The New Leadership Generation as Walking Narrative-Subverters
October 22, 2018
Joyce Rosario and Meiyin Wang in Conversation
Originally appeared on HowlRound Theatre Commons (October 21, 2018)
Meiyin Wang: I had a meeting with a young graduate, just yesterday, out of Bard College. She went, “Gideon Lester said that I should think about being a curator.” That’s completely a generational shift, at least for the United States, that you would come out of school thinking—especially in the performing arts—that you were going to be a curator. The word curating was not really even a word when I was coming up, because there was something a little bit too Eurocentric or elitist about it. You’d say you were a programmer or a presenter.
Joyce Rosario: Or a producer even. But all through my years at theatre school, the idea of what a producer does or what their role is was not really touched upon. After I graduated from UBC in 2003, I remember sitting in Barb Clausen’s New Works office at the Dance Centre here in Vancouver. I was early and she asked me to wait for her at the table. It was an open office. All of these artists were coming in with interesting projects, and experiencing that activity I was like, Oh, what is that thing that Barb does? How do you get into that? Where do you learn that?
Meiyin: With all the transitions happening, there’s been a lot of discussion about gender, and it’s interesting that the person who was a constant for you, Barb, was a woman. What do you think about the generational shift in terms of leadership? Why are all the baby boomers retiring right now? I mean this as a serious question. Many of the people who are retiring, at least here in the States, are moving forward with other projects. They have decided to step away from leadership. I wonder how much of it has to do with the current economy—the current sociopolitical situation—and the more palpable rift that’s happening.
Joyce: There’s an aspect of that happening here in Canada, too, but it sounds just from our conversation that it’s a lot more acute for very obvious reasons in the States right now.
Meiyin: Leadership opportunities, both for people of colour and women, are abundant right now.
Joyce: Do you think this next crop of leaders is being set up to succeed? Are they being positioned to do their best work?
Meiyin: My question is: What would positioning them to do the best work look like? And whose responsibility is it? First the board chooses, right? They go through a process, they are theoretically in conversation with their communities and staff, but, by and large, the board chooses. There is more than likely a gap between what the board wants and what the board has committed to. How committed are they, and do they know the level of commitment actually required for the change in leadership that’s about to happen, and the change in programming, the change in culture, the change in outlook? The day-to-day bombardment of what is happening in our world today?
What happens if this new generation doesn’t do as expected? Are they then going to be made scapegoats for whatever goes wrong so that somebody who’s a more “obvious” choice—who looks a certain way and is of a certain background can come in? I am watching with great trepidation and hope. Because there are some really exciting people (like Maria Goyanes, Hana Sharif, and Stephanie Ybarra) who just got appointments to these jobs, and I hope that their community, the field, and their boards are ready to support them and put resources where they’re needed.
Joyce: One of my questions is about the desire many people have to see more diverse leadership. People really want to see that, or they say they want to see that. Once you’re a person of colour in that leadership position, do the barriers get erased?
Meiyin: Of course not. It’s about equity, about making sure they’re on the same playing field. You’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to prepare your staff and the community, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about at the leadership level. And you’ve got to be prepared for what’s difficult to prepare for.
Joyce: What are those things?
Meiyin: Drop-offs in audiences, for example. You have to be ready for the drop-off and the only way to be ready for it is to have a “war chest.” It’s either money, time, goodwill, or something to sustain you through the change. It takes three years for something to just stabilize, so you’ve got to prepare for five years.
Joyce: It’s a well-documented pattern that when you have a new leader at the helm there will be a bit of an attrition in audiences, in subscribers, in donors, and then it picks back up again. I think what we are talking about is the particular complications for people of colour.
Meiyin: I think it’s also about the arts community, and how they can rally around each other and come together. Maybe this is all a little too negative, but it’s the state of this country right now.
Joyce: Well, yes. It’s a kind of existential moment in the work that we do. Whether it can be a tool for change, whether we can be agents for change.
Meiyin: That’s definitely something I think about. It’s why I do work, how I choose work. I’ve been collaborating with Toshi Reagon for Parable of the Sower. That was the project I took right after I came out of Under the Radar. We just toured it to the Singapore International Festival of the Arts and the Holland Festival, which was amazing. Toshi and I want to keep doing it in the States, because it’s not about just doing the show, it’s about starting conversations with communities that will have a ripple effect and continue past the show being there.
It’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about, what kind of platforms you can make to fight for the right to exist in the storm.
What happens if this new generation doesn’t do as expected? Are they then going to be made scapegoats for whatever goes wrong?
Joyce: That makes me think about why we do what we do and how it’s driven by personal values, by the change we want to see in the world, and how we can best position ourselves to do that work. For me that’s always been what drives the decision-making about what my next step career-wise is going to be. Before I was at PuSh, I was the executive director of a small arts organization. So many of my peers questioned the move; they saw it as a stepping back. But for me there were a lot of factors that went into the decision, like being a young executive director nearly to the point of burnout.
The thing that brought me to that work as an executive director was that Barb—who I mentioned earlier—decided to retire from New Works after seventeen years, and I was her successor. This post-founder thing, I have very much lived the experience. When you’re talking about audience attrition and all of that, I lived that. I think I did a great job getting through it, proving that the organization had relevance after its founder. But the desire to be a part of a larger team at PuSh—the work that it does, what it does for the city, and in a role focused on curating—was really the big motivator to make that change for myself.
Meiyin: Sometimes institutions are actually good things, right? Having the foundation, so that you can run faster and further, is not a bad thing.
Joyce: It’s also like having a bit of shelter from things that get thrown at you. It’s great to be established in that way. I think PuSh’s tenth year, when I started, was the real defining moment of the organization. Realizing that it was actually an institution, it wasn’t going anywhere. That has meaning for people; it continues to have relevance.
Meiyin: When I was thinking about moving to the West Coast, I basically wanted the reverse, to go from an institution out into the “wilderness.” What’s been really humbling is being an independent producer and seeing how much institutions actually lean on independent companies and artists to find resources to develop work to a certain level before it can keep moving up the ladder: First you find the residencies, then the workshops, then you get your commissions, and you just keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get to the “top floor” of large presenting house. Hmm, that’s a depressing way to put it.
But really it’s been invigorating to be at the beginning of the development process with artists and shape the context of the work—who the work is for, engagement strategies, production dramaturgy—before it goes into a presenting institution.
Joyce: Having been at a presenting institution, and a very well-established, well-respected one, do you find that’s an asset to the work you do as a producer?
Meiyin: Oh absolutely. There are certain ways presenters think, and producers find a way to make it easier for presenters to say yes. You are emphasizing a particular aspect of the work that you know is going to be of interest and of value. It gives me pause when I think about the younger generation of artists who might not have the same access to and knowledge of gatekeepers.
Joyce: How would you describe your working relationship with [Under the Radar festival director] Mark Russell?
Meiyin: As we started, we were both in a place of discovery. It was the second or third year that Under the Radar was happening. It was in the beginning of this field-wide, coming-into-prominence of these particular festivals—Philly Live Arts, Fusebox, PuSh, and COIL were all starting about the same time. For Mark and me, it was a matter of growing the festival together and what it could mean to New York every year. Our personalities meshed. We’re both pretty easygoing, and Mark was very generous. I was given a lot of opportunities to be very visible and I took advantage of them.
By the time I became the co-director of the festival as he went to Switzerland, we had been doing it for nine, ten years. There was definitely a rhythm in which things happened. Part of the challenge was getting out of that rhythm. Like what else can we do after ten years? How are we actually being of value to artists, communities, audiences, and the institution? What are we doing that can further that, how can we further support artists and the processes in which they are making work? That was what I worked on when I became co-director. The question then became: What would happen when he came back from Switzerland?
My move to California made sense for many reasons. I also wanted to make sure that Under the Radar was not going to be my entire life and career. It’s a crazy thing to say that Under the Radar felt too small, but I’m in my thirties, it couldn’t be my whole life.
Joyce: I can relate to that. The first year of PuSh Festival was the year I graduated from university. After that, I was an avid festival-goer myself, finding ways to see as many shows as possible, co-founding the OFF program (PushOFF) that runs parallel to PuSh. Kris Nelson and I did that for three years together, while he was at Antonym in Montreal and I was at New Works in Vancouver. Then he went off to Dublin Fringe and I ended up getting a job at PuSh. So coming into this relationship working with Norman [Armour], I already had that history with the festival. It was a place I knew, one of the places in the city that I saw myself working in at some point in my career.
I think Norman recognized the risk I was taking in my career, by stepping back from the kind of leadership position I had as an executive director and into something where my role would be quite focused. We had a pretty great relationship too, not perfect by any means, but we got along even though we’re very, very different people. We came together from a basis of deep respect and admiration for each other’s work. I think it’s through our differences that our five years programming together got really sharp and really deep. If you’re having to articulate to each other to work across your differences, that can only add greater depth to what you’re doing overall.
During this very moment in the United States, especially with the #MeToo movement, it’s all so raw. Everything is coming up and skin is being exposed in the process.
Meiyin: Yes. Mark’s and my personalities were pretty similar, but our tastes differed. It worked to have our two voices in the same room. We were able to call out each other’s blind spots, and having to articulate to each other particular choices within the context of whatever we were programming made those choices stronger. What was the first year like for you at PuSh?
Joyce: I remember being in my first annual review, one of the bits of feedback I got was: You have to turn your executive director brain off for this. You are the curator, you’re just curating now. You don’t have to worry about all that other stuff. I always used to like having my hands in a lot of different things.
Meiyin: “Why do you want me to have just a curator brain on?”
Joyce: Although I was the executive director of a smaller organization, well, it was smaller, right? I hadn’t worked with a development staff before. We didn’t have a robust communications team. And that’s interesting because it makes me think, How did I even learn budgets? I learned budgets because one of my first gigs was with a dance company and in the five years that I worked with them, they were doing some international touring. It was a very small core team, two co–artistic directors and then me, fresh out of school. I was asked to do mundane tasks including preparing all of the paperwork for the accountant, who was, let’s just say, challenging. I wanted to be at those meetings and make sure I knew what I was talking about so he wouldn’t be so condescending.
Meiyin: You got to be prepared for any situation. Especially being a young female POC then, I always felt I had to be extra prepared.
Joyce: You come to this realization that other people aren’t coming prepared to these things. And it’s because they don’t have to, they’ve never had to live with that anxiety of being perceived as not smart, not competent, not deserving of being in that room.
Meiyin: And yet, right after as I was leaving the Public, somebody was trying to get me to say that I had had a more difficult go of it because I was a young woman of color. I said no. Because I felt like my place there was not questioned. I was not in question. I was subverting their narrative.
Joyce: I feel like I’m often a walking narrative-subverter. Some of the travel I was doing when I first started at PuSh—places where Norman would go and everyone knew him—often people wouldn’t assume that I was in a position to make decisions about what would get programmed or not. That’s not the automatic assumption people make when I walk into a room. It’s so much easier for people to make that assumption with an older white man. I don’t say that at all out of disrespect; I think it’s a bias that’s real.
Meiyin: Yes, it is very real.
Joyce: It’s irritating sometimes.
Meiyin: All of the time.
Joyce: But then sometimes you get to be—pardon my pun here—under the radar. You can walk around and if people aren’t pitching you right away—
Meiyin: My term is incognito.
Joyce: Yeah, you get to be incognito. That’s right.
Meiyin: That’s true. I moved to the West Coast and I thought, Oh, I can just watch a play and nobody’s going to be looking at me while I’m watching the play. Nobody cares. That’s great.
Do you think that is close to changing with the new generation that’s coming up? When you go to conferences, do you see people who look like us?
Joyce: It depends on the conference, but, yeah, more and more. I think with each generation that’s changing. I’ve been in it long enough to feel how slow that change is, and long enough to recognize some of the progress.
Some of my colleagues who are younger women of colour—I’m close to forty, they’re probably closer to mid-twenties—don’t have as many hang-ups and insecurities as I did. Maybe for me that was just an internal thing… It must have been. I couldn’t have gotten here had I been so calcified by that anxiety.
Meiyin: Are you saying you were never calcified by the anxiety?
Joyce: Perhaps it’s just the chip on my shoulder that’s still there and I’m trying to brush it off. Maybe this political time we’re in now makes it feel more acute. We’re all reckoning with it in a way we haven’t before because so many of those who have been standing at the edges are at the centre with a voice they haven’t had before. That’s what I’m responding to; we’re working through a lot of things that are on the table in a way that they haven’t been. A lot more people are feeling uncomfortable as a result, and it’s a feeling they don’t know what to do with.
Meiyin: During this very moment in the United States, especially with the #MeToo movement, it’s all so raw. Everything is coming up and skin is being exposed in the process.
Joyce: Not because it’s new. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s because that’s what it’s been for so long.