Back in November, something on social media caught my eye. A theater administrator whom I greatly admire posed a question on multiple platforms to the freelance theater artists following him: “Do you feel like you have a sense of what's going on at theatre institutions right now?” The responses were swift and legion, with the general mood being “hell no” and most positive answers relying heavily on the word “vaguely.” Either way, the message was clear. Freelance artists, the lifeblood and visionaries of our industry, felt completely shut out from the institutions that lead and shape the field in a moment where the existence of that field is under an existential threat.
In some ways, the response was not surprising. In May, choreographer Raja Feather Kelly penned a piece titled “Has Anyone Asked Artists What They Need?” that vividly painted an early-pandemic portrait of institutions hunkering down and, in the process, shutting out artists that they so readily roll out in fundraising pitches (while sometimes callously sending those same pitches to the very artists that have seen their income evaporate).
And now, a year after the entire theater industry was forced to shutter in-person operations (a span that felt inconceivable at the beginning of all this), it is time to examine both how these institutions have failed to protect the artists that provide their soul, and also what is lost in translation between artists and administrators working towards the same end.
There are undoubtedly institutions that have responded admirably to the crisis. Soho Rep.’s Project Number One, wherein eight artists were granted salaried staff positions for the year, is a sterling example, not to mention the list of small flash grants provided either directly to community members or via application or lottery (The Bushwick Starr and Jeremy O. Harris, Playwrights Horizons, and the Public all fall into this category, though I know of others who have not publicized their efforts).
Even so, the lack of a coordinated and swift government response means these piecemeal initiatives are just a finger in the dike for a field in freefall, serving too few and too narrowly to have a significant impact. I expect the net effect will be devastating and far-reaching—those who manage to still call themselves actors, directors, writers, designers, dramaturgs, choreographers, stage managers, and technicians after all this has settled will be overwhelmingly privileged (and therefore blindingly white), having been able to coast by on familial wealth or previous savings. Not to mention that increased thresholds for health insurance from unions will drive away all who rely on healthcare to lead a safe and stable life. The storytellers we will lose to the plague, both the heartbreaking toll of actual deaths and the more metaphorical loss of freelance artists that had to move on, is gut-wrenching to imagine and sure to leave theater reeling for years to come.
Now, as an arts administrator myself (I’m currently the Manager of Artistic Programs at SPACE on Ryder Farm), I can admit to feeling my defensive hackles start to rise when I hear artists claim a lack of transparency. Sometimes I feel like all I do is communicate with artists; answering public questions about programs and applications, streamlining complicated internal discussions and decisions into transparent missives, and alerting our community about opportunities for and accomplishments by the artists in SPACE’s orbit.
These complaints are also regularly compounded by echoes of snide remarks about how administrators are just those who could not hack it as artists, stuck in office jobs when the true movers and shakers are out creating work. While there are definitely those who navigate both worlds with grace and conviction (look no further than Playwrights Horizons Literary Manager Lizzie Stern’s essay in the theater’s new magazine Almanac for a striking illustration), most of my colleagues at the institutions I’ve been privileged to work at are there because they want to be there, not forced to settle for a job behind a desk. So often we sought out these jobs because we knew that they could be the positions where we could do the most good with the talents and skills we had been given. Not to mention the fact that the pandemic has barely protected salaried employees at institutions without the word “Director” in their title (in fact, the author of the social media post from the beginning of this piece has since been furloughed from his famous and well-endowed theater).
But it is this very pride in my work that demands that I set it aside to listen closely to what these artists are saying, what their needs and wants are in this moment, since my most pure mission in life is to support and champion them (after all, people come to the theater to see the plays and musicals, not read the year-end development letter). When assessing the various decisions I’ve had to make through my career, I have never been steered wrong by putting the artist first, to think of what would best serve them in that moment. I’ve learned to ask them what they need, especially in moments where my white privilege can leave me blind to the needs of BIPOC artists.
Now, I cannot swing a magic wand and make every artists’ wish come true. Nonprofits are dense, lumbering, and inefficient entities constrained by extensive tax codes, budgetary restrictions, and board oversight that make any sort of nimble movement or response almost impossible. Furthermore, institutions are largely silo-ed from each other, too understaffed to contemplate industry-wide initiatives or programs.
In order for theatrical institutions to do their part to stem this tide and emerge from the pandemic more responsive and equitable than before, we must place the artists we serve at the center of our work. We must bring them into the rooms where decisions are made and listen closely to what they have to say. This is especially true of institutions that have a history of harming or exploiting artists, for it would be remiss for me to not mention that such a pattern is all too common in certain spaces. Some groups of artists have even made it easy, such as We See You White American Theater, which has released a 31-page, detailed list of demands to free theatrical institutions from racist practices.
But, in order to achieve what we need to achieve, I also ask that artists not view administrators as obstacles to be overcome but instead as those with best resources and intentions to set creatives up for success. Not every administrator is an artist, just as not every artist is suited for administration. Instead, let’s recognize that each profession brings necessary and discrete skills to the table that will enable theaters to continue nourishing the soul of this country. Together, artists and administrators are the makers of theater, both necessary in their own ways to the creation of what goes on stage. Collectively we need to work towards undoing existing power structures and building a more equitable model, one with a culture of mutual respect and admiration. No one is served by a closing of ranks or a scarcity mentality. I’ve seen theaters stumble by thinking they need to be secretive regarding their practices and protocols for no clear reason. Similarly, I’ve seen a playwright crow over the furlough of a literary manager, declaring that was one less person holding artists back from having their work produced. These are just two examples of the balkanized mindset that has set in—the institutions versus the artists—with both suffering in the long run.
The best advice I’ve ever received in my career was from a mentor who said to me, as a young literary intern, “Think of yourself not as standing guard at the gates, but rather opening them for people to come through.” I have always held this close, letting it guide me to increase opportunity and transparency. But, at this point in history, when the very foundation of these gates have been shaken, is it not time to imagine a world without the gates, where artists and administrators collaborate openly and freely? We should set our sights on a common goal and march towards it, hand in hand, the makers of theater together.