Stages of change

Does new leadership (finally) mean a new era for Philly-area theaters?

6 minute read
On a red-lit stage, four Black men crawl menacingly toward a Black boy.
A scene from the Wilma’s 2018 production of 'Kill Move Paradise,' by James Ijames. Photo by Johanna Austin.

Two stories have dominated the conversation within the Philadelphia theater world this summer—and while they may seem entirely unrelated at first glance, they are not without some symbolic overlap.

Since June, the Walnut Street Theatre (WST) has been rocked by protests, both in person and on social media, regarding their handling of diversity and inclusion, worker compensation, and equitable treatment of their staff. (Broad Street Review has covered this topic.) The outcry following WST’s decision to serve Jenna Pinchbeck, a local actor and voice artist, with a cease-and-desist letter after she made critical comments on the company’s Facebook page sparked the creation of Protect the Artist Philly—an advocacy group demanding, among other things, the removal of WST’s founding president and producing artistic director Bernard Havard.

In early July, another artistic director, the Wilma’s Blanka Zizka, announced her retirement after shepherding the company, in one form or another, since 1979. After introducing a new leadership structure just before the pandemic—a collaborative model of rotating artistic directors, including Zizka and three other principals—Zizka said she would assume emeritus status, citing her wish to spend more time with family and focus on artistic pursuits rather than administrative ones.

Zizka’s 41-year tenure at the Wilma is not uncommon; Havard, for example, has been at the helm of WST since it was established in 1983. (As my colleague Alaina Johns pointed out recently, the Walnut Street Theatre Company is still a relatively young venture, although the building it operates in claims to be the country’s oldest theater.) Artistic directors in Philadelphia tend to stick around for the long haul, and in doing so, they can become synonymous with their company’s brand and the work it produces.

A collaborative model

Comparing WST and the Wilma might feel less like a case of apples and oranges and more like an apple and a grenade. The former company produces slick, showy, and often forgettable fare. The latter brings a truly unique, avant-garde perspective to the Philadelphia landscape, singular and memorable even when a production misfires. Although Havard directs occasionally, one would hardly say he brings a distinctive vision to his work, whereas Zizka’s aesthetic, rooted in European experimentalism, has come to define the Wilma.

Zizka’s decision to leave, coupled with the determination by some to force Havard out, underlines questions at the forefront of many conversations as theater companies look toward resuming in-person performances this fall: What should our leadership model look like? How do we decide when it’s time for a change?

Increasingly, the collaborative model appears to be gaining steam. The three artists tapped last year to lead the Wilma with Zizka—James Ijames, Yury Urnov, and Morgan Green—will continue in their roles, with each director taking the lead for an upcoming season. (Ijames will be the lead artistic director for the 2021-2022 season, which was announced on July 26.) All three bring different backgrounds, stylistic mandates, and life experiences to the job, and it will be intriguing to see how their choices complement, and diverge from, what audiences have come to expect from the company.

Three women in knee-length gowns on a colorfully lit stage sing into microphones like rock stars
A scene from Curio’s 2019 production of 'Three Sisters, by RashDash, After Chekhov.' Photo by Rebecca Gudelunas.

Truly including West Philly

Sharing leadership duties can also be used to foster more diverse perspectives among an artistic staff. In July 2020, Curio Theatre announced that Rich Bradford, a longtime associate, would assume the role of co-artistic director, serving alongside founder Paul Kuhn. The move was deliberate: Kuhn felt that the company, based in West Philadelphia, could not justify an all-white leadership model. Curio has long viewed itself as a community resource, but Kuhn came to realize the company was not representative or accessible to the entire West Philly community.

“In our minds, we had been fully accessible,” Kuhn said in a recent interview. “But when we genuinely looked at it, that just wasn’t 100 percent true. We were unintentionally, but directly, cutting off a large part of our audience. The community wasn’t being fully represented onstage—quite frankly, through the stories we were telling. We have to have stories that represent our community, all of the community, on our stage.”

In an effort to right the ship, Kuhn ceded programming and other artistic responsibilities to Bradford. The company will also explore implementing more pay-what-you-can ticketing options as a way to increase access without financial burden, as well as sharing its space with other companies, such as Theatre in the X, that center underrepresented perspectives.

In an interview, Bradford said that one of his major goals is to rebuild trust with the West Philly community, and to create a collaborative environment where artistic partnerships can flourish. “I’m hoping to do more community outreach and cross-pollinate with different resources,” he said. “I want to build a big community, a big web of resources, and talk about different issues and topics that affect the West Philadelphia community.”

“It’s not even a question anymore”

Paige Price, the producing artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC), knew similarly that her theater needed to diversify its leadership. In 2020, she recruited Jeffrey Page, a prolific director and choreographer who graduated from the University of the Arts, as the company’s first Resident Artist.

Price had long wanted to recruit Page to PTC, but she received pushback due to financial constraints. After the uprisings of summer 2020, however, she felt the matter could no longer wait. “When the racial reckoning happened, I’ll be honest, I was able to make my case much more forcefully,” she said. “I said it’s not even a question anymore—it must happen. It meant sacrifices too, in the way we funded and made room, but that is part of what this moment is about.”

A woman and a man in lavish Regency costumes are coming close to kissing.
A scene from People’s Light’s 2016 production of 'Sense and Sensibility.' Photo by Mark Garvin.

The opportunities we need

In March 2022, Abigail Adams will step down as the artistic director of People’s Light, a position she’s held since 1997. Her overall association with the company spans 45 years, and she’s not leaving entirely—instead, she’ll become the theater’s director of special projects. “It’s time for a new generation of hearts and minds to lead,” she told me, adding that her transition has been in the works for several years and was delayed by the pandemic.

Zak Berkman, People’s Light’s producing director since 2013, will succeed Adams. Berkman will also work with an expanded artistic leadership team that includes resident director Steve H. Broadnax III and another senior position yet to be filled.

By email, he told me that his thinking and vision as he assumes the role is guided by “the profound opportunity to engage communities that are truly diverse in their economic, political, and cultural histories and perspectives.

“Equally important and front of mind is how People’s Light can be an even more welcoming, accessible, safe, inspiring home for storytellers of a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines who want to manifest these kinds of heart-expanding collective experiences,” he continued. “It’s brutal trying to be an American theater artist in the 2020s, and yet they are essential workers in helping us perceive and process the times we are in. We want to be a place where these artists know they are supported, celebrated, and offered the space, time, and resources to grow.”

Asked what she thinks artists and aspiring administrators are looking for in terms of leadership in 2021 and beyond, Adams summed it up succinctly: “Opportunities! To work, develop, and fully engage in safe and creative environments. And to make work that wakes us up, brings us together, and offers a vision for a more just and caring society.”

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