What Makes a Manager?

By Nolan, Victoria | American Theatre, January 1994 | Go to article overview

What Makes a Manager?


Nolan, Victoria, American Theatre


It's a familiar request. A board member or patron of the theatre calls to ask a favor: "Would you take a few minutes to talk with my daughter? She's just out of college and is interested in theatre management."

Yikes! You'd think after 20 years of working in the business that this kind of advice would be easy to give. The advice I gave 20 years ago was simple enough. It was based on the path I followed: "Find the very best managing director working with the most exciting artistic director and spend a year interning, for free if necessary, working with that manager. Then if you are very, very good, opportunities will abound and you will rise to the top."

But 20 years ago theatres were less complex. Most were in their first generation of leadership; often the founders were still in charge, and many of the managers sprang from the ranks of their young disciples. They were steeped in that driving artistic vision of a theatre free from the constraints of commercial pressures. The characteristics of a good manager were energy, tenacity and seat-of-the-pants wisdom.

As a young "would-be" manager I saw the likes of Sara O'Connor (Milwaukee Repertory Theater); Peter Culman (Center Stage of Baltimore); Edgar Rosenblum (Long Wharf Theatre of New Haven) and Barry Grove (Manhattan Theatre Club). Their styles and emphases were vastly different, and yet each one had either founded a theatre with an artistic partner or grown up through the ranks of a founding theatre. They were (and still are) energetic, tenacious, wise.

The growth of their theatres and the birth of hundreds more were rapid, almost dangerous events--risks were taken both on stage and in the "front offices." Constant change created great opportunities for being in the right place at the right time. The business-world tradition of rising slowly through the ranks was bypassed. They invented the jobs and made up the rules as they went along. And yes, it was an all-white, old-boy network where jobs were filled by word-of-mouth and mentorship was all.

Today, our little theatres have become multi-million-dollar "institutions." Marketing strategies consume hundreds of thousands of dollars, their budgets larger than entire theatre budgets a decade ago. Sophisticated financial reporting and complicated personnel management monopolize conversation between board presidents and managing directors. …

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