Statera Seven: Katherine Owens

Statera Seven is a series about women in leadership and the path to promotion. Statera poses seven questions to past and current Artistic Directors, Managing Directors, and other women in leadership roles in the American Theatre. Statera is sharing their stories and insights in hopes of finding new ways to shift the leadership gender imbalance of America's nonprofit regional theater companies.

Today we're interviewing Katherine Owens, Founder and Artistic Director of Undermain Theatre, a theatre in Dallas, Texas celebrating its 35th season.


m_191123231148.jpg

StateraArts: The research on Women's Leadership in Resident Theaters presented by The Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in 2016 found that there was a glass ceiling and "pipeline issue" facing women in theatre leadership. How have you improved professional development for those seeking leadership positions in the arts, particularly women and people of color?

Katherine Owens: For many years, Undermain has been focused on finding leadership positions for women and people of color. Historically there have always been women in the artistic leadership of the theater and there are now people of color and women in all levels of management. This is an ongoing process and one that we plan to expand on and improve. The Undermain artistic company is now 50 percent people of color and 50 percent women.

S: What is the most important single decision you have made in your journey?

 Katherine Owens (Photo by Stephen Webster)

Katherine Owens (Photo by Stephen Webster)

KO: I came to the realization that I was an artist and decided that I would abide by the principals that I believed made up an artistic life.  Working out what is meant by leading an artistic life has been a long project. When I was about 10 years old I knew that I wanted to be an artist.  To me this meant to embark on a course of study which I would design, to study the lives of the artists, to allow myself to think freely, and to begin to acquire discipline.  At the time, I thought I would be a painter and this ambition was greatly abetted by having a number of books about art in our house.

I wore out the spine of two of the volumes in my Father’s Time Warner Art series—the books about Leonardo da Vinci and Marcel Duchamp.  But a short time later, when I saw my first play, I decided that the theater was the place I wanted to be.


S: Statistics suggest that women apply for jobs only if they meet 100% of the qualifications, whereas men apply when they meet only 40%. Has this been true for you, and how do you advocate for your experience and qualifications when they are not explicitly spelled out in a job posting?

KO: I think that just knowing this statistic is useful. Since I read it on your website I have cited it in many conversations with women who were considering applying for various positions. I have applied for very few jobs in my life. Most of the jobs I had were self-created or opportunities that I was offered. In the era and place that I grew up, it seemed clear that, as a woman, if you wanted to do anything in the arts you had to create your own opportunities.  

S: What roadblocks did you encounter on your path to this position and how did you navigate?

KO: When I was growing up in Odessa, Texas, I worked as an intern at the Globe of the Great Southwest, --a replica of Shakespeare’s globe rising out of the desert and producing classics year round with a semi-professional company. Because they were always in need of help, I worked as an assistant director and did all sorts of odd jobs and small roles.

Even with all this experience, when I registered with a directing major in college I was told that women were seriously discouraged from going into directing by the then head of the program.

The first real help I got on the road to being a director came my first year out of college. I was recruited to be an artist in residence at a fledging Shakespeare theater in Oklahoma, run by the director Molly Risso. She had a wonderful theatrical mind and was a very good director. She allowed me to direct, let me assist for her, and taught me the principals of staging on a chessboard in the costume shop.

Later when we started the Undermain, I had the support of some wonderfully supportive collaborators, most notably my husband Bruce DuBose, who is an actor and producer.


S: If you had $10 million dollars of unrestricted funds, how would you spend it to improve the American Theatre?

KO: Theater needs more of a presence in smaller communities. Anecdotally, I have noticed that in Texas at least, if a town square has a preforming arts facility of any size, it is surrounded by healthy businesses and serves as a kind of center for the community. Many squares have renovated their old movie houses to provide homes for a community theater.  And having grown up in a small town I know how important these places can be for people.


S: Professional mentorship is a core part of our mission at Statera. In that spirit, what is the best piece of advice you have ever received, and from whom?

KO: My father was an officer in WWII. He would describe the principals of leadership that he had studied in his training.  He also taught me things he had learned in the Corps at Texas A&M and these took the form of maxims or aphorisms. He would say: “leadership is not making people do what you want them to do but making them want to do what you want them to do.” He told me that a leader has a duty to his people and that this duty required a wholehearted commitment, and that a leader should deliberate and then act decisively.

He said once that a leader is someone who, when the battle starts, gets out in front of the troops and says, “Follow me”.  I think I internalized these ideas very early in my life. As far as I could tell, leadership was not discussed with young women at that time and I felt grateful for this instruction.

The duties of a leader and the activities of an artistic life often seem opposed to one another and I have struggled with this. An artistic life requires a certain amount of interiority and freedom and often questions the nature of duty and responsibility.

My friend, the filmmaker Julia Dyer, gave me some advice that was given to her. She said that when you are directing you come in the first day and declare in a loud and definite voice, “the camera goes here, and the lights go here and the actor goes here and so on”. This tells the crew that you are in charge and know what you are doing and can be relied on as a leader.


S: In what ways are you thriving in your leadership role?

KO: I tend to want to make decisions through consensus but I have learned that this is not always the best approach in all cases. Through the years, I have become comfortable with authority.

Organizations produce a huge number of decisions, large and small, and the job of making those decisions, or finalizing them is in the hands of the leader.  

Mentorship is an ongoing process. There is a saying: “When the student is ready the guru appears”.

I have been fortunate to have found new mentors as the theater has grown, most notably our new general manager Patricia Hackler, who brought a profound understanding of organizational leadership to the theater during its expansion and the designer John Arnone who has had a incalculable influence on my life as a director. Together with Bruce DuBose, the theater’s producer,  we all  look for ways to keep make the Undermain a place of growth for artists and engagement for the community.


KatandBruce-hr4517RT-1-e1464035665210.jpg

ABOUT KATHERINE

Katherine is known for bringing new and visionary theater to Dallas audiences. She has received the AAUW Texas Woman of Distinction Award as well as the 2013 Dallas Historical Society Award for Excellence in the Creative Arts, was chosen as one of The Dallas 40 by DMagazine, was named one of Dallas’ 100 Creatives by the Dallas Observer, and was nominated for the 2013 “Texan of the Year” by the Dallas Morning News. She has been a fellow of the Sundance Institute since 2015 when she and Len Jenkin were selected to participate in The Sundance Institute’s Theater Lab to workshop the script of Jonah, which had its world premiere at Undermain in 2016. Other world premieres directed by Katherine Owens at Undermain include work by Matthew Paul Olmos (so go the ghosts of méxico, part two), Len Jenkin (Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie…, Time in Kafka, and Port Twilight), David Rabe (The Black Monk), Lynne Alvarez (The Snow Queen), Mac Wellman (Two September, A Murder of Crows, and The Hyacinth Macaw) as well as Sylvan Oswald (Profanity). Katherine directed Neil Young’s Greendale and John O’Keffe’s Glamour at the Ohio Theatre, Jeffrey M. Jones’ A Man’s Best Friend at WalkerSpace, and Lenora Champagne’s Coaticook at the SoHo Think Tank’s Ice Factory Festival. She has designed the videos for Erik Ehn’s Gold Into Mud (HERE American Living Room Festival in New York) and Swedish Tales of Woe (the Ohio Theatre). In 1995, Katherine traveled with Undermain Theatre to Macedonia, where she appeared in Goran Stafanovski’s Sarajevo, a threnody to the victims of the siege. She has directed numerous other productions in Dallas, New York, and Europe including the world premiere of Gordon Dahlquist’s Tomorrow Come Today, which went on to win the James Tait Black Award for Drama in 2015 and Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling, which she directed as part of the international Belegrade Summer Festival in 2000. Katherine has served as a juror for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, has been a panelist for the Alpert Awards and Texas Commission on the Arts, and is a member of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts Artistic Council. Her familiar voice can be heard narrating a number of programs for PBS and KERA 90.1 as well as several documentaries including Mark Birnbaum’s Las Mujeres de Valle and Judy Kelly’s Frozen Music, which won an Emmy and a Matrix Award. Katherine is a native of Odessa, TX and a graduate of the University of Texas.