The artistic director of an American theater company these days has to wear a lot of different hats: curator, conceptualizer, craftsperson, but also administrator, personnel manager, fundraiser, budget ninja. It isn’t any wonder the job can weigh on a person.
But for Profile Theatre’s Adriana Baer, the problem isn’t the weight, it’s the balance.
“I’m not going to speak for every AD in the world,” she says, “but every AD I’ve ever talked to spends more time, by a huge margin, administrating, fundraising, budgeting, producing—left-brained stuff—than artistically creating.”
In a bid to give right-brained stuff more of its due, Baer announced late last month that she’ll be stepping down from the position she took on three and a half years ago when she replaced Profile founding artistic director Jane Unger. After Dec. 31, the 33-year-old plans to “take a few months off to feel what it feels like to be a person in the world,” then she’ll start putting her considerable energy back into freelance directing, teaching and arts advocacy.
She isn’t jumping to a bigger job, and though she expects to pursue work through contacts in San Francisco, Ashland and elsewhere, she has no plans to leave Portland. In fact, she’s going to remain involved with Profile.
“We’re working on a new play-commissioning program and I’m going to be consulting on the development of that,” she says. “We really believe in figuring out how to commission work by our featured writers. We’ve committed to an initiative for the next three seasons at least of featuring women writers or writers of color, or both. That’s an important part of where Profile is pointing, starting of course with Tanya Barfield next season. And what we’ve realized is that one of the best things Profile can do for the theater world at large is to support writers who are in the middle of their careers.”
“It’s hard for us to do brand new, emerging writers, because they don’t tend to have enough of a body of work yet,” Baer pointed out. Profile feature the work of one playwright for an entire season, so all the playwrights selected have substantial credits. “And the established writers, the creators of mid-century American classics, Profile has done so much of those guys—and I do mean guys. They’re wonderful and I love them, but we have this cool opportunity with writers in the middle of their careers, to work with them and ideally commission a new work that would be presented at the end of their season. New-play development is its own beast, and I’ll be sticking around to figure out what that looks like.”
Meanwhile, Profile is launching a search for Baer’s successor. Lauren Hanover, the company’s director of education and community engagement, will serve as interim artistic director.
“The timeline right now is to start doing interviews in the spring with the hope that the new person will start in the summer or fall of 2016,” Baer explains. “The 2016 Tanya Barfield season is completely planned — all the supplemental programming, the In Dialogue series, the tour stuff, that’s all set. We haven’t finished casting all the shows, but most things are in place. And my team is starting to put together a short list (of playwrights) for 2017, so the company has quite a bit of flexibility in terms of when the next person starts, depending on what they need to do.”
Once she’s out of her current role, Baer won’t be part of the search committee, and she’s reluctant to say much about what qualities she thinks the theater’s board will be looking for—except for a recognition of the value of Profile’s one-playwright-per-season approach.
“I hope they’re really passionate about the mission,” she says. “Profile’s mission is what makes this company tick. We do something really special. If there’s one great sadness I have about leaving—well, I have a lot, but—it’s that this mission really does the work of helping playwrights and showcasing them.”
Whoever’s next at the helm of Profile will take over a very different operation than the one Baer joined in the summer of 2012, at the end of its 15th season.
Unger had started Profile with the playwrights-focused concept and not much else, initially using her daughter’s playroom as the company’s office, but doggedly built it into one of the city’s most respected small theaters. Just seven months into her tenure, though, Baer faced a major crisis when the landlord of Theater! Theatre!, the Southeast Portland home to Profile and several other companies, decided to convert its auditoriums into office and warehouse space for an adjacent retail business.Baer quickly turned a loss into a gain, striking a deal with Artists Repertory Theatre to become a resident company in its downtown building just west of I-405. The move into a larger, better-equipped theater both forced and facilitated rapid growth. According to managing director Matthew Jones, Profile has increased its audience by more than 33%. A budget that was about $365,000 during the final season on Southeast Belmont Street will approach $700,000 next year. (The transition also occasioned a shift from a fall-through-spring schedule to a calendar-year season.) Portland Shakespeare Project already was a resident company there, but the arrival of Profile really energized what’s come to called the Arts Hub.
Baer also started education and community engagement programs, including a program that tours shows to local high schools and community centers, and buttressed the production schedule with additional staged readings, lectures and panel discussions.
Her chops as a stage director have been very much in evidence as well. In 2013, Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca was her “radiant Portland directing debut,” as Holly Johnson put it in The Oregonian. This year, in particular, Baer’s been on a roll, deftly balancing the cleverness, whimsy and emotional depth of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone and In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, and (in a production for Artists Rep’s season) scrupulously shaping the psychological contours of Arthur Miller’s The Price.
And she’s done all this while in the intrinsically tricky circumstance of following a company founder—the arts world’s version of being a middle child. Giving birth to an arts organization—an inclination and capacity Bear refers to as “founder brain”—is very different from helping it reach maturity.
“I have this image of founder brain as being like a big tree, with a lot of branches, a cool idea sprouting over here, maybe a treehouse at the top,” she says. “Rarely does a founder start an organization with thoughts about structure and policies and procedures. For an artist, that’s boring. So then the second person comes in, and that’s been my role at Profile. I came in and said, ‘We need scaffolding’: Handbooks, procedures, job descriptions, overhauling all of the systems by which we create this work.
“And the reason I’m leaving now is because things are really great for the company.”
So if things are going so well, why leave, again?
“Burnout is a real thing,” Baer says, sitting in a drab, windowless conference room amid the Arts Hub’s warren of offices. Then she recalls her disheartening epiphany.
“There was a moment in a rehearsal room earlier this year: I was working on a scene in a show, I was sitting there watching the scene and I had the complete thought that ‘If I don’t solve this scene we’re going to get a bad review, we’re going to sell fewer tickets, we won’t make cash-flow for this month, and someone’s not getting paid.’ And I realized in that moment that my craft, my artmaking and the reasons I came to theater in the first place were not present in the room anymore. What was present was worry about making payroll. And that is anathema to creativity. It started shutting down the joy of being an artmaker.
“I thought about stepping away from directing for a while, maybe focus on the administration and not the art-making. Then I thought, ‘My soul is going to die.’
“And I’m not unique in this. A lot of artistic directors have written about how hard it is to be both artist and administrator, the servant of two masters. What started to happen is that I would have interesting creative ideas that I thought could be great for this company artistically, and I wouldn’t even say them out loud. I was shutting down risk-taking impulses because I was worried about how much it was going to cost. And that’s bad for the art.”
So, for Baer, leaving her job is partly about personal fulfillment and what’s known these days as work/life balance, but it’s also part of an ongoing examination of the context in which she and others like her work and create.
“I don’t know what precociousness got into me, but I wanted to be an artistic director from the time I was in high school,” she recalls. “I knew this was what I wanted to do and I charted my course to get here. My father was the founding general manager of American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco…so I really idolized the regional theater movement and focused my sights on what it had been originally. But the model, or the functionality, is very different now.”
She talks about the rise of the regional-theater movement in the 1960s, the large, mainstream institutions it fostered and the smaller companies that sprang up around them using the same template.
“We’ve all adopted the same way of doing things, and I think that’s strange. Is that really reasonable, for an organization with, let’s say, a $750,000 budget to be modeling itself after what a company with a $25 million dollar budget does?
“I often tell younger people who are thinking of starting theater companies, ‘Be really thoughtful about your model. What is it really that you’re trying to do? Make plays? Build an institution? Advance education? Maybe you don’t need to use this 501(c)3 not-for-profit model that’s really rigid.”
Baer estimates that about 75% of her time goes to administration and fundraising, to mulling such matters as how to incentivize private donors, how to adjust to weakening foundation support, how to keep ticket prices low, how to reach a more diverse audience. She’s as sharp and thoughtful on these issues as she is on the art at the heart of her enterprise. But is she the best person to be thinking about these things?
“I think that because directors generally are the leaders of any (theater-making) process they immediately become the assumed leadership (of theater organizations),” she notes. “(But) we need to be thinking outside the box now about who really wants to be running these companies, who should be the people spending 70 hours a week in their left brain.
“What kind of person should be running an arts organization? Should it be an active artist who wants to be in the rehearsal room? Should it be someone who has a lot of passion for the administrative side, who likes strategic planning, who likes fundraising, and…and..and.. and…Add all that up, and is that a real person? I feel like I fit a lot of those criteria. But perhaps because I do so much, the burnout happened faster.
“Now I get to make a shift that keeps me engaged…I’m not leaving the community, I’m just shifting where I put my energy.”
The ranks of artistic directors may be losing a valuable member for now, but the art might well be the winner with Baer’s new direction.
Oregon ArtsWatch executive editor Barry Johnson also contributed to this report.