MATCHING MANAGERS TO THE MAYHEM, MADNESS AND MIRACLE OF AMERICAS PROFESSIONAL THEATRES
by JIM VOLZ
Managers, oh managers. Wherefore art thou managers?
Like Juliet, Board of trustee search committees and artistic directors throughout America are searching for a serious partner (to produce), a dedicated lover (of theatre), and a Romeoesque or Julietish leading player with the training, diligence, charm and willingness to fight and strategize for their mutual long-term survival. Unfortunately, mirroring the fate of so many of Shakespeares valiant characters, countless theatre leaders have succumbed to the pressures of leading a nonprofit theatre while others have left the field for less stressful careers in business, academia, or more lucrative (yet still noble) nonprofit operations. It's sad to say, but it's a reality nonetheless--so many key figures who helped shape the nonprofit theatre field in the early years have moved on, passed on, or retired.
So who will fill the producing director, managing director, general manager, marketing director, development director, CFO leadership posts that are so important to the survival of the USA's 21st century theatres? Since the job description for most managerial openings in professional theatre might be summarized as a search for someone with the patience of Mother Theresa, the financial wizardry of Warren Buffet, the vision of Superman, and the resilience of Condoleezza Rice, it's little wonder that ideal candidates are few and far between. One of regional theatres' success stories is the abundance of women in leadership roles in major professional theatres and pivotal League of Resident Theatre (LORT) and Theatre Communications Group (TCG) leadership positions over the years. Adversely, one of the failures of many of our larger institutional theatres is certainly the inability to attract and retain leaders of color to these same positions.
Where will we find the next generation of theatre managers and exactly what combination of leadership and management skills are theatres seeking?
Managing theatres has proven a perilous path for many would-be theatre leaders as natural disasters (Katrina), unnatural disasters (9/11), economic recession, "surprise" deficits, aging audiences, fundraising fiascos, board politics, and "human resource burn out" plague the profession. Are theatres mentoring future leaders who will rise through the ranks or can we count on the nation's theatre management and arts administration training programs to supply the executives needed to create new audiences, mine new funding sources and strategically plan for more than just another year of survival?
In my experience directing both BFA Theatre Management and MFA Arts Administration programs, few students wander into faculty offices and declare their passion to work with nonprofit Boards of Trustees and generally under-compensated colleagues to facilitate a theatre's fundraising, audience development, and strategic planning needs. Rather, it's those areas (acting & directing) with rampant unemployment and outrageous career demands (at least in for-profit 21st century business terms) that seem to charm most university students. Yale School of Drama Deputy Director Victoria Nolan speaks to the issue: "It is always the case that the acting applicants are far and away the largest pool of applicants to the school, by a factor of 8 or 10 to 1, at least."
Unfortunately, the results are obvious: way too many out of work actors and directors and a palpable shortage of professionally trained theatre managers. Perhaps this is why many Boards and Artistic Directors are frustrated with their managers, why there has been a historical revolving door in top nonprofit theatre management, marketing and fundraising offices, and why more Boards seem to be relying on Artistic Directors to shoulder the management "burden" as Producing Directors.
In recent searches for Artistic Directors for American theatres, it's not unusual for 140+ applicants to tender their applications and for dozens of talented, experienced artists to emerge. Similar searches for Managing Directors often yield a mere handful of savvy, experienced candidates and multiple theatres are often vying for the same candidate. Checkout a recent ARTSEARCH job bulletin that had 10 pages of Management positions open and THREE listings for Artistic positions (and one of those was an internship)!
NOTES FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE FIELD:
IS THERE A CRISIS IN MANAGEMENT LEADERSHIP?
To answer the "crisis" question, it seemed logical to poll those who spend the greater part of their working lives pondering and addressing the question. So I touched base with over two dozen of the leading theatre management and arts administration program heads as well as artistic and administrative leaders in the field. The resulting dialogue is insightful, challenging and substantive.
"The crisis is related to compensation and governance issues and figuring out how to hold on to wonderful, talented people so they can have a life in the theatre," explains Brann J. Wry, head of the Performing Arts Administration program at New York University. "If they were compensated even justly and see an arc over the years, they might stay. The Boards must be made aware of the crisis that we're talking about and we need to find better governance and Board members to run our theatres."
So, is the concern in theatre management directly tied to theatre Board issues? Do theatres dare address the too often hidden agenda of poorly prepared, uninformed, nonproductive Board members and their crucial role in developing and holding onto quality managers? Or is the "REAL CRISIS" related to many Boards' inability to fully engage and provide the maximum financial resources when operations are purportedly going well (while micro-managing their executives in time of financial stress to make up for their own financial inattentiveness during the "good times?") Perhaps, most importantly, what role do theatre executives play in the recruitment, orientation and development of their Board members and is "scapegoating" the sad result of the theatre executives' own board development, audience development or fundraising ineptitude?
"One of the challenging aspects in training managers in an educational scenario is the exposure and knowledge needed to work with Boards of Directors and volunteers in the nonprofit setting," explains David Rowell, head of Florida State's MFA in Theatre Management program. "Today's focus is on preparing folks to manage and lead yesterday's organizations," adds Virginia Tech MFA director John M. McCann. "The solution," adds McCann, is to "focus more on leadership competencies and less on functional management training--challenge young potential leaders to be creative, intuitive, and open to new ideas."
Reaching out to a broader, more diverse group of theatre leaders seems more important than ever as so many of the original leaders of America's theatres are leaving the field. "We do have a generation of leaders who are looking toward their retirement and one hears expressed concerns about their replacements," offers Victoria Nolan, Managing Director of Yale Repertory Theatre. "I suppose if you consider how many theatres have open MD positions, one wonders if we, as a field, have systems that allow talent to rise to the top."
Cecelia Fitzgibbon, Director of Arts Administration at Drexel University, concurs: "I believe that my colleagues have forgotten the many opportunities we were given to reach beyond our qualifications when we got started & we are not making room for the brightest people to do important things soon enough."
"I think there are two crises," says Tom Parrish, Executive Director of Merrimac Repertory Theatre. "First, the retention of good people is a problem. A well-trained quality manager can be wooed easily by the commercial sector, which has much greater pay and benefits." "The second crisis," explains Parrish, "is in the training itself. To be successful now, the arts leader must be skilled at both business and art. Our field has grown too fast relative to the supply of talent. We have created so many professional administrative and artistic positions that, without the quality people to fill them, we reduce ourselves to accepting a lower standard. I feel that collectively we have begun to accept mediocrity, which in the end, will hurt the entire field."
The impact of Boards of Trustees on the success, development and tenure of managers has been touched upon; but what role do artistic directors and board members play in the world of theatre managers? "The main crisis in training leaders of America's professional theatres is that NO ONE trains artistic leaders," says Anthony Rhine, Head of the MFA in Theatre Management at Wayne State University. "No one REALLY allows students to be producers & the artistic director who can walk in both a management world and an artist's world is essential for the future. But no one is training them."
"We train leaders for these institutions, we provide them with a good understanding of the business and the arts, a sound perspective on the role of the arts in our society, and a set of real management skills, but when they get to these institutions, they too often see unchecked artistic leaders, boards who do not (and may not want to) understand the kind of institution they govern, and under-compensated staff with too few skills and little more than enthusiasm," explains Alan Yaffe, Director of the Graduate Program in Arts Administration at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music.
"The work is hard and the rewards are limited," adds Diane Claussen, Managing Director of Paper Mill Playhouse. "As the industry has matured, the level of sophistication and experience needed to lead these major theatres has expanded. At the same time, the resources available to support and grow these institutions is shrinking."
"There's an emerging and essential debate going on about the nature of the leadership challenge in the arts, but I'd hope to nudge you away from the word crisis," adds Andrew Taylor, Director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Bolz Center for Arts Administration and President of the Association of Arts Administration Educators. "In a world of war, floods, famine, and massive international unrest, I don't think any particular challenge we face in the nonprofit arts rises to the level of crisis. We have significant challenges and changes ahead, to be sure, well worthy of our energy and attention. But crises? Not so much."
Still, just try telling emerging prospective arts leaders facing mounds of student loan debt, sky high housing costs, other family economic woes, and the poverty level salaries often listed in ARTSEARCH, Back Stage, Variety and other trade publications that this isn't a CRISIS and their response is much more personal.
"We need to work together to identify the challenges to the sector and to collaborate on applied research in addressing them," says Dan J. Martin, Director of the Institute for the Management of Creative Enterprises at Carnegie Mellon University. He points to two major concerns including "the evolving, expanding challenges placed on theatre leadership" and "the lack of serious cooperation between the profession and the Academy."
"There is a disconnect between what arts organizations are asking for and expect to get, and what emerging leaders can give," says the University of Oregon's Lori L. Hager. She points to a "virtually non-existent" arts communications network for arts managers, arts organizations who don't offer stipends for internships, and other financial pressures that keep students from accepting "the really desirable internships."
What are the practical issues that are keeping potential managers out of the theatre? Recruiting and retaining quality managers is most often related to either financial or quality of life issues. "The cost of college tuition" and "burn-out among arts managers" are two of the key issues in the business, says Texas Tech's Head of Arts Administration, Linda Donaghue.
Are the future theatre management leaders out there and how do theatre leaders and educators nurture students whose primary early focus is acting or directing? "Educators must aggressively recruit the students who we find have a burning desire to make theatre happen and who want to ensure its success through marketing, development, and careful and critical management," says Thomas Adkins, Director of the Theatre Management MFA Program at The University of Alabama.
But what about the artists with terrific organizational skills who have their eyes set on the somewhat fashionable Producing Director positions that are emerging in many theatres? "Someone had better start to look at developing a program that nurtures students in both managerial acumen and artistic/ aesthetic leadership," contends Wayne State's Anthony Rhine. "That program is going to be flooded with applicants. And if it is successful, it will put the rest of us out of business."
UNIVERSITY TRAINING OR PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE?
"The great difficulty in education," writes George Santayana, "is to get experience out of ideas." So, is a university route and formal academic training the best way to enter the field and train the future leaders of America's professional theatres? A university education isn't for everyone and many American theatre leaders have succeeded in professional theatre without a college degree. If a remarkable opportunity surfaces to learn from an outstanding producer, artistic director, managing director, marketing director or development director in a reputable theatre, I believe most university professors would urge their students to plunge in as one can always enroll in a degree program and a student's stock generally rises with professional experience.
"My fear is that many training programs ignore the many intricacies of actually understanding what it takes to produce theatre," echoes Ithaca College Theatre Chair Lee Byron. Ithaca has one of the few undergraduate theatre management programs in America. "I believe it is more productive for students to seek entry level (or higher) positions before embarking on a graduate course of study," adds Byron.
"Real-world points of reference and practical experience in the field are absolutely critical ingredients in the training of successful arts managers," says Steven Morrison, Associate Director of the Arts Administration Program at the University of Cincinnati. "As a practitioner, I believe that it would be naïve and even irresponsible of academia to profess that the qualified leaders of tomorrow's arts organizations can be trained in the classroom."
So, is it better for students to go to work or enroll in a graduate school program or both? "Certainly, new graduate students will do better in the MFA program if they have some actual work experience in the area," says Matt Neves, MFA Arts Administration Director at Southern Utah University. "Actually, we rarely admit someone that doesn't have some practical on-the job training. Surely you can learn as you climb the arts management ladder, but how long will it take? Is formal educational training for everyone? Probably not, but in a world where an advanced degree is becoming required for almost all management positions, taking 24-months to prepare yourself is not a bad idea."
"Our best students are young professionals coming to us from regional theatres where they have occupied entry level or middle management jobs and are encouraged by their managing directors to seek graduate training," explains Yale School of Drama's Victoria Nolan. "It is a feeder system that works beautifully. It requires of the managing directors enormous generosity and a long view."
"Managers on-the-job don't always have the time to give one-on-one training to their subordinates or to each other," explains Tobie Stein, Director of Brooklyn College's MFA Program in Performing Arts Management. "A professionally oriented master's degree with a built-in multi-level mentoring program will help supplement the training that entry and mid-level managers get on-the-job."
Most reputable theatre management and arts administration programs offer both academic classes and professional experience in the arts through internships and apprenticeships. Mara Wolverton's recent research at Texas Tech reveals over 45 programs awarding more than a dozen types of graduate degrees with an arts administration emphasis in 29 different university graduate programs. The degrees include everything from over a two dozen variations of the MA and MS to MFA's (at Florida State, Brooklyn College, Texas Tech, Alabama, Virginia Tech, Wayne State, Yale) to MFA/MBA's (Yale) to MBA/MA's (Cincinnati) to MA/MBA's (Southern Methodist) to a straight MBA (Wisconsin) to PhD's with an emphasis in Arts Administration (Texas Tech, Ohio State, and Florida State). Ms. Wolverton makes special note of Goucher College's Master of Arts in Arts Administration Program that offers a unique distance learning graduate degree allowing working professionals living anywhere an opportunity for professional development.
In addition, the Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) lists over 39 universities (28 American & 11 international) with graduate programs; 13 undergraduate programs (9 American & 4 international); and myriad certificate programs in arts administration related areas. Fortunately, new graduate programs are surfacing every few years. Newcomers on the block include Southern Utah University's program (first class in 2001) linked with the Utah Shakespearean Festival and the North Carolina School of the Arts' Performing Arts Management Program, (first class in 2004), focusing on the "future leadership of our nation's performing arts organizations."
Undergraduate programs at Columbia College Chicago, College of Charleston, Eastern Michigan University, Ithaca College, Salem College, Shenandoah University, State University of New York/Fredonia, University of Hartford, University of Kentucky and University of Wisconsin/Stevens Point (to name a few), offer many educational and geographical options for students who know early on that theatre management or arts administration is where they want to be.
GRADUATE DEGREES PROVIDE FEW GUARANTEES AND ACADEMIA ISN'T THE ONLY OPTION
Even graduate degrees provide few guarantees of steady, fruitful, and satisfying employment, although the placement numbers are extremely high for many of the theatre management graduate programs.
"There is no prescribed course for advancing into the field," says Virginia Tech's MFA director John M. McCann "The basics of accounting, human resources, production, etc. can be learned in a classroom, or on the job. The dilemma is that 'managers' do much more than manage, they are responsible for providing leadership to their board, direction to their staff, and partnership with the artists. These are learned by plunging in, examining the results you get, and then altering/refining your practice over a career."
Networking through college alumni, faculty, staff, friends and colleagues is one of the key reasons that parents, career counselors and theatre professionals often suggest students attend specific high profile universities. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan addresses this issue: "I'm sure some training programs (professional or academic) are better than others and offer their graduates better connections and credits but I couldn't tell you who they are. And besides, they change drastically from year to year as people move from one program to the next. But certainly all Regional Theatres value talent and practical experience."
Sixteen months of research into over a thousand theatres over the past two years (for a book on working in regional theatre) has convinced me that practical experience may be attained through professional theatre internships and apprenticeships for individuals who can afford to travel to another state, work for free, and provide their own transportation and housing. Sadly, without any guarantees related to the quality of the experience and the future earnings potential of these positions, how many students can afford this gamble? Paid internships and grants for educational activities offer additional incentives but the experience still hinges on the quality of the institution, the institution's leaders, and the advancement and mentoring potential for the employee.
Opportunities in LORT, TCG, and other nonprofit or commercial theatres offer a great alternative to graduate school if prospective leaders can negotiate the right match and avoid long-term ties to dead end jobs. To quote Paper Mill Managing Director Diane Claussen, "Many students get lost in the academic world--not fitting into the particular focus of a University culture, resources and style of doing and thinking."
So what are the other pathways to leadership positions in professional theatre? Many managing directors and executive directors rise through the ranks of professional theatres by excelling in the marketing, development/fundraising or financial areas of the theatre. Institutions that provide solid mentoring programs and top managers who invest in and develop the talents of their junior managers certainly reap the benefits of their efforts. However, in the heat of producing, battling ferocious odds to meet annual income goals, and struggling to survive day to day, how many of America's theatres actually engage in formal professional development, in-service training or mentoring activities designed to move employees to another level of nonprofit service?
A "known commodity" who rises through the ranks can certainly be assuring and there are plenty of examples of terrific LORT and TCG leaders who started in a box office. Still, fickle Board hiring committees have dashed the hopes of many internal candidates and degrees, fresh ideas and external experience are often cited as key reasons to shun promotions from within. This is exacerbated by the fact that many management vacancies surface during troubled times at a theatre and that the entire management staff is often considered tainted by internal financial, leadership, or income producing predicaments.
Fortunately, many of the nation's arts service agencies are securing funding and developing programs to meet the need. "There is a wide spectrum of organizations and initiatives currently training theatre managers in various ways," explains Andrew Taylor (current AAAE President). "Given the scope and scale of the field, and the complexity of its challenges, theatre managers need a rich and varied set of opportunities to refine their craft and improve their effectiveness," explains AAAE President Andrew Taylor. "Theatre Communications Group is clearly a lead player in this capacity -- through its conference workshops, leadership initiatives, and professional programs."
"The service organizations have elevated their game in this arena, with the Orchestra Leadership Academy of ASOL, and new initiatives by TCG, Dance/USA, Dance/NYC and Americans for the Arts putting a focus on the leadership competencies required to guide these highly complex, multi-constituent arts organizations," adds John McCann.
OPPORTUNITIES IN THE FIELD & BEYOND
Despite the abovementioned obstacles and gambles, practical experience may be gained in the professional theatre work environment through internships, fellowships, apprenticeships and grants. Few young theatre lovers (and potential future leaders of American theatres) realize that almost every League of Resident Theatre (LORT) and many Theatre Communications Group (TCG) theatres offer practical experiences and a taste of professional theatre through paid and unpaid work experiences. Thousands of annual educational experiences are available in prestigious theatres, coast-to-coast, and all over the map from Florida's Asolo Theatre Company to Washington's Seattle Repertory Theatre. These experiences allow prospective theatre leaders to learn on the job and experience the hell, heat, highs and realities of professional production. The links at www.lort.org and www.tcg.org provide quick access to over 400 professional theatre websites and a wealth of opportunities.
"Much has to be learned through observation and experience; text books are not going to prepare a manager for the myriad of situations that may arise," notes Arena Stage Executive Director Stephen Richard. For example, Arena Stage offers internships in marketing, fundraising, and finance, as well as an internship with the executive director to mention a few of the opportunities in areas that are prime paths to top leadership positions in professional theatre.
The shortage of savvy, experienced theatre managers is certainly evidenced by the number of longtime managing directors who have been recruited away from many of regional theatre's flagship theatres (including the Guthrie Theater, Dallas Theatre Center, Cleveland Play House, Alley Theatre, and La Jolla Playhouse). Oftentimes, there's a demoralizing institutional toll (that's seldom talked about) when management leaders leave their theatres and it definitely has a snowball (or avalanche) effect on the Board and the remaining personnel who are charged with recruiting and orienting a new manager while recalibrating strategic plans, fundraising and audience development initiatives.
Tired of the turnover and dealing with what many consider the "two-headed monster," many Boards turn to an already beleaguered artistic director to "run the whole show." This often results in greater institutional stress as the financial checks-and-balances and human resource systems are thrown out of whack. "The need for qualified professional managers is greater now than ever,"explains Orlando Shakespeare Artistic Director Jim Helsinger. "For the Artistic Director, every moment spent on business issues takes away from time spent envisioning the future, researching and reading plays, casting and hiring, designing, playwriting, directing, acting and teaching."
Turning to yet another conspicuous concern, how do we keep rising stars in theatre management areas from doubling their salaries overnight by "defecting" to either for-profit businesses (willing to share the wealth) or nonprofits with more competitive compensation plans (most museums, symphonies, hospitals, social services, community foundations, colleges and universities)? Drexel's Cecelia Fitzgibbon advocates paying more attention to succession issues and, more radically, "examining the re-distribution of salaries to stimulate interest and viability, providing project based work for emerging professionals, and creating incentives for retirement of senior management."
Could the solution to the crisis be as simple as working to provide a "life worth living" versus the hurried, harried, under-compensated, "work for the love of the art" model that has served as the mantra for way too many nonprofit theatre artists and managers since the movement began? What a concept! What hasn't been said is that there really isn't a shortage of brilliant leaders or managers in America--just a shortage of exceptional leaders who want to work in theatres where they are overworked, underpaid and subject to the devastating déjà-vu of constantly retraining colleagues wooed away to professions who pay most of their employees a living wage.
"We need a new construct for the not-for-profit model that better fits today's definitions of community, philanthropy and what young people are looking for in their life balance between work, family, financial security and community participation," adds Diane Claussen. "A new funding and organizational construct for not-for-profits in the 21st century will address many of the threats and turn offs that are leading to an arts management crisis, particularly, among young professionals."
It's definitely time for theatre boards of trustees, artistic directors, service agency leaders, think-tanks strategists and university arts educators to put their heads together. The needs are great, the stakes are high, the future of our nonprofit theatres hang in the balance, and the time is NOW.
(This article originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of AMERICAN THEATRE MAGAZINE. It is reprinted here by permission of the author. Jim Volz is the author of HOW TO RUN A THEATER  and THE BACK STAGE GUIDE TO WORKING IN REGIONAL THEATER  and a professor at California State University, Fullerton.)