether to engage a search firm; preparing detailed job descriptions; developing a careful interview process; consulting with other theatres; seeing the work of artistic director candidates; conducting detailed reference checks?
* Are artistic and managing directors interchangeable from one theatre to another? What are their aesthetic and institutional goals? Do they possess the necessary leadership qualities, as well as the experience and job skills required? What do they need to know specifically about the community?
* Once the selection has been made, are the new theatre leaders welcomed into the community? Do they make an effort to reach out to the community? Do they function as leaders within the community or insulate themselves within the theatre’s activities?
* Once employment is underway, are there regular systems of “evaluation” in place to provide an early warning system for problems? Are there regular performance reviews conducted by the board and top leadership? (And this should work both ways!) Do board and staff work to forge and strengthen a partnership?
* Are boards active in developing occasions for serious interchange? Are the plans and goals of the artistic and managing directors fully understood by the board? Are the expectations clear?
* Who is responsible for what? Boards are responsible for hiring and firing in most theatres. Artistic/managing directors are accountable to boards. But both are responsible for communication and the process by which they interact.
* What is the impact of the leadership changes? Transitions can be very costly and, when handled badly, very damaging to the institution and the individuals involved. The field already has a serious talent drain, and the increasingly high turnover among those running our institutions is not likely to encourage potential new leaders.
Sadly, and too often, those who have served the field long and well are lost to us when they leave the helms of our theatres, and they must seek work in other fields or return to freelance careers. That is why making a commitment is serious. Can we do better?
IT WAS DISHEARTENING TO LEARN IN JANUARY that the National Endowment for the Arts Theater Program has terminated its program in support of training. In light of the Endowment’s reduced budget, certain nips and tucks clearly had to be made. But what kind of signal is sent when the NEA implies training is expendable?
Everyone is concerned about where audiences will come from in 10 years. We need also to be concerned with where our artists will come from. To preserve the Endowment’s interest in training, perhaps grants to training institutions could have been merely suspended–even alternate-year funding could have been instituted.
In this era of fiscal constraint, status quo thinking is probably too optimistic, and the NEA is going to have to limit the scope of its activities. But I hope it is not too late to reconsider the finality of “termination” of a program that is concerned with the next generation.
WHILE ON THE SURFACE THE RECRUITMENT AND retention of artistic and managerial leaders may seem unrelated to the question of training, they are both essential aspects of resource development–two aspects of a continuum. We need leaders and mentors to inspire, attract and provide for future generations, and we need support for their initial training and development.
In difficult times, it is not surprising that there is a higher casualty rate among our leaders and our funding sources, but we must work harder to preserve the continuity that fosters a career in the theatre.