The Cleveland Playhouse Board invited me to speak at their board retreat last Saturday. The talk was well received, so I thought I would share the text here.
Thank you all for bringing me here. It’s an honor to address the board of such an enduring and achievant company. I enjoyed the opportunity to read some history of the play house, to review the current draft of your strategic plan, and to meet members of your staff as well as seeing something of the rest of Cleveland to help me put you guys into perspective. My sense of the current moment is that your last few years have been devoted, very successfully, to problem solving — and that in this day, you mark and make the transition from problem solving to opportunity creation, from bailing to sailing if you will; and in the next few minutes, I’m supposed to help that happen. No pressure.
When Kevin first invited me, I wondered what standing I really had to participate in today’s events. I’m sure that many of you are just as expert in the disciplines of arts management. Some of you may have seen more theatre than I have. I’m sure most of you have more august professional lives. At last, I was able to settle on one thing. I’m convinced that I am a world class expert in enjoying service on a theatre board. I have a terrific time as a Woolly Mammoth board member. Even during the longest and least hopeful days of the capital campaign on which I collaborated with Kevin, I kept my service on the board committed, rewarding, and fun. I want to share with you three of my tricks for doing that.
So trick one, which applies elsewhere in life as well, is that when I am doing the parts of the job that I enjoy most, working with terrific peers, helping artists describe and then realize their aspirations and visions, attending great shows, observing an artist’s pride in work well done, looking around at other rapt faces in an audience; when I’m doing those “peak experience” parts of the job, – – – I pay very close attention. I take a beat to notice how great it is to have the opportunity to do what I’m doing. Sometimes, I’ll even envision myself remembering the moment years later.
This simple minded psychological discipline has served me well. Without such a discipline, it is all too easy to let the most rewarding moments in life drift by as mere rest periods during which we recharge for the next increment of effort. We even get some messages that we should be suspicious of any good thing that happens, that good news is just part of a set up, lulling us into a false sense of security which will leave us more vulnerable to the next unpleasant surprise. Falls inevitably following pride and all that. Greek tragedy has a lot to answer for. Whether you were brought up a stoic, a cynic, a Platonist, or a Max Weber work-ethic-protestant, you probably received some programming to reject moments of satisfaction as unreliable and misleading. I’m not encouraging anyone to relinquish important beliefs, but if this one tenet is in your tool kit, I urge you to leave it behind, at least with respect to your service with the play house. You deserve to revel in your moments of joy and achievement.
This discipline is as important for organizations as it is for individuals. In doing my homework reading for today, I couldn’t help but notice that the play house has had an incredible few years. Relocation to a spot closer to the center of a burgeoning city. (It is burgeoning, right? I was pretty sure I saw things burgeon during the last few days.) Impressive cleaning up on the balance sheet. Co-pro headed to Broadway. Well received and well attended recent productions. You should take some time to feel good about what you have accomplished. There is no sin in a brief period of rest on one’s laurels, especially at moments when one has piled up enough laurels to stuff a mattress. You won’t stay there forever, but remember to celebrate a bit from time to time. You’ll get back to work soon enough.
Which takes us to my next trick – I will only serve on the board of an organization whose mission makes me passionate. As an example, the mission at Woolly is to ignite an explosive engagement between theatre artists and members of our community by producing and presenting new plays at the edges of theatrical style and human experience. That’s not word for word, but it’s close enough. It excites me for a lot of reasons. That core idea of explosive engagement, of evoking experiences so powerful that people are stunned and disrupted, blown into new groupings, forced to take a different perspective if only for a moment. For me, that’s a great thing to aspire to. And the commitment to explore the edges and boundaries, both in subject matter and in style, has a frontier feeling that is important to me as well. I’ve convinced myself over the last few months that, while film and novels may excel live theatre at storytelling, theatre has a special ability to create moments of wonder, reassessment, discomfort, puzzlement, when those kinds of moments happen at an edge, an audience member can suddenly see a little further, express herself a little more honestly, or walk back into the world a little less certain. I entertain the hypothesis that certainty breeds stagnation while doubt engenders possibility. Possibility is good.
So that’s my way in to the Woolly mission, my connection to its passion. Each of my fellow board members has his or her own way in. We spend a certain amount of time each year talking about the mission and our relationships to it. We question it. We’re in the midst of an investigation right now that may lead us to restate it focusing even more on the desired outcome as opposed to the process. A very rough formulation that I like is that we want to host theatrical events that encourage people to discuss substantive issues with strangers.
Here at the play house, your mission is “to inspire, stimulate and entertain diverse audiences in Northeast Ohio by producing plays and theatre education programs of the highest professional standards.” I would encourage each of you to find your own way in to that mission. There’s certainly a lot about “Inspire, stimulate, and entertain,” to get excited about. I want to spend just a moment with “Entertain,” because that word is a bold choice for a member of the regional theatre movement. Many regional theatre organizations are so afraid of being seen as “Mere entertainment” that they eschew the word at all. In the last few years, I’ve become very fond of “Entertain”; especially when you run it through sort of its whole dictionary spectrum. The “Divert pleasantly” sense is certainly there, and frankly if you want audience members to keep coming back it is vital, whether some people want to admit it or not. But there is also the “Invite them in and treat them well” sense – entertaining in the sense of throwing a party. Further, there is the “Give them serious and sincere thought” – entertaining an idea. Whichever words move you most, and whichever sense you take them in, your enjoyment of and commitment to service on this board will grow the more inspired, stimulated, and entertained you can become by the play house mission.
Many of your ways in will probably come from some response to the question “And then what?” with respect to the mission. What will these inspired, stimulated, entertained people do that they wouldn’t have done without your efforts? The impact your work has on how people think, feel, and act is the real accomplishment of your organization. Know what you want that impact to be. Strive to bring it about. You’ll never loose interest.
Final trick – I’m always trying to use my board service to be part of something heroic. At Woolly, we hope to use theatrical events to instill in our community a culture of conversation about substantive issues that will serve them and all of us in improving the level of civil discourse. We believe that we, in concert with other arts organizations, are helping pour the foundation for a vibrant, effective, pluralistic democracy of the future in which policy decisions grow out of a culture of open, respectful exchanges of clear ideas. In other words, we are starry-eyed, idealistic fools; it is very exciting to be a part of.
My personal conspiracy to nudge lots of playmaking organizations to collaborate towards increasing the number of playgoers rather than playing tug of war over habituated audience members is a similarly ridiculous but fulfilling aspiration.
This is the one issue on which I feel the need to take you gently to task. The vision statement in your draft strategic plan has a problem. Looking at your history and current capabilities, you already are “a premier American regional theatre, producing contemporary and relevant entertainment of the highest quality, while serving (y)our community through superior education and engagement programs.” Your next five years will be more valuable and more fun if you identify something you are not yet but want to become by some future date. Strategies that work are about building capabilities an organization currently lacks in order to achieve goals it currently cannot achieve. I believe that somewhere in this room or elsewhere in the play house family there is a vision that would be more transformative and more rewarding to be a part of.
Only you and your constituents can decide what your big idea should be, but let me strike a few matches that might illuminate a path to your own personal explosion.
Self serving option out of the way first: You could commit the play house to taking a leadership role among all the theatre producing and presenting organizations in Northeast Ohio to triple playgoing throughout the region by 2020. This would essentially make you the local cell of my conspiracy, and I would look to you to support, cajole, and strong arm everyone else making plays around here to work with you to sell the category of playgoing as well as promoting their own individual work. You would foster tiny emerging companies, build relationships with the community theaters and commercial houses to make sure audience flowed among all of you. You would produce huge, public events to encourage participation in and awareness of the theatre arts in your region. (Arts Wave just across the state in Cincinnati does this kind of thing magnificently.) Cleveland would come to be recognized as a major center of theatre making in which plays are recognized as valued secular rituals for the community. The play house would be at the core of that transformation. Obviously, I want you to pick this one, but lets look at a few other possibilities, and again, the best idea for you will probably be something that no outsider could suggest.
The depth of your heritage is one of your greatest assets. Because the 5 year period of this plan will include your centennial, you could dig back into your archives to find some crazy plan or endeavor that was never realized but is now more relevant even than it was at the time it was dreamed. It’s so exciting that back at your foundation, visible actor plays represented only one of three prongs of play house artistry. Puppets and Shadowgraph really should be a part of your anniversary celebrations in some way. Perhaps your big idea drafts off this in some way. You could commit the play house artistic community to bring to the stage, during the years of the plan, several productions of a substantially new theatrical form. The last two decades around the country have ushered in some exciting new forms – devised work inspired by found texts or interviews (groups like the Civilians and Elevator Repair Service), community inspired productions (Perseverance, Cornerstone, and Sojourner), audience integrated theatre (Dog and Pony DC – who someone is presenting in Cleveland next year by the way – and Punchdrunk.) There is no reason your artistic circle, raiding the decades of play house history, couldn’t develop a riveting, home grown new form of production that could only flourish here. Wouldn’t it be exciting to see other companies around the country during the 20’s desperately trying to duplicate that elusive Cleveland style?
I’m not being flip about this. You may feel, with reason, that Cleveland is not presently a major center of theatrical creation and innovation. But if you look at innovations throughout history, artistic and otherwise, only some of them come from lavishly funded institutions at the centers of large communities. By definition, highly integrated, economically secure organizations are benefitting from the status quo. The most exciting innovations come from individuals and organizations on the margins who are forced to try something new because business as usual isn’t taking them where they want to go. There is every reason to expect that stunning artistic innovations could arise here as easily as anywhere else, if they are invited and fostered.
One more spark here. Looking at your mission and vision statements, education is a nearly coequal component of the play house with theatrical production. Looking at the budget, it’s 4%. Your big idea could be to increase educational programming by some substantial multiplier. Maybe crank it up to the point where it is 25% of your budget by the end of the period, not by decreasing production but by growing your education activities organically. Young Playwrights Theatre in DC is a stand alone theatre education organization at 10% of your budget. With the resources of the play house, it doesn’t seem insane to suggest you could build a substantially larger educational activity. Obviously, the goal wouldn’t be just to spend more money but to accomplish some particular goals, both artistic and social. What could a really substantial increase in your educational activities do for Northeast Ohio? Would the prospect of accomplishing that make board meetings more exciting and fundraising asks more fun?
All three of these probably sound ridiculous – but no more ridiculous than starting a professional company in 1915 Cleveland devoted to high art live theatre, puppetry, and shadowgraph. Your founders weren’t preservers or protectors. They were visionary creators who perceived a niche and an opportunity and devoted themselves to it. Sitting at the head of a long standing institution can make it feel as though what you owe the generations before you is to avoid risk and make sure you don’t damage what they built. Shake that off. The debt you owe to your founders and all those in between is to keep moving forward with ambition, daring and wonder to leave the play house, when you step aside, not only more prosperous but more artistically alive, more educationally stimulating, and more essential to the life of Northeast Ohio than when you found it. Your current strategy lacks only one big informing idea to be a spectacular tool to accomplish that progress. That idea is somewhere in the play house family. I look forward to learning what it will be.
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.