About 15 years ago – maybe more – I worked at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, at first as a board op, eventually as their master electrician. The going joke amongst the staff was that everyone in the Twin Cities who hadn’t worked at the Jeune Lune wanted to; everyone who had worked there never wanted to again; as staff, we were just in the cocoon phase between times.
Their producing director, a very smart guy named Steve Richardson, was working on a pamphlet for audience development. It showed a picture of their new (new-ish by then) building, a converted, beautifully flexible space in the Warehouse District, with a caption that read: This is not the Jeune Lune. There was a picture of audience seating: This is not the Jeune Lune. There was a picture of the company: We are the Jeune Lune. I might have some of the details wrong here, but what he was focusing on was the non-institutional nature of the company. The artistic vision that we the artists put forward, that is what makes this company what it is. We were a company before our building, after all.
Contrast that with the Guthrie Theater, which was about to lose abstract visionary Garland Wright for populist Joe Dowling. Garland was all about formal experimentation. Joe produced Blithe Spirit. Some of the artistically inclined and satisfied staff under Garland were bored at best, outraged at worst, by the new direction. Some of them left. And Joe has succeeded in many places where Garland failed, not least of which was turning around a steady decline in ticket sales that had begun long before Garland had even taken over. Under Joe, there is a new building, a huge public building that is at least partly owned by the Minnesota taxpayer – and therefore, parts of it are open all hours.
Here’s the thing: Joe is replaceable. Garland was replaceable. Garland was the face of the institution, just as Joe is the face now. Institutions are susceptible to personalities, but they are designed to be resistant to them at the same time. An institution should outlast its leaders – how else would governments survive? The best these leaders can do is point new directions.
The trick is that the leaders are not the bosses. The boards are the bosses.
The timing of Bill Thiesen’s firing is – besides being rude and ham-handed – anthropologically interesting. As a country, we are outraged, outraged at the sums of money paid to CEOs of major corporations while their boards do nothing. Now we are outraged, outraged when the board of a major arts organization does something. It could be that Thiesen was terrible at his job of Artistic Director while being brilliant as his job as stage director, and it could be that it was the only responsible thing for the board to do was to fire him. It could be that Erik Dillner did not stage a coup, but that the board brought him in a year ago with the intention of making this transition. It could be that they are acting completely appropriately, even while being total and complete boneheads about implementing their completely appropriate actions.
It is the board’s responsibility to ensure the life of the institution. It is not their responsibility to care for the individuals. We are, after all, replaceable – components in Henry Ford’s system of interchangeable parts.
I disagree that this system is “increasingly obsolete,” as Ben Turk writes. I do agree that it is dangerous, that it divorces us from the meanings of our actions, that it makes decisions that are “not personal.” What is more personal than disregarding each other as persons? I may work an interchangeable job, but I am the only me, just as all of Bill’s friends know that he is the only Bill – or the only Jason, Kelley, Ralph, Diana.
Here is the quandary. We want our friends to succeed, all those named above. We want the Skylight to succeed. The board has said that these can’t both happen at the same time. We are okay when a person leaves the institution: when Christopher Libby left the Skylight, he was moving on. We understand on that level. When the institution leaves the person, we don’t. It’s an insult.
No one in the local debate seems to understand this as clearly as Jonathan West – I suspect this is due to his former position as the artistic director of a now-gone theater company, Bialystock & Bloom, and to his current position as the managing director of a community theater, the Sunset Playhouse. He understands what boards do and what boards have to do, and the underlying tone of his posts recognize this.
The system is partly to blame: interchangeable parts. But the board made its own choices that have exacerbated the problem. We are not interchangeable people. Was it too much to ask that you treat us as neighbors, as partners, friends?
It is ironic that “to institutionalize” means both “to make or to turn into an institution” and “to place or confine in an institution, esp. one for the care of mental illness, alcoholism, etc.”
Welcome to the nuthouse that is the corporation.
18 hours ago