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David Rainey
Lessons in Overcoming Limitations

David Rainey is the Artistic Director of The Landing Theatre Company founded at the University of Houston-Downtown. The company gained 501(c)3 status on October 27, 2011 and have The Landing Theatre Festival which includes New American Play Reading Series and workshops. David Rainey graduated from Juilliard at the top of his class with awards, and is currently in his 14th season at the Alley, an adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Downtown since 2005, and an independent teacher providing private lessons through “David Rainey’s Studio for Actors”.

What is your leadership style? What are your main values as a leader and how do you go about implementing them?

Well first of all, I’m still learning. Leadership was not one of those things that I migrated towards, it just sort of fell upon me because I wanted to do some things. One of the things that I found very, very important in terms of style when I am teaching acting or directing is to make sure that everybody feels like they are collaborating with you. There are some people that would automatically put themselves in the position of, “I’m just helping out your thing”-- but it works best when everybody starts feeling like they have ownership of the project, that they belong to it.  And that you are trying help them, work together with them, assist them, and achieving something that they’re trying to do. Sometimes it’s kind of difficult to figure out what other people want.

In terms of day-to-day operations of things, at this point The Landing Theatre Company is mostly a volunteer organization. A lot of students have come from UHD, UH, Texas A&M, University of Oklahoma, and two high schools. The main thing about that is communication-- keeping the communication lines open as much as possible. I find that face-to-face meetings are important even though most people don't want to do them. We achieve a lot more when we are sitting in the same room and talking about things rather than sending 17 e-mails back and forth about the same topic. Being face-to-face allows you to be able to tell if I’m having an issue with them, or they have an issue with me, or that they don’t mean anything by a comment they’ve made. Whereas online, a person can say something and it just has a tone that they might not have intended at all and things kind of get funky, and weird.

What about your very first “transition”? You earned a B.F.A. in Acting at Juilliard and then you were one of the founding creators of a Theatre company soon after. What was the transition like from being an actor to an artistic director the very first time?

It was a bit awkward. I mean, I wasn’t really that much prepared for it, at all.

Did Juilliard offer management classes?

No, it was kind of a situation that came up and we took advantage of it. The William and Eva Fox Foundation gives away grants to former students to further their education and training.  I’d gone to an African-American Alumni event at Juilliard and met a whole bunch of people from different classes. I said, “Hey why don’t we all got to get together and do a show or something!” and they were like, “Yeah! Let’s do that.” So I went up to the department and told them this idea we had.   They suggested that I talk to two other alumni trying to start projects and form a company together using grants from the Fox Foundation.

The three of us would each apply for the $10,000 grant and use them to create a Juilliard company with our projects, which would be enough to get us started. So, we got together, and applied.

With The Landing Theatre Company, the idea of doing shows at the university in the summer turned into the idea of a company.  At this point, I feel like I have enough information and experience to pull this off. I’m still learning though. So, in terms of the transition between actor and manager, I didn’t go the route of saying okay, I need to start a company, so let me get all the tools that I need before I do it.

How do you prioritize everything? You still act for the Alley; is The Landing Theatre Company something that only happens during the summer right now?

It’s the way it has been. I mean, the season for The Landing has been in the summer but it operates all year round since there is all kinds of work that needs to be done. This year we learned kind of a big lesson because we finally got all the elements together. Originally, we wanted the Landing Theatre Festival to be plays, New American Voices Play Reading Series, and all these workshops. Then the decision was made to move the New American Voices and the workshops to spring break, where we had a better chance to getting people.  We hoped to attract students from universities, college professors, and pretty much everybody else that’s out there interested in participating in workshops, and have the New American Voices with it.

Our recent board meeting changed that as well. The board said that if we were going to leave the university to get a theatre space of our own, that the workshops feel like a distraction. We should just focus on doing good plays. But I fought to keep the New American Voices. So we are going to do that some time in March. We are going to postpone the workshops for another time. Hopefully, by that time, we’ll have some funding. And these workshops should be money making because people get charged for them, but it also costs us money to schedule the workshops, and we’ve got to pay the presenters regardless. So this year, whether we get this space now or later, we have put things at different times during the year now.

Right now if we get all the money that we’re looking at, we want to have certain positions become fixtures to the company like technical director, marketing director, box office manager, etc. For those, it would be wise for us to get people that are skilled in those areas already, and have the rest of the company learn from them.  But, we’ve got some people that are pretty good at stage management-- I’d like to cultivate that. That, and some people who are fairly fast with web and graphic design. I would like to cultivate that as much as I can. On all levels, it is about managing people.

Can you elaborate on how being a minority has affected your acting career?

Well in my case it's been a positive thing for the most part. Certainly there are limitations to how you get cast very often and that’s just a thing you live with all the time, but on the flip side, I’ve frequently been “the black guy” in productions. Often times I find a lot of work and get a lot of attention because of the fact that I am a minority. I think part of the reason why people feel like they can work with me is because I’m flexible-- if they were looking for someone who’s strictly a very ethnic individual, they probably wouldn’t cast me.

Very often, people are looking for actors who are more versatile than that, they can always find a person who is very ethnic.  They don’t often find black actors who can be anything other that. That has served me a lot. Like I said, on the flip side it is hard because there are cases where people just want a little more gritty and authentic person in that way. I still play it pretty good though.  “Gimme a chance to do’t I can pull it off, baby!” So it’s been interesting.

The downside has been that often you’re playing the friend or the postman, or the butler, you know, roles that don’t have a relationship to anybody else in the play. That can be old at times. I’ve gotten used to the expectations that I’ve come across-- where I look at a play and go, “probably 3 parts that they can cast me in, and that I’m interested in me for”, and I understand that.

Certainly, a person who is in my situation -- a black performer in a resident company-- has a lot more opportunities and gets a lot more diversity in what you can do, than somebody else who’s kind of out and about in the world.  They have to deal with people sort of stereotyping them, and locking them into limited ideas more often. So, ours is a different kind of deal than your average actor might experience.

What other insights have you gained through the course of your career either through experience or through observations of other people?

A lot can be achieved through volunteerism, but not all things. A lot of people will participate and help out if they think it is a good idea and it's something that they see a value of being a part of, but that only lasts so long. You have to eventually pay people and you have to get your board to understand that. Trying to convince somebody to contribute a lot of money to you is a chore-- it's a big thing because I get a lot of people [asking me], “so what is it about you that makes me feel that I need to contribute $20,000 into your company?” That’s the hard part, asking for contributions.

Ultimately, people in that position are business people.  They understand that like all businesses, it take money to make this happen. They understand the concept that if you want the best people you have to pay them, and pay a decent amount, or else you aren’t going to get that person to sign on. So it’s important to get your board of directors to understand that excellence doesn’t happen by accident. Your artists need to get paid one way or another, either through opportunity and achievement, or through finance. And finance is something that cannot be avoided. It ultimately has to come about, or else you’re not going to be able to hold onto them.

What other advice do you have for students in Arts Leadership Program? And what’s one thing you didn’t learn from school that you wished you really did?

I think the people who are doing the program you’re in are doing the right thing. If they really want to get into management and all that kind of stuff then just stay in the program-- it’s the right thing to do. It’s one of those things that I didn’t have the benefit of that would’ve been helpful to have. In terms of the other question of what I didn’t learn that I wished I really could...graphics design. You need quality materials to put out-- website, brochure-- I cannot tell you how many times I had to stop, waiting for somebody to help me with something or having to settle for something mediocre. Whereas if I had had the skills myself, I’d designed what I needed to design when I need them. Some things are really simple to do or I need something really quick and I had to wait weeks. Had I learned graphics design when I was in school, a whole lot of different things that I needed to do would’ve been so much easier. That’s the kind of thing you need to learn before you leave school because you’re going to need it over and over again, whether you’re an actor or a director of a theatre company trying to run the business of an acting school, you got to have stuff that looks professional. It comes up so much.