What if…We Empowered Younger Employees To Make Real Change?

by Adam Thurman

in What If

Learn more about the What If…? Project

What if…theatre institutions empowered younger employees to make real change?

Age is a tricky subject to address.  Even a relatively benign question like “what do you mean by younger employees?” can spark heated debate.  Plus, discussions of age are often filled with stereotypes.  We’ve all heard tales of the clueless young employee that can make magic happen with Twitter but is stumped by any question which can’t be answered by Google.  We gossip about the inflexible, terrified, older employee who is prepared to protect the status quo at all cost.  We tell ourselves a lot of stories about age and the arts.  Very few of them are helpful.

With all the natural, and perhaps unavoidable, tension around the subject you may wonder why it is worth bringing up at all.

The answer revolves around the future and our place in it.

Years ago, the champions of the civil rights movement would confront their opposition with a saying that was both a threat and warning:

Don’t get caught on the wrong side of history.”

The message was simple.  Waves of change are coming.  The only question is whether you’ll embrace those changes or get crushed by them.  It’s the same question we face in the theatre world.

You know the issues.  The institutional theatre complex still struggles with issues of diversity, while the world becomes more global.  We debate the role of women in the industry like it’s the 1960’s while their power in the marketplace increases.  All the traditional “rules” of programming, board governance, fundraising and marketing are being challenged by a complex and unpredictable world.

What makes things even more urgent is that pace of change is accelerating.  You can’t hide from it, or wait it out.  This will not impact the next Artistic Director, or the next Executive Director, or the next Marketing Director.  All this is happening on our watch.

When the waves of change are both high and dangerous you need certain tools to deal with it, tools like fresh ideas, new perspectives, and a willingness to confront (and maybe slaughter) some of the sacred cows in our business.

Those tools lie in the hearts and minds of your younger employees.  Not all of them, of course, but certainly some of them.  That’s the good news.  The even better news is that not only do they have the tools, they have the hunger.

I became an arts professional when I was 27 years old.  In the seven years since I have spent a lot of time with my “emerging leader” colleagues.  Inevitably the conversation would turn to how the arts can stay relevant and vital in the future.  The ideas would begin to fly and you could feel the energy level in the room increase.  That’s what happens when people ponder the changes they would make if they felt empowered to do it.

So here’s the big “What If”:

What if you harnessed that energy?

It’s the same energy that made Dr. King a Nobel Prize Winner at 35.  It’s the same energy that helped Mark Zuckerberg pioneer Facebook when he was 20.

What could that energy do for your theatre?

It’s right there waiting to be used.  Why on Earth would you waste it?

Theatre folks like to pride themselves on being bold, right?  Well the boldest thing you could do today is gather your younger employees and tell them about the challenges that are causing you to lose sleep at night. See what suggestions they have.  Sure, some of the suggestions may be lousy but let’s be honest  some of your suggestions (and mine) are terrible and yet the world continues to spin.

Give them a shot.  Give them a task that is worthy of their intellectual, technical and creative abilities.  Unleash that energy.

It may change everything.


Adam Thurman is the Director of Marketing and Communications for Court Theatre, one of the largest nonprofit theatres in Chicago.  He is also the Founder of Mission Paradox, an organization devoted to connecting art and audience.  He is a former Board Member of the League of Chicago Theatres and has been recognized as an Emerging Leader by TCG and Americans For the Arts.  His book, Authentic Arts Marketing is available at the Amazon Kindle Store.  He is thrilled to be working in an industry which still considers him (at 34) young.

  • http://phrasemongers.wordpress.com Aaron Andersen

    Unleashing that energy can get messy, but we’re not supposed to be afraid of messy in the arts, right? One huge benefit you’d get from actually doing this would be to retain young talent, and increase the image of arts administration among young talent. Too many people see arts administration as a low-powered backwater that can’t get highly talented people because they can’t compete with Silicon Valley on compensation. Those of us who work in the arts know that’s bullshit, but it’s still a perceptual obstacle that we have to surmount in order to bring in the next generation of arts leaders.