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Episode 75: Spectrum of Authenticity - Lindsey Rood-Clifford

In this episode, Spectrum of Authenticity, we interviewed Lindsey Rood-Clifford, President and CEO of Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, MO. We met with her on location at Starlight in her office overlooking the audience seating.

Lindsey shares her experience being unanimously voted to be the new—and first female—CEO at Starlight, and how she creates change authentically in her role. Hear her philosophy on inspiring teams and constantly connecting with community.

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When I talk to other professionals, I often describe it as a spectrum of authenticity. One that you can scale. So, it should always feel true, and I think we’re at our best with presence and as leaders and as people when it feels true and human and authentic. And don’t push ourselves to go outside of that to do things that don’t feel true or honest or like they really are rooted in who we are.

Welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast. I’m Jen Vellenga. And I’m Jennifer Rettele-Thomas. On the Speak with Presence podcast, we believe perfection is overrated. Leaders listen and we all speak up to influence change. We are here to share stories of powerful leaders who use their voice to inspire change.

And this season we are speaking to leaders in Kansas City. And so, we want to ask Kansas City listeners, how do you use your voice to speak up for change? We are here in Kansas City, Missouri at the Starlight Theater, where we are interviewing Lindsey Rood-Clifford, the CEO.  Welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast, Lindsey.

Thanks for having me. Excited to be here. We’re right here in your office overlooking the very audience and stage of Starlight Theatre. It’s an amazing view. It’s so fun to be on location. This is an historic 8,000-seat outdoor theatre venue. It’s been in existence since 1951. We had the pleasure of being at the Starlight Gala a couple of weekends ago. We were just blown away at that event and we were among the first to hear about the Uniquely KC campaign. Could you share a little bit about Starlight and especially what you see for the future of this theater venue?

Yes, especially as we are launching into a $40 million campaign that is both about venue improvements but also about programming expansion. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about history because you can’t talk about the future without going through the history. Especially when you’re talking about changing a historic venue. We’ve spent a lot of time going back and looking at how change has really been a part of Starlight’s history. Because built in 1950, first shows in 1951 was an open-air theater.  So, an open-air theater for 50 years, and then not until 2000 did it become an enclosed stage house. 

It’s one of the largest stage houses in the country. A lot of people forget that. Up until 2000, it was an open-air theater. No fly space. Couldn’t do nationally touring Broadway shows. Couldn’t do nationally touring concerts. That was a huge change. So, as we’ve been talking about what the future looks like, I always draw people back to that so that we remember that change is a part of our history. And this is just another change moving us in the right direction for the next chapter of the organization.

Those changes include the biggest one to the venue is really an extension of our stage house with a new big canopy structure and a new production and lighting bridge. Right now, there are two sets of towers that sort of flank the stage house. There’s the original sets from 1950, and then there’s the new set that supported the stage house in the 2000s. We’re going to be building a third set of towers. I keep saying it’s kind of a building onto the castle. That will support a new production bridge that will give us enhanced production capabilities and also support a canopy structure that will cover almost 3,200 of our almost 8,000 seats.

That’s important because that allows us not only to improve the guest experience for our evening performances, but clearly there’s a little weather mitigation that’ll be in the future there. But it also allows us to add daytime programming for the first time. Historically, no one wants to sit at Starlight at 2 o’clock in the afternoon in July.

When we have nationally touring Broadway, for example, we’re paying for eight shows to come through, but we’re only actually presenting six of them. One of the biggest trends we’re seeing in theater is the desire for daytime matinee programming. As you might imagine, 8 o’clock is a little late for people with little kiddos, and daytime, especially being right across the street from the Kansas City Zoo, is a great time for us to really focus on how we are developing new audiences. How are we getting kids out to the arts?

So, the campaign, that’s kind of the centerpiece of the campaign in terms of venue improvements, but it’s really tethered also to programming expansions. We have five new community engagement programs that are part of our campaign that are really about arts access and arts education. When I say arts education, I always pause to say your brain probably goes to teaching singers and dancers and actors. And that’s certainly a piece of what we do here. But because of Starlight’s size it’s really for us about how we’re offering unique opportunities to support the whole sector. That includes things like backstage jobs and arts administrator roles. There’s a workforce development piece that’s really important to us, I think, especially post pandemic.

Those programs we’re really identified to say, what are gaps for Starlight and what are gaps in the community? So as an example, some of those programs are a new elementary school musical program that’ll be a free 17-week program out in community. So that’s at schools in the Kansas City metro, but also a new performance series here at Starlight that’s for students and families that’ll allow us to do field trips to performances for really the first time. As well as have family-centered performances. Hopefully for people in the neighborhood to be able to come enjoy because I think that’s something that’s changed a lot for the theater as well. Who is it for and who’s coming? I often say this campaign is really about enhancing the Starlight tradition that so many people love, but really also about extending it to more people.

I love that. That’s great. And so, this kicks off Uniquely KC. How many years do you intend to run that campaign to reach your goal? As we kicked it off, we’re lucky. It’s a $40 million campaign, but we’re almost $22 million funds raised, which is really exciting. We’re over halfway there. We’ll be continuing to raise money for the next couple of years. 

We intend right now to break ground in a year in October of 2024.  We’ll be building everything in sort of two off seasons. Two winters so it won’t affect summer programming at Starlight. We’ll be sort of in two phases, also launching those new programs. The intention is for everything, programs and all to be fully launched. Everything is to be built for the summer of 2026, which happens to coincide with our 75th anniversary and also the World Cup in Kansas City.  So great timing for something that we started dreaming and talking about in 2019 before there was a pandemic. Before there was a World Cup. It sort of has all come together in a really sort of aligning of stars kind of way.

We’re so excited to be here for that and watch that unfold.  You are the new CEO and the first woman CEO. Whatever that means. I mean, you’re a new CEO, but you’ve been here a very long time. How has your transition been?

You know, it’s interesting. I grew up coming to Starlight, so it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was also part of one of our education programs growing up. Also, this was my first job out of college. I was a part of our paid summer internship program here. We have a really robust kind of arts administrator workforce development program. And that’s where I started here. And that became a full-time job. I worked in event operations and then I worked in philanthropy and fundraising. Then a year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to serve as COO before becoming president and CEO in April of 2023, which is just seven months ago.

So as transitions go, it was a great on ramp. It was a long time. There are things that went exactly as I expected. And there were some things that I don’t think I could have ever anticipated in a transition. I don’t think you can until you’re sort of in those shoes and walking in them.  And some of it was good and some of it was not so good. I often refer to those as skills building opportunities.

There was as much to my surprise because I think for historic institutions like Starlight and big civic institutions, there is often a proclivity to think that we need talent from outside. I fully expected, despite having my hat in the ring, that there would be a search associated with the President/CEO of Starlight. There has been for the last two CEOs in the role. I would be the first to say I was incredibly shocked and humbled and very excited that the board unanimously made the decision not to do an external search.

It’s a huge vote of confidence. I have continued to say I’m so lucky I have a board that is confident and supportive, and my goal is a year from now for them to still feel that way. I feel like I’ve got some time to still make sure I’ve earned that vote of confidence.  It was a really wonderful gift. And you earned it.

So as Jen mentioned, we were very honored to be here at the gala a couple of weeks ago. As somebody that was raised around Kansas City but was not introduced to Starlight until I made the move here and heard Nancy Whitworth talk a lot about Starlight. And Jen Vellenga here, who’s all things theater. You know, you think about it as an incredible performance venue which it is.  But being at the event brought to life this feeling of pride, engagement, and I think for both Jen and I, it was how can we be a part of this and be part of something bigger? Because it is really beyond the performance. 

The performance is really just your front porch. It’s just the front porch, because it’s really just an avenue into how you can go into the community to make a difference.  And so, I think about the scholars, the Vincent Legacy Scholarship recipients, and it just brought chills. I can only imagine with what you’ve described with this next campaign, about what’s going to be possible to take that to a whole new level. Can you talk a little bit about what you see as an additional enhancement of how you will be able to infiltrate the community at a whole new level with this next step?

I think when people think about the Starlight tradition, and it’s often described as a tradition, because the people that have been coming here for decades, think about what’s on that stage first. Which I often say is wonderful.  It’s great theater and music and it is the front porch of what we do. It’s how people see us first. It’s what they think of first.

But I think what we do as a nonprofit, mission-based organization is so much more than that. It is about the community engagement that we do. Both the programs but also how we’re getting people to that great theater and music. It’s really rooted in how are we thinking of the tradition in a different way. And also, when I say that it’s important to think about enhancing and extending it, it really is saying, those of us that have been coming for a long time understand the positive impact of the arts.

So how do we make sure that we have programs and funding and advocacy and support to make sure that people that might not otherwise be able to get out to world class theater and music have that opportunity? How do we make sure that we have programs that are out in schools that don’t have music and theater programs?  How do we make sure that scholarships like the Vincent Legacy Scholarship exist for low income BIPOC middle school students?

So that really important age of kids, where they might be going, oh, I don’t know that I’m comfortable or am I too cool for playing it with imagination or my parents didn’t do it, that they’re getting that vote of confidence through scholarships to be able to pursue performing arts training. That we’re honoring high school musical theater students through programs like the Blue Star Awards that has 58 participating area high schools to say yes, give all the banners to the athletics kids, but also give the banners to the hardworking tech theater kids and performance kids and stage managers and people who are designing costumes because they are working just as hard and deserve that recognition.

I think a lot of that work is not as recognizable and there isn’t that awareness. I think as we think about the future, we’re really trying to highlight that work and I think that is a shift in priority to some degree.  Although we’ve had programs. We have six great programs right now that have been around. Some of them since our inception. Our internship program has been around since the ‘80s. But the five new programs are really adding to that portfolio to say this is what we want to lead with because theater and music are about community building, so community engagement is the foundation of it.

We want to make sure people understand what those opportunities that we’re continuing to develop and evaluate them, adjust them to serve the needs of the community. And I think that’s a change, too. I think even things like we have a great free tickets program for Broadway that gives away 12,000 to 15,000 free tickets every summer to over 150 nonprofits. That’s a great program that maybe a few years ago was all about, hey, we’ve got these free tickets. Hope you can use them. Right? It was very transactional. 

I think now we’ve shifted to saying we are going out into community to say, hey, these aren’t just available to you, but it’s really important that you come. We invite you to come. We really want you to come. And that is different when you think about how important in an arts environment that sense of belonging is. Especially if you didn’t grow up with access. You may be intimidated by the experience. How do I act? What do I do? What are the rules? And that can be the thing that prevents someone from ever even walking through the gates, even if they have free access.  That’s a huge shift for us in how we are engaging with community by going out into community first. In some cases, to invite them to come through those gates to experience what great theater and music and what its impact is.

 It’s an important shift in the industry overall and you’re doing it really well. So, congratulations on that. You’ve been doing it for a long time, but your commitment to advancing it right now in this moment is not lost on us.

I think we’re hearing that. I sat in a meeting earlier this week with someone who I think has been around for a long time, knows the history and has really seen this shift in commitment.  I feel good when I hear that coming back to us, that they believe us now. Because I think the commitment has been there and I think we’ve been doing some really good work. I think we’re doing it better. I think we have a long way to go to really get it right. But I think we take more steps in the right direction every day. We have a more aligned staff, a more aligned board, more aligned donors, more aligned partners that are out here representing us because it’s not just Starlight staff.  We have people that represent us when they’re parking people or when they’re greeting people as they come in.  So, making sure they’re all aligned around what we’re trying to do here. What our values are and how important it is to be inclusive and to meet all people where they’re at so that they can enjoy what we do here. That’s really important.

Love it. Alright, let’s get onto the good stuff. Stage presence is something you see all the time at Starlight. I’m just curious, how do you define presence as a leader?  I often talk about presence in the same vein as authenticity. When I talk to other professionals, I often describe it as a spectrum of authenticity. One that you can scale. So, it should always feel true. And I think we’re at our best with presence and as leaders and as people when it feels true and human and authentic.

But who you are on one end of your spectrum to the other end of your spectrum, they might be different. I used to say it’s like your Sunday best versus you’re really comfortable on the couch with your family. That’s all you and it should feel like you. And I think that’s when we are able to communicate our best is when we stay within that spectrum of authenticity and don’t push ourselves to go outside of that to do things that don’t feel true or honest or like they really are rooted in who we are.

That’s such a good definition. I love it. We ask this a lot, but that’s a very good definition. When you think of leaders who want to create change, like what you’re doing here at Starlight. Any leadership is about creating change unless you want to go backwards. So, when you think about change and you think about leaders who create it, what advice do you have for creating change authentically?

I think what I’ve learned when it comes to change is, especially if you thought of yourself or ever wanted to be a change agent, in your head sometimes you look like a warrior, right? You look like the person that’s going to pound a fist to do the right thing or stand up in a meeting and say something boldly.  And, it doesn’t always look like that, and frankly it can’t. I think sometimes you have to look at change and say, if I want the end goal to be X, how do I get there? And what does efficacy really look like? How can I be effective in moving that way? And it doesn’t always look like being a warrior, unfortunately.

And sometimes there are those moments where there’s a conflict between what might feel like I guess, that sense of justice or warrior or how I’m really going to move the needle in a bold way, to more quiet moves and diplomatic moves and pulling people alongside you. I often describe change as you really want to get everyone lined up beside you, all taking a step together.

And that’s really hard because you’re not all in the same place to start. So, you have to get on the same line to start. And people sometimes start way behind you and some people are ahead. And they’re frustrated that you’re not up where they are.  That, for Starlight, I think, has been a huge focus of even just these first seven months in a leadership role. 

I use this really great, oh it’s not great, but the team keeps talking about it. I use a boat analogy, right? We want to be in the boat together, rowing in the same direction, headed to the same place. And there’s also all of these other descriptions of what it doesn’t look like that doesn’t help you achieve change. But it starts with being in the same boat. Being on that same line together and getting people at least to understand, have the same understanding of where you are so you can take that step forward collectively together. 

I think that’s what change really looks like. It’s saying, how do I pull the person that’s 10 steps behind closer to the line? How do I encourage patience from the person that’s five steps ahead to wait for us to catch up to them so that we can all move forward together and not get frustrated by the process or the pace?

There are times where we sit here and go, is there ever going to be a time where we don’t use the context, the first female CEO in this Kansas City community as we’re still new to it? You know, you’ve been in Kansas City your whole life. I lived an hour away. I can’t say I’m a Kansas Citian. But being here in Kansas City, there are so many firsts. And there’s so many firsts were women.  And at some point, we’re not going to have to say that anymore because girls will only know it as both. That there’s opportunities for both. How awesome that there will be a generation that’s never known any different. That of course there’s a stadium for women. And so, I think about the amount of work that you do in the community and the amount of students that you serve and how now they can see through you what they can achieve. Because now they can see it.

I got this question a lot in this first year. I struggled with the answer to it a little bit for the very reason of it’s hard to say is that my most important qualifier for this role. It’s not, and at the same time there is privilege and pressure to being a first. Because you hopefully know you will not be the last.  But that’s where the pressure comes from of saying, I want to do this in a way that models something for young people. Or even when I said it from the front of the stage at Broadway shows this summer and you’d hear a big crowd roar, right?

It mattered to people in a way that I’ve come to appreciate more because I think it is important for people. Because for every first, it feels like a step in the right direction. Does it matter that I’m a woman in terms of what it brings to this role? I mean, in some ways, maybe. There are some qualities that certainly, I think, benefit the role. But is it the most important thing? It’s not. It’s just that it’s one more place that it hadn’t happened, that now it has. I think that pressure and that privilege, because it is first and foremost a privilege to be chosen when the history has been one thing. And again, I credit my board of directors who said, I believe in this person. I have confidence. I’m willing as a board, where there’s a lot on the line when you’re on a board of directors with a historic institution of this size. Your reputation is attached to the success of the organization you serve. I appreciate that that is a choice they made. That again said, we have confidence and we’re willing to stake our reputation on that for this to be a first. 

And that’s not a, hey, we’re making this choice because it’s a first. But really to say this is a first and there’s some gravity to that, and we’re 100% behind it. So that’s a choice I honor that they made, that I don’t take for granted.

Well said. So, we like to ask this little question, what on earth, Lindsey?  And this is a question about, sometimes it’s about bias, so maybe being the first we can go there. But it’s a moment in time where you heard someone say something unbelievable. Maybe you witnessed some kind of action that just made you say, you know, the kids these days would say WTF, but we’re going to say, what on earth?

Do you have a story like that you can share? I sure do.  Let’s hear it. What I would say is one of the things that I don’t know that I didn’t expect it in a year leading up to being a first. But certainly, as a woman that is sometimes in rooms and at tables with men and as the only woman, there are still moments. And I’m a bit of a Pollyanna.  So I definitely am the person that is somehow still surprised when something happens that you just think you’re beyond as a society. I believe the best in people. And then you come smack dab, you know, in your face with a situation. You’re like, what on earth? Right? How is this still happening?

How did this happen? Is this actually happening? And it’s surreal. 

Maybe the best example of that in this last year is where we were doing the quiet phase of this major capital campaign. We’re out trying to talk to civic stakeholders and people that care about the community and people with the capacity to give and support.

And so, you know, my predecessor and I had what we kind of fondly referred to as a dog and pony show. Anyone that wanted to hear about this in sort of the quiet phase, we would be happy to go out and speak to.

We were invited to go speak to a group of predominantly only older men from sort of an affinity community.  And I didn’t think much about that piece of it. I just thought, you know, we’re going to a club, how great that they’re going to listen to us. These are people with the capacity to give. They’re very philanthropic. I was there to support and talk about the campaign. We walked into a room of 50 or 60 men and went up to the front of the room side by side in a panel with men.

As part of their regular lunch routine, in addition to having guest speakers to talk about things happening in the community, which is why we were there. They would have a, hey, here’s what our upcoming events are. And also, sometimes somebody comes up and tells a couple icebreakers or do jokes.  So proceeding us going up to talk about the campaign, a gentleman gets up to tell some jokes.  The first joke he tells and it’s a little off color and I go, huh, but I’m facing the room. So, you know, you could try to school your expression.  And then the second joke, I’m listening to it, and I mean, to put it bluntly, it’s a joke about rape. And I’m sitting there going, am I understanding what this joke is about?

And that there’s kind of, I mean, it wasn’t uproarious laughter in response, but there was a tittering of this is totally acceptable in this room. I mean, I am a woman, listening to this joke, with this probably would have happened if I wasn’t in the room, and maybe no one would have thought any different about it.

But I’m definitely sitting in this room slightly behind this man, telling a joke. Sitting next to my boss, who’s a man. Sitting next to a panel of men and having to have this moment of going, what is the expression on my face? And again, I go back to this in our heads, we’re warriors and we stand up and say, I can’t believe you did that.

And in reality, I’ve been invited into a space to represent an institution I love and I’m the brand representative. So how they feel about Starlight is going to be impacted by how I act.  I heard someone say in this last year that the definition of a dilemma is when you have two values that are suddenly in conflict, and you have to prioritize one. Which is to say they’re both values, but in some moments, you have to choose.  It’s like Sophie’s Choice with values.  And in this moment of caring about Starlight and about its impact and what I’m there to try to do for the future of Starlight against your values as a woman.

As someone who thinks, at this moment, you’re going to do this warrior thing and I chose Starlight.  And then it really bothered me for days because it was this what on earth moment. And I didn’t know what to do about it and it was surreal.  I ended up sending an email to one of the people that had been instrumental in getting into the room and he had been sitting at the back of the room and didn’t really hear the joke.  He was sort of aghast about it, but I had to go to another man to then go back to the group to raise even that that was not appropriate. And had to offer my feedback in a way that was very much, hey, just a little bit of input that maybe in the future, if you’re going to invite women into this space, you should consider what the content of your meeting is.  But also slightly concerned that that’s the content of any meeting, whether there’s a woman in the room or not.

So, what on earth? Surprising.  And again, I don’t think that, you know, I’d love to believe, Pollyanna, I’d love to believe that’s not happening very often. But it certainly strikes me that it’s still happening. And that unconscious bias, being what it is, most of the men in that room probably didn’t think twice about it.  And that’s hard. So those dilemmas that I think you’re up against are a what on earth moment for me. 

It’s a really good one. And how you handled it. Because you know, it’s the point of knowing your audience and why you’re there. You’re there in this room full of philanthropists.  Good on you for doing that. I would have, I believe, done the same in a similar dilemma that you just go like, oh, it’s so part of who I am to be that warrior, but you can’t always. So, I love that you did that. Thanks.

As we bring this podcast episode to a close, what’s very important to us is we want our listeners to know how to support Starlight.  And we are moving into the giving season and there’s Giving Tuesday in a variety of different ways that people are making their end of year philanthropic gifts. Can you share with people how they can make a difference here in your community?

There are so many ways to support Starlight. One of the easiest ways is to come to Starlight. Come see things. Come see the shows. That’s a great first step. If you haven’t been in a while, come back. This next summer, we’ve got a great Broadway series. We’re announcing concerts every other week right now. They’re happening earlier right now. So that’s an easy way to have fun and to support.

Just come. Go to kcstarlight.com. See what we’ve got going. Come, bring your friends. Tell your neighbors.  If you’re interested in giving, you can also go to kcstarlight.com and there’s a lot of giving opportunities on there as well. We do an end of the year appeal. It’s the giving season. Making gifts to any of the programs that we have if there’s certain things that you care about.

Certainly, we do have a major campaign going on. If that’s something anyone’s interested in. There’s a whole new website now devoted to Uniquely KC. You can see pictures of the future of Starlight there and also find contact information for how to meet with us if you want to learn more about that.

I think number one, come, tell people, don’t forget about Starlight is a nonprofit theater organization in a town with plenty of other wonderful nonprofit theaters. But also, some for-profit theaters. So come to the ones where your money makes a different kind of difference than just supporting the arts but supporting great community engagement programs as well.

Well, thank you so much, Lindsey. We are huge fans of Lindsey Rood-Clifford. We really are, and we will absolutely be back when the season starts back up and we hope to stay connected. Thank you so much for being on the podcast. Thanks for having me. Thank you.  I’m Jen V with JRT. Thanks for listening to the Speak with Presence podcast.

If you or your team need to gain speaking presence or build communication skills without being perfect, I can get you there. I use actor training tools but revamped for the professional. So don’t be nervous. Go to voicefirstworld.com/chat to book a free call. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week.

Using analogy and visuals to help your team understand what you’re trying to do. It’s exactly what we talk about with our clients, is that imagery, which comes from performance and storytelling, is an important thing to help people very quickly realize where they’re at. So, I totally appreciate how you say that.

It’s almost to a point where people will even when they’re complaining about something or they’re frustrated, they’ll go, but I’m in the boat. Oh, yeah. It’s the shorthand and I say all the time, if you’re a broken record and your team is going to roll their eyes because they know you’re going to talk about the vote or everyone around uses that analogy, you’re doing it right.

Thank you. I’m going to take that back to my team. Please do.  Let them roll their eyes. You’re doing it right. Be a broken record.

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Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at www.voicefirstworld.com/calendar

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