A Theatre Puget Sound meeting in April 2017. • Photo from TPS Facebook page

Theatre Puget Sound (TPS), the local theatre-service organization for theatre artists of all disciplines, is in the process of hiring a new executive director.

Last fall, former executive director Karen Lane parted ways with TPS, and in recent months, TPS has faced turmoil among its staff, board, and members. On April 27, TPS held a public forum to discuss the controversy, and has posted meeting minutes on its website.

According to the board, the focus for this executive director search is equitable recruiting. “The traditional process of recruitment has elements that are inherently inequitable, so it is imperative that we have a search that is intentional in its equity,” said board member Liisa Spink, who also serves as Capital Campaign Manager at Seattle Children’s Theatre.

Board member Agastya Kohli agrees. “As stewards of equity in the theatre community, and as active participants in the social justice conversation, it is imperative for TPS to practice what we preach,” he said.

Spink and Kohli report that equity is not a new concern for TPS. “Equity has been a focus for TPS for some time, so the conversation around the search at the board level from the very beginning had equitable practices as a main value,” Spink said.

Kohli added, “Right from the first discussion in TPS board meetings, it was evident to us that equity has to be a prominent element in our search process.”

The TPS board views the need for equity in recruiting as a necessarily collaborative process. “The TPS board still has a lot to learn about equity and equitable practices,” Spink said. “Asking the advice of experts is one way that we seek to address our need to learn more about being an equitable organization, with the understanding that we are on the beginning of this journey.”

To that end, the TPS board pursued multiple strategies. “Several individuals on the board have varied experience and training with equity in organizations,” Kohli said. “To make sure we didn’t have gaps caused by our ignorance, the board has been working with outside experts as we develop the search process. They have also helped us be more compliant with City of Seattle ethics guidelines.”

Spink reports that the board has tried to be thorough in these processes. “We had two different organizations go over our processes, job descriptions, interview set-up, and panel make-up in order to vet them with an equity lens,” she said.

The TPS board is enacting several strategies to ensure that the executive director search remains equitable at each stage. “One is to redact all names from resumes for the first round of resume review,” Spink said. “The second is to have all panelists undertake implicit bias tests to make them aware of any unintended biases they are carrying into the process.”

Spink reports that TPS is actively maximizing the number of individuals involved in the search evaluation process. “Another strategy is to have three completely different panels for each stage of the process: resume review, first interview, and final interview,” she said. “The goal of this is to ensure that no one person from TPS can, even subconsciously, usher an individual through the process.”

Kohli echoes that position. “Places and publications where the job is posted were chosen to increase the reach and go beyond the normal circles of influence of members of board,” he said. “Selection panels will be constituted by people from different walks of life, within the theatre community, and outside, with diversity as a primary focus.”

The board hopes that reviewers from outside the theatre community will provide an important check on insular community review processes. “By having someone from outside the community, we will be able to tell if any applications are being scored unfairly or outside the parameters of other resumes by watching for any unusual discrepancies with the outside reviewer,” Spink said.

At this time, resumes have been reviewed and the interview process is well underway. “We hope to have a final recommendation to the TPS board in the July to August timeframe,” Kohli said. “The process will involve a resume review by a panel, a first round interview by a second panel, and a final interview of the shortlisted candidates by a third panel, to determine the final recommendation.”

The TPS board expects to select an individual who will reflect the board’s vision. “The vision for the new Executive Director,” Spink said, “is for someone to unify and strengthen the performing arts community in the Puget Sound by addressing the realities and challenges both within TPS and the wider community.”

This will be no small task, judging by the recent community conversations. “The new executive director will have their work cut out for them,” Kohli acknowledged. “They will be responsible for hiring new staff, evaluating and shoring up existing programs, as well as recommending new programs to serve our mission and membership.”

All of this effort in selecting a new executive director is aimed at supporting the member-supported and member-driven nature of TPS and fostering a diverse TPS membership at all levels. “TPS continues to reach out to underserved groups within the theatre community,” Kohli said. “The board will strongly encourage the new executive director to make that a focus of future membership drives, not only at an individual member level, but also in encouraging organizations that traditionally work with artists of color.”

Spink elaborated on the work that TPS has in the months to come. “First, TPS is addressing its own policy and procedural inequities,” she said. “It is important to do internal and external work in this field. Diversifying the membership, which is a high priority for our board, is best achieved in a meaningful way when it is done simultaneously internally and externally.”

But mere diversity in membership is not sufficient, if the organization is not meeting true member needs. “The second part is to look at TPS programs,” Spink said, “and put them through a lens of equity to ensure that TPS is a welcoming environment for a more diverse membership.”

Spink and Kohli report that the board is committed to recruiting the best leadership for the local theatre community as a whole. “Unless we are intentional,” Spink said, “then we are inequitable.”

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