From the Top Down

Kit: There are small things we put into place. One helpful thing is having a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) membership for Long Wharf, because it offers access to excellent HR information. If we have a question about instituting a policy or need guidance on managing an investigation, SHRM is an excellent resource. This costs almost nothing, and it provides some templates and support from HR professionals especially helpful for those folks who are taking on HR responsibilities for the first time.

We’re in the midst of transforming an organization that had gotten a stuck in its ways. We are trying to transform the culture into one that is radically inclusive, that attends to its people, that considers its staff its highest priority.

Prioritizing people’s needs is huge. We were just talking about our budget… We’ve all heard that your budget reflects your values, right? So how do we show that when it comes to HR? How does that not become the line that all the dollars get cut from? Where it’s like, “I know we budgeted $25,000 to support the function of the HR department. But I need $10,000 more dollars for the scenery budget, so let’s just cut HR to $15,000.”

Jacob Padrón, our artistic director, and I were recently talking about how we both really want to prioritize professional development for our staff; we want to prioritize building systems that support staff growth. How does a company build those systems when we don’t have an HR department or a reasonable HR budget? This is a place of tension for folks in leadership roles—the financial limitations of the organizations and creating a culture of inclusivity and growth. I think we need to accept that there is not a choice there—we must acknowledge both and do the hard work to find and allocate resources towards HR.

Another small but impactful thing we have done is engaged with Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL). PAAL provides exceptional HR support through office hours offered, and we’ve engaged in 1:1 consulting to help revise our performance review process.

We are learning together that even if you are in the company of folks who all want the same end goal, everyone’s process to get there can be different.

We are prioritizing creating a culture that acknowledges power dynamics but encourages open communication. We want people to shed the fear of bringing their ideas into the room, for people to feel safe speaking up and offering an alternate perspective. We encourage our leadership team to model that in our weekly all-staff meetings—to model speaking up and having robust conversations. We use meeting agreements created by the full staff to set company-wide expectations for how we will treat each other and support healthy communication in meetings. Prior to the pandemic, Long Wharf Theatre was focusing on becoming an inclusive company and probing the question of what it means to be an anti-racist, radically inclusive company.

The We See You White American Theater demands came out of a reckoning around racial justice in 2020, and they are feeding into how we are building our culture moving forward.

I realize I’ve technically gotten a bit off track, but I just see an incredible connection between good HR practices and how that can support building an inclusive, anti-racist culture.

One HR practice we are prioritizing is updating all our job descriptions to create clear expectations at the time of hire. We need to have clearly defined job descriptions that identify specific job duties, which are then used by both the employee and their supervisor during performance reviews. That is something we are working to improve—building a performance evaluation process that works for all positions and encourages growth.

We have been discussing implementing 360 reviews, a process based on feedback from multiple raters aimed to reduce bias, to have really great feedback loops, but we are aware that we have not given folks the tools yet to respectfully give and receive feedback in the workplace. So we need to address that training gap first.

We’re also working on benchmarking salaries, which is a massive undertaking. We need to do all of this work, and it all seems to happen a little slower than I wish it would.

Iris: From an HR perspective, I think that’s also a potential tension about why HR has not been more greatly adopted in the theatre. The theatre moves very quickly. Shows are open for X amount of weeks, they close, we’re done, we call it a day, right? Culture change, audits, year-over-year data, setting up performance review processes… Those things are much more time consuming, and maybe there’s an inherent tension there.

Kit: Yes. It’s so true. Theatre productions are ephemeral, but culture lasts a long time. Good human resources practices take time to build but contribute to a healthy organizational culture.

The We See You White American Theater demands are an example of how culture change takes time. We do not believe that the right move is to read those demands, issue a statement, and be done. We are working through them as a team. We have facilitated all-staff meetings every month, we have had small group meetings every week, and we provide tools—an anti-racist library and things like that—to help do the work. We are learning together that even if you are in the company of folks who all want the same end goal, everyone’s process to get there can be different. We reference adrienne marie brown’s Emergent Strategy a lot and move at the speed of trust. It takes time.

Iris: And consistency, right? It’s the consistent practice and not just a reactive practice.

Do you have any advice for either other theatre leaders or anyone who’s struggling with where to begin engaging in HR?

Kit: Reach out to PAAL—it is a great place to start whether you’re an individual or a company. They offer hours with an HR professional as a benefit of institutional membership and can also provide tailored support for particular projects.

The other thing I would say is to remember to listen to and believe your staff. The majority of people doing this job, working for theatre companies, are here because they believe in the power of the art that is being made. Give them a reason to know they are in the right place. And just because people are working because they love the job does not mean they can be compensated unfairly. Check your compensation levels. Consider how a small adjustment to the overall budget can have significant value to an individual staff member. Make the changes slowly if needed, but start making them.

There is a mythology that there is so much job scarcity in this industry that people are willing to be squashed and stepped on, and not respected, and companies have been willing to let it happen. Leaders must create the conditions where this is not acceptable. Having an HR team, or at least strong HR practices, supports leaders in doing that, sets the conditions for people to speak up, and that will change things for the better. We can make the theatre a more inclusive, a more generous, and a more beautiful space—all of it will be better.