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Howard Sherman: American theatre bosses are playing musical chairs. Let’s widen the pool of leaders

The Geary Theater, home of American Conservatory Theater
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Whenever several artistic leadership positions open at once in US theatre, it fires the starting gun on a variation of the children’s game of musical chairs.

Except in theatres, it is different. Rather than winnowing people out – in certain cases there are retirements involved – it’s often about people stepping up or moving to larger venues while opening up opportunities for first-time leaders in smaller theatres. The better metaphor is probably that of a chain reaction that ripples through the field.

So I was a bit surprised when a friend, who has been a consultant for both artistic and executive director searches, mentioned to me that there are no less than 16 artistic director positions currently open around the country.

That’s a sizeable number all at once. There’s no definitive count of how many of these jobs there are in the country, but there are at least 530, which is the current approximate membership of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the largest national service organisation for subsidised theatres.

While the very largest theatres aren’t in flux – no changes are afoot at the Center Theatre Group in LA; the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis; the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Arena Stage in Washington; or Lincoln Center Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, the Public Theater or Manhattan Theatre Club in New York – there are some significant regional companies with searches underway or starting in the coming year.

Among them are the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and Berkeley Repertory Theatre nearby, the Denver Center Theatre Company, Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, Center Stage in Baltimore, and both Woolly Mammoth and the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC.

Of course, unless some of the people stepping down end up taking another of the available jobs elsewhere, this offers a significant opportunity to change the profile of US theatres. This at a time when conversations about gender diversity, racial and ethnic diversity and disability diversity are being discussed at every turn.

A study from the Wellesley Centers for Women, looking at 74 League of Resident Theatres, representing many of the oldest companies but only a portion of the field covered by TCG membership, shows that at no time have women ever held more than 27% of the leadership positions in US theatre. The study, begun in 2013, looks at both artistic and managing positions. When looking at leaders of colour, male and female, the numbers drop even more drastically.

But even as conversations about diversity have heated up at conferences, at panels and online – TCG has been among the leaders in this area – the decisions will not be made by artists, audiences or administrators.

The decisions about hiring will ultimately fall to boards of directors, each making their choices separately from the others. On the one hand, that’s essential, since the last thing we need is for the field to operate as some sort of cartel, conspiratorially vesting decisions in the hands of a relative few.

But it also means that by acting discretely, and likely even in good faith, these 16 boards may sustain a status quo, namely the hiring of predominantly white men. Given that a number of those leaving positions have tenures between 15 and 30 years, these decisions won’t just affect audiences and artists in the short term. Instead, they may last for a generation or more.

Some responsibility for what’s to come lies in the hands of the search consultants that take on the responsibility of guiding boards and fielding candidates. Who they bring forward as potential hires, how they counsel boards about the field and the coming challenges, even how they structure interviews and prepare candidates for them, can have a significant impact.

If boards are only focused on replicating past successes, then the results of the searches may well be self-fulfilling prophecies, rather than signals of generational and social change.

Few theatres, if any, are completely secure financially, and sustaining organisations is likely paramount in the minds of those who will choose this next “class” of artistic leadership. But in each of their communities, boards have the mandate to guide their theatres responsibly and thoughtfully.

Hopefully when the dust settles and the music stops, there will be some unexpected, inventive and even risky choices standing as new artistic leaders, representing a wider swath of American life and a broader range of theatrical vision than before, further opening up our institutions and our stages in a way that works to generate ever new audiences and a greater variety of creative work, not simply more of the same. Because status quo is the road to cultural irrelevance.

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