Addison — I read a book the other night called The Artistic Home. This book, written by Todd London in 1988, summarized thoughts from a series of meetings with Artistic Directors from across the US. According to the Introduction by Lloyd Richards, this project started when “In 1985 a group of theatre trustees asked their own artistic directors a wonderfully explosive question: Beyond money and survival, what do you want—what is your vision, and what will it take you to get there?” The book brings together the essential thoughts from those meetings: what institutional theatre leaders were trying, hoping, and missing. My fantastic partner, Managing Director Greg Patterson, found this book on one of his shelves and gifted it to me recently. I’d read some of London’s more recent works, Outrageous Fortune and An Ideal Theatre, both of which have been thought provoking and formative, but I wasn’t expecting much from this book. I thought it would feel dated, out of touch, and not resonate with me, here, in 2017.
In this slim book, London synthesizes these artistic leader’s hopes and fears for their artistic work, their institutions, and for the American theatre. What struck me, as a new Artistic Director, is how contemporary this book felt. These AD’s and their institutions in the late ’80s were contemplating many of the same things I find myself in conversation about, be it with myself, my theatre, artists, or other theatre leaders. It felt a bit like a Chekhov play to me, in that the specific details might be different, but the themes are like reading pages from my journal, or eavesdropping on my conversations. And much like a Chekhov play, I couldn’t decide at the end of the book if that connection was reassuring or depressing. Have we progressed in 30 years? Will some problems ever be solved? Are we perpetually pushing ourselves and that’s healthy? Or are we doomed to repeat ourselves?
I suppose I should get specific here about the content of these problems and questions I am speaking of, each of which are concerns of almost every theatre in which I’ve encountered locally and across the country. I won’t go through the entire book, but address four of my biggest takeaways, questions that I ponder over as an artistic director that were the same as artistic directors 30 years ago:
1) Artistic Directors need to remain creative artists, and because of that we need to take time outside of the office environment for creativity, reflection, and study, and value that as much our “business” responsibilities. We also need to spend time seeking out, identifying, and meeting other theater artists; at other theatres and with other artistic directors; and with other creative people in other fields. I feel the push and pull of this, there is constant work to be done, being in the office can be vital, I love the collaboration of that environment, big events and meetings are energizing; but I also need to spend time alone for creative reflection, reading, study, to develop the vision of the theatre. It’s a tough balance.
2) We want our theatre companies to be better at supporting the art: both individual projects and the artists themselves. These ADs talked about the needs for each show being different, and that their theatres were looking for flexible rehearsal models that reflected the different needs of different plays. But also, they pondered at length how individual artists could be better supported by theatre institutions. It is hard to find financially feasible ways to truly support artists in the way we want and wish we could. But we must keep trying. Through compensation, development, ongoing relationships, and thinking outside of the box. I think that the way in which this manifests at each theatre is, necessarily, different. For us at WaterTower, I ponder this question often, and am hoping to develop ways to support artists and their work more fully so that they can do their best work at our theatre. I also realize this is a question that our entire community is thinking about: how do we keep our artists in DFW? It can only happen if they are challenged artistically and are making a living in some way they find acceptable.
3) Finding ways to support diverse artists and upcoming artists is important to the entire art-form and the theatre. These ADs were certainly talking about this issue with a different vocabulary, and it was clear that we have come a long way from the theatre 30 years ago, but we continue to struggle with being more equitable, diverse, and inclusive institutions. This is of the upmost importance to me as an Artistic Director, especially in this our incredibly diverse community. I want to see artists represented from all aspects of our contemporary world, and I want to put their stories on our stages. I also want to help foster the next generation of artists at our theatre, and to make space for diverse voices that will be the leaders of the American theatre in years to come.
4) We want to develop and diversify our audience. In the 1980s they were reporting the same thing many theatres report today, the major demographic of theatre-going is middle aged and older, white, and well-educated. I look at the crowds in the Addison restaurants, they are diverse in every single way, and I want to see them in our theatre seats. How do we program plays that will excite and bring in this non-traditional audience without creating theatre that alienates our current audience? Does the subscription model still work? Should we be trying something different? These questions are ongoing at theatres everywhere, and perhaps feel the most like those of leaders 30 years ago.
It’s clear, if you look at this book, that so much progress has happened since 1988. And I know that some of these questions have been tackled in different theatres in different ways, some with a lot of success. We see different models working all over to connect Artistic Directors and get them out of their offices to connect more with themselves, artists, and other theatres. We see theatres continue to experiment with how to best support individual artists and projects with different working methods. We have seen a great deal of progress in equity, diversity, and inclusion. We’ve seen some theatres create trailblazing programs to reach a more diverse theatre audiences. But we still have so far to go to make our dreams and visions the rule, not the exceptions.
But again, much like when I leave a Chekhov play, I mostly am grateful that I feel connected with these people who were in my shoes 30 years ago. People who had hopes and dreams that went beyond their day to day lives. I finished this book thankful for the thoughtful contemplation and work of these Artistic Directors; and that I could take that time-machine back to those rooms, hear their dreams, and to learn from them as I begin developing our future at WaterTower Theatre.
» Joanie Schultz was named Artistic Director of WaterTower Theatre in December. Last month, WaterTower announced the first season selected by her. Hear an extensive interview with her on the Little Big Scene Podcast, here.
» An Artistic Director Prepares will run on the last Friday of the month in TheaterJones.