HR and resilience in the theater industry
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Broadway has long played an outsized role in driving the cultural agenda. Consider, for example, the global impact of “Hamilton,” and how it has reset expectations and possibilities for the look and sound of musicals. While the theater industry has been at the vanguard on many fronts, it has also lagged in an important area: human resources. Even in early 2020, before the pandemic shut down the industry virtually overnight, internal HR functions were still lean, and in many cases nonexistent. After all, productions are by definition temporary, and the ethos of “the show must go on” carried the day, pushing traditional HR issues to the backseat as performers overcame sickness, injury, harassment, micro- or macro-aggressions to put on a great show—the mark of a true professional, as many people saw it. Actors and crew members were understandably afraid to rock the boat, concerned that their reputations make take a hit and hurt their chances for landing their next role.
Then the pandemic, as has been widely reported, had a sudden and staggering impact on Broadway, which supports 97,000 jobs and contributes $14.7 billion a year to the New York City economy. Broadway shows draw more than 14 million people a year, which is more than all New York City-area sports teams combined. On Thursday, March 12, 2020, Broadway was forced to shut its doors. The president of the Broadway League, Charlotte St. Martin, said at the time, “It was tragic. We thought we were going to have 97,000 people out of work for two or three weeks. Who knew that it was [going to] be 18 months? So, it was devastating.” The pandemic exacerbated arts workers’ struggles to make ends meet, especially for individuals belonging to Black, Asian, Native and Hispanic groups. Laura Benanti, an American actress and singer, saw the impact of the pandemic on artists first-hand. “People are hurting,” she observed. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, we want to get back on stage and dance.’ People want to be able to eat.”
Broadway’s response to COVID-19 started as an employment and health crisis. In the fall of 2021, producers and theaters faced new demands that their decentralized management structures and lean HR functions were not equipped to handle. First, reopening meant navigating new requirements for health and safety—among cast, patrons and all who worked front and back of house—including COVID-19 testing, vaccine requirements and exposure isolations. Many also returned to Broadway carrying the pandemic trauma of grief, isolation and financial hardship. HR leaders were needed to develop policies and procedures and coordinate with vendors who would ensure compliance with safety requirements.
In addition to the COVID-19 response, racial justice activism during the summer of 2020 raised expectations for producers, managers and theater owners, who made a series of public commitments to increase access, fairness, inclusion and safety for BIPOC performers, members and communities. Broadway theaters were overwhelmingly white in all respects—producers, general managers, theater owners and performers. Accountability around diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) spurred new conversations about racism, sexism and other forms of harassment typically not voiced due to concerns that being a whistleblower could be a “death knell” for someone’s career. These conversations, coupled with the impact of the pandemic on the social, economic, physical and emotional well-being of Broadway employees across job titles and roles, gave rise to the critical need for internal human resources functions led by HR professionals.
The crises that created an urgent need to bring in HR professionals—in many cases for the first time—triggered a series of long-overdue conversations that are helping build a more resilient Broadway. This article considers the lessons learned in this experience, and is based on interviews with two HR consultancies, Cornerstone Consulting HR and K+K Reset, LLC, both of which are owned and led by Black women who work extensively in the theater industry, and our own consulting experiences as Black women advising Broadway shows. According to our research, there are now approximately six HR organizations supporting Broadway productions—three of which are external, and all Black-owned and led, and three internal with production companies that support multiple shows. We describe the increased role that HR played in strengthening Broadway.
Key Lessons about HR, Resilience and Broadway
1. Strategic HR requires sustained focus and infrastructure, beyond isolated training sessions, to bring about culture change on Broadway.
The hiring of HR professionals on Broadway was a new endeavor for many shows in this almost 500-year-old industry. The first Broadway theatre opened in 1750 in New York City. One hundred and fifty years later, in 1900, standard contracts were required for all professional productions, as stated by the Actors Equity Association. Since that time, Broadway shows have relied primarily on unions and agents to perform contract negotiations and handle grievances. Strategic HR is therefore a relatively new evolution. For example, “Hamilton” (currently a $1B global franchise) was one of the first shows to spearhead industry change by formalizing their HR functions, and focusing efforts on creating and building community, which included creating safe spaces where people could voice harms. In partnership with HR professionals and strategic management consultants, the show has made a long-term commitment to this work.
Prioritizing physical and psychological safety required substantial culture change for highly competitive, fast-paced Broadway demands. Cast members shared stories of coming to work with various illnesses and injuries in the past; now they were being asked to stay home if they were feeling ill. It would take more than a singular training session to shift these behavioral expectations for managers and cast members.
As Colette Luckie, president of Cornerstone Consulting HR, said, “You can’t Zoom in and do a brief training session, no matter how well it’s done, and expect people to sustain change. I was brought in to be a sustainability partner. How do we integrate [DE&I and safety] into the fabric of the culture of the organization or the production company?”
2. Building trust is essential for strategic HR leaders to have transformational impact. This lesson extends from the first, and it is clear that HR is becoming a higher priority in Broadway companies. But who will be able to step in and play the important role of trusted advisor?
Luckie posed the question of trustworthiness in this way: “I would say the first year was really laying the groundwork for how HR could move and have its being within this industry and honoring, to the highest degree, confidentiality and promising anonymity at all costs. Other supportive services like leadership/professional development, change management techniques, DE&I practices and protocols, exit and stay interviews, succession planning are not components of the culture until now. Obviously, the DE&I is a major component in distributing and creating equity and safe spaces. I’d say the most difficult component is breaking through the wall of silence that permeates this business and promising safety. Otherwise, why should they trust me?”
The wall of silence refers to the reticence of management, cast and crew to discuss HR-related challenges, conflicts and even violations, due to fear of repercussions. Most shows and roles come and go within a couple of years, so people are always networking, preparing and auditioning for the next opportunity. The lack of psychological safety would compromise many organizational and industry-wide DE&I and COVID-19 response efforts; it was up to strategic HR leaders to begin building infrastructure for safe communication channels, accountability practices and other forms of mediation and restoration in partnership with the union, managers and other stakeholders.
Luckie offered that trust-building was an asset of her external consultancy: “I think one of the benefits of me not attaching myself to any particular production company full-time by becoming an internal asset is that they can talk to me confidentially, and know it’s my business that’s on the line and that I’m not taking this back to my clients. Giving them that ultimate assurance is very important—knowing all coaching conversations are honored and that any restorative or mediated sessions come with a bipartisan agreement that there will be no retaliation whatsoever. For example, if you speak your truth in a mediated session, you know you will still be auditioning for the principal role when it comes along and will not be shut out of the opportunity or shunned by the creative community. Trust and empowerment is happening slowly, but there’s still a ton of resistance to voicing concerns without fear of retribution. We’ve been very successful up to a point in helping performers (cast, crew, creatives, management) of all levels feel safe and empowered to bring their concerns, ideas and thoughts to the table for a more collaborative, community-building experience in theater, and, at the same time, prepare leaders to embrace feedback as a positive rather than a threat.”
Additionally, as with most industries, Broadway company members are not accustomed to discussing DE&I issues among coworkers, and managers are not used to hearing about them. As Jones noted, “We spend a lot of time helping people navigate conversations with new vocabulary, leadership and company-wide. We call it the new privilege, because all of a sudden, you have employees and company members making serious DE&I-related demands and complaints. Oftentimes, the language around psychological safety, discrimination, bullying and harassment is used incorrectly. So a lot of the work, the way that it’s changed, is about having mediations to help people communicate, to help people level-set or reset and just start anew.”
Building trust requires more than talk—strategic HR leaders also ensure action follows from the candid conversations. Like Cornerstone Consulting HR and K+K Reset, strategic HR leaders also develop policies and protocols. The ultimate goal is to create the conditions in which Broadway members can create and deliver their best work, and to feel valued and respected while doing so. As Luckie described it, “[My work is now] evolving from coaching and restorative conversations to putting practical tools in place that support DE&I hiring in creative and management spaces to reflect how the world actually looks outside of the theater. You have very talented people who are under an incredible amount of pressure to quell their feelings, not talk about harms, and then get up on those stages singing, dancing and doing the most amazing things under a code of silence. Can you imagine if these same very talented individuals were cultivating their gifts in an environment where they are being heard and seen? That would be wondrous.”
3. Although the grueling schedule and financial pressures of Broadway are often characterized as “a machine,” the focus on humanity will determine its resilience.
Resilience means more than bouncing back from hardship; it means to regenerate while adapting. In other words, not just getting back to business, but rather co-creating new ways of doing business entirely. The
human in human resources is where the future of Broadway lives—within the individuals who are strengthened by the organization’s holistic concern for well-being, inclusion and justice. Notably, employee well-being has become a top priority due to the return from the pandemic and the 2020 racial justice movement.
Karen Robinson, CEO and co-founder of K+K Reset, reflected on this emphasis: “When we think about the pandemic, the racial unrest and all of the uncertainties like people losing jobs who never lost jobs before, people staying home and either building homes or breaking homes, well-being was something that we had to address on so many different levels, from general awareness to sustainability. I think the focus on well-being now has the respect and consideration it deserves, which didn’t exist before the pandemic. We see and encourage more leniency for mental health days, more leaders taking this time as a signal to their teams to take this time as well. We’ve also noticed more people speaking openly about the need for mental well-being and seeking help when it’s needed.”
Resilience also requires more than quick fixes and band-aids; healing processes and ongoing attention are required to strengthen Broadway companies for the present and future. Strategic HR partners are invested in building better for the long-term, not just symbolic or reactive box-checking activities. As Robinson and Jones noted, accountability is essential: “We choose clients that allow us to hold them accountable, and that includes the Broadway shows. We’ve actually left two contracts with Broadway shows where it became very clear that they were not truly committed to HR and the DE&I lens. We are not interested in tokenism. We’re only interested in partners who are going to put in the time and the resources to do the actual work—even if they don’t know what they’re doing and they’re terrified, which is most of the time. But as long as they’re earnest about it, we will be earnest in it with them. And so loving our freedom, loving this incredible industry that has so much need for our type of passion and our type of expertise. That’s what brought us here. That’s what keeps us here.”
What has been the impact of these efforts? By engaging in strategic, coordinated efforts to promote physical and psychological safety, HR leaders played a key role in Broadway’s latest demonstration in collective resilience. Once again, by March 2022, when the Broadway League released its first detailed box office figures of the season, all but six of the current 22 Broadway productions filled more than 90 percent of their available seats, and the 22 shows in total grossed $26.6 million during the week of March 20, a 19 percent increase from the previous week’s $22 million in revenue. “‘The show must go on’ never was more appropriate than for Broadway,” St. Martin reports. “I mean, omicron, we took shows out for 10 days. They were back the minute they could be back. We have to be resilient, and thank goodness we are.”
Laura Morgan Roberts, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and CEO of The Alignment Quest Enterprise. She can be reached at email@example.com. Patricia F. Hewlin, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University and a principal of The Hewlin Group.She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Lily Simon is a recent graduate from McGill University with a B.A. in Psychology.
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