What Theater Admins Can Teach Us About Our Executive Branch

The theater has mechanisms to ensure our comfort and safety. Why doesn't the government?

Photo: John Siedenberg II.

It’s challenging to write political commentary in the current times. When it takes the better part of a week to go through drafts, get editorial feedback, and put finishing touches on a piece, it’s difficult to provide a cogent analysis when there’s a new development every time I hit the bathroom.

So, at the suggestion of, and in collaboration with, Leonard Jacobs, I thought that I would take a step back and look at the structure of our current executive branch and view it vis a vis what I do for a living, as a theater administrator and director.

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The problem that most Americans have with President Trump, whether they realize it or not, is more of, or equal to, the problem that originates within the Republican party right now. Our Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances intended to ensure that none of the three divisions of government could reign supreme over the nation. But our Congress, our legislative branch, refuses to hand down the same restrictions on this president as its has on past administrations. Almost all our kvetches include, and stem consciously or unconsciously from, our frustration with this.

Indeed, as much as I feel the toddler-in-chief occupying the White House is a terrible, terrible human being (and probably a certifiable sociopath), my frustration with him is nowhere near as deep as my abiding disgust with House and Senate Republicans who enable his actions and ignore his behavior. Their grotesque eagerness to give this president a complete pass on behavior that would be considered beyond the pale for any prior chief executive is only matched by the complicity of the Catholic Church in the sexual abuse scandals of the last century.

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By contrast, the main lesson that I have learned in the 25 years that I have been an arts administrator and run four theater companies is that safeguards and safety personnel are the nuts and bolts of any successful and comfortable process. Actors have Actors’ Equity Association, and every cast has a deputy — that is, an actor assigned by other union actors in the room to act as liaison and complaint conduit between the cast and the management. Playwrights have the Dramatists Guild (their subtitle is: “Your Pen. Our Sword.”) Directors have the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. Casting directors have the Casting Society of America as well as the Teamsters. Box-office staff, even publicists have some kind of union representation if they fear abuse or mistreatment. (Want a list? Click here.) Even the nation’s community theaters have safeguards, from a national nonprofit service association to individual boards of directors and administrators — artistic, managing and/or executive directors — to whom you can report issues and who are expected to know how to handle them.

In most of the companies I’ve run, I’ve tried to ensure that every show also has some sort of board liaison or similar position so there is someone that any participant can approach if they have a concern — even if the person of concern is the director or executive.

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My point is that, even in the theater — a world whose workers are thought of by some people as flaky, self-absorbed and narcissistic — there are mechanisms to ensure the comfort and safety of those workers. We have fight choreographers to ensure that stage combat is safe. We have stage managers, assistant stage managers and various deputies who, when successful, ensure that workers have a responsible person in a place of power to whom they can bring concerns. In a welcome addition of the last few years, now we have intimacy directors and coordinators for scenes that involve sexual content, abuse or nudity.

What’s the equivalent of all this in our government at present? We don’t really have one. The closest equivalent we have our judiciary — and this president, through his constant attacks on Twitter and his packing of the bench, has certainly shown that this essential safeguard is at risk.

So what’s our new equivalent? Where is our intimacy specialist? Where is our deputy? Is it time for the executive branch to have a new traffic cop? No one really even wants to be the baby-in-chief’s Chief of Staff; the position has essentially become Executive Babysitter. If John Kelly, a retired general well-known for his “no nonsense” approach, can’t choreograph an orderly West Wing, it may be that no one is confident they can. If Jim Mattis, another retired general well-known for his allegiance to our armed forces, can’t serve the infant-in-chief because Trump’s ideas endanger the nation, it may be that no one is confident they can.

All of which begets a scary conclusion: Are we even watching a production anymore? Or is this just the sad Twitter monologues of the only participant still willing to remain on stage, tragically stalling for his curtain call?