Doors Open For Women and People of Color at Top Ranks of American Theater by Robert Barry Fleming



New artistic directors, clockwise from top left: Nataki Garrett, Robert Barry Fleming, Stephanie Ybarra, Jacob G. Padrón, Hana Sharif and Maria Manuela Goyanes.

Photo Credits Clockwise from top left: Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times; Andrew Spear for The New York Times; Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

By Michael Paulson

To understand the striking transformation taking place in the American theater, consider Nataki Garrett.

Ms. Garrett, a stage director who has held leadership posts in California and Colorado, is an African-American woman with a track record of championing new work. On Tuesday, she is being named the sixth artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a Tony-winning nonprofit with a $44 million budget and an annual audience of 400,000.

Across the country, scores of artistic directors, most of them white men who have served as community tastemakers for years, are leaving their jobs via retirements, ousters, and an industrywide round of musical chairs. As their successors are appointed, a shift is underway: according to a national survey conducted by two Bay Area directors, women have been named to 41 percent of the 85 jobs filled since 2015, and people of color have been named to 26 percent.

Last week, the Actors Theater of Louisville, home to the career-making Humana Festival of New American Plays, named Robert Barry Fleming, an African-American performer and producer, as its next artistic director.

His appointment followed last year’s naming of Jacob G. Padrón at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven; Stephanie Ybarra at Baltimore Center StageHana Sharif at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, and Maria Manuela Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington. Mr. Padrón, Ms. Ybarra and Ms. Goyanes identify as Latinx, which is a genderless term for people with roots in Latin America; Ms. Sharif is African-American.

“When I was coming up, there were very few women in leadership positions, and very few women of color,” Ms. Garrett said. “The tide has to move for the future of the theater in America.”

Artistic directors — as the title suggests — are in charge of the creative side of theaters, choosing and overseeing shows, directors and the artistic staff, but they also are generally the public representatives of the organizations, and share in responsibilities for fund-raising, communications, and audience development.

Mr. Padrón, Ms. Ybarra, Ms. Sharif and Ms. Goyanes discussed issues of representation at a meeting at Baltimore Center Stage, which Ms. Ybarra now leads.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times


Mr. Padrón, Ms. Ybarra, Ms. Sharif and Ms. Goyanes discussed issues of representation at a meeting at Baltimore Center Stage, which Ms. Ybarra now leads.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

The new guard faces many challenges — balancing change and continuity, luring new audiences without alienating current patrons, as well as the financial issues that bedevil all nonprofit arts institutions.

Their presence promises to affect what audiences see at the noncommercial spaces that for decades have been the lifeblood of stage work outside New York.

“My first season will follow a season with eight white male playwrights,” Ms. Sharif said. “They’re interesting plays. But my season will feel different.” And it does: among her choices are a musical about the South African singer Miriam Makeba and a version of “Medea” set among immigrants in Los Angeles. (“Angels in America” and the Broadway comedy “The Lifespan of a Fact” are on the roster, too.)

The two San Francisco Bay Area-based theater directors, Rebecca Novick and Evren Odcikin, who conducted the survey of turnover at American theaters began their project after observing online outrage when some key openings were filled with white men.

Their data confirms that a major leadership transition is underway in a historically stable field. More than one-third of the 75 members of the League of Resident Theaters, which includes many of the nation’s biggest and most prominent nonprofits, have named new artistic directors in the last four years.

But demographic change is uneven. “The bigger the theater, the less likely the board is to hire a woman, and especially a woman of color,” Ms. Novick said.

Many of the new artistic directors are taking charge of organizations that are more mature — longer histories, bigger staffs, established reputations — than those assumed by their predecessors.

Ms. Goyanes, center, mingling at her first gala for donors after taking over as the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theater Company.CreditJustin T. Gellerson for The New York Times


Ms. Goyanes, center, mingling at her first gala for donors after taking over as the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theater Company.CreditJustin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

They come to their posts with different training as well. No longer are they all stage directors; a conspicuous subset rose through the ranks as administrators and producers.

Among those soon to retire are Bruce E. Millan, who has been artistic director of Detroit Repertory Theater for 62 years, and Robert Kelley, who has held that position at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for 49 years.

But a handful of those departing are going unwillingly, pushed out over allegations of sexual misconduct and problematic workplace behavior.

Mr. Padrón succeeds Gordon Edelstein, fired after accusations of misconduct, while in Canada, Weyni Mengesha, a daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, in October was named artistic director of Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest nonprofit theater, after Albert Schultz left over harassment allegations.

Change is especially pronounced in the Bay Area. Mr. Kelley’s retirement next year will follow departures of longtime leaders of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where Carey Perloff, retiring after 25 years as artistic director, was succeeded by Pam MacKinnon; and in Berkeley, where Johanna Pfaelzer this fall will replace Tony Taccone, who is retiring after 22 years as artistic director.

New York City, by contrast, has been far slower to change. The four nonprofits that operate Broadway theaters have all had the same artistic leadership for years: Lynne Meadow has been the artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club since 1972; Carole Rothman at Second Stage since 1979; Todd Haimes at Roundabout Theater Company since 1990; and André Bishop at Lincoln Center Theater since 1992.

Theater leadership is still not broadly reflective of the nation’s demographics. “White men still have a big piece of the pie, so whatever you do, please do not intimate that suddenly there’s such a sea change that women or people of color have the bigger piece,” Ms. Goyanes said. “It is just not true.”

The Woolly Mammoth gala included a dance performance which Ms. Goyanes, rear left, watched with enthusiasm.CreditJustin T. Gellerson for The New York Times


The Woolly Mammoth gala included a dance performance which Ms. Goyanes, rear left, watched with enthusiasm.CreditJustin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

A Spanish-Dominican-American whose father was a Queens bus mechanic, Ms. Goyanes was born the same year that Woolly Mammoth held its first season in the nation’s capital. Now she is running the place, succeeding Howard Shalwitz, who was in charge for all of the nearly four decades that began when he and a fellow actor sketched out their dreams with a “founding manifesto.”

One day last fall, as she prepared to preside over her first gala and greet donors, Ms. Goyanes, who came to Woolly Mammoth from New York’s Public Theater, was also still helping her staff learn to pronounce her last name. She asked for advice on how to stop her hands from moving as she talked — would it look O.K. if she clutched the lectern? — and tested out a punchy speech that referred to the newest Supreme Court justice as “an accused sexual predator.”

She insisted that the evening open with an acknowledgment of the Native Americans who once lived on the land where her theater now sits. “If we say we’re going to be radically inclusive,” she said, “we’d better be radically inclusive.”

In explaining her goals, she pledged that Woolly Mammoth would respond to the issues of the day. “People are being dehumanized, people of color are being killed every day, our kids in the schools are experiencing mass shootings,” she said. “Artists have the ability to create transformative experiences for people so it jostles them and jolts them awake.”

A few weeks later, Ms. Goyanes met with Ms. Ybarra, Mr. Padrón and Ms. Sharif at Baltimore Center Stage, where they compared notes and talked about how they might help one another succeed as what Ms. Ybarra called “people of color walking into predominantly white institutions.”

Around the conference room wall they had posted large sheets of paper with the letter X through phrases like “savage individualism,” “scarcity mentality” and “oppressive practices and systems.” Their preferred alternatives: “coalition building,” “abundance mentality,” “inclusive practices.”

They talked about battling preconceived notions — that they see as false — that Americans of color are not interested in, or can’t afford, theatergoing — but also acknowledged the need to make theaters feel more welcoming, and even fun, for audiences new to the art form.

They noted that some earlier artistic directors of color had felt isolated in the industry, and vowed to keep each other on speed dial. “When I’m at the end of whatever time I have here,” Ms. Ybarra said, “all I want behind me is a trail of open doors and shattered glass.”

Robert Barry Fleming named Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville by Robert Barry Fleming

Transformation begins with hearing each other’s stories and Actors Theatre has arguably been the vanguard in transforming the American theatrical canon through the Humana Festival of New American Plays...
— Robert Barry Fleming

Special Announcement: New Artistic Director

by Elizabeth Greenfield


Louisville, KY – Robert Barry Fleming will join Actors Theatre of Louisville as Artistic Director. The appointment was announced Monday by Mac Thompson, President of the Board of Directors, and Managing Director Kevin E. Moore. Fleming comes to Louisville by way of Cleveland where he serves as Associate Artistic Director of Cleveland Play House; previously, he was the Director of Artistic Programming at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. His tenure at Actors Theatre begins June 1, 2019.Fleming will be the theatre's fifth Artistic Director, joining a lineage of distinguished leaders who have guided this nationally-recognized theatre. He comes to the appointment with a varied portfolio and substantial experience as an artistic leader, producer, director, choreographer, performer, teacher and coach. Fleming is also a native Kentuckian raised in the state capitol of Frankfort, about an hour from Actors Theatre in downtown Louisville.Fleming says, “To come home and lead this singular organization with its distinguished legacy of artistic excellence is humbling and simply mind-blowing. I look forward to being a part of the collaborative, radically humanizing and inclusive artistic work at Actors Theatre of Louisville.“Transformation begins with hearing each other’s stories and Actors Theatre has arguably been the vanguard in transforming the American theatrical canon through the Humana Festival of New American Plays, not to mention, shaping the next generation of top-tier theatre workers through the Professional Training Company.“This is a galvanizing moment. The Greater Louisville community — with its innovative arts and culture vision — makes imagining the possibilities that lie before us, as we deepen and widen the State Theater of Kentucky’s impact, an absolutely exhilarating opportunity.”Managing Director Kevin E. Moore shares, “I’m thrilled that Robert will be joining the talented and dedicated team at Actors Theatre. He brings such robust and multifaceted artistic experience as well as a deep belief in theatre as a space for all. I’m personally inspired by his vision for organizational collaboration that allows for transparency and transformation in equal measure. I very much look forward to our partnership as Actors Theatre enters its 56th season.”“Following a thorough national search and conversations with an exceptional roster of candidates, we are excited to announce the appointment of Robert Barry Fleming as Artistic Director,” says Mac Thompson, President of the Actors Theatre Board of Directors. “Robert’s artistic vision is rooted in mission and community impact, something our board finds deeply compelling. Collaboration is ingrained in his approach to theatre, and he values new play development and civic engagement as collective enterprises. Robert is a leader and partner who can help us build a bold future for Actors Theatre. We are honored to welcome him home to Kentucky.” Laura Kepley, Artistic Director of Cleveland Play House, offers, “Robert is a trusted advisor, colleague and friend to me and so many others in the Cleveland Play House family. We will miss him, but I could not be more thrilled for him and the incredible opportunity ahead to lead one of the nation’s most prestigious regional theatres. Actors Theatre of Louisville has made an outstanding choice and I know that Robert will guide that company with the same magnificent artistry, heart and compassion that he has brought to Cleveland Play House.”Molly Smith, Artistic Director at Arena Stage, says, “Robert is a bright light in the American theater. He is a wonderful artist and a deep thinker about the future of our art form. Audiences, staff, boards and artists love the way he operates in the world: with joy, rigor and a sense of the possible. He is a true Renaissance man of the theater, and I can only imagine how exciting the work at Actors Theatre will be under his artistic leadership.” Previous Artistic Director Les Waters spent seven seasons at the helm during which he led Actors Theatre with incredible artistic vision, welcomed and championed hundreds of artists, doubled the Theatre’s commissioning program and guided the Humana Festival of New American Plays through a remarkable chapter in its history. Following Waters’s departure in the summer of 2018, the Theatre’s Board of Directors embarked on an extensive search process supported by a Search Committee comprised of staff and board members as well as community stakeholders. They were assisted by search consultant John Haynes.  

This Sunday, May 27th @ 4pm in the Outcalt by Robert Barry Fleming

CPH Season Extras: TAKING A KNEE: Race, Sports, Celebrity, and Civil Disobedience. A Conversation with ESPN Cleveland Commentator and Three-time Super Bowl Champion with the New England Patriots, Je'Rod Cherry!

Sunday, May 27 from 4:00pm Outcalt Theatre immediately following the closing performance.



This FREE post-show talk-back is an up-close-and-personal conversation between The Royale director and CPH Associate Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming and three-time Super Bowl champion Je’Rod Cherry. Together they will explore the last century of the African-American professional athlete and how simply by participating in the professional arena, they are perceived as making a political statement.


Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Cherry graduated from Berkeley High School at Berkeley, California and was a standout athlete in football and track. Jerod attended the University of California at Berkley and was a member of the California Golden Bears football team from 1992 to 1995. For his junior and senior years, Cherry was an All-Pac-10 honorable mention and Pac-10 All-Academic selection. Cherry received his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from UC Berkeley in 1996 and a master of arts in education from the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Education in 2000.

He was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the 2nd Round of the 1996 NFL Draft. In 2000, Cherry signed with the Oakland Raiders, then a month later he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. After his stint with the Eagles, Cherry signed with the New England Patriots, where he earned Super Bowl rings in Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII, and XXXIX, before retiring in 2004.

Je'Rod Cherry is currently co-host of “The Next Level,” airing weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR, Cleveland. He is also Gameday host for the Cleveland Browns Radio Network and a frequent guest on Fox 8’s popular “The Rizzo Show” during football season. Je'Rod has five children and resides in Macedonia, Ohio