A Look Back At Year One

Article by David "dstew" Stewart

A year ago, all my correspondence with the Guthrie suddenly morphed into variants of this: “Do you know our new Production Director, David Stewart? NO?! Well, then, you simply have to meet him. We’ll discuss all this then.”

I’ve since met him. Indeed, we collaborate on a great deal, and I’m glad to have him in town. I’m always curious about what it is like for people to move far away, and live, work and play in a new place. Perhaps it’s because I’ve moved around so much in my life.

So I asked him to reflect on his year here, and he graciously agreed. What lies ahead? Time will tell, but getting to know David has given me a lot to be excited for. - Wu Chen Khoo

Wow, it’s already been one year for me at the Guthrie. How time flies when you’re having an absolute blast!

But let’s go back. In June of 2015, a friend of mine turned my attention to a job posting for production director at the Guthrie Theater and encouraged me to apply. “No way,” I said. “No way the most prestigious regional theater in the country wants an academic production manager.” See, up until then, I had been working – very happily I might add – in the academy, the university: first at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for nine great years as the production manager and head of the stage management program for the Department of Theatre and Drama, where I helped inspire young minds interested in the quirky behind-the-scenes thing I did, then at the University of Texas at Austin as the academic production manager. Austin is an amazing city, and UT is a first rate school; I’d hit the proverbial jackpot. Not only was I working at one of the top universities in the country, but I had bid farewell to Wisconsin winters and my collection of snow shovels. I was determined to finish out my career in the southwest.

Then my friend came calling about the Guthrie. At first, I shied away and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Then about a month later, and to my great surprise, I received an email from the Guthrie. See, usually when I get an email from large arts institutions, someone from the organization has seen me at a national theater conference presenting on equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I), specifically as it relates to production departments, and normally they need to fill a position and are hoping that I might recommend a colleague or peer. I suppose it was almost assumed that I know all of the people of color in the industry. So I was a de facto ED&I headhunter, if you will. Anyway, I proceeded to open the Guthrie’s email, and my jaw immediately hit the floor. The Guthrie’s human resources director was asking me to apply for the production director gig – me, the academic who was ensconced in his perfect oasis in Texas. I wrote back to ask the HR director how she had found me, and, sure enough, someone had heard me speaking at a conference. The Guthrie thought I should apply.  

So apply I did.

Round one was a phone interview with the Guthrie’s new artistic director, Joseph Haj, and Frank Butler, the outgoing production director. I hold both men in high regard. Frank Butler was a stalwart production manager and well respected amongst his peers. And Joe’s recent hire was all the buzz at that summer’s Theater Communications Group (TCG) conference, so I had read up on him and found him to be a kindred spirit. We shared a similar story about how this art form of ours had saved us. Perhaps more importantly, we both knew that it was time for the theater industry to stand up and take a hard look at itself regarding issues of ED&I.

I have to be honest here: as I picked up the phone for that first interview, I had convinced myself that I was simply window dressing – that I was brought into the hiring process to ensure a diverse pool of candidates. Imagine my shock when two weeks later I was invited to Minneapolis for the final round of interviews.

Upon meeting Joe Haj, the first words out of my mouth were: “You’re taller than I thought you’d be.” Smooth, Stewart, real smooth. Admittedly, it was a less than wonderful start, and I knew I had to make up for it by genuinely connecting with an extraordinarily talented staff. To their credit, that turned out to be easy. I immediately found the Guthrie’s production team to be smart, warm and personable. It was a great sign.  But, in the back of mind, I couldn’t shake the thought that if I somehow got this job I’d have to ask my family to uproot and move for the seventh time. The Guthrie had to be the right fit, all the way around. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it would be, and when the offer came down I couldn’t have been more thrilled to accept it with my family’s blessing…and some serious reflection about having to confront snow again.

My transition into the Guthrie last November was a fortunate one, as my predecessor remained onsite for my first two weeks. Frank graciously imparted his legacy knowledge, and I appreciated that. I appreciated any help really, because starting this job felt like standing at the foot of a great mountain, looking up, and wondering how I was ever going to make it to the top.

My first show as director of production at the Guthrie was a Twin Cities favorite – A Christmas Carol. I couldn’t have asked for a better project with which to get my feet wet. 2015-2016 marked the fifth season of this particular iteration of Carol, and all of the players knew their roles inside and out. It was the perfect opportunity for me to observe my various production teams in action. And when I say that the production staff at the Guthrie is good…they are really good. The theatrical marvels onstage point directly to remarkable work backstage. The Scrooge House is a living, breathing, moving entity; actors safely fly on cables; automation and expertly-built props elicit happy gasps from the audience. It’s awe-inspiring. And now here I was, in charge of this extremely well-oiled machine.

Then, right after the 2015 holidays, I learned that a production team can best be measured by how it responds to the unexpected. As we were preparing the Guthrie’s thrust stage for our production of Shakespeare’s epic Pericles – which also happened to mark Joe’s Guthrie directorial debut – I was arriving back in Minnesota from a quick trip to visit my family, who were still in Texas at the time. And my phone lit up like a Christmas tree. During load-in of the Pericles set, one of the staff had inadvertently collided with a sprinkler head in the catwalks above the stage, sending a deluge of water onto the deck. Not a bare deck, mind you, but a half-way installed, beautiful floor that had been meticulously painted by the artisans of the Guthrie’s paint shop. Thousands of gallons of water poured through the stage and into the trap room below. I feared the worst: that we’d have to push back the production schedule.

But when I arrived straight from the airport, I was met by an encouraging scene. My team, towels in hand, was in high spirits. As the events were relayed to me, the moment the water hit the stage, the entire production department showed up with towels, buckets, mops, shop vacs, you name it. The whole building sprang into action. I was impressed, grateful and not a little relieved. And we hit tech right on schedule. One year and 22 productions later, I can tell you this without a shred of doubt: my staff is a peerless one and they make me a better leader.

Outside of the hands-on work in our production shops, the past 12 months have also been rewarding in terms of how far we’ve come in our ED&I initiatives. Working at a nonprofit has been an interesting shift for me from university life in that I feel we have some agility here when we decide to pursue new policies. At the university, several layers of bureaucracy often slow such decisions. And while that process has merit, I was excited to see that things were moving much more quickly at the Guthrie.  

For example, as we work to diversify our theater staff – both onstage and off – I had the notion to remove all of the education requirements from our job postings. I’m not alone in feeling that such requirements present barriers to entry into an organization. I ran the idea by Joe, who was very receptive and requested only that I consult with the Guthrie’s HR department. A week later, the plan was policy.

In just a year’s time I already can see that we’re growing as an organization. And I feel lucky to have stepped into a theater whose storied past and strong foundation have made that type of meaningful growth possible. More than anything, since last fall I’ve been energized by the world-class theater that we’re making, the designers we’re collaborating with, and the production work that I’m able to facilitate here in our building. It’s a dream job like no other, and I look forward to many more years at the Guthrie.