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Crowded Fire’s Shared Leadership Model

The theater field is undergoing momentous transformation in leadership positions nationwide. Recognizing this opportunity, we seek to disrupt systems of gate-keeping and power-hoarding upheld by people in leadership positions (traditionally white male-held roles) by empowering an incoming generation of historically-marginalized future leaders who are questioning the very structures of those systems.

As institutions sustaining ourselves largely with public funding, and therefore held in the public trust, we have a responsibility to ensure that our artistic work exceptionally and boldly engages in the concerns and complexities of our often under-represented communities. This means supporting the vision of leaders who are a part of these communities and naturally serve with this at heart.

Along with this long overdue transformation, many organizations are realizing the challenges of opening up the trappings of traditional gatekeeping as we seek to build a more inclusive, trusting, and embracing relationship with the communities we are seeking to serve. There is a new awareness that hardened hierarchies are an obstruction to true change.

There is also a rising concern that many organizations are hiring women, LGBTQIA+, and BIPOC identifying leaders without the structural, relational, and financial resources to give said leaders the time to fully step into the role and specific needs of that organization and thrive. It has been an ongoing pathology in our field to expect an individual to come up in an artistic and administrative leadership role without adequate support, requiring nearly double the effort of a full-time job to find their footing. These leaders are often tokenized, expected to take responsibility for the actions of their predecessors, and left holding the labor of repair and rebuilding trust with their wider communities. It is not a sustainable practice, especially as we recover from this pandemic. 

For these reasons, and in this moment of opportunity, we at Crowded Fire seek to bring together our strengths of: 1) a collaborative culture, and 2) a strong mentorship/mutual support practice. 

Beginning in 2022, and into the next few years, we seek to expand upon our existing staff structure to build a more sustainable and shared leadership structure. This is emerging from an already existing culture of collaboration and trust on staff. A decision matrix for the organization is in development, identifying impactful structural, administrative, and artistic decisions that are to be distributed amongst our shared leadership staff, with the understanding that day-to-day functionally specific decisions are held by staff members responsible for those functions. Prior hierarchically held Artistic and Managing Director roles are moving into a lateral relationship with our current, year-round staff with deliberate cross-training occurring in areas of artistic producing, financial & administrative management, marketing, and development. Shared leadership roles are paid the same hourly rate of $25/hour, and we seek to have these roles understood and experienced as equals in agency, especially as it relates to organizationally impactful decision-making. As of January 2024, our shared leadership team includes 5 year-round, permanent staff members.

A Hiring & Performance Management Committee made up of Crowded Fire Board members, staff, and Resident Artists has worked collaboratively to hire the final member of our shared leadership team as well as new Board members. In addition, this committee is developing a Performance Review Process for the staff – one in which there will be a compassionate and rigorous review of both the impact and performance of individuals within the team and dynamics amongst the team.

In summation, we believe that this model will benefit not only the sustainability of each staff member in their work with CFT in our expensive Bay Area, but also seed the larger field with future leaders and new structures serving organizations, artists, and our wider community. This revolutionary model, if successful, can be an example to replicate for other organizations seeking to mindfully build a healthy theater community that is equitable, inclusive, and visionary.

The Shared Leadership Roles 

The Shared Leaders will focus on specific functions (with overlap, and cross-training) and share high-to-mid-level organizational and programming decisions:

  • Riley Alyson, fae/they: Leader of Production & Community: (production, creative team, artistic community support, and technological management, with an administrative focus on process optimization)
  • Caro Asercion: Leader of Artistic Producing (artistic and producorial focus on literary management and new play development workshops, commissions, and festivals)
  • Nailah Unole Dida-nese’ah Harper-Malveaux, she/her: Leader of Artistic Curation & Producing (artistic and producorial focus on in-person production and creative team management; foundation, audience, & donor relations and engagement)
  • Julie McCormick, she/her: Leader of Management & Operations (administrative focus on financials, fundraising, ticketing, facilities, and human resources)
  • Leigh Rondon-Davis, they/them: Leader of Artistic Curation & Marketing (artistic and producorial focus on curating online communications, casting, and audience & donor relations and engagement)

After many incredible years of stewarding Crowded Fire as Artistic Director and Managing Director respectively, then participating as Shared Leaders, Mina Morita and Bethany Herron transitioned off of the Shared Leadership team in December 2023. Bethany remains on CFT’s staff as Administrative Consultant.

In the Press

“The single voice that hovers over the company’s inclusive and diverse theatre makers has been multiplied by seven. Equal distribution of power is the thing, and with the fiscal health of the company being solid, this was the right time to implement changes.

What’s on the horizon is thrilling, an opportunity to completely re-examine how theaters can share leadership in the most ideal and supportive way.”

– ‘An incredible process’: Crowded Fire shakes up leadership structure,  David John Chávez, Bay Area, August 9, 2023