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“Mothering a Theatre”

By Lesley Malin, Managing Director of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

I always describe Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC) as my second child. I don’t know if a man would express it that way, but I do.

For the past sixteen years, as a founder and as the Managing Director, I’ve worried and dreamed and fussed and funded the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company into one of the powerhouse theatres in Maryland. As a result, I missed most of my son’s baseball games. I was late for excellent dinners more often than I was on time. I cried with frustration and beamed with pride. And now that CSC is a fixture on the cultural landscape, I worry even more about it and all its people.

No one parents alone, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my teachers and my partners.

Other women have given me so many gifts. My mother taught me to be uncompromising in my intelligence and my goals. My female bosses taught me to see the pitfalls in the corporate world. My women friends have taught me the strength to be found in vulnerability. Women artists have allowed me to see beyond “it’s always been done this way.” My women staff demonstrate moments of amazing grace and resilience. And I’ve watched women make choices that are textbook ways of being unkind and self-destructive. These female models have deepened my ability to manage and make decisions.

So much of what I’ve accomplished has depended heavily on my partnership with two men. One is my friend and partner-in-all-things Shakespeare, CSC Artistic Director Ian Gallanar, who has been the optimist to my pessimist, the one who has always said that “it’ll all be OK” (and sometimes it was). Ian has always viewed us as a team and always respected my perspective. The other is my husband and chief business advisor, Scott Helm, whose unconventional work has allowed him to be the primary caretaker and chauffeur of our son and whose corporate acumen has been essential to many of the sound decisions CSC has made.

During my first job in the workplace, at a law firm, I was (casually) sexually harassed. And the theatre world is rife with misogyny and masculine condescension and I have my stories. Now I find myself responsible for creating a sexual harassment policy and making sure everyone at our theatre feels both safe and respected. I look at the #metoo movement and I’m amazed at how the work world has changed for women in absolutely vital ways and yet I worry for all the ambiguous situations I’ve already seen that don’t fit neatly into a motto.

Lesley Malin at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

My being a woman makes women feel good about working at CSC, because they know that there is someone making decisions who understands that female perspective. I love to hire women, I love to make sure their parenting needs are supported, I love to challenge them to be smarter and faster. And I do think there’s a female strength in showing that I’m vulnerable and often don’t know the answers.

Because I’m in the arts, I know I have more opportunity and latitude than my more corporate sister leaders. Still, when I see men in equivalent arts positions being asked to join boards or receive awards, or apply for positions that I am seemingly not considered for, I wonder, what’s up with that?

In a classical theatre company, it’s hard to find classical plays that center on women’s stories. (I do love that Shakespeare made so much space in his plays for women and their experiences—I always think it didn’t hurt that Elizabeth I reminded him just what a woman could achieve). So the plays I’ve produced—like Pride and Prejudice and The Winter’s Tale—have all featured women directors and central women’s stories. Highlighting these experiences is simply essential.

One of my favorite experiences was when I was the producer of Anne of the Thousand Days. I assembled an all-female design team and it wasn’t necessarily easy. Finding a woman sound designer who worked in the area took over a month and two dozen emails and phone calls—but I found someone brilliant. The young music director I hired (following a tip from a female staffer) is now our resident music director. Production meetings did not have a backdrop of affectionate insult and baseball stats but featured discussions of babies and outfits—not better, just different.

My commitment to Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is maternal, not just in love and nurturing, but in ambition and impatience. People say you never stop being a mother, but when you’re mother to a theatre, the obligation only shifts, never lessens. CSC’s legacy remains my responsibility.


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