I looked up “board” in my dictionary, and one of the definitions was “a course sailed against the wind.” Boards need to be sure they are sailing into the wind if we are to retain our best artists and managers in the terribly difficult job of leading nonprofit theatres. Boards of trustees have three overriding responsibilities. The first is fiscal responsibility for the institution. The buck stops with them. They are the financial guardians. Hopefully, this means that they accept the pragmatic responsibility to generate a significant portion of the contributed income, rather than just overseeing staff fund-raising efforts and demanding tighter and tighter budget control.
A second primary board responsibility is to serve as a link between the theatre and the community. Artistic and management staffs are often “imported” to create and produce the work of the theatre. But the glory–and the challenge–of creating theatres is resisting “generic art.” What is challenging to audiences in Berkeley, Calif. isn’t necessarily going to have the same impact in Miami, Fla. A board is relied on to advise and help the professional leaders define how best to implement the theatre’s mission–advise, not direct. (The days of board playreading committees are thankfully an aberration of the past.) A nonprofit theatre receives tax exemption from the IRS by demonstrating that it provides educational and social services to the community. A board must not only monitor activities to be sure they are operating within nonprofit regulations, but must help the staff to extend the roots of the institution as deeply into the community as possible. The institution must serve the needs of its community as well as the needs of its artists, and the board is essential in that balancing act.
The third and most important responsibility that has fallen to boards of most nonprofit organizations is the hiring and firing of its staff leadership. This responsibility begins with the recruiting process creating detailed job descriptions that include a list of qualifications necessary to fulfill the theatre’s mandate; a search process that includes, in the case of an artistic director especially, travel to see the artist’s work; consultation with other theatre professionals; and a clear agreement between the individual selected and the board of what is expected over what period of time. Setting forth a time frame is especially important; so is the establishment up front of a means of mutual evaluation and regular intervals for assessing progress.
Two of the greatest dangers to a board’s relationship with its staff and leaders are the temptation to micro-manage, and a tendency to be impatient for “results.” I’ve written in this column before of my strong belief that it takes two or even three seasons for a new artistic leader to define and refine his or her vision for the theatre. A board needs to factor in such a time frame following any new appointment, and do all it can to help nurture an environment in which that vision can evolve.
But if an artistic or managing director really isn’t “working out,” the problem may simply be that the search and courtship process were ineffective, and the blame may well fall equally at the feet of the board. When such mistakes are made, it’s absolutely essential that the board not compound the first error by making an even worse one in the termination process.
Theatre is a very small community. An artist fired amidst rumor and innuendo may be severely handicapped in seeking future employment; yet the dismissal may simply have been caused by incompatibility between that particular artist and that particular theatre. There have been too many mishandled firings in recent years as we struggle to figure out how to fill the shoes of our theatre founders with succeeding generations of aspiring leaders in our relatively young movement. As a field, we must work together to develop a better means of selecting and, when necessary, parting ways with our institutional leaders. If we don’t, who will want to risk leading a theatre in the future?
What kind of signal is sent to artistic and managing directors when their peers are summarily dismissed? Surely, future recruitment could be jeopardized for those institutions and perhaps for others. More important, such events tend to put the successors on trial during what should be a transitional period. They feel that they have to succeed. Now. Forget about “learning curves.” Forget about the time necessary to refocus staffs and the board itself to new ways of working. Process, the one essential in the growth of a theatre, simply gets ignored. Instant Product becomes the overriding determinant. There is constant discussion about the talent drain from the theatre. Failure to treat professionals with respect will only increase the drain.
To have been appointed to such high-level positions in the first place, artists and managers have to have substantial records of achievement and reputation within the field. Even if a board subsequently decides its selection was unwise, or the chemistry is wrong, surely a dismissal can be handled with civility.