Making the Hard Choices

On the morning of March 12 I changed my mind.

I sent an email to the Prescott Center for the Arts board notifying them that we would be freezing production immediately.

To call this decision bad timing would be just, well, a bad joke. But even bad jokes are popular these days, so here goes.

We were in the middle of Tech Week for our Family Theatre production. Our young people were in full-tilt frenzy over the look and fit of their much-anticipated costumes, and high-fiving each other for finally getting their footwork right. Veteran actors were happily (okay, some not so happily) teaching younger artists proper backstage protocol and other life skills that they would take with them on their journey beyond PCA.

Excitement was building up to Monday morning’s opening performance, a field trip to show hundreds of their friends and teachers from schools all around Willy Wonka and all the hard work they'd put in. The stage was set. You get the picture.

The decision to stop production was unprecedented in our organization. What happened to "the show must go on"? Our entire industry marches to this beat with a vengeance. Freezing production was much more than the disappointment and financial loss of team effort, it impacted the bulk of our season, with eight shows already at some stage of production, as well as three educational outreach programs and a capital campaign in full swing. Our entire future’s revenue source would not only be halted, but all the investment lost. The bulk of our revenue was gone.

A lesson I'm learning during this pandemic is that being a good leader is knowing all this and making the hard decisions anyway. Perhaps even more important to good leadership is knowing what to do and how to lead when you get it wrong.

By Monday it was obvious that my decision wasn't a novel one, as the whole country began shutting down. But for those first three days I was feeling alone and fearful in my decision and the impact it would make. Not about the rent, as they say — that’s a common thought process when working for a nonprofit — but I began to worry about other things.

I worried about our patrons, volunteers, artists and their safety. A lot of them are widows and widowers who were now home and alone, maybe feeling scared themselves. Something had to be done. We were in a unique position to set up a hub to connect with our members, which would be invaluable as we moved forward to help support their needs.

Within one week of closing our doors we were able to launch PCA Serves and began delivering goods and making check-in calls to over 6,000 people. This served our community and became a way to keep our small but dedicated staff employed as well.

Community helping community: in this situation it's been a gift beyond our wildest dreams, continuing to give back in ways we didn’t expect. But it did not come without criticism. That’s okay, I’m used to it. In my business you'd better be. Things are starting to look up. Although we may not be able to open our doors until the very last businesses do so, we have a vision that includes cabaret-style seating and safety features that will include socially distanced patrons and performers. We are also building a virtual gallery for our visual-arts program, which will serve as a great tool for our artists in future networking and outreach. So with all the listening we're asked to do these days, the question I’m looking to answer is, ‘How will I lead when I'm wrong?’ The day before making one of the smartest decisions of my career and potentially saving a life, I had been dead wrong, pontificating at a staff meeting as to how we would all just coexist with the virus.

I had spent the bulk of the meeting discussing all the research I’d done and why I thought a good scrubbing would be enough. I thought children didn’t spread this virus, the flu is more deadly, and so on. You heard it too. It turns out there were people in the room more qualified than I in this department — one of our staff members had a career in the medical field. But no, the show must go on, I thought, and away we went down a path that could have been devastating.

Did I mention we had seniors in Willy Wonka? Thank God the next morning I did some more listening, ate crow for breakfast and closed our doors, because the best leaders will walk to the front of the room, hat in hand or mask on face, admit when they’re wrong and save lives.

I’m looking forward to finding out what I’ll do the next time I’m wrong. I’m not planning on it, but I will be wrong, as will we all, right? That’s true even of scientists and, though they may not admit it, an occasional politician here and there.

For more information about the Prescott Center for the Arts visit:

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