American Theatre convened a roundtable of six leaders in the field of theatre management to discuss current issues and trends in management training. The panelists represented a broad spectrum, including the heads of both well-established and new graduate programs in theatre management. Joining them were successful managers without formal training, who learned through on-the-job experience in the field under the mentorship of more experienced managers; and creators of and participants in a variety of executive education programs for practicing managers. Participants were experienced in both commercial theatre and in various not-for-profit producing models.
JOAN CHANNICK: Thirty years ago, there were few academic programs for theatre managers. Today there are several dozen graduate training programs in theatre management and arts administration, which seem to be proliferating. As both a graduate of such a program myself and as a faculty member who has taught in a couple of programs, let me ask the heretical question: Is academic training necessary? In a field where most people don't have formal training, what is the purpose of your programs today?
STEVEN CHAIKELSON: Both as an educator and as someone who in the real world outside the university employs people, I acknowledge that formal academic training is not required; there are plenty of excellent people in the field who are working their way up and learning the business, up the ladder, rung by rung. From an employer's perspective, though, I find that graduates of MFA programs have a much greater sense of the big picture--how very different areas of the industry have impact on each other.
So you'd characterize training programs as an efficient way to get broad experience in a brief period of time.
CHAIKELSON: That would be the primary motivator. Secondarily, it's also a great advantage in terms of building a network with the faculty as well as the students with whom you're going through the program.
EDWARD A. MARTENSON: This question has a very different answer if we're talking about the value of the training from the students' perspective than it would if we're talking about the value of the training from the field's perspective. Apprenticeship always has been the primary mode of training for all disciplines in the theatre field and probably always will be. We look at the traditional content that comes in academic training as an add-on to that. Nothing can substitute for experience in our field. You have to be inculcated into the way things work through apprenticeship. In the context of our program and others I respect a lot, apprenticeship is at the center of what you would think of as an academic program, and the classroom work is in addition to that.
The answer to the question from the academic side is another question: What are the limitations to apprenticeship, and how can we fill them in? Apprenticeship is inevitably connected with the concept of best practices. You want to give students a clear idea of the way things are done best out in the field, so they can fast-track once they're out. If apprenticeship existed only on its own, if that's all there was, then best practices has the potential to become the thing you aspire to, as opposed to what would be more valuable for the field as a whole--which is viewing best practices as the platform that you stand on to innovate and raise the standard of practice. Academic training should be designed to give the students the tools--in addition to giving students best practices--that create the capacity for them to raise the standard of practice during their careers.
Criss, what was the impetus behind the creation of your new Arts Leadership Program? Why did Chicago Shakespeare Theater ally itself with the Theatre School at DePaul, and what distinguishes your program from those that already exist?
CRISS HENDERSON: I had no formal arts management training other than the fact that I had this amazing theatre that gave me the opportunity to learn over 17 years, as we grew from a $100,000 budget to a $13.5-million budget. Building on some work that the Illinois Arts Alliance had done on succession planning (which raised the question of where the next round of leadership was coming from), we wanted to create a way for our organization to continue to serve as a laboratory for growth. The Arts Leadership Program is different from many of the established arts management programs. It is a very individually driven and determined educational/professional experience for only two fellows each year. The dual commitment as a Chicago Shakespeare Theater employee and DePaul graduate student creates a laboratory in which emerging leaders can experiment professionally and academically--honing and developing their skills and talents while finding or refining the direction they want to set out in as they enter what we hope will be a long and impactful life in art-making and arts management.
Susie, as president of the League of Resident Theatres, you've now taken on professional development of practicing managers as part of LORT's mission. What are the field needs that LORT is trying to address?
SUSAN MEDAK: There was a moment when it became clear that the organizations were becoming increasingly complex and that the management skills of people who were in the job pool were not up to those challenges. Our organizations are much more complicated than they were 20 years ago. So many of us realized that we would no longer hire ourselves to run these organizations. Many of us who have been managing for a long time came into the field with very little skill and a lot of good intentions and a great sense of idealism, and we were lucky enough to be able to apprentice ourselves to people who knew more and to be able to grow with the field.
The field and the world have become more complicated. I see a disconnect between the training programs and those of us who are hiring. While the training programs are producing young people who think of themselves as arts managers, they're not necessarily being hired in great numbers by the field. At the same time, the field is changing so …