Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre made waves throughout the theater industry earlier this month when the organization announced that the majority of its board of trustees had collectively stepped down. The only remaining members are those required by law: the board chair, secretary and treasurer. The move comes as the company looks to transform its board structure, creating a more collaborative, transparent and equitable leadership model for the organization.
“This really is about living and breathing our values and our mission in all aspects of our organization,” Managing Director Anita Shah said.
The plan is to complete work on a new 12- to 15-person board by late September. Included in the change, Shah said, will be adding the artistic and managing director positions as voting members. In addition, ACT will move away from its previous committee structure to have all board members fully involved not only in fiduciary oversight, but also in strategic guidance and risk management.
The previous committee structure, Artistic Director John Langs explained, resulted in information getting siloed within committees that would then report that information out. The new structure removes the silos, with the expectation that all new board members will be fully steeped in all aspects of the organization and be capable of having robust conversations around decisions central to the company’s future.
“One of the things that I love about boards when I see them working really well is that everybody is super-engaged,” said Eric Bennett, ACT’s board chair, who will remain seated as this transition gets underway.
To form the new board, ACT is putting together a 12-person working group consisting of members of ACT’s leadership team, staff, core company, remaining board members, advisory council and foundation board members. This working group will conduct conversations with any board members who recently stepped down who wish to rejoin the board, as well as any new individuals the working group would like to see join the board. Since all board members are eligible to apply to rejoin, but not guaranteed a spot on the new board, the three remaining board members — Bennett, Treasurer Gary Houlahan and Secretary Maribeth Harper — will also go through the process of stepping down and applying to rejoin later in the process.
“As an artistic director, I think a lot about casting,” Langs said. “We have to cast a great story moving forward, and that story has a lot of parts that have to be played — civic leaders, artistic leaders, people who understand deeply the finances of a not-for-profit organization, people who are connectors in the community. So the diversity of the board that we’re looking for is like a great cast to tell a great story.”
As a working group, Langs explained, they will define a rubric and series of questions aimed at getting to the heart of what qualities make a great board member for ACT. Those guidelines will then help the group choose the new board members. The working group will also do much of the same reading ACT leadership and trustees did that inspired the change in the first place, including articles like “Boards Are Broken, So Let’s Break and Remake Them,” written by Michael J. Bobbitt, former New Repertory Theater artistic director and current executive director for Massachusetts’s Mass Cultural Council, in American Theatre magazine.
In his article, Bobbitt lays bare many of the problems he’s seen in nonprofit boards in his career. Difficulties range from boards being filled by those without expertise in the organization’s mission to the fact that those boards often have ultimate decision-making power without being fully accountable to anyone. But Bobbitt also proposes changes, including implementing a system where staff members and artists — who Bobbitt says carry a company’s mission — are given the chance to create the desired qualifications for, and vet, prospective board members.
ACT’s radical move aims to give the working group that chance, to look at what a nonprofit board could be and how it could function, and then define for themselves what they believe ACT needs moving forward. As they read articles like Bobbitt’s and listened to the needs of ACT’s staff, Bennett said they saw the need for a strategic partnership with the board that went beyond the legal responsibility of fiduciary oversight. However, Bennett added, that wasn’t really what the previous board had been recruited to do.
In many ways, ACT had already taken steps toward building a better board. Bobbitt’s article proposes eradicating financial obligations for board members — a notion that a board seat is tied to an expectation of giving or raising a certain amount of money for the company. ACT had already moved away from that construction.
“I think it’s been over three years now that it has not been a part of our culture,” said Shah. “We are looking for people who are excited about the arts and interested in service.”
ACT had also already created space for their core company members on the board, giving them a chance to have their voices represented in the room. Langs, then, sees this move as a natural extension of the work the company started in 2019 as part of ACT’s overall strategic plan.
“One of the goals was that ACT has a highly functioning and collaborative leadership structure,” said Langs. “We knew we wanted to see some changes in the way that the board and the staff were working together.”
Shah said the last few years have included a lot of organizational self-reflection to determine what kind of organization they want to be — especially in light of the recent conversations in the theater community around the “We See You, White American Theater” demands for a more equitable industry, and upheaval that has seen the Tony-winning Chicago company Victory Gardens’ entire staff call for its board to step down after the board unceremoniously let Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin go. Langs said ACT is working with its staff to reaffirm the organization’s values.
Though ACT saw its previous board as meeting with the organization’s values in mind, Langs said they felt that the board wasn’t structuredefficiently enough to keep up with the ambitions of the organization. If the board structure wasn’t working for the board or the staff, ACT saw that it was time to come together to design and build something different.
“An enormous amount of work and an enormous amount of change has happened at the organization,” Langs said. “The board was recognizing, with the staff, that we could also make changes that would more align with where we want to go in the future.”