Statera Seven is a new series on the Statera Foundation Blog about women in leadership and the path to promotion. Statera poses seven questions to past and current Artistic Directors, Managing Directors, and other women in leadership roles in the American Theatre. Statera is sharing their stories and insights in hopes of finding new ways to shift the leadership gender imbalance of America's nonprofit regional theater companies.
Today, we're interviewing Brenda DeVita, Artistic Director of American Players Theatre (APT) near Spring Green, WI. From June through November, APT produces nine plays in rotating repertory. With annual attendance of over 100,000 and an annual budget in excess of $6 million, APT ranks as the country’s second largest outdoor theater devoted to the classics.
STATERA: The research on Women's Leadership in Resident Theaters presented by the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in 2016 found that there was a glass ceiling and "pipeline issue" facing women in theatre leadership. How have you improved professional development for those seeking leadership positions in the arts, particularly women and people of color?
BRENDA DEVITA: In the time I’ve been at APT, the organization has gone from being entirely male-led to female-led. Since I became artistic director four seasons ago, we’ve hired a female managing director, the senior management team is 2 to 1 female to male, female stage directors have increased from 1 of 9 in 2013 to a projected 4 of 9 in 2019, and the design teams are made up of 50% more females than five years ago. We are intentionally choosing plays that reflect the female journey in equal measure to male-dominated stories. And as a classical company, this is challenging, but we are committed to it. I know that our attention to parity in this regard has led to our initiative in diversity and inclusion in our company, having increased these hires exponentially in the past five years.
S: What is the most important single decision you have made on your journey?
BD: Honestly, learning to trust my instincts. To listen to myself in the face of an industry which told me to value other things. Coming to APT 23 years ago and leaving my acting career behind to become a company manager for actors I had just been on stage with seemed absurd to most people. But I trusted my gut that APT was a pretty spectacular place. So by defying most logical thinking, I found a home and purpose I am fulfilled by and proud of.
S: Statistics suggest that women apply for jobs only if they meet 100% of the qualifications, whereas men apply when they meet only 40%. Has this been true for you, and how do you advocate for your experience and qualifications when they are not explicitly spelled out in a job posting?
BD: This isn’t a job I applied for; it’s a job I’ve grown up in. Nothing in my past made me think I was right for this job. It was only what was in front of me that made me think it was right for me. So I guess it hasn’t been true for me, though unfortunately, that statistic doesn’t surprise me.
My advice: trust yourself. Look for the work and do it without permission. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what you’re capable of doing. Do it. Fail. Learn. Do it again. Gather your experience, your strengths. Risk looking foolish, and practice humility because it’s going to come anyway… you may as well be good at it. And apply for those jobs that on paper look impossible if it’s what you want to do.
S: What roadblocks did you encounter on your path to this position and how did you navigate?
BD: Though I’m loathe to admit it, my own insecurities were a roadblock. My fear that I was posing – faking it. And I assumed that others weren’t doing that – that men didn’t do that. Eventually, I figured out that everyone does it. So I could own that I was doing it, stop apologizing for it and just do my work.
Starting as an actress and moving up the ladder to artistic director (doing every job in between on the way), it’s a drag that I felt I had to prove to people that I was smart. And resilient and strategic and a hard worker. But, ultimately, I asked myself, is that a bad thing? It didn’t feel good, but honestly, that probably made me a better leader and a better person.
S: If you had $10 million dollars of unrestricted funds, how would you spend it to improve the American Theatre?
BD: I’d like to create vast opportunities for women and people of color to explore true collaborative leadership and develop leadership styles that promote “we” instead of “I.” Also, I’d start a paid training program for people at the associate level (associate artistic directors, associate designers, associate directors, etc.) to get real experience while making a living wage so we can bridge the experience gap that the theater industry has perpetuated.
S: Professional mentorship is a core part of our mission at Statera Foundation. In that spirit, what is the best piece of advice you have ever received, and from whom?
BD: “Never buy your own bullshit. Be sure to have trusted humans around you to tell you the truth when you need to hear it.” -- I don’t know who said this…maybe Winston Churchill or someone.
“Never apologize for being an optimist.” -- Gretta Berghammer (my college professor)
“You can cry yourself to sleep every night and still be successful at this.” -- Susan Sweeney (my colleague and dear friend)
“They pick on the ones who can take it. Remember that. Even when don’t think you can.” -- Judy Corkery (Mom)
S: In what ways are you thriving in your leadership role?
I’m thriving by doing my work with a team that I trust. Also, I resist the notion that leadership equals power in any way – it’s my job to empower others to do their jobs well. Together we look at what problems we need to solve in the organization and work together on them.
Also, I value what I’m great at and lean into that. At the same time, I’m absolutely committed to learning what I’m not great at. The goal is to know what I know and what I need to learn.
How we do what we do is as important as what we do. And what we do is really important.
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ABOUT BRENDA DEVITA
Brenda DeVita is artistic director of American Players Theatre. APT is one of the country’s most popular Shakespeare festival theaters, welcoming more than 110,000 patrons each season to its home outside of Spring Green, WI. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal called APT the “best classical theater in the country.”
Brenda came to APT in 1995 when her husband, actor Jim DeVita, was hired to play Romeo. Never one to idly sit when there was a job to do; she accepted the position as Interim APT Company Manager. Over the next several years, Brenda played many roles at APT: she began to assist Artistic Director David Frank with casting-combing through thousands of actors’ resumes to find the six or eight needed each season. It became clear that she had a gift for connecting with actors who have a passion for classical texts and being able to talk them into spending six months doing Shakespeare in the middle of nowhere.
In 1999, she helped David Frank create the Core Acting Company, which now consists of 13 actors for whom APT is their artistic home. In 2004, Brenda was appointed Associate Artistic Director and soon began to take over much of the day-to-day artistic management, including season selection, hiring directors and designers. Among her many accomplishments is the establishment of the Acting Apprentice program, now in its 10th year. It has grown to be an elite training opportunity for early-career actors with a passion for Shakespeare and the classics.
Brenda has also grown APT’s voice and text department to become among the most robust and respected in the country. Each APT production has its own full-time voice and text coach who is charged with not only coaching the actors individually with voice technique and text interpretation but also collaborates with the director on the overall production.
In January 2014, Brenda was appointed Artistic Director. Since her appointment, she has continued to advance APT’s mission to bring the classics to as wide and varied an audience as possible. She has also begun a diversity and inclusion initiative to increase the number of diverse actors, artists, and staff in the APT Company, as well as increase the diversity of APT’s audience. The 2015 season – the first she planned as Artistic Director – broke all box office records, reaching nearly 115,000 patrons.