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Lark Talks: What is this Moment?

Lark News

There is a certain mystery around how searches are conducted within the American Theater and performing arts industry. In the wake of demands and calls for transparency in search processes in the We See You White American Theater document, I began to work with The Lark through my consulting agency ALJP, on how to create a more open and transparent search for the successor of Artistic Director and Founder John Clinton Eisner. In that spirit, we sat down for three conversations throughout the process to discuss how the process developed, the challenges of considering a new leader in the middle of a global crisis, and what it means for The Lark moving forward. Below is the first of these conversations, where we discuss how the role of an Artistic Director is changing, how COVID-19 has affected the search process, and what Stacy's vision for the future of The Lark is. Watch now or check out the transcript below, and stay tuned for the next video in this series!

--Al Heartley

Lark Talks: What is this Moment?

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Like everything at The Lark, the ideas presented in this conversation are in process. If you'd like to join in the conversation, head on over to this google form. Your thoughts, ideas, questions, and responses help shape our thinking and our conversations, and they are so important to this process. Thank you!

AL HEARTLEY: Hi, Stacy and John!


AH: You know I had no formal, real start to this, in some way other than I think to try to talk about the purpose of this for a second and then hopefully dive into a bit of our relationship, and I think where I came in, in this moment with you all that we're trying to archive and record about. And that now it has been a little over two months, or a month and a half since we started a conversation about working through a search process for John's successor. As John prepared to enter a new chapter, or a different chapter in the book of his life, as well as Stacy, you coming on as executive director, coming at a moment for The Lark and for the world that was of immense change. And I think I was honored to be recommended and asked around working with you all and learning more about The Lark, about its history, and about this moment of transition that you all are in.

And what I was so impressed by, every time I left a meeting with you all was such a deep resonance of a sense of person, sense of self, and yet also understanding and dealing with contradictions of what it means to be in a moment of change, both on a field-wide level, but also an organizational level, and likely even on a personal level. And I just thought, these people are great human beings. There's no -- not only is this a great organization, but these folks are such great human beings. And so I was interested to intersect with you both and try to use this archiving and these recordings to work through how a search process works. And some of the deep conversations that we had when I started investigating and working with you all in our first initial call, and I think my first question was, "What is this moment for both of you? In this moment of transition. And where do you find yourselves?"

And I know that may be a strange place to start from the end in many ways around where an organization is going, but John, maybe you can talk first about, you know, when you and I talked, there was such a clear vision from you and purpose for The Lark, that at least I felt like when I was talking to you, and Stacy that there was something at least accomplished or achieved that made ready for this moment, not only for you, but for The Lark community. So, I guess the initial question is just where are you right now in this moment? And I think you, as John as the Artistic Director of The Lark, but also as John the human being?

JOHN CLINTON EISNER: Wow, that's a deep question, and we've had quite a few conversations amongst the three of us, and Stacy and I have been digging into this since she moved into this new role quite a lot. I guess the question has to do with, what is this moment? And what does it mean to me, and what does it mean to the organization, and what does it mean to the people who made the organization be what it is? It's interesting. We're always part of a community trying to find a way to hold our values. For many, many years, I worked with an evolving community to support writers who interested me, who continually challenged what other people thought the theater was, what other people thought normal life was. And in many, many ways, the theater was a place where people came together as a community to engage in difficult conversations, and what has evolved in such beautiful ways in that time and in particular in the last decade, and then again in the last five years, is that the community that I was engaged in has really been the underpinning for The Lark as an idea and a phenomenon.

In many ways, we become habituated to holding onto the things that we create because we don't want it to fall down. I have two kids who are about the same age as The Lark, frankly. And we want them not to scrape their knees, and we want them to do the things they want. And we hold on partly because we identify so much -- they are us, and we are them. And it's become just so clear, it's always been clear that there are artists, people on our staff, champions of the organization who have come forward and defined The Lark in brave and bold new ways, but in this present moment, the last five years, there has been so much participation in building. Our community has become a real community. It isn't just a community that comes the way it did at 9/11. I put out a call saying does anyone feel lonely and want to come together and talk. This community is being called to account and to action by a large group of people who see that what we do here is create space for people to be heard. And to me, just the recognition that there are people in this organization who care for the organization as much as I do, who care for these values and see these values in new and different ways, is so beautiful to me, and I think that the main learning that I'm doing because we, in the arts, understand that learning never stops, is just how to stop and listen to how other people see the future moving forward.

And sometimes when we're building an organization and making a growing organization sustainable, or all of this language that we use in the administrative life of cultural institutions, we forget that there is no emergency, there's just the moment. And to me, the kinds of things I've learned in long, difficult conversations with Stacy, other members of our team, members of my family, the questions of the things that I want to do in my life or felt I had given up in order to make The Lark strong, and the kinds of feeling that I sometimes had that I was doing it on my own, those aren't true. And they have never been true. That there are people who actually want to form community in this way, and so, to me, it's a moment of transition for me where I feel as though I actually am opening my eyes for the first time in a long time and trying, after straining to move something forward, and really looking around at the people who are capable of taking it into the next generation. This gives me the freedom to actually reflect, I think, on the kinds of things I've learned over the last 25 years in a way that I haven't been able to in the last couple of years. So I'm just incredibly excited and open to this experience. 

AH: I think that's beautiful, and I want to get to some of those long and difficult conversations in a moment where at least organizationally, but Stacy, I want to turn to you about coming in as an executive director and executive leader, and essentially having a huge, not only just a challenge of course with the pandemic, but just a moment of a major transition for an organization not only on the artistic side but also on the executive side, and wondering, where are you in this moment as someone who has been working and affiliated with The Lark for a while but now is its executive leader and looking for a new artistic collaborator?

SW: Thank you, Al. I can say that I have never had a job -- I'm a reformed stage manager. That's what I did in my previous life, and that's a big job. -- This job is the hardest job I've ever had, and I say that because the level of responsibility is so important and there is no area that is of less importance than another for me. When  I took over the role, our organization was going through, just culturally, cultural challenges, so me as a staff member and my perspective of those challenges from being inside the staff versus those challenges as a leader are two completely different perspectives, even though one informed the other. I hear John when he talks about going through so many years feeling like he was by himself, and the moments when I also feel, the moments I can look back and feel like I had no -- even though I had people around me -- just feeling like no one can really help me where I was. And so when I first took the position, when I first accepted it, it was back in January as an idea, and I just got the idea that I would still kind of be doing my role as Director of Operations, except you know I may have a different relationship to the board, but I thought my job wouldn't change all that much, and then COVID hit and it created such a cascade between what we were going through before. 

The transition wasn't announced culturally, and COVID, the impact of COVID, impacted our culture in such a way that I really questioned at moments whether we would survive because there was such a commitment to the people, which has always been our commitment, and at the same time our sustainability was jeopardized in a way that, in my experience in the five years that I've been here, I had never seen. I was Director of Operations for two years  before COVID. This ultimately hasn't been my training. I've evolved my way through, I've been promoted through the organization itself and so when COVID hit, I couldn't tell whether it was me not being able to manage things initially or whether it was COVID. I couldn't tell. John was going through, we were both going through the transition so neither of us could really be that foundation of clarity because no one was in clarity. No one was clear about how to deal with this moment. It was really, those first few months were so incredibly hard because trying to be a supportive leader in a moment that no one has ever experienced before is daunting for the oldest leader--you know, someone who has been there for 50 years. It was truly, what do they call that? Trial by fire. 

But what it forced me to do was to challenge every natural instinct of leadership I had up until that point. I come from a corporate mindset when it comes to leadership. You know, it's, I'm the boss. This is what I need, and this is what I pass that need on, and then the team provides that need. I just realized really quickly that that way of thinking is not going to work in this new environment. And so I realized, and this wasn't anything that I spoke out loud to anyone, but I had to learn really quickly what it meant to be a servant leader. And not because that was necessarily the kind of leadership that I chose, the kind of leadership I knew the organization absolutely was. In my commitment to the organization, the commitment to myself, as opposed to running, which I thought about too, I decided to surrender to what was before me. It took me, definitely, like working with the staff, finding those relationships, new relationships, and new dynamics to them, a new relationship to them, and in a moment when they so needed and wanted support from leadership, but at the same time feeling a hesitance around leadership and figuring out how to be that for them. And that took several months. It took time to find that. But now I can say that I have learned so much from them and from their commitment to the community on what it means to have people as your purpose. 

That phrase just came up for me, and I realized that okay, so this is what I'm here for. Yeah, I'm leading the organization, but ultimately my purpose is to take care of people here. I look at our community as the artists, the staff, and our board and donors, and our partners. That is my community, and my job is to provide them with what they need in order to be the best steward of this organization that we can all be. And once I got clear about that, even though the job didn't get easier, it got clearer. I think that now, I'm feeling like I can rest in that perspective, and it gives me a foundation to work from. And so, while I can totally identify with John feeling alone sometimes, I feel that, knowing my commitment and our commitment is to each other, really sets the stage for human relationships in a way that can only make us better.

AH: I think overall I was surprised, coming in as a potential advisor and thinking, well you know, yes, I have to be the one to create the process. And yet you all had done so much work that in many ways makes me more of a facilitator and question asker, and helping keep you all on par, than trying to go through a very formal process. And yet it will be formal. And I wonder if either one of you can talk about the formation of this process and how that came about. That this is a process trying to take transparency and access and inclusion all into account. I’m wondering if you all can talk a little bit about that. When did that process start? John said, you know, “Hey, it’s time to go. It’s time to start this.” And what pillars did you all start to take and put together to form a process that you all feel like, “Hey, this is solid. This is good.”

SW: We began with John just, you know, us just thinking about people we thought would be great. And they’re all from our community. But, at first John and I were just setting up meetings and talking with folks. But, as we began to, when the BIPOC, that was when the WAT document came out. And we saw these questions about access at the leadership level. And we began to think about, well are we being as inclusive with this process as we can? And I always go back to the staff because they are really just always just right there when it comes to our values. And they were actually mixed on it. There were some who felt like we should do a public process so that everyone had access. And then some had, you know, well we can just come from the community. And then some, the concerns were broad about money and time and how can we do it all. So we just began to put feelers out for folks who could help us. And in the meantime, John began to craft a spreadsheet just keeping track of the people we knew we wanted to reach out to, keep the feedback we were getting from the staff. And over time it just kept feeding out into, one day we just talked it through like, what would be a process that would be inclusive. We knew we wanted a process that included our staff and our community. That the artists, we knew that we wanted them to have a say in it. And we knew that ultimately it would be the board’s decision, so the idea was how can we create a collaborative process. And that’s where the idea to have two artists, two staff, two board on the selection committee. And then having the candidates meet with staff and meet with artists, without leadership present. So that they can begin to just ask, feel free to vet the candidates as well. And we came up with the process that we have, that’s, incredibly intensive, but we feel like really goes deep into making sure that everyone has some input, and awareness about how the decision’s being made.

JCE: I just want to say that all of that was so organic in the sense that even in the beginning of thinking about who might play an artistic director role, and there’s a larger story to tell because my role as artistic director and founder is different than what the new artistic director’s role is going to be. Because we’ve been creating capacities in the organization for fundraising and administration and communications that didn’t exist in the past. But, when we started to reach out to people, you know, Stacy and I agreed, we were going to reach out to a bunch of people who, we could say to them, we would feel that we could say, “You’d be an incredibly interesting Artistic Director at The Lark. But we’re not talking to you about that. We want to talk to you because you also have a deep connection to The Lark and going back to this question of community and conversation, we want to have a conversation with you about, where do you see The Lark going? Especially as events revolving COVID and the civil rights questions that are coming to the fore more and more. What do you see us doing?" And the process of those conversations led us to some of these conclusions and some of the places we went in a very organic way. And that was incredibly gratifying. So I feel as though, I mean, if you step back and you look at questions of organizational evolution, you know, I say now and I think it’s true, I wish I had the maturity of thought and the wisdom that I’ve learned from my peers five years ago to begin this process. Even a year and half ago people would say, when I’d say, “Oh, one day when I can actually focus on a few projects of my own, when I’m not so worried about the fragility of the organization,” they’d say, “Well, but you have to keep that to yourself.” I don’t mean to go back to my personal mythology or pathology around feeling too alone, but it’s been very, very meaningful to recognize that I’m not alone and that it all changes when conversation starts to happen, and conversation isn’t conversation unless both sides are listening.

So, I think a lot of learning has been happening in that process. And it led to very tangible things I mean, I’m the artistic director but of course I made a spreadsheet. But the spreadsheet was really to sort of put together the things that we were learning so that they didn’t just sort of live in abstract space, that they actually lived in a particular place. And it included steps we started to think moved us towards where we were going, we wanted to make sure that any time we had a conversation with someone who taught us something that we actually put that something in a repository. By the time you came, Al, we actually had kind of a framing out of some of the thinking we’d been doing.

AH: I find myself on the spectrum and thinking as a manager as a consultant as well about, gosh, I simultaneously love and hate this field all at the same time. And yet I think, that’s the messiness of passion, right? Passion isn’t about being so caught up that you are in a celestial state. Passion is about the range of emotional states you can feel about one person or topic. It’s the reason that we get so angry or upset about particular aspects of either a word on the page or the way an actor is going to move or the way a light is going to hit the stage, and understanding that. How do you manage that? How do you lead that? And I think about finding a leader who understands that passion is about the range of an emotion within people.

SW: And how do you hold space for all that. For all those colors without taking it internal. And allowing yourself to be just as messy. Because that means creating a culture where -- and that’s what we talk about being whole, being heard and being whole -- that you can bring whoever you are, however you’re feeling that way to the space. And it’s okay because it’s yours. And empowering you to say the same thing. It’s okay because it’s yours.

AH: I think it’ll be curious, as we’re going through and talking with other people, what does that look like in a candidate? What does that feel like in a person, in a leader? In terms of their philosophy and how they want to guide an organization. Because I think both of you are hitting on the changing role of an artistic director. The changing role of executive leadership in theaters. That it is about how do you lead and coach a team of people? And yet how do you also separate what for example I may think is best as Al the practitioner, versus putting on my hat of what is best for The Lark? What is best for the organization? And I’ll be curious as we’re going through and going through this process and hearing form people of, well what does this person sound like, what does this person feel like, what does this person look like, what skills does this person have? And that’s something I’m at least taking forward with me.

JCE: The small is always within the large, right? We are the child we were, and we are always that small and growing, and it’s just so interesting that we’ve known for a long time, and the staff knows this, that within the artistic conversation at The Lark, within the room where a play is being shared by a brave writer who is opening up their heart and dream to a group of people for the first time, and a group of people who are there to support that person in confidence in their dream, and so I guess at The Lark the main thing that we do is to put people in the position to guide their own process, to live by their own light and their own vision. And this has always existed within the organization, it has been the reason that people come to it, that people go from it changed, and to take, as I think everybody in the organization is trying to do right now, to take this experience of the creative process in a room where you feel safe but challenged, and to apply it to the institution itself, you know. How do we do that? How do we do that?

And I think we’ve been thinking about this for quite a while in fits and starts, and this is really, in this moment of a founder leaving, in this moment of people, of Stacy and other people who have grown in the organization because they believe in it, and they've brought so much to it, into leadership roles -- how do we -- cause there’s always this thing in our lives and in the politics of our lives where things get to a point, where any business gets to a point where, it starts to become institutionalized. And I say that with the negative connotation. It starts to become, “this is how we do it.” And how do we go to what it means to be in a room where people are acknowledging that no one has ever thought that before. That what is being thought could be the thing that changes all our lives for the better. And maybe not. But how do we go with that kind of wonder into a space of trying to create a community and a conversation on a larger level that doesn’t feel like it's insubstantial because it’s not built on structures and expectations, but that doesn’t feel on the other hand institutional and, “now everybody do it this way.”

AH: For sure. I think in the last few minutes, Stacy is there anything you’d like to add to that, in particular just moving forward? This is one part but, you know, we’re about to dive into another area that gets even more tactile and real. But wondering if you have any final thoughts in the last few minutes. Just on where we’ve been so far.

SW: Yea no, I think that, there is so much that we’ve gained that is not repeatable. Like we will never have an opportunity to get what we just got, and it has edified me so much. And I have accepted this process as process cause that’s what we’re about. But I have accepted it for myself personally as a process. And I don’t know what each day is going to bring. But what I know that I’m committed to is that, I know, as long as everyone is willing to rock with us, that I got you. And we are going to figure it out together. That I am sure about. That we will figure it out. And I really am just excited for a new partner because there’s just so much value that we can bring. Yea, that’s it.

AH: That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. “I got you and we’re gonna figure out how to make this happen. We gonna get through it.” I love it. I love it.