Rooted in the Structure

by LaTeshia Ellerson

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

LATESHIA ELLERSON: The recent game-changing theatre leader that I’ve met was Julie Woffington. I had the pleasure of  meeting Ms. Woffington during a panel discussion for the National Corporate Theatre Fund.  Ms. Woffington, as the Executive Director of Educational Theatre Association is a compelling and enthusiastic arts educator.

We have had conversations regarding the incorporation of diversity and equity in arts education. I was encouraged to find a like-minded person working in the trenches. As a former Thespian Society member, Ms. Woffington’s advocacy, and support of theatre arts education, and its teachers is resounding. Working as a volunteer theatre teacher, I was surprised to learn that the National Standards for Arts Education have not been updated since 1994. I was excited to learn that Ms. Woffington was working in collaboration with the American Alliance for Theatre and Education to update the theatre standards.

Such work is important, and is garnishing attention, as some corporate leaders are now endorsing and prompting the transference of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math). As leaders in this field, we need to continue to do the work that will inform corporate and political leaders that we have a method to the seemed chaos that produces great art!

I am thankful for the tireless commitment and efforts of Ms. Woffington and other committee members who updated the Arts Education Standards last year. This is part of the work needed to help validate theatre arts as an indispensable subject for K-12.  I look forward to advocating for arts education, and communicating the testimonials we see every day, which are a direct result of implementing the Arts Education Standards.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

LE: I am a Development Director. My world revolves around the constant challenge of finding funds for general operating and programming. However, honestly, our underlying challenge is not always funding. I have observed theatres that have opened, and, closed for various reasons. I find that critics focus on the surface issues, and frame the cause of closings around funding. I am convinced that the challenges of theatre closings are rooted in the structure of the organization. Understanding capitalization and execution of financial controls, (financial planning, performance evaluation, and coordination of financial activities) are two areas where immediate improvement can take place. Other structural challenges that we face as a field, such as staffing structure and audience programming, would take too much time to unpack and differ per organization.

We all can agree that funding is a common challenge among all theatres, but there will always be a hole in the ship if an organization does not manage funds effectively, and budget for the reality of today, and not for the dreams of tomorrow. Funding will only patch up the larger problem for a short time. It is important to dig deep to understand why cash flow problems occur. We should not sweep red flags under the rug. The answer to the problem is not always as simple as, “the money just didn’t come in on time”. Taking the time to do the work will help problem solve for the future.

I attended the TCG Fall Forum on Governance: Cash & Culture and during a lecture, we discussed how well-capitalized organizations are able to weather cash flow hindrances. Capitalization was a key subject featured for expanding organizational funding. TCG has done a fantastic job of supplying statistics and trends regarding earned and unearned revenue sources from across the field. Leaders should continue to make these statistics a part of their decision making process, as well as look into research made by others in the nonprofit sector. For instance, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) and the Nonprofit Finance Fund have resources to assist executive leaders who desire to implement capitalization methods. More information on capitalization in the nonprofit arts sector is on GIA’s website.

Becoming more transparent, sharing problem-solving ideas across the field and banishing the “shame” factor are additional tactics for addressing the larger financial management issue. Let the sharing continue…

LaTeshia Ellerson joined Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in 2007 as Development Associate and was promoted to Director of Development in 2013. LaTeshia is a participant in the SPARK Leadership Program, funded by American Express, The Joyce Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group. During her undergraduate career, she completed internships at Jomandi Productions in Atlanta and Ensemble Theatre in Houston. Professionally as an actress, LaTeshia has performed with The Second City in Chicago and several Christian Theatre Companies in Chicago and Atlanta. LaTeshia holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago and Masters of Science in Urban Policy Studies/Nonprofit Leadership from Georgia State University.

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.