Interview with Arena Stage’s Chad Bauman, bound for Milwaukee Rep
“Go west, young man,” they say, and Chad Bauman is heeding the call. Currently the Associate Executive Director at Arena Stage — and a hard-working arts consultant, educator, and administrator all around the DC region — Bauman will be making a big move this spring to Milwaukee, where he’ll begin his new position as Managing Director at Milwaukee Repertory Theater beginning June 1.
DC Theatre Scene caught up with Bauman by phone about what he expects to encounter at Milwaukee Rep, as he details some personal hopes and well as some larger observations about the industry.
Hunter Styles: American regional theatre can be a small world, can’t it?
Chad Bauman: It can, definitely. Arena has worked with Milwaukee Rep in the past, in fact, and right now we’re working together on One Night with Janis Joplin. Milwaukee Rep is of a similar size to Arena — both companies have three theatres — and they actually seem to have a lot in common in terms of their programming.
Tell us about what you’ve done so far to get to know your new home at Milwaukee Rep.
Well, I’m from the Midwest — I grew up in Missouri — and I was interested in returning at some point. I’ve spent time in Milwaukee over the past few months, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with Mark [Clements, Milwaukee Rep’s Artistic Director]. The work I saw at the Rep while I was visiting was, frankly, some of the best I’ve seen, and I’ve found Mark to be very ambitious.
Milwaukee, as I’ve gotten to know it so far, is a vibrant city with a lot of good arts. Besides the Rep there’s a phenomenal art museum, a great symphony, the Pabst Theater right next door… My time at Arena has been really great, but part of the allure here in this job change is the chance to be in a different city.
You got to Arena Stage in 2007. You’ve made quite a climb since then.
My responsibility at Arena definitely grew over the years. I was supervising marketing, but I was also taking on more institution-wide activities, like helping to open our new building. And because of this growing responsibility, I got to thinking more and more about a career path that would bring me to a position of leading a company someday. So I started seriously thinking about it. I started talking with colleagues and supervisors, and with Molly and Edgar [Smith and Dobie, Arena’s Artistic and Managing Directors, respectively]. That’s what led me to become Arena’s Associate Executive Director, and those ideas are what keep pushing me forward.
You always have a lot of balls in the air. Are you disengaging from every job and project you have going here in this area, or only some things?
This is a tough transition primarily because of all those other activities. I’m on the board at the Contemporary American Theater Festival [CATF] in Shepherdstown, and I teach at American University. So these things will go away. Obviously I can’t teach at American from Milwaukee, so that transition has to happen as well. And I’ve told CATF that given the distance between Wisconsin and West Virginia, I will no longer be serving as a governing trustee there.
But I think my marketing consulting practice will continue. I think a good consultant learns as much as they teach — I go into a company carrying a set of skills, but each time I leave I have a new set of skills — so I imagine this will be good to continue even after I make this move.
Sounds like a good way to get to know the new people around you — to learn from them.
Yeah. I think consulting is closely related to education, and education is a part of who I am. My undergraduate degree is in education. I’ve taught kindergarten, elementary school, high school, undergraduates, graduates. Honestly it would surprise me if I don’t get more into teaching later in my career.
What other interests are you looking forward to building on once you get out there?
My graduate degree is in producing, which is also something I want to do more work with after this transition. I’ve spent most of my professional career in marketing, so I’m excited to get more involving in the producing side. And being more involved in the fundraising for the theatre is also attractive. I have a portfolio from Arena, but I’ll have much greater experience out there.
What about family, friends? Will there be any familiar faces once you arrive in Milwaukee?
Honestly, I’m moving to a city where I currently don’t know anybody. I know some Board members at the Rep now, and I’m building relationships with everyone over there, but personally I don’t really know anyone yet. But I am blessed to have my very supportive partner, Justin, coming with me. Having his support is phenomenal. Justin and I make friends quickly. I’m not too concerned.
I think it would be foolish for someone to say they have zero trepidation when they make a career move. Any new position should at first seem a little daunting. It’s a sign that you’re learning, that you’re growing into a new skill set. I try to keep that in mind.
And, I’m very reassured with the status of Milwaukee Rep. They’re a great staff. They have great trustees. They’re financially stable. Not a lot of theatre companies in the nation have all that. So I’m happy.
Financial stability is no easy task for a professional theatre these days. What do you see as some of your biggest challenges up ahead?
I work with a lot of different theatres as a consultant, so I get a pretty good view of what’s happening nationally. And I do see trends that concern me.
I think the industry as a whole is starting to contend with the ongoing effects of No Child Left Behind. Ten or eleven years ago, much of the school curriculum in America was completely changed to match a series of standardized tests. It’s no surprise at this point to say that arts education has been really decimated as a result.
Now, studies have shown that one of the best indicators of whether you’ll be an audience member in the future is whether you’re given an in-depth introduction to the arts during your formal education. So this becomes a huge problem. Here we are eleven years later, and we’re starting to see audience members coming out of this new system. Not only do we have to give them the option of the theatre, we actually have to do a lot more education at the same time. We have to really explain what the theatre is for, and what it is we’re doing. Particularly when it comes to classical theatre. We have to do a lot more explaining these days of who Shakespeare was and who his contemporaries were, for example. Our job now isn’t just about marketing. It’s about education.
Money and funding, of course, is also a big concern. When we were going through the global economic crisis, particularly in 2008 and 2009, arts organizations were being defunded because of municipal financial constraints. Now, we haven’t completely gotten through the financial crisis, but there are plenty of indicators that things are getting better. There are really good indications that a solid economy is coming back. But I’m fearful that the funding that’s been cut from the arts is never going to return. Companies and arts organizations, out of necessity, have simply had to continue operations without that money.
So what do we do about it?
I think we need to tell a better story. We can operate for a series of years without that funding, sure, but at some point it’ll catch up to us.
You say “tell a better story.” What do you mean by that?
Well, right around that same time, around 2007 and 2008, I was seeing some arts organizations starting to figure out that they needed to become content providers themselves. It used to be that your main job as an arts marketer was to pitch an idea to the press, and the press would generate the content for us. But lately we’ve needed to become content creators ourselves. And theatres have become pretty good at doing it.
We’ll have to keep coming up with new ways to make our own content. I’m not an expert on this, but I’d say that the next iteration of this project is to figure out some better and more diverse ways of creating and streaming digital content featuring the actors and elements of the show. The unions have some arguments to make about expanding live actors’ presence online, which is an interesting conundrum. But I just don’t think you can close Pandora’s box. This topic is going to come up more and more often, and arts organizations need to discuss it more in-depth if we want to reach people.
What about specifically from the marketing side? How have things changed in recent years, and what are the challenges?
The biggest change for the better, I think, is that marketing people now have much more data at their fingertips than they can use. That’s more true now than when I started a decade ago. It used to be that a team of marketers were successful or not based on their ability to guess well. But now there’s an infinite number of data streams that we can look at to predict behavior and patterns. Databases have made us more efficient and much smarter in our decision-making.
That’s all good, except we have a relatively stagnant audience size. And on top of that, we have more shows on the market than we did ten years ago. So the big question for all theatres — in DC and nationally — is: How do we make theatre an attractive option not just for artistic fulfillment, but also for pure entertainment?
That seems to be a pretty enduring topic in the theatre world.
When you go to theatre conferences these days, there’s a lot of talk about whether you need to sacrifice artistic integrity for commercial interest. Instead, do you stick with your artistic mission and pare down the size of the organization?
But I have to say, the best art that I’ve seen in the theatre has been both entertaining and artistically challenging. That old argument — that you either produce one or the other — just doesn’t hold water for me. For example, Milwaukee Rep just did Clybourne Park. That show is still one of my best memories of DC theatre, when it played at Woolly Mammoth. That production was highly entertaining, but it also asked a lot of really good questions about who we are.
Do you except that you’ll be able to hold onto your connection to the Arena team once you make this move?
I do. Arena Stage is very good at working nationally with other theatres. That’s part of our mission, as a center for American theater. And, on the technical side, Milwaukee Rep and Arena both operate on LORT [League of Resident Theatres] B contracts, which makes it easier to solidify partnerships together. So it wouldn’t surprise me if I continue to work with the Arena staff on certain projects over time. I know that Mark and Molly [Smith, Arena’s Artistic Director] know each other. It wouldn’t surprise me if we work together more closely in the future. I would be very interested in that.
I’d hope that Arena can be a part of my life for the rest of my life.
Last spring, Chad Bauman wrote a series of articles for Consider This on DC Theatre Scene.