The Delaware Shakespeare Festival is one of Delaware’s cultural gems. Each summer for the past nine years, they have provided Delaware with first class educational programs and riveting professional theatre. The company has been in residence at Wilmington’s historic Rockwood Mansion Park since 2006. This July, they will be presenting Shakespeare’s fairytale romance, The Winter’s Tale. In the interest of full disclosure, my company is helping sponsor the Delaware Shakespeare Festival this season, so I am very familiar with the high quality of their onstage product. Until recently, however, I was not aware that the DSF is a great place to work. I had the chance to conduct an online interview with the Delaware Shakespeare Festival’s founder and Artistic Director, Molly Cahill Govern and General Manager, Lauren Wright Cahill to discuss what goes into setting the stage for a great workplace.
Jason: Hi guys. I see that you have a name in common. What is the story there?
Molly: Absolutely no relation. [They laugh.] Everyone thinks we are sisters. In fact, we have been referred to as “The Cahill Sisters” several times.
Lauren: I think this is probably my story to tell. I was hired legitimately in 2004 as the Production Manager. Molly’s brother, Duke, moved back to Wilmington from Colorado after that summer. We didn’t meet until 2005 when he was cast in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” We became friends and then started dating in 2006. We were married in 2008. I thought long and hard about whether I should change my name to avoid confusion, but then Molly went ahead and got married herself in 2009, so we no longer had matching last names. We are sisters-in-law, though we do understand the confusion about being sisters from anyone who has seen us interact.
Jason: I bet that helps create an interesting work environment. I’ve heard that DSF is a great place to work. First of all, do you agree with that assessment? And if you do, what do you think makes it a great place to work?
Molly: I certainly agree. We’re doing what we love, so that makes the work really meaningful for us.
Lauren: And the people we work with are a lot of fun. They’re all creative in their own way. One of the best things about DSF is that, while we certainly have a hierarchy in the company, theatre is a team sport. Everyone pulls together to make whatever we’re doing work.
Molly: When you’re a theatre major in college, you hear over and over again that, “Theatre is a collaborative art.” DSF is definitely living proof!
Jason: So is that teamwork focus something that you have to consciously strive to maintain, or do you think it just flows from your personal philosophy about work?
Lauren: The group dynamic isn’t really something that we’ve tried to impose on DSF, but we’re theatre-types, and that’s how most theatres work. As she said, it’s pretty well hammered into us during our training that you really do need everyone—from the actors on stage to the box office staff—to put up a good production.
Molly: In the beginning, our team didn’t have that many members, so few people were doing the work of many. Now that we have more people who are dedicated to the different internal departments of a theatre company—Marketing, PR, Education, Technical—things happen much more efficiently.
Lauren: Going back to the working relationship that Molly and I have, we really do lead by example. While there is obviously a personal dynamic to our relationship, we make a concerted effort to also act professionally while at work. We hope that all of our staff can work together professionally while also forming friendly relationships.
Jason: What are people who are drawn to work in the theater really looking for in order to be fully engaged?
Molly: I think those of us in theatre usually are looking for like-minded artists.
Lauren: If you work with people you hate or vehemently disagree with, no mission statement in the world will make you want to work for that particular theatre company. Theatre is fun. We are putting on a “play.” It is possible to take the work too seriously. We work in a really casual environment, which is great for collaboration.
Jason: That’s a great point. So many studies show that relationships between colleagues can make or break how people think about a workplace, regardless of the other benefits. What other sorts of things, that perhaps are specific to theater companies, can crush employee morale?
Molly: There are so many ways your morale can be crushed in this business. Actors, designers, and directors are always looking for work, and there aren’t enough positions to go around. They are constantly being told “No.” It’s a tough career to choose.
Lauren: And at DSF, every time we spend weeks putting together a grant proposal and get turned down for funding; or every time our information gets published and they use the wrong name. We’ve been called “Delaware Shakespeare Company…”
Molly: Or “Delaware Shakespeare Theatre.”
Lauren: Or just “Shakespearean Theatre.” It also hurts every time someone tells us that they live “around the corner” but have never heard of us.
Molly: Or when people say, “Shakespeare is boring,” without actually coming to see one of our plays. That one still puzzles me. Oh, and when it rains. Rain is not our friend at DSF.
Jason: Hmm…Have you considered having ‘King Lear’ in the can, all set to go every summer? Ten minutes prior to the show you refresh the radar map one more time and say, “Okay, King Lear everyone.” Sorry, just thinking out loud.
Jason: Is managing on-stage talent different than managing the backstage and office stuff? I’m wondering if there are different standards for different departments.
[Both start laughing]
Lauren: Yes and no. Both on-stage and off-stage people are held to high standards. But the approach we take with actors is probably different than the approach we take with non-actors.
Molly: I’d say it has less to do with department and more to do with personalities. People are different. We have to gauge personalities to know how to work with people. But in the end, we really do hold everyone to the high standards we’ve set for DSF, whether they’re actors, designers, crew, or admin.
Lauren: Anyone, in any department, who decides to work in theatre, is a little nutty.
Molly: But that’s a good thing!
Lauren: Right. Whether they are the marketing team or the set designer, every position involves a lot of creativity, which is why we have so much fun sharing ideas with our staff.
Jason: You don’t have to name names, but have either of you had terrible work experiences that you use as an example for what not to do?
Molly: Of course, we’ve had bad experiences along the way, and they certainly have informed us as we put together our productions.
Lauren: But we try not to let it sour our overall experience.
Molly: We just say, “Lesson learned. Move on!”
Jason: What about the other side of the coin? Are there workplaces that you liked that you use as a positive example?
Lauren: I started out in theatre as a stage manager. I’ve gradually transitioned from backstage to management over the past five years. My first professional experience working in theatre was at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore (http://everymantheatre.org/ ) , while I was still in college. They were a small company, similar to where DSF is today. Though none of the staff were actually related, it was very much a family environment that maintained its professionalism. Though I worked for several other companies in the interim, I think that my experiences at Everyman strongly colored my management style with DSF.
Molly: The single experience that influenced my career was my study-abroad program in London during college. That’s where I fell in love with Shakespeare and developed the passion that I bring to DSF.
Jason: Shakespeare turned 447 years old this spring, and the Delaware Shakespeare Festival is in its 9th year, so are things getting more predictable and settled?
Lauren: The only thing predictable about DSF is that nothing is predictable…especially the weather. For us, that’s one of the things that makes working for DSF so much fun.
Molly: We call DSF “Extreme Theatre.” Outdoor theatre and indoor theatre are only the same in that both involve putting on a show. The variables are always there, and that keeps us on our toes.
Jason: People comment to me that it is easy to have highly engaged employees when you are a startup, but harder when the company matures. Have you found that to be the case?
Molly: Actually, for us, it’s the opposite. As we’ve grown, we’ve found more and more people wanting to get involved, people who are really excited about what we do.
Lauren: We’ve been really lucky to slowly form a core group of people over the last nine years. Every year, we find one or two people who are “keepers.”
Jason: Finally, people are always trying to tease management books and business advice out of Shakespeare’s plays and characters? What plays or characters provide you guys with some managerial inspiration?
Molly: Richard III…Kidding! He shows us what not to do.
Lauren: Henry V. It’s perfect for the craziness of outdoor theatre. Every night, we say, “Once more, unto the breech, dear friends, once more…”
Jason: Thanks so much for the glimpse backstage Molly and Lauren.
“The Delaware Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Winter’s Tale runs July 15th to July 30th at Rockwood Park. For more information on tickets or to find out about volunteer and sponsorship opportunities, visit: http://www.delshakes.org