The Tonys. The Obies. Drama Desk. Pulitzer.
It is that time of year again, when excellence is celebrated in the American theatre. Apart from the high-profile awards, I confess I’m perplexed by how we define excellence. A vast majority of theatres nationwide have put the word “excellence” in their mission statements. But after a career in theatre management and multiple stints as a producer or judge for theatrical awards in major metropolitan areas, I’ve become increasingly convinced that as a field we do not have a cohesive definition of excellence.
In an admittedly informal attempt to discover commonality, I contacted several hundred colleagues and asked them the following:
Each day, our theatres are assessed on some criteria by various stakeholders, but do we have a shared sense of excellence? If I were to ask you to define the qualities of a world-class regional theatre, what would they be and why?
I received more than 50 responses from a wide cross section of diverse people; below is an attempt at aggregating their thoughts.
Artistic Quality and How to Define It
I specifically asked folks to consider characteristics beyond artistic quality, as I assumed we could universally agree that everything stems from the art we create. Still, many wanted to start there. As Milwaukee Journal Sentinel critic Mike Fischer put it, “What counts most is the work itself; it’s the medium through which all other blessings flow.”
But if artistic quality was considered foundational, respondents defined even that in a wide-ranging manner. For Mike’s part, he outlined what he thinks of as a few traits of great theatres: They’re not afraid to play with form, they’re representative of female artists and playwrights of color, they do color-conscious casting, and they produce imaginative remakes of the classics. Claudia Alick, former producer for Oregon Shakespeare Festival turned consultant, responded that “holistic cultural competency with an intersectional lens and demographics that reflect those in the communities one serves are necessary for artistic quality.” Quality cannot be divorced from representation and inclusivity, she said.
For me, this raises the question: Can theatres that display a clear lack of diversity, from their resident acting companies to the productions they stage, ever credibly be defined as excellent? Among theatres that work at the intersection of the arts and social justice, there is also a growing feeling that critics and funders simply do not know how to evaluate the artistic quality of their work. As such Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, has created a new framework to evaluate creative output called “Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change.”
Equity, Diversity & Inclusion
Perhaps the most popular metric mentioned by respondents was a deep commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Zak Berkman, producing director at People’s Light Theater in Pennsylvania, commented that while “high artistic quality must be met, quality must be determined through the lens of many different cultures, educational pathways, and a broader consideration of criteria from content to impact,” echoing Alick’s assertion that quality and inclusion can never be considered mutually exclusive.
Similarly, Jennifer McEwen, executive director of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company, said that while several companies distinguish themselves through risk-taking, those that “work toward a more equitable society” deserve recognition for their intentionality in elevating underrepresented voices. A few focused on very specific underrepresented populations, such as playwright and critic Gwendolyn Rice, who commented that a theatre could not be considered world-class unless “it worked actively towards gender parity on all levels,” bringing attention to the well-documented problem of gender disparity in the field.
Most others defined excellence as having an intersectional approach to a wide array of underrepresented communities as part of holistic equity, diversity, and inclusion plan. Marissa Chibas, professor and head of Duende CalArts at California Institute of the Arts, summed it up by saying truly excellent theatres “bravely put forward work that speaks to the pressing needs of the communities they engage with, leaving no one behind, and putting front and center what the dominant culture is avoiding.”
In reflecting on this metric, I thought about Oregon Shakes. While having a record of accomplishment as the leading American summer theatre festival, OSF may be most known in the decades to come for its dedication and passionate work to advance the field in equity, diversity and inclusion, something all the more remarkable for a rural theatre festival.
Locally Created, Nationally Recognized
From 2001 until 2014, Rep. Eric Cantor was something of a star in the Republican Party, achieving the status of majority leader in 2011 heading into the 2014 elections. But while he elevated his national profile, his constituents at home in Virginia felt abandoned, leading to his decisive loss to a primary challenger that year.
While all politics are local, so are theatres. Exhibit A: Minneapolis’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune By 2005, Jeune Lune was riding high, lauded by critics nationwide for its inventive work, leading to a Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. Three years later, it was bankrupt, as local attendance had plummeted. As Sean Daniels, artistic director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre, put it, theatres can never forget that “civic pride goes miles farther than national acclaim.”
From early on, ambitious theatres always face a degree of tension between local engagement and national profile. As David Sobelsohn, former advisory neighborhood commissioner in Washington, D.C., argued, Arena Stage is often considered one of the nation’s theatrical leaders because of its history of national precedents, including being “the first theatre outside New York to premiere an original play that then transferred to Broadway, winning the Pulitzer Prize along the way” (1967’s The Great White Hope). But as Edgar Dobie, Arena’s current executive director, noted, Arena founder Zelda Fichandler “forcefully explained to me that the local theatre movement was one of planting theatres as residents in their home communities, and not, as Robert Brustein cautioned, as regional tributaries feeding Broadway.”
Several artistic and managing leaders defined excellence similarly to Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre, who said that “world-class regional theatres are at the intersection of national conversations and local needs, insisting that the theatre be an integral part of citizenship.” Jeffrey Herrmann, managing director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, said that having an impact on the national field and being deeply invested in your community are both important, and that “excellence is achieving the proper balance between these competing forces.”
New Work, Audiences, and Artists
Sobelsohn also shared what he believes is an often-overlooked aspect of excellence: courage. Arguably, there is nothing more courageous or risky than developing new work, audiences, and artists; I would also contend that there is nothing more important to the future health of the field. Jeri Epstein, trustee of Arena Stage, defined exceptional theatres as “those that take the chance to create something that never existed before. They shape, model, and give voice to present culture while taking chances on new writers and themes. They are not safe. They court the controversy that comes with new ideas. It is a giant leap of faith.”
This sentiment is echoed by two leaders in new-play development, Milwaukee Repertory Theater associate artistic director May Adrales and Wendy Goldberg, artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Adrales contended that “world-class artists are inquisitive, daring, and push boundaries. World-class theatres work with artists that strive to excite and inspire, while dedicating the necessary resources to nurture work in development.” Goldberg elaborated, saying that exceptional theatres “look at how to participate in a contemporary moment while contributing something that propels the art form forward.”
Goldberg also echoed Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan Booth, who pointed to relevance as a key metric of excellence. Booth called relevance the theatre’s true north, with “a guiding pair of beacons is to be the answer to someone’s question and the solution to someone’s needs.”
While recognizing the important role of the classics, it’s worth recalling that Shakespeare too was once merely a writer writing new plays.
Financial Stability & Continuous Improvement
Surprisingly for me, a decent number of artists and managers listed financial performance and a stable business plan as a metric of excellence. In this regard, Seattle Rep’s Herrmann took a practical approach, calling it “a combination of full houses, high level of artistry, and the integrity of programming. By themselves, full houses don’t connote excellence, particularly if achieved through programming that panders. At the same time, high-brow programming beautifully executed but which attracts no attendance isn’t excellence either. It’s the combination that does so.” Goldberg chimed in to say that successful theatres are “led by an artistic vision that also is cognizant of financial realities.”
For me, excellence in management is measured by our ability to innovate in the creation of business models that adequately support the work discussed above, amid ever-changing environments. With that in mind, researcher Alan Brown, principal of WolfBrown, said that one of the central attributes of exceptional arts organizations is a “deep commitment to continuous improvement and openness to critical feedback.”
Whereas this exercise has provided some clarity on five metrics the majority of those polled discussed, I am also reminded of something Peninsula Players managing director Brian Kelsey once said: “I find what is the most important is our focus on what works best for our theatres and our audiences. We oftentimes are unfairly held up next to each other for comparison reasons, but it would be like holding up a banana and a steak and asking which one is world-class.”
As I’ve talked with critics, donors, artists, and audiences, I’ve found that how they define excellence is in large part a product of their preferences. Is it any surprise that the person who started reading Shakespeare at an early age and credits Shakespeare with the most profound effect on his life defines a world-class theatre as one that produces and reinterprets the classics? We all come to define excellence through a lens informed by our own experiences and biases, and we should acknowledge that all too often, arbiters of excellence stand in positions of privilege and don’t necessarily represent those whom our theatres serve.
Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman Theatre, took an even longer view, questioning whether we can even determine world-class status. “The industry is not that old,” Schulfer said. “We don’t know what world-class is because we haven’t been around long enough to be able to define it.”
I tend to agree that we in the American theatre are all still working toward excellence rather having achieved it for a sustained enough time to be able to claim the world-class mantle. For me it comes down to the ability to succinctly define mission, with an eye toward maximizing impact within our communities while being reflective of who we serve—then executing on that mission in the most impactful and fiscally responsible manner.