As much as I deeply love Los Angeles theatre, we are struggling in the leadership department, but here's how we can change.
Almost a year into the industry shut-down, not much has changed. Zoom readings, EDIA committees, and fighting against AB5 are not solutions to the deep rooted problems of our industry. They might help move the needle but committees, digital theatre, and advocacy are all still trying to function within a system that is not functional.
We have to be honest with ourselves and admit that for decades we have dealt with self-appointed leaders, taking shape as (predominately white and male) Artistic Directors of theatre companies. They don't seem to recognize their privileges in being able to run theatre companies and be the gate keepers of the industry, and through this pandemic many of them are still fighting to go back to how things use to be.
I'm using the term "leaders" to talk about those that have the loudest voice in the room, those that get featured in publications, those that get to speak on panels, not necessarily those that have the qualities of leadership.
Many of these artistic directors brag about decades of leadership, without acknowledging their complacency and complicit behavior towards an inherently problematic system. Even if they "tried their best with the resources they had" we can still admit the problems of today are the direct results of the system they helped build.
However, as we navigate this chapter, I question why they get to be in charge of building a future when they continue to be part of the problem. Many of them have continued to ignore the deep inequities of creating theatre or the toxic company culture they created.
What if we no longer pander to these problematic leaders? What if we stop letting them make the rules? And I am truly asking, why do we let them represent us?
There are so many articles about “revolution” in theatre without actually understanding what a revolution is. It is removing those currently in power and replacing them with a new system. Switching up various cogs in the oppressive machine does not constitute a revolution.
When leaders finally fall from grace, when Artistic Directors that are called out in publication for problematic leadership (multiple times), nothing changes. Many of them continue to be in positions of power, continued to be held in high esteem in this community, and it leads to statements like “you can’t remove the founder/AD of a company” or “well, we all knew he was a problem” or even worse “that’s just who he is.”
Why do we not expect more from our leaders? Why do we continue to allow this behavior?Why do we continue to allow them to harm the artists around us? The definition of madness is to repeat the same thing over and over and expect different results. If we continue to follow the leadership of those who refuse to acknowledge the problems of the past (and present) we will never get different results.
They don't pay us enough (if at all), and they expect us to continue to support their narratives of what theatre is and should be, but leadership should not be defined by those who know how to produce and/or run a kind-of functioning theatre company. If it was that easy, we could just train better producers.
They chose to put themselves in charge of a company, in charge of people - their art, their wellbeing, their livelihood. They made this decision to do something incredibly as challenging running a nonprofit. I am afraid the amount of years of experience no longer cuts it as a standard of quality for me.
If anything, it makes it worse. Especially if most of those years included exploitation and financial manipulation of artists for the "sake of the art."
Is this truly the best of our leaders?
No. It’s not.
This isn’t about burning it down, or “cancelling” those theatre companies, but it is about revolution.
It's not about "cancelling" anyone, but bringing attention to just how fragile the construct of LA theatre hierarchy is, and that we can easily change it. It just requires us to stop being fragile and precious about these theatre companies that have been part of the problem.
We need new people in charge of the future of LA theatre. This is not rhetorical, it is a formal request. We need to stop paying attention to those that are not really leaders. We need to stop pandering to them for the sake of “community.”
This is about finding true leaders, they already exist, most of them are BIPOC, many of them are young, some of them are Artistic Directors, some of them are designers, administrators, actors, playwrights, etc., They are already working extremely hard, fighting these battles alone for years, trying to create something bigger than themselves. We need to amplify those voices and that work.
Amplify the voices that demand change. The voices that demand a new system. The voices that have not been included before. Can you imagine how productive this community could be, how fast it could launch into a new direction if we actually listened and empowered these new leaders?
The prime example of this comes from older generations exploiting the administrative and organizational skills of the younger generation, similar to how they've been exploiting artists for years. There is an expectation for us to do work for them, for free (or even at our own expense), for no credit, and sit back and be quiet. We continue to show up because the work needs to get done.
We need to have a real and uncomfortable conversation about the future of theatre. One that is centered around new leadership. The current leaders should use their industry contacts to push these new voices forward because they owe that to this community. This is not to exclude any company from the conversation, but to recognize the shift in power dynamics, they are no longer leading it, they are no longer centralized. They need to be open to change because the status quo is no longer standard or welcome, and we will move forward without them.
What can we *actually* do about it?
While many people think this might be lighting my own career on fire, it’s not like the theatre companies I am talking about would hire me (or at least pay me) anyway, and honestly I wouldn’t work there.
If we are truly to burn the old system to the ground and start something new, those theatre companies have been pouring gasoline on infrastructure made out of twigs and hay for decades. I figured someone needed to light the match.
We are theatre artists, we work to build a better future, and we need to start with ourselves.
I would truly like to collaborate with people on making true change happen. These are truly not rhetorical questions, but ones I am hoping we can answer together:
How can we build a cohort of change makers?
How can center the voices of those that have been excluded?
How can we collaborate to support those that have been fighting for this change already?
How can we consolidate our efforts to have a stronger impact?
How can we skill share and build resources to make a new system?
How can we start over as an industry?
Los Angeles theatre has so many incredibly talented, dedicated, creative leaders. It is part of why I love creating here, and why I am so deeply passionate about proving we can do better. How do we find each other and take up space together?
If you want to talk more about creating a new system - email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Instagram @michaela.bulkley.