Statera Seven is a series 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 Suzan Fete, Founder and Artistic Director of Renaissance Theaterworks, a 25-year-old Milwuakee-theatre dedicated to promoting the work of women onstage and off.
STATERA: The research on Women's Leadership in Resident Theaters presented by The Wellesly 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?
SUZAN FETE: Renaissance Theaterworks (RTW) is the nation’s second oldest professional theater company with a commitment to gender equity and we are Milwaukee’s only women-founded women-run professional theater. Founded in 1993, our mission clearly states our commitment to providing roles for women –on stage and off. Over the last 25 years RTW has given opportunities to more than 800 theater artists and technicians; 75% of these have been women. Our staff is and has always been all women. The make-up of RTW’s board of directors ranges between 80-90% female. I am most proud of the many vital “first-time” chances we have given to women to help them advance or refocus their careers. For example, we have encouraged several local actors to try directing –Laura Gordon, for instance, directed her first show for RTW in 2004 and now she directs all over the country.
STATERA: What is the most important single decision you have made in your journey?
SF: To believe in myself and trust my instincts. There are always so many voices telling you what you want is impossible, or that the “better people” do it differently, it can be really hard to have faith and patience. Who cares what the “better people” think and who are they anyway?!
STATERA: 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?
SF: I have seen plenty of evidence of this throughout my life. But it has not been a pitfall for me personally, I’m not sure why. My personal mantra has always been “Oh, how hard can it be?” This has really gotten me in trouble at times. But it is essential to risk and fail boldly. Failure must become your friend, without it success is impossible. Creativity demands courage and patience.
STATERA: What roadblocks did you encounter on your path to this position and how did you navigate?
SF: In 1993 five women (Myself, Marie Kohler, Raeleen McMillion, Jennifer Rupp and Michele Traband) founded RTW because of the lack of leadership roles available to women in professional theater. We created our own opportunities. We weren’t able to pay ourselves for a while, but now RTW has six paid staff positions.
STATERA: If you had $10 million dollars of unrestricted funds, how would you spend it to improve the American Theatre?
SF: I wish it could be ten times $10 million! I would love to create several Art Hubs across the country. Each hub would have an active and authentic relationship with their community. Each would contain at least three theaters in varying sizes. We could foster the work of new playwrights –particularly women and people of color. We would broaden our range of work and cultivate the next generation of theater artists. And we could pay everyone a living wage!
STATERA: 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?
SF: “Don’t be afraid to put yourself in situations where everyone looks to you for answers –you will have no choice but to rise to the occasion.” Tom Fulton Acting Teacher Cleveland Ohio 1988
“Just do it already!” My mom pretty much all my life.
STATERA: In what ways are you thriving in your leadership role?
SF: I love my job! I am so blessed. I go to work every day with the brightest, most dedicated women I know. We work as a team to create outstanding theater that is relevant to our community. I turned 60 this spring and most of the RTW staff is half my age, working with these energetic and enthusiastic young women helps to keep my outlook youthful and positive. I may never retire!
Other Statera Seven Interviews:
Suzan is the Artistic Director and a Co-Founder of Renaissance Theaterworks - Milwaukee’s only women-run, women-founded professional theater company. Since its inception in 1993, Renaissance (RTW) has been committed to creating roles for women theater professionals onstage and off. RTW produces three main stage plays and one staged play reading in the ninety-nine seat Broadway Theatre Center Studio Theatre in Milwaukee’s historic Third Ward. Twenty-four years of debt-free operations, rave reviews and a passionate audience base speak to RTW’s success.
Other RTW successes under Suzan’s leadership include:
♦ Finalist (12 out of 1500) in the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Play Festival 2016
♦ First successful International Cultural Exchange: sending our production of NEAT to Isithatha Theatre in South Africa – June 2013.
♦ Initiation of the Diversity Series in 2010, with a 3-year commitment from RTW to dedicate 40% of annual programming to the voices of people of color, resulting in a 900% increase in attendees of color.
♦ Recognition in OnMilwaukee.com for our leading role in helping women initiate and expand their careers in theater, September 30, 2010.
♦ Two Milwaukee Magazine awards for Best Play of the Year: BOSWELL’S DREAMS (2005) and MIDNIGHT AND MOLL FLANDERS (2000); additionally, the American Association of Theater Critics nominated RTW’s COUNTING DAYS as Best New Regional Play;
♦ From 1993 -2015, RTW produced 59 full productions and staged 33 readings employing more than 700 local theater professionals, more than 65% of whom were women.
Suzan has 30 years of experience as an actor, director, and producer in professional theater. Suzan has a degree from University of Illinois and lives happily in Wauwatosa WI with her husband Jeff.