July 9th, 2018 I got this email after disagreeing with my boss on a thread with members of an advisory board regarding a conversation that had been happening for weeks:
"This take-down of your direct supervisor is inappropriate, to say the least, and lacks the kind of decorum that I expect from an employee. I don't believe there's a sufficient understanding of our respective roles for you to continue working here.
Please let this serve as your official notice of termination. Kindly turn in your keys tomorrow."
Tensions had been building for weeks, he had been sending pretty venomous emails, and after a sit-down conversation where I expressed concerns in the expectations and unsustainable working conditions, he followed up with firing me over email. He also refused to answer my calls. It was not entirely surprising, but it was still devastating. Luckily like the true millennial I am, I saved the screenshots. I had enough foresight to start saving PDFs of his truly inappropriate email exchanges and when he fired me I had a nice little Google Drive filled with my defense that I then sent to members of the board that knew about my concerns (nonprofit tip - while the board does not have control over staffing, they are responsible for monitoring the professional effectiveness of an Executive Director).
While I agree with the fact that I was insubordinate and very much going against a direct order, I was mostly hurt I was put in that position too begin with by an organization I so deeply believed in (and still believe in). I never once regretted standing up for myself, and luckily I had the support of many people who witnessed this pretty toxic working relationship and were able to refute his gaslighting of the situation.
The most devastating part was that I had entirely wrapped my self-worth into this job title.
I was able to get a job at my dream org a few months after finishing my undergraduate degree, and I had been very public and open about how much I loved my job. When that was very quickly and suddenly taken away from me there was a deep sense of shame and imposter syndrome that maybe I was just not meant to be in this field.
My confidence was rocked, my finances were scary, (if you plan on going toe to toe with your boss, I advise putting more money in savings), and I felt terrified that I had made the wrong choice to follow this career path. I started scrambling to freelance and pick up projects in marketing, fundraising, event planning, all of which helped me understand the needs and struggles of theatre companies and artists in a deeper way. It also led me to not setting realistic expectations for myself or strong boundaries between me and clients because I felt like I had to prove something. This became the start of the redemption narrative I forced upon myself and many times I crashed and burned really hard.
5 months later that individual left the organization I was asked to come back. I asked for more support and responsibilities (and more money) and was able to create an environment in which I could thrive. After about a year I felt like my redemption narrative was complete: I had the job back, I had a fantastic relationship with my new boss, I planned the big event that caused me to get fired in the first place, and I was on a really solid career path. I met challenges and learned new things every day, and still took joy in questioning the traditional concepts of theatre leadership to the dismay of the Artistic Directors around me.
Then, of course, COVID happened.
These circumstances are significantly different, while COVID was sudden, I had a few more weeks of being able to get work done while having a deepening sense of the inevitable. The writing on the wall was completely external and out of any of our control, the conversation with leadership was transparent and respectful, and I knew I wasn't alone in this sense of pain and disappointment. July 1st, I lost the same job, for the second time, in less than two years. The lessons are surprisingly very similar.
The theatre industry ground to a halt and the problems that our leaders were running from finally caught up with them as the deep-rooted issues of racism and inequity of this country came to light as well. Racism, sexism, and toxic professional development systems all steeped in fiscal mismanagement have been part of this community for decades but currently do not have a curtain to hide behind anymore.
While two years ago I felt heroic in standing up for myself against problematic leadership, I now know this is a much more pervasive problem of how we all got put in this position by those that are supposed to be leading with the collaborative, empathetic, community-driven values of theatre.
The lessons are the same as last time, and as we all collectively mourn and manage the existential crisis of theatre, including the inequitable economic standards and racists practices, we can feel devastated together and start our own redemption narrative as a sector.
Worth comes from action, not titles.
At this moment I am reminded that leadership is not a skill visible on a resume. As theater companies and Artistic Directors desperately try to return to their perceived perception of normal I see their own senses of complacency and complicity in the problems that were very much part of the community Pre-COVID.
The individuals fighting for change and participating in challenging conversations that are bigger than themselves or their company are the leaders of this community, and many of them are not Artistic Directors or Producers. Those currently in power had the ability to make these changes and chose not to. I no longer care about who has been in power longest, or who has the most impressive resumes. I will no longer waste my time arguing with false leaders empowered by inequitable hierarchies that they invented and will spend my time advocating and providing services for the individuals that show true values of leadership.
With that, those that need to leave the industry for stronger financial or emotional stability are no less artists or community members just because they didn't feel comfortable martyring themselves to gain a sense of validation from the gatekeepers of artistic moral superiority. You do not need to go down with the Titanic just because the captains of this ship didn't think they needed enough lifeboats for everyone.
Theatre as we know it does not exist at the moment, and the entire world is changing. I will not pretend that the collective pain of this moment should be ignored for the optimism and hope of a better future. We as leaders need to sit with this pain, in the present moment, and remember what happens when we refuse to address issues for the sake of tradition and art.
We will need time to heal from experiencing toxic professional relationships.
Even months later, I was still dealing with the trauma of past leadership, even though he no longer had any effect on my career. With the external repercussions of rebuilding our organizational reputation and trust with the community and the internal emotional processing of being around a truly toxic person, it took a while to feel safe in my job again, to feel safe to be myself in this industry.
Bad leaders are not always bad people, but bad people can still very easily claim leadership roles if their tangible output is considered valuable. There is also no such thing as "natural born leaders" and that is a phrase that continues to perpetuate white patriarchal supremacy and nepotism. However, the people who tend to scream the loudest tend to be mistaken for those that should be in charge, and then they keep screaming so no one else can be heard.
Of course, someone is more likely to be viewed as a strong leader when the world is built to value a specific type of person's opinion over everyone else's. These "natural-born leaders" then continue to put forward that certain behaviors are excusable because they inherently deserve to be in charge. This is why people try to separate leaders who are accused of unethical behavior (like racism or sexual assault) from their tangible examples of strong leadership. There is absolutely someone that could raise that much money, star in that show, or produce that many plays, while not being a terrible person.
When theatre reopens, we need to remember we will all still be healing, as artists and as a nation. We need to take care of ourselves and our own, including our artists and audiences not previously included in the narratives. We will need time to feel confident that these spaces are physically and emotionally safe. We will never go back to normal, and change is scary, but change is also necessary. We will have new leadership trying to heal decades worth of wounds they didn't inflict. Even leaders need time to heal and process, even if some of the problematic people have been removed from the situation.
Lastly, this is not a call to action to the leaders advocating for change, they do not need it.
They have been in action for years because they already are intrinsically motivated by the greater good of theatre, which in turn heals the world. This is a call to in-action of current "leaders," those who are still currently part of the problem. Stop and listen. Do not keep forcing your traditional practice thinking it will save the sector because you think you know better from your decades of experience. Your experience is part of what got us here. If we always do what we've always done, we will always get what we always got. It will run theatre into the ground and hurt everyone, including yourself. Let those who are already innovative and asking for a change take charge, do not ask them to teach you, let them be in positions of power and maybe you'll learn something that way.
That or you will be removed and replaced by those you tried to remove from the conversation.