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BWW Interview: David Dower, David Howse, Tonasia Jones, And Harold Steward on SHIFTING LEADERSHIP IN A SHIFTING CLIMATE at ArtsEmerson & The Theater Offensive

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The theatre industry is shifting, and some leaders are ready to make changes along with it.

BWW Interview: David Dower, David Howse, Tonasia Jones, And Harold Steward on SHIFTING LEADERSHIP IN A SHIFTING CLIMATE at ArtsEmerson & The Theater OffensiveChange is in the forefront of every theatre institution's conversations right now. As organizations convene to release comprehensive anti-racism plans, put out public relations fires as past transgressions come back into focus, and tighten their deadly clutch around maintaining a season subscription model, op eds and interviews circulate as leaders are asked, "what's next?" For two Boston theaters, longer-term plans for change have landed them in premeditated transition with future-oriented goals as they navigate the intricacies of theatre programming sans physical convening.

When I was invited to chat with Tonasia Jones and Harold Steward of The Theater Offensive about their ongoing #VoteOffensively programming, I was floored by how much the two were able to question their own roles as leaders. In an unexpected turn for any interviewer, even a request of Steward to state on the record his name, pronouns, and title launched a shambolic exegesis from a mind that exists in a state of incessant questioning of predetermined structures. Recently, Steward was named TTO's Executive Director and Cultural Strategist, which, they explain, might posit him alongside what other theaters may call Artistic Directors, but, "we're Queer so we need a new title. 'Artistic Director' is too normative. We'll all be enlisted to make the changes we want to see in a company irrespective of title, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to align the title with the job."

In their role as Cultural Strategist, Steward acknowledges, "there are a great number of people who align organizations to connect their work with social justice movements." However, to Steward, TTO is uniquely poised to define what the role of a Cultural Strategist within a theatre might be. "I hate 'community engagement' as a job title. When I go to the grocery store, I am utilizing resources within my community. That's not 'engagement'. 'Engagement' feels like outsiders are coming in- like I go to a grocery store outside of my community." They reflect on the ways this standard framing of 'engagement' work solidifies certain groups as outsiders who must be actively welcomed into a community. "We are operating within our own community and within a community that we are already a part of."

Entirely unprompted (this interview required very little prompting or questioning), Steward quickly reasons through the role of 'outsiders' within TTO's programming, specifically in the form of white people. "QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color) have built value around inclusive communities. That's in our history. White people are intrinsically woven into our legacies because we don't disenfranchise people further. We have always held strategic roles for white people within our work, and that's not going to change." Even amidst his heightened consciousness of a need to work within the QTPOC community, they reiterate, "We have an interracial relationship with each other and POC do not have a history of erasing people from our movements."

Equally hierophantic when confronted with the dilemma of introducing herself, Tonasia Jones throws her head back in laughter. She warns that, as a millennial, she has always needed to exist under multiple monikers. Officially, her recently announced position at TTO is the Director of Programs, but she says the only title which really applies to all of her work is that of 'Disrupter'. "I am a disrupter in all that I do, and right now, as all of these topics are intersecting in the forefront of our discussions, we are finding what our pieces are in the puzzles outside of built hierarchies."

Shortly after chatting about the shifting roles in the theatre's leadership at TTO, I got to hear from ArtsEmerson's Artistic Director, David Dower, who recently announced his plan to leave the organization, and Executive Director, David Howse, who will play a major role in steering the organization through a challenging year for any cultural institution. Dower harkens back to his time at Arena Stage- where he worked for six years after leaving his own company- and asking Arena's co-founder Zelda Fichandler when it was the right time to leave an organization. Fichandler's response- that an institution was a container for your inquiry, once your questions can no longer be answered by that institution, it is time to move on- has served as a recurrent guide for him. When Dower came to ArtsEmerson, it was only in its second year of programming. "I wanted to find out if this was possible. Could we build a contemporary institution- not just an institution that presents contemporary art- but an institution that responds to a city's culture and gives to that culture? We wanted to go beyond a nostalgia for what we were and create a living, growing, breathing structure for programming."

Dower feels that, without a doubt, the answer to this major question has been a proven, resounding 'yes', and now he is excited to take his learned community-building and curatorial skills to a commercial venture with The Seven Fingers. As Dower affirmed himself of his decision to leave ArtsEmerson, Howse found himself affirming his need to stay and continuing answering questions he has of the institution. "How do we keep our culture intact while social distancing? Who will we be post-pandemic- in the sense of a business model- we'll hold onto our values dearly, but what will our programming actually look like? How do we build a culture of transparency, accountability, and trust when we are limited in our proximity?"

Howse explains his comfortability with a shifting and changing management model in this moment. "As organizations evolve, so too should the leadership. Change is in our DNA here at ArtsEmerson, and we've experienced intentional shifts in leadership starting with our founder, Rob Orchard's, hiring of David Dower. Each leader has had a role to play, and our role has been that of stewards and not owners of the resources that been entrusted to us."

This set of beliefs launches Dower into a torrent of meditations on theatre leadership as the timer on my free Zoom account forebodes a two-minute warning. "(ArtsEmerson) is a cultural asset, which means we do what the city needs. We have to name a mission outside of ourselves because what's on stage is not the point, it's the prompt. If your mission goes beyond the standard 'do good work' or 'putting interesting stories on stage that move you' (grimace) you will always be in a state of evolution. For more than a generation, (American) Artistic Directors have mistaken themselves as the point. This has elevated us into the tower away from our communities. This is why we see a failure to evolve."

Dower mourns that, because of the selfish mentality of Artistic Directors who refuse to grow and shift, "we have lost 20-30 years of evolving theatre leadership, because many dynamic future leaders couldn't afford to wait." His call to colleagues; "If you are not more excited about where we're going than where we've been, that's a sign that this moment has passed you. We do not need Artistic Directors in the same long-tenured mold of the past 40 years." While he concedes that he is excited to see what comes from a reimagined and virtual theatre in the near future, he dually acknowledges that there are other leaders with more of a relationship with technology who need to lead the charge.

Howse responds, " We NEED people who can shape organizations and be held accountable for their stability, but those leaders need to shape based on listening and responding, no longer just on instinct."

In the midst of clamoring to figure out what 2021 will look like, it is reassuring to chat with administrators who are thinking in terms of longevity and lasting, effective change. Even in the course of interviewing these leaders and drafting this article, Peter DuBois, the former Norma Jean Calderwood Artistic Director of the Huntington Theatre Company, announced his resignation. In a statement released by their board of directors, the company professes, "As we are an evolving theatre company, so too is the role of the artistic director." As our art form and industry shift, not only must the people in positions of power shift, but those positions themselves must be reimagined in order to lead us to a brighter future rather than stagnating in an act of keeping a fossil alive. It will be interesting to see how the Huntington and other theaters continue to think in progressive, transformative ways.

Photo Credit: Asia Kepka for ArtsEmerson


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From This Author Andrew Child