A GOODBYE; OR, WHAT I LEARNED AS A CIS-WHITE-MALE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR IN CHICAGO
As our friend Josh Sobel concludes his tenure as Artistic Director of Haven Chicago, he offers what he's learned, how he's grown, and wisdom others may find useful. We're thrilled to be able to share this insight with you!
With this closing my time as an Artistic Director and subsequently Associate AD is done. KISS was the final show I was involved in programming at Haven, and I know I've been a broken record about this but what Monty Cole and this intrepid cast crew and production/producing team created is one of the best things period I've ever seen and/or worked on, full stop. This is the kind of note I feel lucky to have been able to go out on.
I was sort of surprised at the number of critics who saw the show and then chose to not write about it (its all good, not throwing shade just genuinely stating surprise), because IMO this piece - and Monty's iteration of it - is REQUIRED VIEWING for our current moment, and deserves to be talked about as widely as possible as a political statement. Its about every conversation I read on the news and social media right now. Its about owning what you think you know but actually do not, and where one falls into traps as a result. Its about owning one's blind spots, and the consequences of them on others. Its about cultural (mis-)understanding in a moment when that is pervasive in this country and world, with dire impact. And its not fucking easy. As a white cis male artist/person-in-the-world, this thing humbled me in ways I didn't expect and sorely needed. Thank you - THANK YOU - to everyone who was a part of building and sharing this show.
This moment of change also has me reflecting on some of what I experienced and learned from this position, especially as I observed and conversed with other cross-generational cis-white-male ADs. And here's some of what I learned:
1) If you feel like you aren't getting young/queer/POC/"next-gen"/etc audiences to give a shit about - let alone come to - your theatre and see an aging audience base, LOOK AT WHAT THOSE PEOPLE YOU WANT ARE ENGAGING WITH AND LET THAT GUIDE WHAT YOU PRODUCE. Maybe its that those people aren't necessarily electrified by your standard-fare Arthur Miller. Maybe when they see your season announcement of mostly-white couch plays, they think "well, there's nothing for me here." Meanwhile pro-wrestling (WHICH IS THEATRE) is selling out 11,000 seats in 30 minutes for live performance and is currently filled with ALL of those demographics you want (wrestling is going through an amazing moment of progressivism). The Fly Honeys is one of the hottest tickets of EVERY summer for a decade now. And I'm not saying there isnt a place for meat-and-potatoes realism and whatnot. But if you want those new audiences, a large portion of them (myself included) sees the monotony and antiquated-ness within seasons as "take your theatre medicine, its good for you." (And that works...) Look at what next-gen audiences are consuming between live events, concerts, TV, movies, and maybe recognize that if you aren't letting that influence what is on your stage, then you can't really act surprised when those audiences don't feel at home in your place.
2) On a related note, yeah, you're gonna lose audiences along the way. Get over it and find new ones already, and stop just talking wistfully about it. Its achievable. It really is. When I took the reigns at Haven, we were producing quintessential Chicago realism, with touches of theatricality. And the work was FUCKING GOOD, please let me be clear, and I would work with every single one of those artists and people again in a heartbeat. But I definitely pulled the company in a very different direction over the years. And as is always discussed, we lost people who were invested in that previous brand of work. I even had a fellow AD once look me in the eye and say "well, maybe there just aren't audiences for that kind of work in Chicago." But guess what? We found them. We found new people, and of the demographics we say we "cant get to show up", too! We did a horror play, so we reached out to horror-genre publications and message boards and Pilsen and Latinx groups and sold out the show. We did an existential pop-punk rock concert, and marketed to the music community and sold out the show. We did THE TOTAL BENT - a show so many people told me would NEVER succeed in Chicago - and ended up selling out, extending and breaking some financial records along the way. STOP BEING AFRAID OF LOSING AUDIENCES. We are in the era of the niche, as it were - "find your tribe" applies to audiences as well. They are out there. Stop playing bullshit "appeasement" games with audiences (and critics for that matter) - its condescending to them and harmful to your work and growth as an organization.
3) I continue to hear the narrative (almost exclusively from white-cis-het arts leaders) of "well, cultivating inclusivity within an organization both in staff and creative is really hard." You know what? IT HASN'T BEEN THAT HARD. It hasn't been easy by any means, and the work never ends, but we've done pretty well in terms of staff, casting and production over the past several years. You know why? Because we made it a priority value of the company from jump. That's all. That's really all we did. We made it a priority value. And if you're going to SAY its a priority but not actually make it an active priority with accountability, then no, it isn't, so stop lying about it. By making it an actual priority we hold ourselves accountable to that value with every choice we make, and must own our mistakes along the way while working to improve. As our current Casting Director Nik Whitcomb recently said, the secret to doing the work is doing the work.
4) The first full show I directed in Chicago featured a workshop where the AD said to me "just remember who here is the employer and who is the employee." LOOK. I get it - we've hired you under a contract, we are paying you, there are expectations we have from you, all that jazz. But, when we hire you, YOU ARE ALSO A GUEST IN OUR HOME. And while we will not let someone take advantage of us in our own home, nonetheless a two-way-street exists where an independent artist has EVERY RIGHT to expect to be treated well, to be listened to when issues arise, and to have the company at least TRY to rectify such issues as they come, ensuring that at minimum the artists working under our roof know that they will always be listened to and heard. And if a company does not understand and respect this at every level of their organizational structure, then don't be a company.
5) On a related note, if you don't actually want to build an institution, don't start a company. Its such a Chicago thing, people starting "Yet Another Theatre Company, NFP". And I have ZERO issue with that in itself. But when I hear horror stories, 85-90% of the time its from companies that are built around cults of personality, or leadership that really just wants to make their own shit and find people to help them make their own shit and (whether explicitly or implicitly) fuck everyone else. So, GREAT! Make your own art! Self-produce! Partner up! But as a company, as a non-profit, you are a service organization. Vision is essential, but leadership is about EVERYONE ELSE, from audience to artists to staff. If you start a company, make sure you actually WANT TO RUN A COMPANY - which means putting yourself second a lot of the time because your artists and audiences come first. If you're not ready to do that, try a different model. (I HIGHLY recommend researching 13P as a great case study in alternative models to getting one's own work made.)
6) I am SHOCKED at the number of companies that don't have - and don't value - post-mortems. And look, not every note we get can/should get incorporated for any number of reasons. But that is irrelevant. We have a post-mortem after every show, and every time we learn a TON that we are able to incorporate for the future. And the key? We sit and listen and take notes. That's our job in that moment: to listen. Post-mortems show that you care about listening and growing and getting better. And if you aren't interested in that, don't run a fucking company.
7) Lastly, on-boarding a new AD through hiring them as AAD, then switching roles so they could get a running start while still having the former AD next to them for institutional memory to then subsequently step away, REALLY WORKED in my opinion. Thinking a lot about such a process and how it can be evolved to be better and also apply to companies of various size, as I have seen many transitional nightmares over the years...
I know I have fallen short of my own standards along the way. I've made many mistakes and will undoubtedly make more. But I am grateful to the circle I have been able to surround myself with who have held me accountable and made me own those shortcomings, challenged me to be better, and pushed Haven to keep evolving into the Future. Ian Damont Martin and Angela Christine Salinas and this intrepid staff are taking it to a whole new level, including fresh looks at creating more intentional processes across the board. And that alone is everything I dreamed of for this company.
I am grateful to all of those who gave me space in various ways to figure out who I am, and to Carol Leitz Cohen for fearlessly letting Haven grow as it has grown. I'm grateful to have learned more clearly who I am and what I want. As I embark on this next journey in pursuit of my Masters in Directing at California Institute of the Arts, I would be lying if I said I’m not looking forward to focusing on my own creative voice for a bit. Such is the beauty of graduate school. However, I also challenge myself to find the intersection of my vision and my values - how I can be more fully and more fiercely myself, advocate for my ideas and invest in my voice, while maintaining accountability to the values I hold dear. And I expect it to be a challenge. But, for me, it’s worth the effort.