Sustaining the Theater Workplace

by Devra Thomas

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: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

DEVRA THOMAS: Most recently, watching a group of Triangle high school students tackle Dog Sees God. Watching an adult play about high school students done BY high school students, it took me right back to the angst and confusion and caterpillar-struggle of  young adulthood. The performance made me remember to be patient, to offer counsel from experience, and it made me proud to be in a situation that I could help the next generation of theater artists.

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

DT: I have to pick one? I try to learn from everyone I’ve worked with, even in small ways. Even though I’ve not met her, I certainly think often of Zelda Fichandler’s story, of being a part of the beginning of Nonprofit Regional Theater as we know it today. Here was a woman creating a business, in an odd physical space, that was to support local artists. It’s not enough to say “how can I replicate what works elsewhere?” but we have to ask “what is the story of this place, of these people?” and commit to making art in a sustainable way that shares that truth.

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

DT: Speaking as an administrator–as someone who is passionate about supporting live theater from the nuts-and-bolts side–the challenge for the field is how to make small, avocational theater a sustainable place to work. And not even necessarily as full-time wage work, but we have to strengthen the capacity of the thousands of small and medium-sized theater companies in the thousands of small and medium-sized towns and cities across America. The new work, the local stories, the next commercial success is coming from these places, and the artists and organizations are struggling to find the resources (financial, people, space) just to put on their next show. Yes, money is helpful, but it would be far more useful to have local governments donate black box space for qualified companies, for local marketers to donate some of their time to facilitate audience development and advertising campaigns, to professional fundraisers help with grant proposals. Our theater artists are not trained in how to find or do these things, yet they are imperative if the work is to be seen, which is imperative to the growth of the field.

Yes, there is the over-whelming diversity (color, age, gender, sexuality, disability, etc etc) problem. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue for me: if I can have a stable environment in which to support diverse artists, will they come? Or we start the work first, will we have the staying power to create something sustainable? These are questions that keep me awake at night.

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

DT: A theater artist who played my venue recently said to me in the course of conversation, “The most segregated time of the week in America is Sunday morning.” Yes, it is human nature to be with people like you (however you want to define “you” at any given moment). But not at least attempting to say “You are different but what do we have in common?” is what leads to fear-mongering, outright hatred, and brutal over-powering if left unchecked. Theater should be that community space where people of all kinds can at least approach each other and begin a dialogue. And I believe that can be done with any permutation of our theater system, but we must be deliberate.


Devra Thomas is a theater administrator who specializes in customer service & making artists’ dreams come true. She works in small cities with local directors, producers, designers, and actors to make the best theater their money can buy. She holds a Masters degree in Arts Administration from Goucher College. She recently relocated with her family to the NC coast after over twenty years of working in theater in the Triangle region of North Carolina, and is working on a research project chronicling the history of theater in that area.

  • Ralph Stalter, Jr.

    What a truly powerful statement, Devra! “Theater should be that community space where people of all kinds can at least approach each other and begin a dialogue. And I believe that can be done with any permutation of our theater system, but we must be deliberate.”

    I actually had the great honor of working with both Zelda Fichandler & Alan Schneider while studying in the graduate Acting program in the School of Theatre at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts (1973-75). Alan continued to be a valuable mentor as I transitioned from performance to nonprofit professional theatre administration.

    You might like reading Joseph Wesley Zeigler’s book, “Regional Theatre, The Revolutionary Stage (University of Minnesota Press, 1973) — with a foreword by Alan!

    Here in Las Vegas, we have actually created Nevada Repertory, the State’s first and only fully professional theatre company that is a member of the “LEAGUE OF RESIDENT THEATRES” (LORT). So, I’m actually re-reading Zeigler’s book (40 years after my first time) and finding new insights into Nonprofit Regional Theater!

  • Devra Thomas

    Thanks, Ralph! I’ll look for the book. I’m always up for more history reading and learning lessons we can still apply today.

  • 7rob7

    … recently relocated with her family to the NC coast…

    Nobody tells me nothing. Belated congrats on the move, and up-to-the-minute congrats on the interview. Good, as usual, stuff!

  • Devra Thomas

    Thank you!