Thirty thoughts for a new artistic director by Joe Haj

“Once I had been hired at MRT in 2014, Joe Haj was kind enough to slip me this list.

Now as I have my first day at Arizona Theatre Company, I thought it was a perfect time to share it with the rest of the world.

These are all Joe. I’m just the guy that looked like he needed some tips (which was, and still is, true). – Sean”

haj3

  • You’ll want to spend all your time making plays because that is where you’ll feel safe and competent. Resist the urge; you have much to learn and much to offer by applying your creativity to building community.
  • It’s all about Vision. Have it or perish.
  • But remember that nobody is interested in being a satellite to your genius. Everyone who works with you is firmly placed in the center of their own lives. You must collect their dreams and include them in a shared idea of the future, or pay the penalty of a disconnected and disaffected staff.
  • Nobody in the history of the world has ever taken a rental car through a car wash. If you want people to care for the theatre they have to know that it belongs to them. This means your staff as well as your community.
  • If you know exactly how you want a production to look you should direct it yourself. If you’ve hired someone else, give notes but don’t meddle. You’ll rarely make the work much better and can easily destroy it. If you overly manage other directors all the work at your theatre will end up looking like yours. And you’re not that good.
  • The fact that you are the artistic director does not ever give you permission to be an asshole. Or at least no more of an asshole than you were before they offered you the job.
  • You’ve not been given the job because you know everything. You’ve been given the job because people expect you to learn how to do it. So listen.
  • If you feel like you’re not ready it’s because you’re not. Nobody is. Breathe. Listen. Have courage.
  • Bold programming coupled with fiscal austerity is a very healthy match.
  • The two biggest lies in the American theatre are that more money or more time would have made the work better. Don’t hire anybody who does not care enough about your theatre to protect its resources.
  • Do not underestimate how hard culture shift is. No matter how poor past practices may have been, people by and large would “rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of”. Be patient. Be persistent. Have courage. It’s a lonely business.
  • Every leader offers challenges to their subordinates by virtue of personality, work style, communication style, etc. If you want to know whether or not someone is getting the leadership they need from you, ask.
  • So, not that this has happened to me or anything, but… If you have programmed a Palestinian play in order for your community to join in dialogue around the Palestinian/Israeli divide, and your community is kicking your ass from the time that you’ve announced it, and then you learn from your Jewish wife that you have scheduled the play to open on Rosh Hashanah, you will want to run away as fast as you can and hide. But what you’ll need to do is stand up, protect your people, take full responsibility and apologize for your idiocy. This is not something you learned from your life in the theatre. You learned it from your parents.
  • When in doubt make the principled choice. Even if it fails, it was what was right.
  • If you think they’re paying you for your artistry, you’re nuts. If you’re not putting the art at the center of most conversations, you’re lost.
  • Avoid a cult of personality. Don’t seek it, don’t nurture it, disallow it in those who are prone to it. Spend no time ensuring that your staff adores you and thinks you’re a genius. Spend your time nurturing and building a staff that cares so deeply about the theatre that they would walk through fire to make sure it is the most important theatre that it can be. That is the staff you want. I wouldn’t trade mine for anyone’s.
  • If you think you’ve got it all wrong, you probably do. So change.
  • The best idea in the room wins; doesn’t matter who it comes from.
  • When you feel the best idea in the room is yours, say so.
  • Keep a toothbrush in your desk and a jacket behind your door. You probably won’t get home to freshen up before the event that evening.
  • Not everyone on your staff is going to love artists. You should invite them to leave.
  • Not everyone on your staff is going to love you. This is more tolerable.
  • You will deal with repeated crises, and your job is to remain calm. You will be looked to for clarity and stability. Don’t join in the hysteria.
  • Don’t yell at anybody who works for you. Ever. It is an abuse of power. If you have the staff you want, every one of them could be making better money working fewer hours elsewhere. If someone asks a member of your staff: “why do you work at the theatre” and their answer is, “well the money sucks, but at least they treat me badly” you deserve the contempt they are heaping upon you in your absence.
  • If many of your staff are former or practicing theatre artists this is a good thing.
  • You can stop pretending that you never read reviews. In this job you have to.
  • You do not owe it to anybody to make the theatre any less than what it can be, and surprisingly you will feel pressure from within your organization and community to be and do less. Insist otherwise.
  • Artists work for three reasons: 1) to make money 2) to work with people that they love or 3) to work with people who will allow them to be superb. If you can’t fulfill reason number one, you better own reasons two and three.
  • Have courage; there is no sense in falling off the lowest rung of the ladder.
  • Character counts. It just does. And when coupled with competence it is very powerful. Allow the job to make you a bigger person. Allow it to make you a better one.

hajlaughing

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