Boardroom with a View: What Happens When Artists Mix It Up with Boards of Trustees?

By Houghton, Jim | American Theatre, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Boardroom with a View: What Happens When Artists Mix It Up with Boards of Trustees?


Houghton, Jim, American Theatre


A fuller version of this conversation, which took place in May 2004, appears in The Art of Governance: Boards in the Performing Arts, edited by Nancy Roche and Jaan Whitehead, scheduled for publication in September by TCG Books. The book is a collection of essays and articles about the role of theatre trustees.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

JIM HOUGHTON, founding artistic director, Signature Theatre Company: Our goal in this discussion is to gain some insights that will bridge communication between artists and board members. We have a good mix here of artists who have run theatres, people who have sat on boards and people who have done neither.

DOUG HUGHES, director: I grew up working in institutional theatres, so I have worked closely with boards. My earliest job was at Manhattan Theatre Club, where I was the associate artistic director. I was also associate artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre for about a decade and then its acting artistic director. Later, I became the artistic director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. I resigned just at the conclusion of my fourth season, about three years ago, because of problems in the boardroom, which I'll come back to later. Now I work as a director.

JAMES BUNDY, dean, Yale School of Drama, and artistic director, Yale Repertory Theatre: I started in the theatre as an actor, and while I was still acting, I became a trustee of Cornerstone Theater Company in L.A., which was a pretty transformative experience, because it's a company that I believed in so fervently. Cornerstone was driven exclusively by the interests of the artists for a long time, although eventually the company came to the conclusion that they needed a board that was more active.

After Cornerstone, I worked as the associate producing director of the Acting Company in New York, and then I became the artistic director of Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, Ohio. And now I have the altogether different pleasure of serving in an institution where I have no board of trustees, Yale Repertory Theatre and Yale School of Drama. I report only to the president and the provost at Yale.

CHRISTINE JONES, set designer: In stark contrast to both of these gentlemen, I believe I have probably been introduced to a board member on one or two occasions. I've been set-designing for about 11 years and I've had very little contact with boards or trustees. I really have very little understanding of what they do, and often feel that they have very little understanding of what I do. So this is a great opportunity to build some bridges.

PETER FRANCIS JAMES, actor: I suppose I'm more or less in Christine's position. I have been an actor for 25 years. In that time, other than board members that I knew for other reasons, I've had only two conversations with board members, although both were fascinating.

KATHLEEN CHALFANT, actor: I've had a checkered career. I've been in New York for 31 years, mostly as an actor. In the beginning I was involved with the establishment of two institutions: Playwrights Horizons, under Bob Moss's astounding leadership, and the Women's Project. Then I was asked to be on the board of the New York Theatre Workshop, and I served for four or five years. I was on the board of Classic Stage Company for the term of David Esbjornson's artistic directorship, and I've been on the board of the Vineyard Theatre for six or seven years. In every case I was the mole--the artistic mole--and was asked because I had a personal relationship with the artistic director.

The boards themselves seemed to me to be successful because, in every case, they existed to move the stated agenda of the theatre forward. They were all small institutions with small boards, and the work they did was almost entirely for the good of the institutions. As the institutions grew--and all these institutions grew--there got to be big issues about the bottom line, about who wanted to sit at the table with whom and whether being on the board became a social identity. …

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