Friday, September 9, 2016

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

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

Post #1:  To Be An AD Or Not To Be An AD

Since I was an undergrad, I can remember people telling me that I should be an Artistic Director.  The effect of this, of course, was that it made me want to do everything but.  I have never responded well to “should.” 

Beatrice Basso
And yet, over the last few years, I found the idea scratching at my imagination, like a child seeking permission to enter her/his parents’ bedroom.  I even started applying for jobs that sounded interesting or appropriate, checking ArtSearch daily with the religious fervor of a fanatic.  I never got a single interview for any of the Associate positions for which I applied (the ever-insightful Beatrice Basso consoled me, in her Italian accent: “Michelino, you are too big for those jobs,” which I’ve chosen to interpret as a referendum on my personality, not body size).  

When I got too old for the Associate gigs, I threw my hat in for Artistic Directorships.  With one exception, from a theatre far too large for someone with no institutional experience like me, my resumes went unanswered, ignored like love letters sent to someone way out of your league.

Marco Barricelli
And yet, my friends and colleagues, people I really trusted, insisted that being an Artistic Director would be a good match for me.  Marco Barricelli, who is incapable of telling a lie, would say, “They’d be lucky to have you.”  Lucky to have me? Me, who reveled in 20 years of freelancing? Me, who prided himself on being a creature of chaos? Me, who could barely make a budget for myself, let alone for an institution? Basking in my own self-deprecation professionally, as I did romantically so often in my twenties, I thought, “Really, who’d be lucky to have me?”

A few years ago, rather unintentionally, however, the unlikeliest thing happened.  After years of swearing I’d never do it and a decade after it was fashionable for someone my age, I founded a theatre company: The Upstart Creatures.  Every other month, we present a reading of a politically relevant, large-cast play and build a three or four course gourmet meal around it. And admission is free.  I have described it, often, as the best thing I do with my life, and at every event, I am humbled by the artists who volunteer their time and talent for free, rehearsing and cooking and serving.  I am humbled by the Pastors Scott and Tiffany at the Metro Baptist Church on West 40th St., who welcomed us into their Sanctuary Arts Program and who host our events.  And I’m humbled by everyone who shows up and attends and engages and eats and watches our little shows, giving whatever they can at the end so that we can continue presenting for free.
Me at an Upstarts Creature event.

My goal as the AD of The Upstarts was to produce plays that I would want to both direct and attend.  As a freelance director, I have never agreed to direct a play I didn’t love. La Jolla Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, when I was assisting him a fifteen years ago, would like to torture me with “what if” scenarios:  “What if you got asked to direct a play on Broadway you didn’t like? Or just sort of liked?”  But as much as I’d love the paycheck, that wasn’t for me.  It’s not just me being finicky, the way I can be with food (“You cooked that broccoli for how long?”).  I know that if I’m not passionate about something, if I can’t really get behind it, if I don’t believe, then I’m not going to be able to muster that special thing that lets other people believe.  And it makes sense, I suppose, that the company I founded incorporated the two things about which I feel most passionately: theatre and food.  And did I mention it’s free?  Some of my happiest moments are watching undergrads in our audience, sitting next to more traditional (read: older) audience members, eating and watching and interacting with each other. 

Our little company has prospered (our first gala is November 7th!), and much to my surprise, I enjoyed all of the admin stuff that scared me away from Artistic Directorship in the first place.  Or rather, I should say, my idea of being an AD (my therapist and I can figure out where this came from) was of someone very organized, sort of boring, sort of patriarchal, who had sacrificed creativity for authority. 

But with The Upstarts, I learned I didn’t have to be any of those things to lead a company;  that Artistic Directorship wasn’t directing’s nemesis.  It was its fraternal twin: a creative endeavor, just as fulfilling and exciting on its own terms.  I directed the first three Upstarts events, until I realized that directing those readings was the least interesting part for me.  By getting an incredible roster of guest directors (Suzanne Agins, Andy Goldberg, Estefania Fadul, Morgan Gould) to direct the readings, it left me free to do the stuff I didn’t have experience in: producing and cooking for 100 people.  

While running The Upstarts, I realized (code for “discovered during therapy”) that to be a good AD you have to let go of the idea that you’d be the best director for any given project.  It’s the subtext that a freelance director has to carry like armor, shield and weapon at all times, because it’s the only way to win a job.  But it’s anathema to good artistic directing.  Our last event, for example, Rituals of Signs and Transformations, (by Sa’dallah Wannous, translated by Robert Myers & Nada Saab) was brought to the company by its director, Andrew Goldberg.  It was first performed in the Syrian playwright’s home country twenty years ago.  The closest it’s come to the English-speaking world is a production at the Comedy Française.  This is not a play I would’ve ever stumbled upon on my own. This one was Andy’s baby, and I was honored to help midwife it.
Margaret Shackell-Dowell
All of these things were going through my mind when the President of the Hangar Board (and now a great friend and ally) Margaret Shackell-Dowell emailed me, four hours before I was going to get on a plane to Istanbul, asking if I wanted to apply for the interim position.  (I’ve already blogged about how I became the interim artistic director, so I won’t get into that here).

So what happened during my Interim Year that made me apply for the full-time job?  Come back next week to read that post…


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