NET/TEN Shareback: Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and Theatre Nohgaku: An Evolution of Shared Leadership

2016-17 Exchange Grant Recipients

Theatre Nohgaku (New York, NY) traveled to Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble (Bloomsburg, PA) for a week-long leadership retreat and rehearsal residency. Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble imparted its 39-year history of shared leadership and operational challenges. Theatre Nohgaku developed and performed a workshop presentation of GETTYSBURG, a new English Noh performance written and directed by Bloomsburg ensemble member Elizabeth Dowd.

SHAREBACK:

Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble (BTE) hosted Theatre Nohgaku (TN) for a weeklong leadership retreat and rehearsal residency.  The goal was to help empower TN to address some of its operational challenges and possibly reshape its organizational structure.  In exchange, TN staged and performed a work-in-progress performance of Gettysburg, a new English noh written and directed by BTE and TN Ensemble member Elizabeth Dowd with music by David Crandall. 

On July 30, 2017, following a shared dinner, BTE members Jim Goode and Richard Cannaday imparted the major developments in BTE’s 40-year history of shared leadership.  The presentation, entitled Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble: Evolution of Shared Leadership over 40 Years, was recorded and can be below. . The presentation amounts to an invaluable history of one of the oldest and most respected ensemble theatre companies in America, as told by its own members.

The following commentary provides a timeline for the video with major points highlighted so viewers can jump to sections of particular interest. Following BTE’s formal presentation is an extensive Q&A with questions from members of TN. The summary below includes major points of discussion and highlights from BTE members’ responses.

Evolution of Leadership Structure in Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble

Video Timeline:
0:00-1:06:29 Evolution of Leadership Structure in Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble
0:00 - Introduction
02:45 - 1978-80 – The Officers Era
09:11 - 1981-84 - The Associate Artistic Directors Era
12:27 - 1984-86 The Artistic Directorate Era
19:19 - 1987-2006 – The Ensemble Director/ Associate Era
36:30 - 2007-11 The Producing Ensemble Director Era
39:10 - 2014-present – The Holocracy Era
(47:00 – How holocratic method works for BTE)
1:06:30 – Q&A with members of Theatre Nohgaku (See below for timeline related to specific discussion topics.)

Video Summary:

0:00 Introduction

  • There are 5 basic responsibilities for members in Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble:  1) choosing leadership; 2) choosing projects; 3) Choosing who directs; 4) Articulating company’s mission; 5) Voting in bylaws
  • Artistically, BTE may not even be recognizable to its 1978 version, but these two structural things have been passed down to members and are active today: “Artists should be empowered in their theater company.” “Ensemble is not just an artistic aesthetic; there’s shared leadership with ensemble.”



02:45 - 1978-1980 – The Officers Era

  • BTE grew out of master classes with Alvina Krause (AK)
  • Structure in 1978: Artistic Advisor (AK); 5 Ensemble Officers (administrative authority; no artistic involvement); 21 Total Ensemble Members (artistic authority)
  • Major issues: whether company would be a summer company or open all-year

  • Structure by 1979: AK (Artistic Director); 5 Ensemble Officers (administrative authority); 21 Total Ensemble (artistic authority)
  • Structure by 1980: Manager (brought in professional management)/Artistic Director; Associate Artistic Directors; 5 Ensemble Officers (administrative authority); 22 Total Ensemble Members (artistic authority)


09:11 - 1981-84 The Associate Artistic Directors Era

  • December 1981: AK died, leading to departure of a number of members
  • Central issue:  all-year members / summer members – should their voices all carry the same weight?
  • Structure by 1982: Manager; 3 Associate Artistic Directors (mostly working on production issues); 15 Total Ensemble Members


12:27 - 1984-86 The Artistic Directorate Era

  • Primarily title change from 1981-84-era structure
  • Informed by acknowledgment that producing a show is too much of a burden if you are in that show; era characterized by casual rotation of artistic directors
  • Structure by 1985: Manager; 2 Associate Artistic Directors; 10 Total Ensemble Members
  • Central issue: Members voted not to take on outside artistic direction, so that BTE members would be their own artistic directors; “What if we listen to ourselves?”
  • During this era, professional management became more dependable; directorate worked out how they would function on their own; directors were elected; membership continued to get smaller.


19:19 - 1987-2006 – The Ensemble Director/ Associate Era

  • Structure by 1987: Manager, Ensemble Director (or sometimes two Co-Ensemble Directors), Associate Ensemble Director, 10 total ensemble members
  • The phrase “Ensemble Director” might have originated with BTE
  • Ensemble Directors had large amount of producing responsibility, so the rotation helped prevent burnout; during this era, management pretty steady
  • Initially this structure was relentlessly democratic, but gradually members started to identify what things the membership needed to weigh in on and what things could be entrusted fully to ensemble directors
  • Example of ensemble director’s duties during this era (not exhaustive): Set agendas and run meetings; work on budgeting; attend staff meetings as voice of ensemble; make master production calendar; establish timelines for long-term projects; serve as liaison to production manager; supervise technical staff; develop production budgets; organize auditions; administer university lease; serve on finance committee; oversee casting; serve as HR representative to managing director; act as outside eye on productions; write contract that ensemble signs with board; supervise education; oversee long-term planning; respond to board decisions; respond to miscellaneous requests (from the community, for example); delegate representatives to board committees; hire/oversee/fire production staff; act as spokesperson to community; make decisions with time-sensitive deadlines; keep dialogue with individual ensemble members; provide critiques of shows; make report to board
  • Examples of standing committees during this era: Play Selection Committee; Membership Committee; Board has Finance Committee, Board Development Committee, Audience Development Committee, Development, Facilities, other ad hoc committees as needed
  • At this point, production staff/ensemble members were paid; management never served on a volunteer basis. During this period, occasionally there would be a “cash flow hiatus” when members volunteered their services. Members decided to pay a little more to ensemble leadership; otherwise, decision was to pay everyone equally. There was a difference in amount of vacation, based on seniority.
  • Contracting is on ensemble basis, so the board doesn’t have control over any one member
  • Structure by 2005: Manager, Ensemble Director, Associate Ensemble Director, 7 Total Ensemble Members


36:30 - 2007-11 The Producing Ensemble Director Era

  • Company continued to get smaller
  • Central issue: Perceived generational difference in the company causing tension in terms of what voices were getting heard in the room
  • Structure by 2008: Producing Ensemble Director, Associate Ensemble Director, 8 Total Ensemble Members; lapse of management during this period
  • Transition period (2012-13); as things were getting more hierarchical, there were impulses to break up hierarchy and establish a more horizontal structure; proposal put forward to make all members co-artistic directors; manager would be ex officio member of ensemble


39:10 - 2014-present – The Holocracy Era

  • Continuing vacuum in management
  • Central issue #1: Got to the point where no one wanted to be the ensemble director because of burden of production, lack of time and energy for artistic contribution: “We had exhausted our ability to lead ourselves by rotation.”
  • Central issue #2: The financial situation was so dire that our Alvina Krause Theatre was in danger of being repossessed. BTE asked community (“Point of Decision” campaign) if they wanted to continue to have the ensemble in Bloomsburg; many community members stepped up to support preservation of BTE
  • 2012-13, research on collective leadership structures, identified “holocratic method” as worth trying

    • Basic tenet: no top-down management
    • First: Members identify tasks that need to be done for effective company functioning (400-500 tasks were initially identified); members put tasks into “buckets” & established 30 or so different roles, with 7-8 tasks for each role
    • Second: Match people with 7 malleable positions, covering a total of approximately 30-5 roles; no one person is squarely the development person, etc.

 

  • How it works (47:00): 3 separate but equal face-to-face meetings: 1) tactical meeting, run by tactical head, in which all roles get called (Possible responses: “check” - have done work;  “no check” - haven’t done work but will get to it next week; “data/metrics” - new information; “tension” – didn’t get to job because person needs help; “dormant” – seasonal roles); 2) governance meeting, to make sure right person is in a role, right tasks have been identified – eventually, if tactical is going well and people are assigned to appropriate roles, governance should be rarer; 3) retreat and visioning meetings every few weeks (e.g., play selection, self-critique)
  • Structure as of 2014: Manager, 7 Total Ensemble Members
  • Challenges: The language of holocracy can be difficult for production staff. Because each member is fully empowered to make decisions related to their role, this can sometimes be a source of tension.
  • The shift to a holocratic method has helped greatly with generational differences.


1:05:46 – Q&A
Major topics:
1:06:45 - What’s the relationship between management/staff and company members?

  • Relationship relies on liaison positions – at least 1 individual in contact with major staff positions. Supervision on the administrative side is still hierarchical; members share supervision of production staff with Managing Director.
  • Explanation of difference between more traditional “reporting” in meetings and holocratic method’s tendency to emphasize forward thinking

1:15:12 - Does Managing Director meet with members?

  • Yes, during our 1-hour “office hours,” during which members do work that can’t be done alone. During that time, staff can come to office hours to talk with company members.

1:17:00 - How often do the ensemble members meet as a group?

  • There aren’t ensemble meetings per se; instead, the meetings are more focused: weekly tactical meeting; governance meetings after roles are reassigned in August; other meetings seasonal or as needed.

1:20:30 - Do you have any history with [Actors] Equity [Association]?

  • We’ve researched it, but ultimately it seems too great a financial burden, and it’s difficult to adapt their rules to what BTE does.

1:2:51 - Would you be bigger if you could be? If so, what’s standing in the way?

  • Yes, we would be bigger. Money is the largest single factor limiting size. There was a period of time when new members weren’t staying, and perhaps a reason had to do with empowerment of younger members. On the other hand, those very years were some of BTE’s most trailblazing.

1:30:55 - When did you get the Alvina Krause Theatre?

  • 1980-1. The sense is that people in Bloomsburg were very excited to support the company initially. Now that BTE is perceived as an institution, it’s often taken for granted. The 2007 “Point of Decision” campaign was a shock to many people, because it forced people to confront the fact that institutions are only as strong as the communities that support them. Now it’s more difficult to find committed board members who feel a responsibility to give back through service.

1:37:12 – What do you see as major differences between BTE and Theatre Nohgaku that might affect TN as it considers restructuring?

  • BTE is established in a single place, a home base, which affects play selection, marketing, and other factors. Also, BTE’s aesthetic is more flexible. Because TN involves movement, dance, music, there may be things to learn from dance companies, music ensembles. BTE members are paid salaries instead of by job; related to this, each member carries the “weight” of other people’s salaries, including staff members’. Possibly TN is more like a movement than an institution.

1:47:18 – How much of your funding depends on your non-profit status?

  • Ticket sales are 35-40%, and the rest is donation (corporate/individual/fundraising events), so non-profit status is essential. Also, non-profit status was essential in keeping the theatre during the “Point of Decision” campaign. Grant support from state and federal sources is shrinking, as it is everywhere. Monetizing in other areas has helped fill the gap; e.g., BTE now has a liquor license. Payroll taxes would work very differently if BTE didn’t have non-profit status.

2:00:37 – Meaning and perception of “ensemble” in administration and art.
BTE is still hierarchical in rehearsal room. “Ensemble” really has to do with running the company.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

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