Expanding Indy Theater Decides Two Heads Are Better than One

November 18, 2017; Indianapolis Business Journal

In Indianapolis, the 34-year-old nonprofit Phoenix Theatre is in the midst of expanding and moving into a new building. The $10.1-million project will give the theater company “its first custom-built home: an ADA-compliant one with spiffier amenities, costume and scene shops, actual dressing rooms, and the option to have two plays running at once without sound spillover. Greater outreach programming and educational offerings will be in the mix as well, with the Phoenix also serving as an incubator for new companies.” The new facility is expected to open within the next six months.

Yet the new digs are not the only change at the Phoenix. As Lou Harry notes in the Indianapolis Business Journal, “As bold as the new building will be, the hiring of [a new managing director] represents an equally dramatic change taking place inside the organization.” As Harry explains, the theater company has had managing directors in the past, but they all reported “to founder and Artistic Director Bryan Fonseca.” The new managing director, Kevin Kruse, will directly report to the board like Fonseca and brings considerable theater experience, most recently serving as director as finance and administration for a theater in Jupiter, Florida (near West Palm Beach).

Phoenix board chair Frank Basile is strongly supportive of the change:

We knew that…the managing director needed to have full authority to operate the theater—constrained only by the board—and now we have a person who has the confidence and experience to truly be able to implement what’s needed.

Fonseca is also highly supportive of the shift, which he says will enable him to take on more artistic responsibilities. “I’ve dreamed of doing more with the artistic programming,” says Fonseca. “I always wanted to be doing more as a community member, helping other organizations grow and develop. I’ve always been interested in a music series, a spoken word series, a public town hall series.”

Of course, co-leadership models, while not universal, are common in theater. A Drexel master’s student thesis explains some of the reasons why, including “the recommendations of the funding community, to position a complete and balanced skill-set at the top [and] as an outgrowth of the collaborative spirit inherent to the creation of theatre.”

The fact that co-leadership is common does not make it easy. As “Dr. Conflict” (Paul Light) observed in NPQ years ago, “the co-leadership model is the structural choice at many regional theatres and dance companies, but it is no walk in the park.” (For a humorous treatment of the subject, see the Canadian television dramedy Slings and Arrows). As Light points out, among the benefits of co-leadership model are that it can help an organization “engage the strengths of co-leaders, co-workers, board members and volunteers, each of whom bring different skills and personalities to the party.”

And, at Phoenix, with expansion, there is much to be done that will require the engagement of all concerned. Not only will the company have the ability to run two stages simultaneously, but the organization’s “long-range plans include developing a $2 million contingency fund by the end of 2020 and a $3 million permanent endowment by the end of 2023.”

Of course, many nonprofits outside of the arts also employ a co-leadership model, as CompassPoint and NPQ have covered. In the NPQ article, “Doing More with More: Putting Shared Leadership into Practice,” Michael Allison, Susan Misra, and Elissa Perry emphasized four essential conditions for successful co-leadership:

  1. An explicit commitment by senior leadership to change
  2. An up-front investment of time to educate and plan
  3. Fundamental management practices in place
  4. Engagement and accountability

So far, the Phoenix seems to be off to a good start, with the board behind the shift and with both leaders respecting each other and their respective roles. While there are a lot of business matters that need to be attended to with the theater’s growth, Kruse emphasizes that, “At the end of the day, the business operation is there to enable the art.”—Steve Dubb