BIPOC theater models paradigm for artistic management
Originally submitted as a Letter to the Editor to the San Francisco Chronicle:
Lily Janiak’s January 3rd article, “Is theater’s traditional role of artistic director becoming obsolete?”, framed around changes in Marin Shakespeare Company’s structure, totally mischaracterizes AlterTheater Ensemble. In fact, our inclusion at all in the article about theaters now restructuring due to difficulty filling the previously “coveted” role of Artistic Director fundamentally misconstrues our company.
As one of very few BIPOC majority theaters, AlterTheater, unlike most traditional theaters, was founded and continues to operate on a cooperative model, with shared leadership and responsibility, rather than the usual top down hierarchical structure. Our work centers stories and experiences by, for and with our community, and the experiences of those most often unheard, Black and Indigenous people. To achieve that, from inception, creative decisions at AlterTheater have been shared. Jeanette Harrison, one of the founders, has served with the title of Artistic Director. At Alter, however, that position has never been omnipotent. Our Literary Committee is tasked with selecting our plays; it is the Committee that green lights productions. Our AD structures our season from the green lit works. Closely working with our directors, various Ensemble members have taken on the “Artistic Director” oversight role on various productions, as, for example, Cathleen Riddley did for our productions of Pure Native (2022) and Rose in America (2015).
Part of our mission of centering stories of the unheard means providing space, support and direction for new play development. In 2019, AlterTheater made a key change to better support the development and production of new work: we added the role of a producing artistic director, who would take on primary responsibility for producing Alter’s mainstage shows, freeing Jeanette to concentrate on new play development. During the pandemic, our new play program grew substantially, and with Jeanette’s departure, we changed the title of this artistic role to be Director of New Play Development, and hired Literary Manager Diana Burbano into that role.
The other changes that we made are reflective of our company’s growth: Alter’s budget is nearly three times larger than our pre-pandemic average. We have created a new position of Business Manager, which we are currently hiring for. And we changed the seasonal position of Producing Artistic Director to be a permanent year-round position, hiring accomplished artistic leader Eric Avery into that role. Our artistic leadership continues to follow the same model we’ve always had. We have not had any problems finding deeply qualified, and exciting artistic leaders to guide our organization, and have nothing in common with other companies’ challenges in hiring artistic leaders. Our AlterLab supports a diverse cohort of playwrights through every phase of development and production, working with the Literary Committee, the Ensemble, and guided by our Director of New Play Development (Diana) and our Producing Artistic Director (Eric).
So the statement, “rather than replace Artistic Director Jeanette Harrison, who assumed the same title at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Ore., in October, is divvying up her responsibilities among multiple roles, including a director of new play development, a producing artistic director, a literary committee and a business manager,” is incorrect and misleading.
American Theater post pandemic is in a difficult transition period, with the job of Artistic Director changing. But AlterTheater’s dynamic, cooperative, collaborative model may well be the way of the future. We refuse to participate in anything that adds a burden to Native youth. We choose instead to support so many different Native stories, representing so many experiences of being Native, that every Native person sees themselves in the stories we tell. Diane M. Barnes, M.D.
Producing Artistic Director
Literary Committee Members
Jaxy Boyd, MBA
Actor, Board Member, AlterTheater Ensemble