Search for new a.d. could serve as model for other orgs

The selection of David Muse at the new a.d. of D.C.’s venerable Studio Theater reps the culmination of an unusually thorough leadership-transition process that area legiters say could serve as a model for other orgs.

Following an international search that drew a field of 75 candidates, Studio reached across town to select Muse succeed its retiring founder, Joy Zinoman.

Muse, associate a.d. at the Shakespeare Theater Company, will assume the post Sept. 1, a year after the Studio launched its search for an individual to guide one of the area’s top tier theaters. Muse has been an occasional visiting director there, most recently staging Studio’s current production of Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to be Pretty.”

He will fill the shoes of a demanding and forceful leader who has stipulated that her successor be an outstanding artist with a prowess for fundraising.

Just how the Studio Theater will fare under Muse, only time will tell, of course. But one thing is certain. The organization left no stone unturned in its recruitment efforts, and aimed to thoroughly prepare for the post-Zinoman era.

“I believe the amount of preparation behind Studio’s succession planning process is unique,” says Becky Klein, who helped spearhead the search as an official with Phillips Oppenheim, a New York-based executive search firm that specializes in nonprofits. Klein believes Studio has raised the bar of best practices for theaters transitioning from its founder ? a critical time for any nonprofit org.

The process began five years ago when Zinoman announced privately to senior staffers and board members that she would step down this year, the 35th anniversary of her Studio Acting Conservatory, which predated the theater. Rather than over-staying her welcome as founders sometime do, Zinoman crafted and oversaw a meticulous plan that included preparing the staff and other stakeholders for the change, helping select her successor after three top staffers declined the post, and ensuring a smooth handoff.

From the 75 applicants garnered from the international search, Klein and others winnowed the number to 24. Zinoman met with those individuals and selected from them a field of five finalists.

“Then I stepped away,” she says, so the selection committee of insiders could choose the final candidate.

Process also included three focus groups with Studio stakeholders to garner insights about the theater. Board members, artists, media reps, subscribers and others were invited to the freewheeling discussions.

“The level of outreach was astounding,” says Klein. Search included candidates from the U.K. as well as discussions with actors, directors playwrights, designers, agents, a.d.’s, producing directors, funders, and commercial theater reps. More than 300 people were contacted, she says.

Zinoman has vowed to make a clean break from the theater so she won’t overshadow her successor, with a lengthy visit to Italy is slated for the fall. She will continue her involvement with Studio’s acting conservatory, which operates out of the northwest D.C. property, and hopes she’ll occasionally be invited to direct.

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