The Management Puzzle: Learning to Keep Theatre Organizations Robust and Creative Requires Putting Together Lots of Disparate Pieces

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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. …