Douglas resignation: lessons to be learned?

January 25, 2012

On Monday, January 23 at the Goodman Theatre opening of David Mamet’s Race, the new artistic director of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, Nick Sandys, stood side-by-side with his predecessor, Timothy Douglas, both tall and trim and obviously with warm regards towards each other. Sandys, a longtime member of the Remy Bumppo ensemble, succeeded to the artistic director job just days before, following Douglas’s sudden resignation.

The change in leadership at Remy Bumppo was the big performing arts news story of last week, magnified by the fact that Douglas had been on the job at Remy Bumppo for only eight months and also by the fact that he is the first African-American to lead a mainstream, mid-sized Chicago theater company. In this context (and perhaps in many others), “mainstream” means non-ethnic specific, which is another way of saying majority white in its audience make-up and roster of artists.

My colleague, Kelly Kleiman, and I both are writing about Douglas’s resignation this week (Editor's note: Kelly's piece can be read here) because his decision has many aspects to explore and several possible lessons for other theater companies. In keeping with the Mamet play now at the Goodman Theatre, Kelly will explore the presence (or not) of racial aspects to his decision which, it needs to be noted, was not coerced or requested by the Remy Bumppo board or ensemble.

In fact, Douglas laid his resignation on the table last November, and the company refused to accept it, working to overcome what Douglas called artistic and cultural differences. Do his words, “artistic” and “cultural,” imply racial nuances? Should readers infer such nuances? See what Kelly has to say.

For my part, I’ve chosen to write about a different range of issues and problems, those that can come about with any change in leadership in an organization.

The first circumstance is that Douglas was hired to succeed the founding artistic director of Remy Bumppo who guided the troupe for 15 years and built its distinctive esthetic. It’s always a particular challenge to replace the founder of a company because often the esthetic has evolved organically, rather than in the form of a written mission or statements of policy. Whenever a troupe must replace a longtime leader, whether the founder or not, it needs to question itself first and ask the basics: who are we? What are we? Why are we the way we are? Is this what we wish to continue to be? How do we work? What sort of change (if any) do we want? Who or what is our base of support? Will they/it stay with us? Where do we want to be in “x” years? What do we seek in a new leader?

I have heard reports that Remy Bumppo has engaged a consultant to help address precisely such questions now, but it’s unclear whether or not the company conducted a critical self-examination before it began sifting through resumes.

What came as much bigger surprise, however, was Douglas’s observation (in his resignation letter) that he had been hired without ever having seen a Remy Bumppo production, and without anyone from Remy Bumppo having seen anything he directed. He was hired on the basis of his resume and several interviews. I find this more than a little surprising and a lot absurd. You mustn’t hire a superior resume and a good talker (or even a noble talker or a visionary talker); you need to hire a person to select repertory, interpret it and work with a wide range of artists to create a product for a paying public. Ya’ can’t do that sight unseen.

I’ve been told by a knowledgeable source that Remy Bumppo brought eight candidates to Chicago for interviews with its search committee. It’s an almost-impossible dereliction of duty to think that none of those eight saw a Remy Bumppo production, so perhaps Timothy Douglas was the odd man out in this regard. But perhaps not. Especially with an ensemble-based company such as Remy Bumppo, it seems obligatory that the final two or three candidates (if not all eight who were interviewed) would be brought in to see a production or at least sit in on a few rehearsals to see how the ensemble worked under its founding director. I’d think it equally obligatory that the head of the search committee, and a representative of the acting ensemble, would have traveled to see productions put up by the finalists.

There are other decisions that, in hindsight, might be questioned. Douglas, in his very first season, chose to direct all three Remy Bumppo productions himself. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps it would have been better to bring in another director for, say, the middle show of the season so that he, Douglas, could observe how the ensemble might work differently under someone else. It also would have given him greater freedom to see the work of other Chicago-area theater companies and deepen his knowledge of the local artistic community. Even more, if you do it all yourself, there’s nowhere to hide if the critics and audiences don’t cozy up to your efforts. A change of face, a change of pace can be the pause that refreshes.

Another observer pointed out that Douglas, despite an extraordinary record as a director and theater educator, never had run a theater company before coming to Remy Bumppo. Perhaps surprisingly to some readers, this really isn’t an issue. Douglas had more than enough substantial experience in senior artistic leadership positions to assume the role of Remy Bumppo artistic director. It’s not as if he didn’t know what to do or how to do it. The real question, going back several paragraphs, is this: did he know what the company expected of him in an esthetic or abstract sense? Did the company know what it expected of him in an abstract or esthetic sense?

At least on some levels, the answers appear to have been “no” and “no.”

Timothy Douglas has exceptional experience to bring to the table. His separation from Remy Bumppo seems to be a no-fault divorce. Moving forward, it would be a shame not to have his presence in Chicago at least from time to time as a director or theater educator. My conversations with him lead me to think he’d be a damn fine theater critic, too, but he’s gonna’ have to fight Kelly if he wants her job.