In the wake of Ken-Matt Martin, Eric Ting, and my own resignation from Sideshow Theatre on July 20, 2022, I reflect on the path that led us here. I have not spoken to either of these leaders, and the thoughts and patterns represented are entirely my own unless directly quoted from other publications. This is a two-part essay. The first, “The Fixer: Artistic Directors of Color and Pandemic Leadership,” outlines the institutional and systemic barriers Artistic Directors who are people of color face in this time. This piece outlines the victories these leaders have had, and is an offering for how to create success for incoming Artistic Directors who come from under-represented communities.
This week, three Artistic Directors of color announced their intent to resign from their institutions. Ken-Matt Martin at Victory Gardens, Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theatre, and myself at Sideshow Theatre Company. Each of us resigned for very different reasons. Inclusive, exciting work has been happening at all of these companies, and continues to happen under the tenure of leaders of color across the nation. It is essential to celebrate the successes these leaders had, discern what systemic obstacles to success are in place, and think of solutions that can provide ease to future leaders.
Not every resignation is or will be a point of pain. Sometimes they are necessary evolution for the artist and the company.
Eric Ting had an innovative tenure filled with new programs and social justice initiatives. Ting was known for increasing POC representation in the classics with notable productions like Good Person of Szechwan and Othello, as well as the New Classics Initiative to reinterpret these works through projects like Black Odyssey by Marcus Gardley, and Quixote Neuvo by Octavio Solís. Under his leadership, Cal Shakes created The Artists’ Circle, a guaranteed income program that pays artists five hundred dollars a month. Artists participate as much or as little as they want in the theatre’s strategic planning, season planning, and more. Eric Ting transformed Cal Shakes into a generative and inclusive space for artists of color.
Ken-Matt Martin accepted the post of Artistic Director of Victory Gardens at its most vulnerable. During Martin’s tenure, his programming has uplifted voices of color and queer voices. He remodeled the Directors Inclusion Initiative and rebuilt the Playwrights Ensemble, among many other accomplishments.
Martin knew how vast the task of rebuilding the theatre would be, primarily due to the harm that had preceded him: the lack of transparency around the previous leadership transition, and the distrust seeded when Victory Gardens closed its doors against Black Lives Matter protests in 2020:
“I want to take the time to make people feel like they are actually listened to, and not just as a platitude, I want to get into some discourse, I want to build some meaningful relationships, I want to understand what you’re angry about, what you’re passionate about what you’re most excited about, what you’re most scared of, what you are the most joyous about. That only informs how to better figure out the programming that needs to happen for the future.” Ken-Matt Martin, “Victory Gardens’ Incoming Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin on Leadership and The Road Ahead,” March 17, 2021.
In partnership with Acting Managing Director Roxanna Connor, Martin was able to rebuild many of the relationships that had been lost during the protests, and forge some of his own.
In 2020, Sideshow Theatre Company pulled our residency in alignment with the other artists resigning in protest of the board’s actions. The repair and kindness offered to us by Martin and Connor was professional and encouraged us to reinstate our residency.
In fellowship with rental companies Teatro Vista and Firebrand, Sideshow Theatre voted to withdraw our residency for a second time. First rehearsal for Pro-Am, the show we were supposed to do at Victory Gardens, was scheduled for July 13th, 2022. On July 6th, the news broke about Victory Gardens’ lack of transparency and harm. Sideshow voted to end our residency, meaning we needed to find a new performance space. I was immediately catapulted into twelve hour work days, sourcing personal connections, turning over every rock for a suitable venue, the ensemble working hard alongside me.
We know that Victory Gardens’ staff shrank from twenty two staffers (and a team of interns) to just nine staff members. Sideshow had a staff of six that has been whittled down to two during my tenure. This is not uncommon. Artistic Directors can ask for support hires, but in most company structures they have no purview over non-artistic employment. Burnout is inevitable.
Prior to my tenure as AD, I was the first person of color to join the voting ensemble at Sideshow, which is now 60% BIPOC. We rewrote our values and eliminated twelve-hour rehearsals from our tech schedule. We redesigned our casting process, and innovated a digital reading series. We created a playwrights’ residency that culminated in Sideshow’s first in-person event since the pandemic. We created an equitable open submission process for new plays. We fed 75 people in need through a streaming event last winter. This is a lot of change for a small company in a very short amount of time. The visions below are the result of reflecting on that time, and the departure of other Artistic Directors. My intent is to help future leaders avoid some of the same institutional pitfalls.
The House is on Fire – Leadership Transition Support
Stepping into the job of Artistic Director is a lot like buying a home. You can know a lot about the place, and even have it inspected, but you will still find some sort of damage you couldn’t have seen before moving in. Up to now, this evaluation has been the duty of the artist, but it should be the responsibility of the institution, prior to their arrival. Will Davis, former Artistic Director at American Theatre Company, currently recorded as Chicago’s first openly trans Artistic Director,* certainly suffered the consequences of inheriting an institution that had suffered irreversible fiscal damage and put the responsibility for fixing it squarely on Davis.
“Davis seemed intent on correcting the financial plight of the company upon his arrival. He scaled back the producing footprint of the organization, placing it on a decently sized hiatus in the fall of 2016. His productions of PICNIC and WELCOME TO JESUS last year were similarly knock-outs, but the stability of the organization, which has long stood on shaky ground, could not be solved by an excellent season alone.This particular Board of Directors has long placed the responsibility for the financial health of the company upon the shoulders of its artistic director.” Jason Epperson, March 2018, “Chicago Loses ATC, and More Importantly, Will Davis”
It’s no longer enough to hand a new leader the keys to a burning house and wish them luck. These imbalances don’t always manifest financially – there are cultural and interpersonal barriers too. Most incoming Artistic Directors of color I know have had the experience of being sabotaged in their first six months by internal stakeholders who disagreed with their hiring. Boards, staff, artists and even audiences will make personal and professional attacks. In nearly a decade of experience working for leaders of color, or as a leader of color in non-profit theatres, there has never been a time this didn’t happen.
Prior to a transition, institutions should consider engaging in a diagnostic process with a third party company to understand where the cracks in their foundation may be. This gives the institution and the incoming leader a chance to collaborate on how to fix those problems, and what staff or resources will be needed to achieve that change.
The Artists’ Personal Power Elevated Above Institutional Need
The non-profit system is not designed to create liberated theater that centers free speech. I have spoken in previous essays about Edgar Villaneuva’s hypothesis in Decolonizing Wealth that American philanthropy culture is based in a plantation mentality. Boards are owners, Leaders and CEOs are overseers, and everyone else is a field hand. Upward mobility, or promotions inside of an institution, are virtually unheard of. Almost as rare as a field hand being selected to work in the house.
The normalization of agency, job mobility for higher level artistic positions, and an artist’s right to a home and community, need to be prioritized. Every time a leader changes jobs, uprooting their lives to a city they’ve likely never even visited, it is normalized as being par for the course. It’s inhumane.
Make a way for abundance and opportunity.
People and circumstances can limit your choices, but there is always a choice. As artists, our self-esteem can be obliterated by this industry. It will take healing. Recover your power to choose how you want to live your life and use your talents. Try not to choose less than your worth whenever and wherever you are able. Sometimes we have to accept less than our worth, but every choice counts and they all add up.
Prioritizing the life of the artist over the life of an institution will be the key to this industry’s survival. If you have trouble acting in your own best interests, imagine yourself advocating on behalf of your peers, and those who will follow in your footsteps.
What the Funding?
The funding structure of theatre needs to change. This has been said by many people smarter than I. Theatre as a philanthropic industry is problematic. Sustaining ourselves on charitable giving, rather than a value exchange, creates the illusion to the outside world that theatre is voluntary and peripheral, rather than a medium which can hold a mirror up to society. Yes, we love what we do, but we are one of the only professions that justifies being paid less for it! Theatre artists will need to find a way to communicate and “sell” the value of a play in an entirely different way. One that clearly demonstrates theatre as a community tool to create better people.
Once I heard someone say theatre is the last place we can safely experiment with violence. We have spent the last however many years stripping violence out of our art, in order to cater to funders who think our material is too risky. Personally, the consequences of this seem too great: where else besides the theater can audiences witness, build empathy for, and desire to protect victims of violence without having to experience it themselves? There is no other accessible medium that places the audience physically in the situation and challenges them to wonder how they would respond. Theatre experiences can heal whole societal rifts, and you can’t place a value on that.
It’s time for rest and rejuvenation to take a front seat in the theatre industry. I referenced the importance of rest in my Visions for 2022: “Exhaustion and over-production does not help art, it simply helps others [boards and funders] control its expression.”
Process must be elevated over product.
What if every year, a theatre company produced one less show and focused instead on equity and diversity training, building their next season, or revisiting their mission?
What if every quarter, the entire company went dark for an entire weekend and all staff were able to rest?
What if we had the ability to do a proper post-mortem on every project and program we design and experience?
What if we stopped performing on Sundays? What if we performed seven show weeks instead of nine? What if we paid enough so artists could do one show at a time, rather than taking on three different gigs at once in order to make ends meet?
Chaos and Renewal
At the top of the year, I wrote about how the theatre industry will need to generate opportunity from chaos. Artists have skillfully articulated their needs in every sector, ranging from schedule, to pay, to the importance of diversity and accessibility. There is so much growth and potential for the companies that can live up to these standards. Yet the fact is, many of our beloved companies were never designed to provide a living wage, and the restructuring they need is enormous.
“Not all people, leaders, teammates, or institutions are going to be able to live up to our new standards of self and relationship. Artists will raise their rates. Companies will close. It may cause chaos. Radical acceptance that the shared goal is better treatment will be key to moving through the uncertainty.” – Regina Victor, Visions for 2022
The shared goal is to treat each other better. Have courage in the face of the large scale change a commitment treating each other better will require. When it comes to supporting your fellow artists’ right to shelter and food, make the bravest choice possible. Until we succeed in communicating the value of a general operations budget to potential funders, a lot of this redesign will be up to us.
Renewal is an essential motif of the theatre. It must evolve and grow to match the pace of the human mind. A scenic designer I knew once said that his best work lived in the bottom of trash cans across America. The work of theatre depends on creation, destruction, and renewal. If you stopped clinging to the work that makes you feel terrible, and went towards the work that makes you feel good, what is the worst thing that can happen? The work of transforming our industry will be difficult, but it will be nothing compared to the harm we subject ourselves to each day by investing in a system that seeks to drain us. There is an inherent impermanence to our work in the theatre that can either be our greatest liability, or our greatest strength.
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*Note from the writer: I mark first openly trans Artistic Director with an asterisk, because the legacy of trans people, like many marginalized identities, is poorly recorded. I have been told I am the first Black trans person to serve as Artistic Director in Chicago, but I don’t have a way to fact check these things aside from word of mouth, because mainstream journalism does not report on them. This is included in an effort to record our history, not erase others. Therefore, if you do know of trans leaders that preceded us (who are out publicly, if you don’t know ask them first), please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.