April 2010 Field Letter
Written on March 23, 2010
This month, I am pleased to introduce Olga Sanchez, who is the
secretary of TCG's board and artistic director of Miracle Theatre
Group in Portland, Oregon. Over the last several months, Olga has
been hosting a teleconference series for artistic directors from
TCG member theatres. She has written this month's Field Letter with
some reflections on those conversations. Clearly, our artistic directors
are a passionate and dedicated group, who are juggling many roles
and finding clear rewards in the process. They also wrestle with
the need to find balance in their lives and work. Read on and enjoy!
Until next month, all the best
Artistic Directors, No Apologies
By Olga Sanchez, Artistic Director, Miracle Theatre Group
Over the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of participating in conversations with artistic directors around the country as the moderator of TCG’s artistic directors teleconference series. The conversation this past February struck me most profoundly. In previous months, we talked about the economy, our audiences, new works and boards of directors, but the February conversation focused on balance. Across the board, no matter the size of our organization, we shared a similar realization—the job of being an artistic director goes way beyond art or directing. With so many areas of concern, how did we find balance?
I reflected on my personal experience. When I was offered a position as an artistic director for Miracle Theatre Group in Portland, Oregon, I wasn’t sure whether to accept or not. I hadn’t applied for the position; it arose because as the company grew, José González, the executive artistic director, realized the work could no longer be met by one person. I had worked with Miracle for several years as a freelance director and share the passion for Latino theatre that is the foundation of the company’s work, so I was a natural candidate. At the time, I was the artistic director for Seattle Teatro Latino, a grassroots organization of Latino playwrights, actors and directors that produced mostly new work on a project-by-project basis. I imagine this title may have led me to believe that I knew what being an artistic director entailed. While I had some experience producing Teatro Latino projects, had written a couple of grants and, of course, directed, I really had no idea what I was in for in this position.
In the recent conversation with my fellow artistic directors, I learned that many shared this experience. We have found ourselves with a far greater variety of tasks and responsibilities than any of us could have imagined. Aside from providing artistic leadership, there are a myriad of administrative duties that land on our desks. Among the strongest reasons for accepting the position was my notion that Miracle would provide me with an artistic laboratory in which I could explore, strengthen and deepen my understanding of the craft of directing. My inquiry into theatre, Latino cultures and creative expression would find a home, be nurtured and ultimately flourish at Miracle. This has certainly been the case, but I have learned so much more than directing and culture, primarily because I’ve been handed so much more to do.
“We continue to believe that just because a person can direct a play, or choreograph an exciting dance routine…they are automatically qualified to build and lead an organization.” This was posted on February 16 by Adam Thurman in his blog, Mission Paradox, just a few days after our discussion. I was struck by the coincidence; his comment explained our situation. Artistic directors often land in their positions without the training or preparation needed for the job. Artistic directors are administrators, managers, fundraisers, grant writers and public relations officers. Not only must we envision our company’s goals, but we must be able to articulate this vision verbally and in writing. We must meet and hire the artists, artisans and administrators who can best bring about this vision and provide them the support they need to help them do their best work. We must stay informed about what’s happening in the world so that we can understand the scripts and projects we’re considering for upcoming seasons and understand the concerns and interests of our audiences. We must know how much things cost so we can help create the budgets, we must understand strategic planning, house parties and volunteerism in order to best work with our boards. Some of us paint the walls, coordinate volunteers and take out the trash as well. The crazy thing is, at least among my colleagues in this discussion, we all really like this work. Perhaps it’s the challenge of making sure none of our many irons melt in the fire or the simple demand to use both sides of our brains on a daily basis. As Sharon Graci (PURE Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina) so eloquently put it, “I love my QuickBooks.”
Then there’s the “Art.” When I asked the group if they ever felt the tugs of the balancing act between the administrative responsibilities and the artistic creation, Scott R.C. Levy (Penobscot Theatre, Bangor, Maine) responded, “Every day, in every way.” I sighed in relief when I heard that. Around the group, we shared the concern that we’re compromising our art for the sake of our other responsibilities. We can’t read enough scripts, can’t attend enough rehearsals, can’t generate enough artistic inventions. We fear letting down our theatres, our audiences and ourselves by not spending enough time on our art. Carol North (Metro Theater Company, St. Louis, Missouri) wondered if she’s “a casserole, not a sublime, perfect artist.” She also admits she likes math.
We brought our families into the discussion, and this added another tug to the balancing act. As Jeff Zinn (Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Wellfleet, Massachusetts) said, “My wife and kids dread rehearsal time.” Like many of my colleagues, I love the rehearsal room, there’s no place I’d rather be—most of the time. I am also a step-mother; when rehearsals come along that means I see my step-daughters for only a couple of hours every week. I feel guilty for enjoying my work so much and I feel profound loss for the time I miss with my family. Sharon Graci, who has a few children of her own, says, “Our theatre is another child.”
Part of our task then, is to balance rather than place in competition these multiple responsibilities, for our health and the health of the organization. How do we negotiate these tugs? Michael Halberstam (Writers Theatre, Glencoe, Illinois) recommends “Me time.” He loves administration (“activating the mission into work”) but he makes sure to block out time on his calendar for his life and his art. Having strong partners in managing directors and staff also helps immensely. At Miracle, our Monday morning staff meetings let everyone know what’s coming up for the week, whether it’s deadlines or appointments. It’s the time we ask for help from our team members to get our work done. As Steve Settler (Weston Playhouse Theatre Company, Weston, Vermont) says, this kind of support has to become “institutionally clear.”
One of the most interesting developments in this work is how our priorities have shifted. Rick Shiomi (Mu Performing Arts, St. Paul, Minnesota) discovered that he is far more interested in pursuing opportunities that are “useful to the company” rather than of benefit to himself. The group agreed; we find fulfillment in supporting our theatre’s growth. Much the same way that directors enjoy participating in their actors’ artistic breakthroughs, artistic directors find a deep pleasure in working with guest directors, artists and staff and supporting their efforts to achieve successful work. There’s joy in cultivating a theatre that will better serve its community. In essence, our personal careers as independent artists become less important than our responsibility to the greater organization. It made us wonder whether there should be another training track in the field. Steve Settler framed the question, “Should we be raising artistic directors as leaders instead of artists?” At the very least, new artistic directors, or those contemplating that career path, would benefit from training especially geared to understanding the job. Rick reminded us that this discussion would also benefit theatres in the midst of succession planning. Steve and I both greatly appreciated the TCG Pre-Conference, Leadership for Artistic Directors, we attended in Seattle a few years ago that provided just this kind of opportunity. Based on our conversation in February, TCG National Conference planners have discussed the possibility of having a break-out session at the upcoming Conference in Chicago for current and future artistic directors.
It should be clear that our conversation was not a gripe session. We really do love our jobs and find the circular impact of our work fascinating. Whether we arrived to work at an existing organization or founded the theatre ourselves, we are transformed by our work. We may arrive with visions of how we’d like to influence, perhaps even change these companies, and have the idea that our artistic expression, honed by our training and experience, will be the inspiration for the future of our companies. We may even accomplish this change. But there is much more to the equation. We grow alongside our companies.
Our position as artistic directors doesn’t mean that we’ve
completely relinquished our work as artists. It has simply broadened
our canvas. In effect, the nurturing of the vision, growth and
development of a theatre company, in all of its facets, becomes
one of our most profound artistic expressions. Informed by our
aesthetic and philosophical principles, and as part of the ongoing
circle, we are, in turn, challenged, nurtured and re-created by
the work—as artists, administrators and as human beings.
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