October 15, 2019
For Burgess Clark, Nonprofit Leadership Is About the Team

Burgess Clark: If you can articulate your vision and reasons for it, people will get behind it.
Burgess Clark, executive artistic director of Boston Children’s Theatre, discovered acting as a young teen and ended up dedicating his career to helping children pursue their interests in acting and producing for the stage.

Here is his story:

After getting a degree in acting at the Ohio University School of Theater and a master’s in theater history, criticism, and play writing from the University of Hawaii, my first job was as director of education at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. I came back to my roots.

While at Honolulu, my boss, Jane Campbell, taught me about responsibility for maintaining a team – that we’re all responsible for creating the product. As a college student, you’re often taught to develop your own perspective. In the real world, it’s about being part of a team.

Several years later I left Hawaii for Seattle where I spent five years as a full time writer. I still worked with kids and produced plays, including an adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit, which we’re now producing for the third year here in Boston. It’s a classic tale of children and the power of a child’s imagination, one of those stories every parent loves and loves sharing with the next generation.

Then for the next 10 years I worked as a writer in New York. I made a decent living as a writer and got to work on a PBS series – Part of the Family. I enjoyed it, but the work wasn’t consistent.

I joined the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly in 2004 as director of education and was fortunate enough to work with Jon Kimbell. He was fearless in his artistic choices and had enormous wisdom. He plotted each season carefully in advance – in a way that would meet his artistic vision and draw in the community. He showed me how to focus on process and the product at the same time.

A year later we suffered a devastating fire. It was a trauma. There was a groundswell of support from the North Shore and Boston communities, which taught me a vital lesson that theater is not a building, but a group of people who believe in it.

In 2007, I was diagnosed with cancer and was operated on in 2008. After that I didn’t know what I would do. I realized I wanted to be my own boss and work with kids. I had fallen in love with Boston, because it values the arts and education and cherishes its history while thinking ahead about what it wants. I heard that the Boston Children’s Theatre was looking for a new executive director and applied two days before the deadline cutoff. Within five days I did two interviews and got the offer. I feel as if my entire career— writing, directing, administration—was a rehearsal for BCT.

Many people don’t know that BCT is the oldest theater in New England. Its roots go back nearly a century. My vision is to make BCT the top children’s theater in the country – not theater for children, but a high professional-quality experience aimed at young people and their families. We also want to provide good training for students looking for a career in acting, design, production, or administration.

In March we’re doing Reflections of a Rock Lobster, the first children’s theater to do a play that tackles the topic of gay bullying. It continues what we started with The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird in which we’re portraying a huge topic—the Holocaust, racism, gay bullying—through the eyes of a specific child. Entire schools will be coming in March because students know it speaks to them.

I lead through instinct. Early in my career, I paid too much attention to other people’s fears. Every day I get questions from parents about their kids’ career choice. The reason to pursue a career in theater is because instinctively you think it’s the right choice for you. My goal is to dispel fear that people have. When I proposed Rock Lobster to my board, there was some initial resistance, but now they’re helping to fund it. If you can articulate your vision and reasons for it, people will get behind it.

I also strongly believe in honoring the process. If you honor the process, it will protect you. Marketing and fundraising are a process. When you take a short cut, that’s when mistakes happen and people get surprised.

During my first year, 600 kids came to BCT. The next year we increased the number of shows from three to five and brought in 10,000 kids. I know we’re succeeding when parents and teachers tell you the kids are still talking about the show weeks later. Theater is a very different experience than film due to its immediacy. The 25-and-under crowd is seeing more theater than any other generation, I think, because the youth of today want to engage.

As told to Peter Lowy, December 2011. Learn more about Boston Children’s Theatre.

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