Season Programming and Personal Agency

I’ve clarified some thoughts I’ve been brewing, about where the responsibility for play selection and artist hiring ultimately lies, in the wake of the controversy over and response to The Summit (which I wrote up in as objective a fashion as possible at DC Theatre Scene – in fact, I was so involved in trying to work through my notes and avoid editorializing in the article, I haven’t really had a chance to digest the debate until now).

After considering what the artistic directors say, and the evidence of what’s ended up on their stages, I believe that, to some degree, the representation problem is one of inappropriately deferred agency.

Open Mic

photo (c) 2009 Pete, Flickr – Creative Commons license

When the artistic directors talk about what influences their theatre’s decisions – of what plays to produce and who to direct and design them – their attributions vary. On one end of the spectrum, we have, for instance, Eric Schaeffer attributing Signature’s selections to his personal artistic taste, saying he ignores his marketers and that his theatre works from “heart and soul.” On the other hand, we have Paul Tetreault talking the non-existence of more plays like Trouble in Mind and Ryan Rilette bringing up the infamous “pipeline.” The message I get from the artistic directors, from all this, is that they feel subject to various forces, with high degrees of control over what artists they can and can’t choose to put on their stage. These forces seem to range from the beneficial (the focus of a company’s stated mission) to the benign (what other companies in town are doing) to the… well, I’ll say constricting (the “pipeline”).

I believe many of these forces either do not actually exist, or are significantly less powerful than the artistic directors believe. I think what is going on is that the people who possess the lion’s share of the decisive agency for what and who ends up onstage (the artistic directors and their immediate teams) are denying that they have that agency.

This happens in one of two ways: either 1) they deny themselves the agency before the fact, surrendering their influence to their boards, marketing teams, or the perceived needs of their audiences or the “American theatre,” and intentionally make themselves into a conduit for what they believe these groups want, refraining from inserting too much their own power and opinion into the equation. Or, 2) they deny themselves agency retroactively. They make actual decisive choices, based upon their preference and their control of their theatre’s mission (which, we should remember, is very changeable – just look at Round House under each of its ADs) – and then put the responsibility for those choices they made on the influence of other groups. A hypothetical example of this would be an artistic team selecting a season with no female playwrights, for no other reason than because the artistic director was particularly interested in working with a few specific male writers (and there’s nothing wrong with being interested in specific writers, of course); the AD didn’t want to sacrifice working with them in order to seek out gender balance in the season; finally, after season announcement and ensuing controversy, the AD and team claims that their hands had been tied, due to board influence, or a lack of appropriate/quality plays by women in the “pipeline,” or whatever.

It’s scary to hold power. I think it’s particularly scary for someone who, as Tetreault said, wants to “change the world,” because with power comes not just responsibility, but moral uncertainty. It’s easy for a powerless person to remain morally pure – unlike a powerful person, there are not scores of interest groups banging on their door, each one claiming to have a morally imperative reason why that powerful person should do what they are saying they should do. (Even financial imperatives can start to look like moral ones, considering what the theatre going under would mean for the community of deeply invested artists and audience.)

A powerful person is pressured to compromise, to be diplomatic, to funnel competing moral interests into actual decisions. Artistic directors have to look at and listen to their theatre’s history, its mission, the current conversation in the theatre world, the current events and zeitgeist in the world at large, their fellow theatre companies in town, their critics, their donors, their board, their subscribers, their regular audience members, their irregular audience members, their ticket sales, their budget, their grant-giving institutions, their local government and community leaders, the ambassadors from minority groups and cultural commenters making accusations of past and present moral failings, the personal needs and obligations of their friends and colleagues in the office with them, and, finally, their own judgment. I would expect that anyone in such a position would be greatly inclined to deny that they have full agency in any decisions that happen.

So I believe the problem here is that, in fact, they do have agency. They are subject to these forces, both in the sense that they can be fired or run out of town if they upset too many of these people, and in the sense that any human being is only emotionally capable of resisting so much demand; but no artistic director is so far beneath the waves of these forces that something so weak and nebulous as “the pipeline” or the norms of American Theatre or the prejudices of various individual stakeholders can drown their ability to choose. Every single one of these directors has the agency to make their theatre put on nothing but plays written by women or nothing but plays by people of color in the 2015-2016 season if they really, truly want it to happen – if that final influence, their own judgment, wants it to happen. (Which is nothing to say of enacting a season of ‘just’ half minority voices.) Any artistic director who denies that they could do that is either 1) surrendering their agency before the fact, which is emotionally understandable, but incorrect, or 2) preemptively making excuses for their own preferential decisions such that they will pretend to not have had agency for their choices after the fact, which is cowardly, false, and disingenuous.

And even if, at a particular theatre, the board or donors are strong enough that they could actually, legalistically block play selections or director hires, the artistic director would still definitively maintain the agency – as a human being – to speak contrarily and publicly against their own theatre’s season selection – shocking and job-endangering though that might be – or even to threaten stepping down, if they believe strongly enough in the issue. Or, at least, you know, they could not make excuses and attribute the deficiencies of that resulting season, after the fact, to New York and London or whatever other supposed influence. They can be honest and open about where they have applied their agency and power.

That’s not easy for human beings to do – we are psychologically wired to justify our own actions after the fact, such that someone who feels forced into a play selection choice will be inclined to later tell themselves it was their own, best choice and that it’s just the way it is– but that’s what the commentary of outside observers is for: to prod and remind the decision-maker that they, indeed, could have made another decision.

I believe that these artistic directors (and I’m not only talking about the five at The Summit, but all of them, everywhere, especially at the major institutions) are individuals and thus are, you know, different from each other. Some of the ones responsible for perpetuating the all-white-male-all-the-time theatre norm are doing so out of tunnel vision – they don’t want to be responsible for abstracts like theatre norms and social justice, they just want to make some art that they like; and yet they deny themselves the agency for finding plays or directors they like that are also from underrepresented groups. Some of them subject themselves to their board or are overly submissive to money concerns, and deny themselves that same agency. Some of them work hard to improve things, but deny themselves the agency they have to do even more, to prioritize change higher than they have already managed. Some of them have just straight up convinced themselves that they don’t have the agency they do, putting the responsibility for their own narrow-minded decisions – or even their own naked prejudice – onto other forces, either naively or maliciously. Some of them genuinely feel their hands are tied and wish they could do more, and thus are not giving themselves enough credit. And some of them are doing a damn fine job already, and should be models for the others.

The artistic directors are a diverse group of people who, collectively, are successful artists, but unsuccessful social leaders. (Or at least possessing a mixed record – many of them are of course responsible for some great education programs, among other things, but our focus here is on representation and meeting community needs.) Each one is a fully vested agent of the national and international theatre community; it’s time they recognize the full extent and significance of their power.


  1. It’s true that we artistic directors are all pretty different from one another but one part of the conversation that is being ignored is the classist aspect. Large houses dominate the funding doled out and they are in no mood to share that. So, instead they marginalize those of us that have been doing the work for years they only just discovered was a good idea over brunch last year. In fact, Venus has been doing the work that the Cradle promised to do for eight years now and will close this year with our 50th production that empowers women.

    There are resources all around that would inform some really good collective decisions for the community if there were any respect or attention paid to the artistry instead of the bank account.

    When the agency is deceptively classist it effects directly the funding streams. So that double talking companies continue to be heavily funded because they claim one thing and do another and therefor continue to hold sway. They can say, give us millions American Express because we are going to embrace and cradle and grow new works, and then they can tell a reporter that new plays just don’t make money. Where is the accountability? Those of us actually attaining the goals promised on a shoestring budget (Venus operates on $25,000 annually producing four new plays, a workshop for children in the summer, and year round community outreach. We pay all of our artists stipends and would like to put artists at the center of economic development out here in Laurel, MD) are being erased by the very AD’s who claim to care. This isn’t accidental or innocent. It’s artistically homicidal and there should absolutely be checks and balances and complete accountability.

    The minimizing of women as they try to solve the problem of sexism in the field is hypocrisy in it’s most horrendous form.

    1. Aye, it’s important for the folks in charge at the major institutions not to forget that in addition to having power over their own season programming (and all that that means), they also, directly and indirectly, effect the smaller theatres. They draw funds to or from the smaller theatres; they share or do not share spaces with them; they form or do not form partnerships and co-productions with them; and, most importantly and most abstractly, they give or take weight from the work that companies such as Venus do by the way in which they handle their own.

      A large company doing what you said with new play funds devalues the work of seriously committed, smaller new play companies in the eyes of grant makers, donors and the public. Among other things, by treating new plays with kid gloves and major financial risks, that require huge investments for little actual return in terms of *work happening onstage*, they inadvertently suggest that the affordable work being done by small companies cannot possibly be good or valuable. The same goes for women’s work, etc. If the national scene of theatre companies is a fleet, and small ships start steering in a new direction but the large ones keep full speed ahead, those breakaway vessels look like anomalies – whereas if the big ships start steering in that different direction (even just a few of them), the new course becomes more credible.

      I think it’s good to remember that none of the artists with the power to make these decisions thinks of themselves as doing anything bad – I’m pretty sure they mostly think of themselves as navigating the best they can through a minefield, possibly while steering a leaking boat – except perhaps an unknown (hopefully) small number who secretly harbor the opinion that women, minorities, playwrights not vetted in New York, etc., are not as capable. My hope is that a lot of these folks realize just how much they truly control the wheel and that they can BOTH keep moving ahead AND support these important changes.

      And my challenge would be that if any of them feel they are *so* constrained that they can’t nudge their course even just enough to allow *slightly increasing* equity in representation from season to season – I’m not even talking about instantly achieving 50/50 gender splits in directors for instance, but how about +1 female director compared to last season? – just enough so it can honestly be said that the situation is on the *slightest* of upward trends at that theatre – that they are not strong enough as captains, and should step down.

      (Extended nautical metaphor not originally intended.)

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  2. […] For the uninitiated, Brett Steven Abelman posted a nicely balanced summary of the action here, and Elissa Goetschius (she who asked the notorious final question, with many a powerful statistic to back herself up) wrote up her thoughts here. Brett followed up with some more personal observations here. […]

  3. […] Also worth reading is the fateful final question-er Elissa Goetschius’ thoughtful response and Brett Steven Abelman‘s as […]

  4. […] • Brett Steven Abelman continued on the subject via his personal blog:  “Season Programming and Personal Agency” […]

  5. […] • Brett Steven Abelman continued on the subject via his personal blog:  “Season Programming and Personal Agency” […]

  6. […] • Brett Steven Abelman continued on the subject via his personal blog:  “Season Programming and Personal Agency” […]

  7. […] • Brett Steven Abelman continued on the subject via his personal blog:  “Season Programming and Personal Agency” […]

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