Building a new future for Los Angeles theatre is not a conversation about technology or theatre layouts. This problem will not be resolved with live-streaming or a vaccine, it is a conversation about leadership and the infrastructure of how and why theatre was being created before the industry was forced to shut down.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned the current health, economic, and racial issues throughout the county “haven’t presented us with new problems but they set on fires existing ones. What if these systems weren’t built to last in the first place?” The same is true for theatre. The future of this sector is not based on live-streaming or remodeling the physical spaces, but on addressing the leadership issues that brought us here in the first place and taking this moment to examine the model of theatre in Los Angeles and reflect on the inequitable and unsustainable habits that have been commonplace in theatre creation, in order to build a stronger future for the sector.
The theatre community is going through significant external changes and instability as it is not exempt from the racial inequities, the economic challenges of the upcoming recession alongside AB5, as well as the health concerns of COVID-19. These external challenges give the theatre sector a chance to reflect internally and make the necessary changes within leadership and strategic planning to ensure a stronger and more sustainable theatre sector. Theatre is not currently being produced, but there is time to re-establish the values of this community to ensure that Los Angeles theatre is an integral part of the cultural conversation and bring forward a resurgence of theatre leadership for the future.
By empowering the individual artists of this community to break down the hierarchical silos of current theatre companies and redefining the professional standards to emphasize accountability, equity, and collaboration we can create a cultural change within the theatre community. When focusing on change, we can look towards revolutionary theatre artists such as Jerzy Grotowski who asked and answered, “From where can this renewal come from? From people who are dissatisfied with the conditions in the normal theatre, and who take it on themselves… in short, a few madmen who have nothing to lose and are not afraid of hard work.” There are several initiatives that are calling for necessary change, and while attempting to define theatre and its purpose in a community, there are several schools of thought surrounding political conversation and social justice. Once again referring to “Towards a Poor Theatre” Gertowski mentions that “theatre people themselves do not usually have an altogether clear conception of theatre.”
Currently, the voice of Los Angeles theatre is defined by disconnected individual artistic directors and producers, many of whom have been in leadership roles for over a decade, all of whom ideas on theatre are about as varied as possible. This is a moment to reimagine what theatre artists can be capable of. At this moment, it is important to realize who the true leaders of this community are and implement change, we can change the definition of what a successful and professional theatre company looks like, and create ways to make success sustainable.
“There are two ways to be creative, one can sing and dance, or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers can flourish.” Warren Bennis
In 2009 there was a prediction that there would be an upcoming arts leadership crisis as there was a lack of succession plans for arts organizations across the nation, and a lack of qualified leaders to take the positions. It mentioned the stagnation of leadership development came from the burnout of artistic leaders that stemmed from a lack of desire to fundraise, a loss of work-life balance, and that they did not feel properly prepared to step in as leaders. Overall it seemed artists did not want to fill administrative roles due to the lack of creativity or artistry in those roles.
During 2019, theatre artists from Los Angeles were interviewed and many mentioned no formal introduction to arts administration, but instead felt as if they stumbled upon it while looking for career alternatives to being a performer. Within intimate theatre companies, artistic directors tended to have trained as a performer and then eventually found a path towards leadership because they founded theatre companies. This was also explored in Jerzy Grotowski's “Towards a Poor Theatre” when discussing the role of producers stating that producers tended to start their careers after growing frustrated with individual artistic endeavors. The desire to create art came with an unintentional consequence of administrative responsibilities.
One of the significant reasons that succession planning is so challenging and was in danger is due to a natural resistance to organizational change due to founder's syndrome. External change can be perceived as a threat to status or power, however, the trial and error management style of the producer’s or organization’s early years no longer suffices. The scrappy team of accidental arts administrators that came together is well equipped to handle a small ad hoc organization, but without continued professional development the skills won’t be enough to handle the growth into larger operations. While many leaders and managers in mid-sized or large organizations tended to have stronger technical theatre backgrounds or transitioned into administration early so they were already familiar with basic tasks like budgeting or communications.
Leaders in larger and midsize organizations are much more focused, as they only had one or two positions in which they were responsible for the artistic and fiscal health of the organization. Those in intimate theatre leadership positions tended to have their focus divided through several organizations, and carry many artistic identities with them, or wear many hats. This translates into self-defined leadership roles, such as founding a theatre company, creating ad-hoc committees, or organizational leadership that tends to have more accountability to a larger team of constituents, specifically in looking at nonprofit companies.
A 2013 survey of professionalism in theatre managers showed that managers who spent more of their time on administrative issues rather than artistic issues have larger budgets and greater diversity in funding sources. Seemingly, breaking up the administrative responsibilities and the artistic responsibilities into two leadership roles could provide more sustainability in theatre companies, as far as emotional burnout and financial security.
Almost all the research and interviews around arts leadership mentioned fiscal responsibilities, but when focused on leaders from intimate theatres, they mentioned the importance of personal financial stability, as many of them volunteer their time for theatre. Leaders from larger organizations had their discussions focused on funding strategies for the organization, and women specifically mentioned the importance of negotiating salaries when taking leadership positions.
Arts management programs are rapidly growing, they tend to be expensive and inaccessible, and many formal leadership programs are reserved for the current leadership, not aspiring leadership, or leaders from smaller organizations. While the above report mentioned the importance of formal business training for artists, other leadership experts have mentioned the focus on nurturing passion and creativity to sustain long term innovation.
“This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be. So let’s do it.” Rachel Chavkin – Tony Awards 2019
In response to the 2009 arts leadership crisis prediction, several initiatives were launched, such as the California’s Next Generation Arts Leadership Initiative, which developed into Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles and Nurturing California’s Next Generation of Arts and Cultural Leaders by the Hewlett and Irvine foundation, to build support and skills for emerging arts leaders. Through building stronger access to networking, mentorship, and grants in early development it would lead to stronger and more motivated leaders.
In 2011, Nurturing California’s Next Generation of Arts and Culture Leaders mentioned the high aspiration and strong commitment of Next Gen arts leaders to their careers. However, they wanted more opportunities for growth, engagement, and respect in their organizations along with better working conditions and access to professional development opportunities. Those who start their careers earlier and find success in growing report feeling more rewarded.
The 2012 evaluation of the Next Gen Arts Leadership Initiative, documented the process of building professional development networks and the challenges they faced in retaining emerging arts leaders in the nonprofit arts sector due to the narrow range of continued opportunities available. The young professionals studied seemed to be struggling with feeling as if there was little room for growth past these initiatives or that they were supported when they moved into organizations.
The excitement and stagnation that early-career artists were feeling was proven true in the 2016 report on Moving Arts Leadership Forward where emerging arts leaders were more likely to attain higher education that is more specialized, and while late-career leaders are staying in their positions longer than anticipated. This leads to entry-level positions having more specialized training and higher levels of education, than were expected of the veteran leaders when they started. While many leaders emphasized the importance of experience, the generational gap and increased differences in expectations of professionalism is leading to a high turnover rate, further exasperating the succession planning or long-term sustainability of the sector.
In 2016 a study focused on leadership roles of residential theatres, proposed a solution to put the responsibility of leadership development on the theatre company to ensure that aspiring leaders feel supported and guided toward a career track and there is more significant succession planning. While the importance of mentorship was mentioned, the lack of diversity of those in power made it difficult for women and people of color to find mentors they connected with.
The stagnation and burnout of current leaders, is being answered with enthusiasm of highly trained individuals, and it is not a lack of access to education or a lack of ambition, but a decrease in equity and opportunities for fulfilling leadership and managerial work that is causing this gap in succession planning. Susie Medak, the Managing Director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre admitted that “Our organizations are much more complicated than they were 20 years ago. So many of us realized that we would no longer hire ourselves to run these organizations.”
“As long as individuals have access to them, markets give people control over their own lives rather than leaving them to the whims of government or charitable benefactors.” – Jacqueline Novogratz
The fiscal responsibilities of theatre companies to support their artists can also lead to deep equity issues, explored by Augusto Boal in Theatre of the Oppressed saying that producers “study the typical reactions of certain chosen audiences and from there extract conclusions and rules regarding how the perfect work should be written (equating perfection to box office success).” When theatre is used for commercial spectacle, it can be used as a tool to continue white supremacy and elite ideologies similar to the film or fine art sector. This is where the paradoxical conceptions of theatre come into play. For that, let’s examine two theatre leaders that established themselves on the cusp of World War II, Hallie Flanagan and Bertolt Brecht.
Bertolt Brecht, a common hero among the political theatrical community, and known for his Marxist themes in the 1930s, focused on using theatre to change society and putting theatre in the neighborhoods instead of large downtown stages. The focus was to transfer the power of revolutionary theatre to the individuals so that the people themselves can utilize the tools, “the theatre is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it.” While his plays brought forward these ideas in a thematic and aesthetic way, in 1935 Hallie Flanagan attempted to build infrastructure that supported similar ideas.
Flanagan led the Federal Theatre Project in 1935 which was focused on creating economic relief through employing performing artists throughout the US. It was not meant as a cultural revolution but as a way to create jobs, and Flanagan used it as a way to establish a network of regional theatres and support underrepresented artists. These programs encouraged new-works about the communities themselves, taking inspiration from newspapers and local stories. Millions of Americans had access to see live theatre for the first time, and tens of thousands of artists had reliable employment. This included the thousands of Black and African American theatre artists through the “Negro Theatre Unit” that was included in the nationwide network.
However, this uncensored and extremely popular system of theatre creation was investigated for being racially integrated and being critical of the government. In 1938 Flanagan and the Federal Theatre Project were accused of spreading communist ideologies by the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. Flanagan defended the choices of these artists by saying it was protected under the first amendment and that “Theatre, when it’s good, is always dangerous.” Funding was pulled and the program was disbanded.
The ideologies of Brecht and the infrastructure set up by Flanagan showed the disconnect between community-driven political theatre and execution through government funding. So how do we continue to have the power of theatre in the hands of the individual artists, while also maintaining fiscal responsibility? That is where collaborative leadership development and coalition building in the arts economy become essential.
When shifting the powers of the theatre industry to a more collaborative and community-driven model, the first thing to examine is the fiscal responsibility of current leadership. Budgets are a values-based document, and a gig-economy model implies that artists are infinitely replaceable and leads to a lack of accountability or responsibility for the wellbeing or livelihood of these artists. In a 2013 budget analysis of theatre organizations, it showed the size of the theatre company, not the intention of the leadership, positively correlates with better artist pay.
Budgets are determined by the leadership and the fiduciary responsibility of any nonprofit organization is in the hands of board members. While pay rates have been something unions and legislators have been mandating, specifically in Los Angeles, theatre leaders have advocated keeping artists underpaid, as creating theatre in Los Angeles is already extremely costly with little to no return on investment. However, with a lack of a living wage for theatre artists, it continues the inequity of those who cannot independently afford a life in the arts through other sources of income. There is a disconnect between wanting to be seen as a professional theatre company, while not maintaining one of the most basic definitions of professionalism, paid work.
As mentioned above, the resistance against fundraising has been a struggle for current arts leaders, and that resentment has continued to affect the artists they work with. With the lack of government support for radical work, the struggle of current leadership to fundraising, and the deep need for community-driven theatre, there is a need for a mindset shift in leadership development and collaboration for sustainability.
COLLABORATIVE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT
It is not enough for the emerging leaders to prepare, but it is the responsibility of current leaders to make space for the sustainability of their sector. There is a gap between the emerging leaders and current leaders of Los Angeles theatre, that if not bridged will continue a cycle of burn out and instability, and decreases equity and inclusion opportunities for those normally marginalized in theatre leadership. There needs to be a restructuring path within theatre companies to embrace and utilize the emerging leaders to create a stronger and more diverse theatre sector.
Current professionals and leaders heavily emphasized the need for emerging artists to learn business and administrative tasks such as financial management-related skills such as contracts, fundraising, taxes, and negotiation. These skills also included basic standards for professionalism such as how to apply for jobs, a basic understanding of the theatre landscape, communication, time management, meeting coordination, and team building. It was emphasized that theatre artists should learn these skills as early as possible not to hinder or censor theatre, but to prepare for the stressors and realities of creating it. Many theatre artists mentioned they could not accomplish their artistic vision due to their lack of project management skills and overly ambitious expectations of the capacity needed to produce work.
According to a 2018 study of Southern California Theatre Alumni, it showed the most significant reasons people left the field were financial pressure, low pay, competitive nature of the job, and too few opportunities for growth. Those who did stay in the field talked about the emotional intelligence, patience, and resiliency needed to stay focused on their artistic visions for themselves. While many believed the lifestyle of theatre is extremely demanding current leaders mentioned that the “martyrdom of artists” is not necessary or productive when building a sustainable career. Instead, there should be a focus on self-awareness, self-management, and self-care to unsure personal wellbeing and prevent burnout.
In that same 2018 study of theatre alumni, it was notable that 71% of the 300 survey participants identified as white or Caucasian, and that first-generation students and artists of color were more likely to leave the field. As of 2019-2020, 72% of Ovation Voters identified as white or Caucasian.
It is common for theatre companies to be founded by a group of artists that wanted to create work that specifically resonated with their artistic visions, and they tend to stay with those companies for a significant amount of time, many of them struggling to grow. Looking at the models of leadership development for the next generation, not only do those provide resources for emerging arts leaders, they provide cross-sector connections, breaking down the silos of leadership in the arts sector. That needs to continue with mid-level and long-term leadership, as many of these valuable skills are cross sector.
When addressing the current economic and inequitable structure of Los Angeles theatre, there is an opportunity to move forward in a way that no other city can, through this collaboration between sectors, it brings life to a new generation off innovative artists and expands artistic opportunities and identities in a community that takes pride in multi-hyphenation.
While Gertowski mentions that theatre cannot compete with film or television, this is a chance to stop competing and start collaborating, building a coalition of storytellers that is specific to Los Angeles. This could include experiential and immersive art, virtual reality, film, television, live-streaming, and of course, traditional proscenium theatre. By breaking down the silos of artistic industries there can be a shift away from Euro-centric ideologies of traditional theatre, and embrace the experimental aspects that make art in Los Angeles stand out. This also gives artists multiple entry points into these careers and a stronger trajectory of the different directions a creative career can go.
One of most commonly stated values of theatre is feeling like they are part of something bigger than themselves, a concept defined as collective effervescence by Emile Durkheim, this is a chance for theatre as a sector to participate in the creative economy in a way that is significantly bigger than itself. Theatre is the root of film and television, and the increase of technology has furthered the gap between these industries, but it can bring them together again during a time that is so reliant on tech. This is an opportunity to truly live up to those values and participate in something larger than any one artist and build a collaborative coalition of professional performing arts in Los Angeles.
This is not to say that theatre should be handed over to film and television to manage, but to train our current and future leaders to be a more collaborative and innovative sector. Specifically, through empowering emerging artists that they do not have to pick one, they could work in both, and providing cross-sector mentorship opportunities, specifically for BIPOC, LGBT+, and women emerging leaders.
It is also necessary to train artists the necessary producorial skills before they consider being a producer, such as emotional intelligence, anti-racism tools, fiscal management, and artistic integrity. It is important that these educational opportunities be easily accessible to early-career artists, as a proactive approach to leadership sustainability, instead of reacting to problematic leadership years later. Lastly, there needs to be a way to hold these artistic leaders accountable. As Los Angeles theatre has seen, being added to union blacklists or publicly criticized for racism has not been enough to prevent repeat problematic behavior.
While there are several arts service organizations throughout Los Angeles, they focus on current theatre producers and less on creating stronger leaders of the future. Even in the discussion of how to create the future of Los Angeles theatre, there has been little focus on the early career artists that will face the most significant consequences.
There is great hope for the future of Los Angeles theatre, but it comes from recognizing that the current standards of leadership and professionalism in the sector were created and implemented by those who benefited from inequitable hierarchies. With the current pause in theatre as an entire sector, there is a chance for a new generation of leaders, highly educated and extremely passionate, to create a new system from scratch if given the proper platform and resources.
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Center Theatre Group, Orozco-Valdivia, N. (2018) Southern California Theatre Alumni Survey Executive Report. Los Angeles, CA.
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