As theaters try to get in step with the world around them, it's simple for JuCoby Johnson: "If it's not represented in the staff and the group that is making decisions, it won't be represented on stage or in the audience."
Locally and nationally, more and more theaters seem to agree. Artistic leaders have almost always been an individual, probably a man and probably white. But many venues — including Jungle Theater, Park Square Theatre and Red Eye Theater — are shifting to collectives, hoping to inspire vibrant, inclusive work.
Johnson, who opens tonight in the Jungle comedy "Every Brilliant Thing," is an example of that. The actor/writer was hired this summer to be part of the "artistic cohort" at the Jungle — four people, three of them people of color, who are in on all decisions (in what feels like a metaphor, executive director Robin Gillette ceded her former office to the newcomers). Park Square decisions are made by a quintet, including three people of color. And Red Eye, founded with group leadership 38 years ago, has a diverse team of seven.
In part, the Jungle changes are a response to the We See You White American Theatre movement, challenging the industry to bring more voices to the table. Earlier this year, a national study of theater artists found that most desire group decision-making. So we spoke with artists about the value of collective leadership (comments have been edited).
The case for collectives
Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group: "A segment of the theater ecology has always been organized with an ensemble structure. But the news is that larger, more traditionally structured resident theaters are evolving to be more inclusive."
Theo Langason, co-artistic director, Red Eye: "Whether you are officially run by lots of people or not, the work gets done through a communal effort. Always."
Rick Shiomi, artistic associate, Park Square, and a core leader of Full Circle Theater: "Even when I was starting back in the 1990s [when he co-founded Theater Mu], I didn't feel comfortable with that "Individual Leader Syndrome." I created what we called a core artist group, four or five senior artists, who advised me. To me, one of the loneliest jobs is being an artistic director."
Gillette: "[Artistic director Christina Baldwin] comes out of an ensemble-based process at Jeune Lune and The Moving Company and I think she has come to appreciate the value of having more voices at the table."
Johnson: "For 20-plus years, this was a place where about the only person of color on stage was a Black man in a show about driving around a white woman. "Driving Miss Daisy" is what it is, but we have to admit the Jungle was not a place where people of color felt welcome. It's a hard fact but we have to live with it."
Langason: "We get to champion each other's work. We have Emily Gastineau doing a piece and it's exciting to support her. Valerie Oliveiro has one coming down the pipeline and we're excited to support that. We're trying to make art we like and help other people make art we like."
Shiomi: "At Full Circle, we cast an actor with a disability, Nathan Stenberg, who shared his background and concerns. Our focus had been racial diversity but the issue of disability in theater became more prominent. That actually came not from the core company but an actor we hired. We have done a lot more work in that area since then."
Johnson: "It's about bringing in artists to speak specifically about what the Jungle can do to be more welcoming. The biggest thing for me is advocating for artists who have not been given opportunities, on the acting side of things and the writing side and the tech side."
Langason: "It just takes longer to do things and, to be honest, the obsession with efficiency and speed, those are drapings of white supremacy. The sooner we cast them off, the happier we'll be. The collective model says, "What if we go deeper? Instead of trying to do more things, what if we do fewer things better?"
Eyring: "It's come up for ensemble companies where they realize they aren't able to move forward in the way they need to, because of the time it takes to get everyone's input."
Shiomi: "People with different perspectives may end up butting heads. But the key — it's almost like casting a show — is getting the right people in those positions, people who are willing to share thoughts and compromise."
Gillette: "We have four people, each a quarter-time — 10 hours a week at a weekly salary of $25 an hour. We decided that was an amount of money we had to build into the budget because the work is important. We also want them to work on non-Jungle things, so we've set aside $10,000 for each of them to support programming initiatives they think of."
Is real change happening?
Johnson: "Some theaters put out an anti-racist statement and that was the extent of the ways they incorporated We See You White American Theatre into their pedagogy. Some theaters are really trying to listen and stay abreast of what's being said and some are not."
Shiomi: "If we end up with 30 to 40% of companies with this kind of leadership, it will have a huge impact. It's one of those things where the timing of this leadership paradigm fits what is happening in society."
Gillette: "Things like budgets and season planning have always felt like closed-door conversations. For Christina and I, this comes out of a desire to be as transparent as humanly possible and to share all the bits of information that go into big decisions."
Langason: "Whenever I feel down and think, 'What is the point of making theater now?' or of being a public institution, coming together is re-energizing, being with people who care very deeply about the work but also about each other."
Shiomi: "It's a subtle evolution. If you went to a show tomorrow and then a year from now and then three years from now, you would marvel at how much it's changed, step by step."
Every Brilliant Thing
Who: By Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe. Directed by Meredith McDonough.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 14.
Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
Protocol: Vaccine or negative test, along with masks, required.
Tickets: Pay-as-you-are ($45 recommended), jungletheater.org.