Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Network

Connecting emerging arts managers with skill-building and leadership development resources.

An Interview with Kyle Abraham

Choreographer Kyle Abraham brings his company, Abraham.In.Motion, to the Byham Theatre this Saturday, February 16th, to perform ‘Pavement’, a piece set in Pittsburgh that weaves together movement, music from sources ranging from Bach to Sam Cooke, the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, and clips from the 1991 film ‘Boyz In The Hood’, among other elements. The New York Times said of ‘Pavement’: ‘sourced in contemporary dance and the street, twisting together aggressive male posturing with the kind of hip-hop moves that summon comparisons to ballet, it expresses confusion with searching, eloquence.’

A native Pittsburgher, Kyle Abraham was recently awarded the USA Fellowship, having previously been awarded a residency at New York Live Arts and a Jacobs’ Pillow Dance Award. He formed his company in 2006 after having danced with (among others) Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, David Dorfman Dance, and Pittsburgh’s own Dance Alloy and Attack Theatre. Kyle began dancing in CLO classes, studied dance at SUNY Purchase, and received an MFA in Dance from Tisch University in New York City.

I spoke with Kyle on the phone in January as he and the company were preparing to perform in Birmingham, Alabama. What follows is a condensed version of that conversation.

Do you consider yourself an arts leader?
Well, I’m not a follower! I have my own vision of things – to try and be assertive, to push forward new ideas.

What are some lessons you learned along the way about being a leader in the arts? Can you tell us about some challenges that you’ve faced?
Ultimately, you want to find collaborators that really get your work. Working with these dancers that are younger and younger – its more than that. I just had auditions a month ago, and the thing that I found was that when I find a dancer who is not afraid to be ugly, I was more interested. I am more interested in [the dancer] being more fully invested. Bring yourself 150%, bring your face in there – I’m more interested in that than a younger dancer per se, or in someone clean. I am looking for someone uninhibited. Now that I am working with dancers on doing my roles, I have to find a dancer who is okay with movement and text and working that kind of way.

The company had a big turnover in 2010, and it did make me think of a lesson I had learned from [director] John Scott, he said to me, ‘as soon as things start going well, going well, that’s when people leave.’ That made it okay for me to not take it so personally when people started leaving. That was hard. That and the sad reality of being a choreographer – most of the company is ten years younger than me, and then they’ll be twenty years younger, and so on.

I remember being a guest artist on a show, I did a solo, and I remember watching the rapport [this choreographer] had with her company – they were friends and had a family vibe. I was touring a lot as a solo artist in 2008 and 2009. Now, if I am touring on the road [with my company], I want to be with people I have a strong rapport with – people that have a sense, a source of where my knowledge is coming from, where my movement is coming from. That changed the work for me, thinking of company members as collaborators. If I don’t think we have a good relationship, if I’m concerned with how you feel or how you might respond to what I do movement wise, that’s not good – that’s not healthy – that takes away from what I want to do.

So, Pavement, which you are bringing to the Byham on February 16th, is set in Pittsburgh, as is The Radio Show, one of your earlier works. Can you tell us a little more about growing up in Pittsburgh?
Everything I make is inspired by my life in Pittsburgh. A lot of my work comes from my high school years. That transition from 8th grade into high school – when I think about all of the changes that happen for people in that time, it’s a rich time to be thinking about. I went to Frick Middle School, which is not even called that anymore. At that point, I was in the International Studies program, which was a hotbed of students from all the different neighborhoods and communities coming together. My elementary school was in Shadyside … there weren’t too many black students, but there were people from all over coming together to be at my middle school – that brought more people and more tensions. Schenley [High School] as a school was separate in a bizarre way, the higher academic track was on the 3rd floor, the only other classes that weren’t academic were the art classes on that floor. I lived in the Lincoln neighborhood and went to high school in the Hill. So I was all over the city.

I always love seeing Pittsburgh people [outside of Pittsburgh] – today I saw a guy with a Steelers coat and a Pirates t-shirt and we started talking right away. People are very approachable. In Pittsburgh, we just say hi to each other. I keep doing that, no matter where I am.

What personal qualities would you suggest to our emerging arts leaders that they should cultivate? Any advice for emerging leaders and artists?

Meet with people and get their advice. Make sure that each work follows the next one – that you are not just entertaining yourself. From a business point of view, the next show I want to make must be different from the one I just made. Keep challenging yourself.

Come out – make sure the work is being done. I don’t want to rest on coming up to Pittsburgh and there being word about the show. You send press kit out so many months in advance in New York City, then you follow up a month before, and then two weeks before. New York City is so much about immediacy. I just have to have my stuff together more.

Not to be concerned with what everyone else is doing. It’s such a distraction – if someone gets a grant someone else didn’t get, decisions about touring vs. not touring – that is only taking time away from the work.

And come to shows! That drives me crazy when I see the dance community not going to performances, especially for troupes from out of town. You don’t know what you are missing not to go. See it and be inspired, or not – either way, be proactive.

So, PEALs and others, reading this over, I am struck with how many of these words can apply to all of us, particularly about supporting our work and the work of others, being realistic about one’s collaborators, and being proactive. What are your thoughts and takeaways?

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Winter and Institutional Memory

The Maori of New Zealand celebrate a winter holiday called Matariki (which takes place in June usually, as New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere).  It’s a New Year celebration which is kicked off by the first few nights that a certain constellation (which the Maori call Matariki, also known as the Seven Sisters or the Pleiades) is visible in the sky.   I first learned about Matariki when I lived in New Zealand in 2011 – they had New Years calendars that ran from June to June, and since my birthday is in June (and I generally can’t handle resolutions in January so I tend to think of June as my ‘do-over’ month for resolutions – hey, at least I’ve got half the year left!) I was quite tickled by the holiday and I learned a bit more about it.

 

The main concept from Matariki I learned that has really stuck with me is the idea of the winter season as a time for learning (which makes complete sense from a agrarian cultural perspective), specifically the elders teaching the younger members of the family or group about their history, genealogy (tangent: Maori have an incredible spoken genealogy tradition, some people can recite their family history all the way back to naming the canoe their ancestors used to travel to New Zealand in the 1500’s!), when and how to plant crops, how to weave, etc.  As a person who usually has a tough time in the winter, I really got excited about treating the season as an active time of learning and passing on knowledge rather than an inactive time of sitting around, being sad & cold, and waiting for things to get better/warmer.

 

So here we are, and it’s cold and wet outside, and for many of us in the arts, there’s a lull in programming.  What if we thought about this as a time for learning about where we work, and for sharing what we have learned with others? What if we looked on this time of year as an opportunity to redress some of the lack of institutional knowledge that comes from moving at such a fast, reactive pace?

 

I’ve a track record of working at organizations run by the founders – but not necessarily knowing the history of the organization beyond what is mentioned in asides or in grant applications.  I am sure that some of you can relate.   At small organizations, the focus is so often on putting out fires or whatever the next big thing that needs done – we rarely if ever set aside time to hear the stories of how it all came to be.  Yet so much of the work we do rests on that foundation, on choices that people made years or decades ago, and I would wager that learning more about the whys and wherefores of those decisions could give us valuable insights into the organization in the here and now.  Even at larger institutions where the founders may no longer be with us or in the office daily, there are still elders at work who retain some of the institutional memory.   We also have a responsibility to share what we have learned with our colleagues; we’ve all had experiences where we’ve unknowingly reinvented the wheel and then discovered it was unnecessary – what if we put some winter-time resources towards identifying which institutional wheels roll smoothly and explaining why?

 

I’ve spent some time in the last couple of months writing a bookkeeping manual for my organization.  Ostensibly this evolved as a way to make sure I am doing the bookkeeping correctly and consistently every month (something that does not come naturally to me).  However, as I’ve worked more and more on it, I’ve come to appreciate it as something that will be eventually be useful to others – so they won’t have to reinvent this particular wheel.  It’s in my interest personally and institutionally for this manual to be comprehensive and clear.  As new leaders, it’s tempting to think that we don’t have a lot of institutional memory (or that someone else is the keeper of that memory) – but I think knowledge is both wide and diffuse enough that it’s time we recognize the institutional value of what we know (and what we don’t know!)

 

So – here are my twin Matariki challenges:

– invite an elder from your organization out to lunch or coffee, and ask to hear some stories from before your time at the organization; and

– take a little time out on a slow afternoon to write down a little of what you’ve learned since you started (it might be a top ten list of things that work and things that need to be improved, or it might be a step-by-step of how you run a mailing.  Either way, it will eventually make someone else’s work simpler).

I’ll report back next month on how my challenges went and I look forward to hearing from you all.

 

 

 

 

 

Of Resolutions and Budgets

When we were brainstorming ideas for blog posts, I thought of bringing together New Year’s Resolutions and operating budgets – thinking of ways they differ and ways they are similar.  I’ve never been one to really get into resolutions for myself, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the expectations, frustrations, confidence, doubt, and self-belief that many people put into their resolutions – because those words and ideas came up a lot for me while drafting an operating budget for the first time this year.

 

It is possible to think of the budget as a resolution: this is the way we’re going to try to do things for the next twelve months.  We will make x amount of earned income (or floss every day).  We will review the numbers after x weeks, and see how far we are from our goal (whether that’s ticket sales or daily exercise taken).   Our focus for this year is to grow this audience or that foundation relationship, to strengthen these institutional muscles, to get healthier as an organization.  Of course, the health of an organization has a much more intimate relationship with its operating budget than the faithful adherence to an individual’s new year’s resolutions can have on the well-being of the individual (depends on the resolution, I expect).  Being way off track in the budget world can lead to serious repercussions of which we are all more than aware.

 

For kicks, though, I wanted to see how far I could stretch this analogy.  A quick dalliance with the google-machine led me to this article which (through an admittedly dubious reference to ‘a study’) details the top ten personal resolutions for 2013 (for the UK, granted, but bear with me here).  Here they are (no surprise in the bunch) with my comments about how they’d translate over to Arts Budget Land in italics below:

 

1. Save more money – 31%

well, that goes without saying! If your office hasn’t switched to the cheap toilet paper and the cheaper printer paper, it’s time!  And put on a sweater, young man!

2. Get out of debt – 22%

ditto, #1.  Big priority.

3. Get fit/lose weight – 18%

if we think of this as ‘which programs need to be streamlined’ or ‘is that ad buy really worth it?’, then yes!  getting leaner and meaner is part of the game.

4. Change job/career – 16%

okay maybe this parallel doesn’t quite fit.   We’re here because we want to be here.

5. Quite smoking – 13%

hrm.

6. Give up alcohol – 11%

double hrm.

7. Spend less time working – 9%

parallel losing steam here for sure.   I mean – we could certainly use a conversation about work/life balance in the arts, but that’s another blog post.

8. Spend more time with family/friends – 7%

and … parallel gone.   Is it stretching a bit to say that this could be ‘spend more time collaborating with other artists whose work we enjoy?’  Could be.

9. Give up chocolate – 6%

NEVER!  YOU WILL NEVER MAKE ME GIVE UP CHOCOLATE! OVER MY DEAD B —

what, where was I?

10.  Move house – 2%

and – our parallel is back!  Who wants a bigger, shinier, more technologically up-to-date performance or exhibition space?  Get in line!

 

Okay, so maybe not quite as taut an analogy as I had hoped.  Still – food for thought.

 

One New Year’s tradition that I do enjoy partaking in has to do with choosing a theme word for the year – a word that helps one feel alive to possibility and positivity.  It does take me a few days each year to choose a word, but once I get it right, it’s really right.  This year, I decided to also think of a word for my organization – one that incorporated both the ways we want to grow, the tough stuff we know we need to learn, and the priorities we need to keep in mind.  I’m still searching though.  Any ideas?

 

 

Showing Gratitude as an Arts Leader

As someone with a theatre/performance background, when I think of ‘gratitude’ many small moments come to mind – the little notes and gifts that sometimes appear on opening night, flowers, mush notes in the program to friends and family. Alyssa and I have spoken about gratitude traditions in ballet and I am sure there are others in other fields (the book dedication comes to mind, as well).

However, as arts leaders we may be called to express gratitude to those with whom we work, and in some cases to those who work FOR us. What are best practices in that arena?

Well, I’ve asked around – and would love to hear more from fellow emerging arts leaders – because the general info I’ve got seems that there’s not a lot of gratitude explicitly expressed. This may tie in a bit more to the too-much-work, not-enough-time mentality with which many nonprofits constantly struggle. A successful opening, fundraising campaign, office move, or even mass mailing: these are all instances with a definite end point, offering an opportunity to acknowledge everyone’s hard work. In the day-to-day, however, it’s likely more tricky. And as we are in the arts, I gather there’s a bit more pressure to arrange something ‘creative’ whether or not the brainspace or dexterity or budget exists!

In my own career, I’ve had experiences of fantastically good and fantastically bad expressions of gratitude from higher-ups: The ‘thank-you’ speech that starts out strong and meanders all over the map before petering off, finally, twenty minutes later, having not actually named all those who deserves to be named (bad); the 45-minute all-staff email acknowledging the departure of a colleague with high praise (good); the cheapo fake-crocodile shoulder bag – clearly a re-gift (bad – although I do actually still use the computer sleeve that was in side the bag – so maybe not all bad??); the night out where the drinks & nibbles flowed all night (good – nothing like free food & drink to endear one’s self to one’s staff!). This can be an interesting little mind-exercise to undertake as the holiday season approaches and the office party rears its beribonned, punchbowled head.

In my experience, however, nothing beats someone looking me in the eye and a simple ‘Well done. Thank you for all your hard work.’ (when it’s deserved, of course!) It’s a helpful place to start, anyhow!

What have been the best and worst expressions of gratitude you’ve received or made?

art. politics. remember to vote tomorrow.

Tonight at Bricolage, we are hosting a reading of ’44 Plays for 44 Presidents’ as part of a nation-wide festival bringing a humorous and historical perspective of the executive office to Election Eve. Meanwhile across town at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, ‘American Idols’ by John Moran presents tongue-in-cheek busts (with glass heads) of all the presidents, and has been extended through Inauguration Day. These two artworks – one verbal, one visual – form an opportunity for a birds-eye, long-range view of the office of President of the United States. I must admit, for me, they are a welcome breath of fresh air.

Over the weekend I heard a radio interview with Oskar Eustis, the executive director of the Public Theatre in Manhattan, about how some Uptown theatres had, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, offered to share or donate rehearsal space and hours to the Public. That moved me. We can all relate, I’m sure, to needing rehearsal or studio space, and while I know there were, and still are, much more immediate needs (shelter, food, water, and so on), I was struck by the generosity of that act, and by the clarity of purpose. The show must go on. The art must continue. E pluribus unum.

At times I wish I lived in Europe, where the responsibility that the government has to art & culture (and vice versa) is more intimate and direct – but hearing that about the Public, and my own experiences of sharing time, space, resources of all kinds across different art forms reminds me that there is also value in us taking care of ourselves. There is, absolutely, a huge value to art and arts organizations receiving support of all kinds, public and private, and a huge value to artists and arts organizations being free to make the art they need to make. Depending on your politics, you could argue that more or less government spending on the arts makes sense – and that is one of the elements to keep in mind when we vote tomorrow.

The fact that we can vote – the fact that the vote is available to us, no matter what kind of art we make, who it provokes or scares, who it lampoons or profanes – is nothing to take for granted or wear lightly. We can all think of artists past and present who did not and do not possess that privilege. It is tempting to think of voting as only a political act, but I would argue that in this moment in our history – the history we can witness tonight through words or til January through – it is also an artistic act. We are citizens in a democracy. E pluribus unum.

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