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What Would We Do Without a Board? Chatting with Iyvon Edebiri, Tatiana Isabel Gil, Brontte Hwang, and Cheryl Singleton

Boards of directors run the roost at nonprofit theaters, but does that need to change?

What Would We Do Without a Board? Chatting with Iyvon Edebiri, Tatiana Isabel Gil, Brontte Hwang, and Cheryl Singleton

When I started writing for Broadway World Boston, it was as a reviewer, and while I've discovered fascinating trends, patterns, and recurrences through this work, it is through the role of interviewer and arts journalist that I feel like I've unearthed the most eye-opening information about theatre as an art form, those who create it, and the industry which controls the two former. Somewhere over the past 14 months, I started interviewing artists, administrators, educators, and arts leaders. I've chatted with the public-facing heads of major Boston arts organizations, published scholars, playwrights, designers, directors, and performers, all in crevices of overlapping free time in our schedules. Suddenly, a role I never knew I wanted (theatre reviewer) expanded into two I had never thought of (theatre reviewer and arts reporter). But it wasn't until I attempted to chat with members of theaters' boards of directors that a new hat landed on my head-- a hat coveted by many a podcaster and documentary theatre-maker; investigative reporter.

Once I deigned to ask that I speak with a member of the board, theaters whose PR representatives would triple check to ensure I got the latest press release forgot the passwords to their emails and became unreachable. The murmur of "board member" sent once-open windows slamming shut. Draw bridges creaked upwards at my approach. Consolation prizes were offered ("the board is very busy. I can connect you with the artistic director.") Vague explanations of confidentiality were limply extended through carefully-worded treatises. Standby tumbleweed, standby scrim, standby lights, etc. So whatever Eyes Wide Shut party every major theatre's board is at will remain a mystery for another day.

Despite the initial discouragement (and very possibly because of it), the elusive function of the board of directors seemed to be a recurrent thread invisibly tangling beneath the brocade of interviews I was having. David Dower of ArtsEmerson had clear thoughts about the ways leadership models need to change in the theatre. Dr. Donatella Galella of the University of California got to the heart of the nonprofit model- a relatively new, yet somehow suddenly unequivocally essential structure for artmaking- which traps theaters under the guidance of a board. But artists, administrators, workers, and audiences are disadvantaged when asked to imagine a world without boards, because many of us are still unclear about what it is that boards of directors do.

I was finally fortunate to chat with two members of different Boston arts boards about the way they engage with their roles. Cheryl D Singleton has been a stalwart member of Boston's theatre community as an actor, director, improviser, and board member since moving here in 1986. In addition to serving on a New York theatre board, she formerly served as a member of ImprovBoston's board, the local Nicholas Green Scholarship Fund, and is currently on the boards for both StageSource and the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund (TCBF). She elaborates on how her work as a theatre practitioner informs the way she serves on a board ('serve' is the operative word in her thoughtful response). Though she feels drawn to engaging with work that is specifically supporting the lives of those in the arts community right now, she argues that her experiences as a theatre artist make her a valuable member for any company with a clear mission and set of principles.

"The basic function of the board is to make sure the theatre and its community can thrive. They need to meet the needs of the artists while promoting the mission of the theatre or organization, but there can be pushback because of differing views on how to best marry and meet those goals. A board has a stake in the health of the community. Board members should come from a diversity of backgrounds. They should have a vision. They should not be shy about their opinions, but they should have effective ways of sharing them. They should be willing to do the work." Though many of the conversations she has been engaging in are confidential, she assures me that, "Some people think we just sit around willy-nilly and pass decisions down, but we fundamentally get to the heart; What can and should our organization take on at this time?"

After decades of serving on boards, Singleton imagines that theaters will develop new ways to function. "We are all reconsidering how a board will serve in the future. Models will change- it's the only way the industry will survive. Whether or not boards are a part of that (new model), it's hard to imagine theaters operating without collaborative leadership." Reflecting on her legacy as a board member, she adds, "this is one way I like to serve my community. If there were no longer any boards, I would find a different way to serve."

At the other end of the experience spectrum, Brontte Hwang served on her first nonprofit board through the MBA program at the Heller School of Social Policy and Management as a Board Fellow with a Boston theatre company, a non-voting position. Because most boards have a higher age composition, Hwang felt that her age as well as her race and gender provided her with unique perspectives in subcommittee conversations. "Age diversity is lacking on boards in general. Recruitment methods need to change. I mean, you don't put out an ad seeking board members. You network. Most people on boards are already established in their fields and they realize that their networks are incredibly homogenous. So you are stuck with this problem of how to diversify quickly and organically."

The issue of homogeneity came up with Singleton too. She posits, "these conversations have been going on for years, but people are becoming more forceful about having real and lasting change. I believe peoples' hearts are in the right place, but it is hard for them to hear that the 'work' they've been doing has actually just been tokenizing." Hwang is proud of the conversations the theatre's board has been having and the steps they have been taking toward equity and anti-racism, but poses the question, "for people who look like me: Is it our responsibility to overcome barriers or is it the responsibility of a board to make sure voices of people who are traditionally marginalized can participate?"

Beyond the identities of who is making the decisions, Hwang gets to the root issues she perceives with the general nonprofit board model. "In traditional ways," she notes, "boards can be restrictive. They might look at a limited scope of things, like financial progressions, without really knowing what's going on on the ground. It's hard to stay true to a mission that is just a statement, not personal to you. As boards evolve, they should look to become less hierarchical, less vertical. Yes. Boards provide oversight- which is necessary- but calls to mind a hierarchy. The governing body needs to feel attached to the mission of the company, so having staff from the organizations present at board meetings might help, which is something I've seen the theatre do well. But a board is a fundraising body in a traditional finance makeup. It brings in revenue. To reinvent the board will require a reinvention of the development structure."

In addition to these two board members, I chatted with two artists who are reimagining the creation of theatrical work outside of the current nonprofit model. Tatiana Isabel Gil is an actor, playwright, dramaturg, and activist who has started a Patreon to offset her cost of living. "I have projects stewing that can't happen and the root cause is capitalism. Right now, we are asking companies to examine anti-racism, and a large piece of this that people are missing is an examination on how classist their practices are. Theaters need to look at the way we handle money." Through Patreon, Gil is receiving monthly donations in exchange for regular access to her musings and body of work. "I took the space and asked; what does this industry need to do for me to survive? I'm not just fighting for myself. I'm fighting for my community. I'm trying to build a microcosm of redistribution of wealth to learn how it all works, and also as an experiment for building larger versions of this in the future. This is not just about me getting paid, but about getting the community talking about issues of equity in a more action focused way. Freedom isn't coming from foundations. Freedom isn't coming from government grants. We need to broaden our imaginations."

Iyvon Edebiri, the co-founder and artistic director of Brooklyn's The Parsnip Ship echoes a similar wake-up call. "The pandemic has shown us that theatre is the experience, it's built and born from a live moment, the academic froufrou way of thinking of theatre doesn't cut it." This is especially essential for an artist like Edebiri who has been denied access to funding because the podcast format The Parsnip Ship has utilized for 5 years was not considered "theatre" until other organizations started following suit due to restrictions on gathering. "Companies who wouldn't give us the time of day before are now reaching out."

Because she is familiar with the model through her day job, Edebiri explains that The Parsnip Ship functions in ways like a nonprofit. "The idea of a board was important to me because this is my company and I want checks and balances in place. But I need trusted people from various sectors to team up and distill big ideas." The Parsnip Ship has operated under a semblance of a board for a little less than a year. "It's not a traditional board. They are in service to the artists, we are not in service to the board. I needed people who understand we are not replicating the bureaucratic structures of larger institutions. I have worked for some institutions where I have never met the board members. What is this, The Wizard of Oz? How can I kowtow to the will of someone I've never even seen? If boards are necessary for fundraising, they should give their $50K and go. Ask someone from the institution's staff or a member of the communities that institution claims to serve take your place in the meeting. If Bill Gates wanted to be on The Parsnip Ship's board, I'd say, 'No. Tell me about an indie show you liked, Bill. Give me the name of an indie playwright you like.' I want to talk with a board about art in ways that is not superficial small talk."

If we as artists, workers, practitioners, and audiences understood what a board is and how it functions, we could collectively address its issues more successfully. However, there are few historical instances of people in power conceding that power solely for the benefit of others. How will 2021 change the way we engage with the faceless board of directors?

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From This Author Andrew Child