Friday, September 23, 2016

Post #3: On My Decision To Pursue and Then Later Accept The Position of Artistic Director At The Hangar Theatre - The Application Process

The Application Process

Post #3

Around five years ago, I decided to start applying for small Artistic Director jobs.  The response, uniformly, was a chorus of crickets.   And then, about a year ago, it’s like the PTB decided to take pity on me. (PTB = Powers That Be. Points if you could place the Buffy reference.)  “The guy’s about to turn 40,” I imagined them saying with slight condescension, “We might as well call him.”  Part of this newer response, I’m sure, had to do with having reached a threshold of experience (imagine me singing a gin-soaked “I’m still here” in a slinky number).  But also I had the fortune of applying to institutions with which I was familiar.  This meant I could write application letters that weren’t just regurgitations of my resume in prose form.  Instead, I could write about the directions in which I could help lead them.  What my vision for them would be, per se. 

After receiving word that I’d made it to the semifinalist round, I met with Jessica Casey, Chair of the Hunt for the Next Artistic Director Committee , who gave me the salary range, which felt totally reasonable.  A short meeting with Managing Director Josh Friedman followed.  This meeting, I imagine, was longer for applicants who were not the Interim, and an opportunity for the theatre to describe itself, artistically and financially, to the applicants.  Ten of us had made it to the semi-finalist round. A few people pulled out at this point and a few more were eliminated.  Three of us made it to the finalist round.

My brilliant writer friend Bridget Carpenter gave me a great piece of job advice once: get the job, then figure out if you want it.  But here’s the funny do-si-do of applying for an Artistic Directorship: by the time you make it to the final round, you basically have to swear that you’ll accept the job if they offer it to you.  It’s a complicated relationship to navigate, because the theatre wants you to commit to it before it is willing to commit to you.  I’m not entirely sure this is equitable, but as the Pioneer’s former Artistic Director Charles Morey shared on my Facebook wall when I got the interim job (and I’m paraphrasing only slightly): “To be a great Artistic Director, you have to put the needs of the theatre in front of your own.” 

I tried to keep this in mind as we entered the final part of the application process: the interviews.  The other candidates were flown into town on consecutive weekends. Because I was already here, the Hangar didn’t need to pay for my travel or housing – see, I was already a good deal! –  but all three of us were put through the same process.  

Even having worked as the Interim for almost a full year, even after months in Ithaca and days spent prepping, I still wasn’t fully prepared for the rigor of these interviews.  Having never been a finalist for a job like this before, I didn’t know what to expect as I headed into the two-day process. This was the schedule

Date Time Event Place People

Monday, August 1st

11:30am - 12:30pm Meet with Search Committee Hangar Theatre Search Committee

12:45 - 1:45pm Lunch with Adam
Adam Zonder - Production Manager

3:00 - 4:00pm Meet with Helen Office Helen Clark - Education 

4:00 - 5:00pm Administrative Staff meet with candidate Office Administrative staff

Tuesday, August 2nd

10:30 - 11:30am Focus Group #1 - Education Hangar Theatre Education Committee

11:30am - 1:00pm Focus Group #2 - Season Planning Hangar Theatre Search Committee/Artistic Advisory Committee

1:00 - 2:30pm Break

2:30 - 3:30pm Focus Group #3 - Finance/Development  Hangar Theatre Development/Finance Committee

4:30 - 5:30pm Cocktail hour/meet the community Hangar Theatre Board and community

5:30pm Dinner with Josh
Josh Friedman - Managing Director

Wednesday, August 3rd TBA Exit Interview TBA Margaret Shackell

And don’t be fooled: in this vocabulary, meal means “interview plus food.”

My initial meeting with the search committee went pretty well, as did my lunch with Adam Zonder, who was the Production Manager when I was here 15 years ago as a Drama League Hangar Directing Fellow.  It didn’t hurt that our relationship that summer had been surprisingly productive (I suspect Adam and I were two of the most surprised by this).  Education plays a huge role at the Hangar, and Helen, the Director of that Department, probably spent as much time telling me what direction she wished her department could grow as I did talking about the same thing.  Even though our desks had been next to each other, it was incredible how revealing dedicating time for a single purpose can be.   But since Helen and I ended up rescheduling our meeting, I ended up meeting with the Education Committee first. I had grown up in the McCarter Theatre’s Outreach Department. I’ve taught at inner city middle schools, high schools, and colleges across the country.  This was the committee meeting I was least nervous about.  At least, that’s what I tried to tell myself half-way through, as I was clearly bombing it.  I wish I'd spent more time actually thinking about what I'd like to do with the Hangar's Education Department.

To be interviewed by the people I’d gotten to know and like so much over the last few months was alternately enjoyable and awkward,.  And what I thought was my brilliant season was presented at the next meeting, but I was stunned when people didn’t fall over themselves telling me how brilliant they thought it was (I often feel that way, frankly).  The Finance/Development committee was kind – this was clearly my weak spot, and I felt like a politician, delivering empty promises with no idea of how to execute them.  During the cocktail hour/meet the community event the Board President’s children interrupted me by crossing to the refreshments intermittingly during my speech, which allowed me to cover for getting off track with some light banter.

The final events, dinner with Josh the Managing Director and lunch the next day with the board president, permitted a frankness that is difficult to muster on an every-day basis with the two people I probably had worked closest with as the Interim.  

I hadn’t felt like I’d crushed it at the end of those 2.5 days.  If anything, I was surprised at how much more thoroughly I’d been forced to think about a job I was basically already doing and had already committed to accepting.  As difficult as it was for me, I couldn’t imagine how much harder it would be for the two candidates who came in from out of town: it got me thinking about how much I rely on context, like how much a board member’s history with the institution affected the meaning of a question she might ask me at any of the multiple interviews to which I’d been subjected.

Mostly, however, engaging formally with all these people I’d been working with for months made me realize how much I really liked them, how much I really liked working with them, how much I liked the town and community, and how much I really wanted this job.

But wanting this job and being ready to leave New York City were entirely different things…

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Post #2: The Summer, In Brief

On My Decision To Pursue and Then Later Accept The Position of Artistic Director At The Hangar Theatre

Post #2: The Summer, In Brief

I have realized (again, remember, code for “discovered in therapy”) that doing new things is scary for me.  Sometimes I get off on this scariness – like going to a firing range to shoot shotguns for my 37th birthday, or traveling to new places.  But sometimes, the inability to visualize is just terrifying. 
Kevin Moriary

Peter Flynn
Jen Waldman
I had no idea how to prepare for the summer.  The previous Artistic Director of the Hangar, Jen Waldman, was basically as kind and helpful as someone could be, as were prior Artistic Directors Peter Flynn and Kevin Moriarty.  But some things must be experienced.  And running the Hangar in the summer was one of those things.

Normally, when rehearsing a play, I look forward to my day off like a traveler in a desert stumbling toward an oasis.  When I was rehearsing a play this summer, my “days off” were often busier than a normal rehearsal day.  And exhausting as that could be, it was actually the transitions during actual rehearsals days that were truly challenging: staying in an artistic and creative space while having to use my ten-minute break to problem-solving logistical challenges.  It’s hard to wear two hats at the same time, especially when, like me, you don’t have the cheekbones for hats.  In a funny way, it’s like directing a play, especially on a thrust: the transitions are often harder to stage than the scenes themselves.

Although the rehearsal days were longer, they were easier in many ways than the non-rehearsal days.  Why?  Because the energy of rehearsal reflects and recycles the energy you put into it.  For me, administration isn’t like that.  At least, not yet.  There are certainly parts of AD’ing that are incredibly rewarding, but it doesn’t replenish the way that exchanging energy with artists in rehearsals does.

And then there was the driving.  While I have lived in New York City for my entire adult life, I know how to drive.  I just don’t enjoy it.  And I especially don’t enjoy when I’m about to be late, and have four phone calls to make, and suddenly find myself on (another) one-way road taking me in the opposite direction from where I need to be.  Seriously, one of the greatest accomplishments of the summer was figuring out the roads of downtown Ithaca.

So why did I decide to apply for the gig?

Well, much to my surprise, I discovered I really loved the day-to-day of Artistic Directing.  As a freelancer, working at other people’s theatre, my critical mind would inevitably kick-in and wonder, “How I would do this differently if I were AD.” It threw me back to middle or high school, when I was a young actor in the school plays who had no idea he was going to be a director.  I would sit in the back of the house, and wonder why Mrs. Anzuini didn’t have Roses and Strawberries and Milk enter from the back of the house in the big number of Oliver!
A photo from "Who Will Buy?", from Oliver, that I found on the internet.

Just as becoming a director let me try out those staging ideas, being an AD let me experiment with the administrative ones.  Some of them worked, just like I imagined, and some of them worked in ways I would’ve never imagined.  And many of them didn’t.  And that was okay, too.  Like being in a rehearsal.  The confidence to try and fail and move on was integral to surviving the summer.

Christy Perez, Hangar SM Apprentice, making pasta!
I also loved being the bridge between staff and artists and technical crew.  Like the director of a musical has to make sure that dance and music and design are all talking to each other, the AD becomes the intersection of all the various contributors.  I’ve been the artist enough that that was familiar to me.  But getting to know what the full-year staff and shop heads have to do to make the theatre run was undoubtedly the most educational, and the most humbling, part of my summer. I don’t know how Adam Zonder is able to find such extraordinary interns and staff, but spending time with them, learning about how their passion for the theatre motivates them (I’m thinking about Kerri Lynch talking to our Aces group before Constellations, and Christy Perez and the countless conversations she and I had, along with so many others) all served to teach me how little I knew about the industry in which I’ve spent my entire adult life.

There are lots of other things that made me want to pursue the job full-time: the great joy of being able to hire artists I know and believe in, like Suzanne Agins, Linsay Firman, Shoko Kambar, Suzanne Chesney and Nick Francone.  The joy of getting to meet new artists that I can’t wait to work with again (just about everyone who worked on the mainstage, honestly – all brilliant and hard-working and kind and generous). 

And then there were little things as well – all the artists and teachers from Syracuse who joined us as artists and audience members, all that gorgeous Orange in Ithaca.  Annie the Muffin Lady (who bakes fresh muffins for the first rehearsals) and her husband Tony, who took me and Rafa on their sailboat on Cayuga Lake, where every hour feels like one full day of vacation.  The Hangar Board, who host dinners for the mainstage artists.  The Drama League directors and the Lab Company, who impressed me daily with their courage and hard work and bravery.  My Associate Artistic Director, Brad Raimondo, who made it impossible to imagine a more brilliant ally. 

For those of you who have never been to Ithaca, it’s hard to describe the magic that permeates the town (unofficial motto: “ten square miles surrounded by reality”).  But even more than the Hangar itself was the way the equation of the theatre in that community played itself out.  The people who come to see plays at the Hangar really want to be there.  They care about the play.  They care about the institution.  When we announced that we’d be re-introducing a Fifth Show into the summer season it was greeted with applause every time. 

Summer theatres like ours can’t necessarily provide the same resources that a LORT can.  Our pay isn’t as high.  The housing isn’t as good.  And all summer I wrestled with trying to answer the question of what we can provide that might make up for that.  The answer is the community.  Something magical happens in the summer.  And something especially magical happens in Ithaca.     

And it’s the reason, ultimately, that I decided to accept the job.  I had the privilege of seeing how that magic was conjured, and what it meant to everyone associated with the theatre: artists, staff, technicians, interns, and most of all the audience and community.

But before I accepted the job, of course, I had to apply for it…