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Episode 79. Trust Your Partner - Angela Gieras

In this episode, Trust Your Partners, we are back on stage with Angela Gieras, Executive Director/Co-CEO aKansas City Repertory Theatre. Angela is a performing arts leader, executive coach, strategist, fundraiser, and leadership development expert. She breaks down how recognizing and embracing her core values make her powerful presence known in the workplace.

 Hear about her expertise as well as high-and-lows in the nonprofit world, including how she’s found success and strength as a co-leader–not without some lessons along the way!

 Want to support KC Rep:  https://kcrep.org/support-us/

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In this episode with Angela Gieras, we talk about Kansas City Repertory Theater and her role as a co-leader of that organization on the UMKC campus. We were on location right on the set of “A Christmas Carol.”  You can still get tickets to that show, and I highly encourage you to do that. In this episode, you hear about the ways in which leadership matters to arts organizations, the unique structures in theater and some of the challenges that you can face in leadership, whether you’re a woman or a man or however you identify. So take a listen to Angela Gieras. We were very honored to visit her at KCRep. 

How do you activate your most powerful self?   For me, that is really about taking my core values, connection, authenticity, and learning when I have the most presence.  The most true, authentic version of myself, is when all of those things are connected and working for me.

Welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast, I’m Jen Vellenga. And I’m Jennifer Rettele-Thomas. On this podcast, we believe perfection is overrated, leaders listen, and we all speak up to influence change.  We are on location today at the KCRep Spencer Theater at the UMKC campus. And we are here today with Angela Gieras. Angela is the executive director of Kansas City Repertory Theater and founder of Inspired Arts Management. Angela is a successful arts administrator who is known for growing audiences, doubling fundraisers, raising dollars, and nurturing the strengths of her leadership team.

Welcome to the podcast, Angela. Thank you for having me. We are sitting here right on the stage. In fact, JRT, I’m going to put you on the spot. Do you know what this is? This circular thing right here? No. It’s a turntable. Yes, I remember that from the performance last year. You saw Christmas Carol last year.

So, Angela, we’re sitting here on the stage and the set is up for Christmas Carol. Can you tell us a little bit about that?  Yes, Christmas Carol is one of those really important holiday traditions for all of us at KCRep, but also for the people of this region. We do about 48 performances during the time right before Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve. We welcome about 20,000 people into our doors. It is by far the largest production we do every year, has the most revenue, has the most actors, and welcomes the largest audience that we have all year. And in fact, the audience for Christmas Carol is bigger than all the other shows combined.

So, it probably floats your whole year. It helps tremendously. We love Christmas at KCRep. Awesome. Well, Jen, do we want to dive in? We should. Alright. So, Angela, you have been dedicated to uncovering the best practices in nonprofit management and leadership. And I’ve just learned about this study that you did. So we’ll definitely link to that if we can. 

I want to know what has changed in nonprofit leadership since you’ve been in the industry? I think the biggest change that I’ve seen, and this has really been in the 10 years that I’ve been at KCRep, is the desire for more shared leadership. So, as an artistic institution, we’ve always had a dual leadership model, which is considered a shared leadership model. But I think people demand more voice in organizations these days. Shared leadership is not just two people, but it’s about how you enable everybody else to be a leader in the organization.

At KCRep, we’ve been able to invest a lot with the Kansas Leadership Center, which if you do not know that organization, it is an incredible resource for the state of Kansas, but also the state of Missouri that provides leadership training to organizations. 

We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve had a grant from that organization for many years where almost everybody on our staff, everyone from somebody who works in our electrics department to a carpenter has been through this training. It’s a change management platform. It helps you learn about how to manage change within an organization.  One of their principles is anyone can lead at any time, and I so believe that. 

I believe that great ideas come from everyone, everywhere, anytime. But you do have to motivate people to feel like they have the voice that you will listen. And so for me, I think that’s been a huge shift. I think another really big one, and this is just not to nonprofit management, I think this is just in work, is that the demand that people have of what work does for them has changed tremendously. 

I saw this recent article.  It was actually an interview with Simon Sinek who wrote, Leaders Eat Last and Start with Why.  And he was talking about how work has changed so dramatically. Because in the 70s, people would go to work, but they would also be in a bowling league. They would go to church, and they would be in Rotary and they would have all of these places in their life that added value to them as a whole person. And what has happened is as we’ve become more and more dedicated to work, it’s an important part of my personality.  It’s an important part of who I am.  It has become the sole provider of interaction of who we are and what we want to be. And that is a lot for one organization that you are with to take on and to fulfill all your needs and to be able to provide you with happiness and satisfaction and all of these things.

I’m fascinated by that idea that there is a very big shift that occurred where a lot of organizations were providing you this whole life. And then somewhere along the way, we made it so that work needed to do all of that. That is a big change. Yes, and continues to change with this digital generation, these digital natives.

Angela, the word presence is used in many contexts. Executive presence, leadership presence, stage presence. So you are a woman in leadership and even beyond the woman part, you’re a leader. How do you define presence? I think presence is really how do you activate your most powerful self, right? And for me that is really about taking my core values and how do I make those real in an everyday world? So in my world, what matters most to me is connection, authenticity, and learning.  And when I have the most presence, the most true, authentic version of myself is when all of those things are connected and working for me.

It’s not just an intellectual pursuit. It’s not just, oh, I need to know my stuff. I need to be able to say it, but it’s really an emotional connection as well as an intellectual connection. It’s being as passionate as I am about the things that I’m talking about. And I can feel it in my body more than I can tell you how it happens.

And that is when you are in front of an audience, there is a thing that happens for me. And as a non-actor who has to get up in front of people that you just know it, you feel it. It’s almost like the goosebump moment where you go, that was right. That connected with people, that was important. People were nodding, they were all there. That’s how, for me, what I can feel presence is.

Is there anything specific that you do to prepare for that? Because I know as an arts administrator, you very often have to get in front of those 20,000 people that come into your theater. Is there something that happens in your body or some way that you prep to get there?

Yeah. I mean, I kind of love Amy Cuddy’s power stance that she does. And if I’m feeling really nervous, I will do stuff like that. I’ll do a lot of like trying to breathe deep and that type of work. But as a whole, I mean, especially in front of our audience, I think I’ve become way more comfortable in what I am and what I’m not as a speaker. 

I am, in most cases, going to be the business person talking about the art.  And frankly, I understand that’s less interesting than the artists talking about the art. And so I try to do as much as I can to make that a personal connection, a personal story of why this piece of art makes a difference to me, because that’s what’s going to resonate. Not me being able to tell people, you know, the lighting, the sound, the costumes.

Although I love all of those things and I can speak about them. But me talking about it from a personal human being standpoint is really going to connect with people more than me trying to talk about it from the art. Yeah, and you have those people here who can do that. Right, right. And our artistic director typically is the one speaking most directly about the art.

So let’s take that then on that topic. So we’re always interested in leadership models and partnerships. So the yin and the yang of the designer and the technician, the director, the stage manager, the CEO, the COO.  As the executive director of the KCRep, tell us how you navigate your partnerships with your artistic directors and others?

Well, this is a subject I love because I think that our industry has such a unique structure of a co-CEO model where you have an artistic director who is responsible for everything that goes on stage, and then you have an executive director or sometimes a managing director, just depending on the terms, that is responsible for everything that doesn’t go on the stage.

And that’s everything from marketing to development to front of house. All of the things that you would think help a business run without making the art.

That subject has fascinated me. It’s fascinated me before I became the co-CEO, but it really began this like pursuit of education and learning when I became the co-CEO here. I had a really rough first couple of years integrating into leadership, integrating into a co-CEO model with a person who had been here for five years as the sole leader.

They had transitioned into co-leadership when I came and realizing how difficult that transition is, not because it was hard for me, but because it was hard for everybody else to make that change. And what I would say the secret to my success now with Stuart in particular is that we worked really hard at the very beginning and this is something I do around the country for other artistic and executive directors to get aligned.

When you come into a new organization, you have a very brief period of time in which the artistic director and the executive director are completely open, completely want everything to work well, and you have no history between you. And so being able to have that open dialogue right at the very beginning of, you know, what is your leadership style?

What are the things that trigger you? What are the things that make you most vulnerable? How can I help you be successful? 

I think that was something that I learned that I developed this program that I’ve been able to do around the country. And that program can shortcut so much for the two people to get aligned, which ultimately, if we’re aligned, our entire organization can be aligned.  If we are not aligned, we cannot be.

And I’ve found it to be one of those just really simple, completely what I would say it’s a practical thing that most people do not do. You know, the simplest things are the things that are the most successful and they usually start from a really practical state, but many times these leaders are partnered, and the board goes, okay, go.

And one person’s not there for two months, the other person leaves town. They go on vacation when the other person comes back, and it’s months before they have the hard conversations. And usually after something bad has happened, and when there has been no connection or they’ve gotten off the rails.

So, I do think it’s really important for any leaders to get aligned as quickly as they possibly can and I certainly think that that’s something that Stuart and I can tell when we have moments where we are disconnected. And we go, okay, we really need to spend time together.

I mean, theater structures for the win.  Seriously, there are so many things that theater does right in terms of allowing visionaries to be visionaries and executors to be executors. Yeah. Well, you can’t have shared language if you don’t have shared time, right? That’s a good way to say it. You know and so many times we’re going down our own road.

I’m looking at budget cuts. I’m looking at how am I going to do training for HR? How are we going to do this? And he is planning a season and thinking about all of that. And so it really is up to us to find the time to connect so that when people ask, what are the shows that you’re thinking about next year? I can use the language that he has used about why that is important to us. Why does KCRep do the work we do? Why do we choose what we choose? And us both being aligned in how we talk about it and being both really passionate about it. 

The research study that I did where it was about dual leadership in American theater, and it really came out of that first couple of years being so hard on me personally and saying, I know there’s a better way to do this.  I don’t know what it is and I don’t know that anybody’s tried to do it, but it was a mass group of leaders that I surveyed. It was like 300 leaders in American theater that were in this co-leadership model and it provided so much data to me about, again, it was really simple. Build trust, have respect, have time.

Then, my job with Partner Jumpstart, which is the one-day retreat that I created, was how do you do that in a very short period of time with two people who do not know each other and they do not have the trust yet?  They have to want to trust. And that, I think, is where I see partnerships going downhill really fast, is one person being all in on wanting to trust and one person being very timid about trusting and not fully going, I’m all in with this person.

Now, I’m just curious in your research, Angela, because I believe that those two different personalities is typically, you know, endlessly fascinating, endlessly infuriating, and usually very different types of people that can really make things launch because you need the two different personality types.

So did you find that the artistic director was less trusting than the managing or executive director? Or did it matter? I believe it or not. I think it has a lot to do with people’s history. I don’t think it has as much to do with the role as much as the relationships they have had in the past. Oh sure. So if people have ever been burned or if they have felt like somebody was not as honest with them as they should have or that maybe the people were not forthright.  Those people are the people who have the hardest time trusting. And the hard part is I can’t fix that for somebody if they can’t trust the partner. There will always be a barrier to being able to fly with that person because you have to trust that they’re going to have your back and they’re going to have your back in those moments where it’s really sometimes hard to have your back, right?

Like you’ve made a mistake and your partner needs to back you up. And so I don’t think it has to do with the role.  I’ve met managing directors that have a hard time trusting because of their own background. What about gender lines? Did you notice anything? So, that is a really interesting part of the research because when I presented this nationally at TCG’s National Conference two years ago, one of the questions was did you do demographic data on both gender and on race?

The reality was that at the time that data was gathered, which was kind of beginning of COVID. There really was not much diversity in race in American theater related. Certainly not enough to be able to say, okay, statistically, this is a significant enough sample. But there was a research study that was done in Australia related to gender in Australian theatres. And the woman and I had a long conversation with that researcher, and she said that although sexism was absolutely prevalent, it wasn’t usually prevalent inside the partnership. It was usually others that caused the problem with sexism, and that as a whole, female leaders did not feel like they were in some way treated differently by the partner themselves.

It’s interesting, as a female executive, it was really as though glasses were taken off when I first got here. My rose-colored glasses definitely were ripped off my face in that, I don’t think I ever really recognized sexism in the way that I saw it as a leader. In the way that women are just judged more harshly, more specifically on various different aspects. And on spectrums.

So a good example of that was I actually was talking about the what the heck moment earlier. This is the what on earth moment. What on earth, Angela? Let’s go. I have had a moment and it was in a meeting. I’m going to set it up. It’s going to sound silly because it doesn’t seem real, but it is very real examples. So we had a departmental meeting and it was a lot of leaders in the room. And there were two emotional outbursts in that meeting. One was a male leader who had a lot of positional power, but also a lot of organizational power that they were not the head, but they were for many, many people kind of the spiritual leader of the organization.

And they got mad and they walked out of the meeting.  About ten minutes later, another person in the room, another male in the room, got very upset. And they then walked out of the meeting. Now, at this point, two of the males, and there’s like eight women. There’s like maybe two other males in the room.  And I began to talk. So as a co-CEO, I began to talk and I said, hey, I just wanted to give everyone a heads up that we are about to hit a really busy time.  We’re down a staff member. I just want everybody prepared for that and please be very mindful when you go to this department. They might be really stressed and just be really mindful of it.  One of the other males in the room said, Well, I can tell you’re really overwhelmed.  All of the women just stopped and we just looked at each other and I was like what’s happening two people stomped out of this meeting already? Neither of which was me and I’m the one overwhelmed.

It was interesting because in those moments, I don’t really know how to react in the right way because you do want to say, what are you talking about? Like, did you see what happened? And instead, I think collectively all of us just sort of looked at each other and then one person said, I don’t think she’s overwhelmed.  I think she’s just telling us and trying to be mindful of the other people around her and how things might impact them. And then I did go up to that person later that day because I’m a big believer in public praise, private correction of behavior. And I went up to the person later and I said, hey, I need to talk to you. I don’t think you meant to do this, but here’s how it looked. And the person looked at me and said, Oh my God, was that sexist? And I said, absolutely.  Absolutely it was.  I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize that.

I think one of the things I’ve realized through my own learning is that many of these things are unintentional.  The reactions people have. We are so programmed. We are programmed for sexism. We are programmed for racism. If you have not learned or unlearned some of the programmed behaviors, the programmed responses, your default  is not one of equality. In the end, your intent is meaningless if the impact is bad.

Alright, we’ve heard some incredible stories today, but I feel like you really have like a what on earth moment that you really prepared for today’s conversation. Would you be willing to share that with us? Yes, I have a really interesting story that actually relates to a totally different arts organization.

I was invited as a guest to an art gallery that had an opening. And it was a lot of nonprofit leaders that were invited to this event. The content of the show was black artists from around the U.S.  It was an incredible show. You were amazed at the pieces. I discovered so many great African American artists that I absolutely follow now that I love. In conclusion to the show, we had a lunch. And it was, you know, one of those lunches where you just sit down and it was a very small table. There were only four of us and it was happenstance that I got to this table. It was me and a person who worked for the organization, a person who had been invited by the organization who was not a nonprofit leader and maybe one other nonprofit leader.

We were just talking about the show and talking about the art and the person said, but I don’t really understand why this show would be important. I mean, all artists are important. As a person who’s been doing a lot of work in EDI, it’s such a naive stance. It’s such a racist stance. He asked the question and then he kept going. Now, all of us at the table, we’re sort of just like, how are we going to intervene? Like, what is the right place and the right moment to say something?

Because you don’t want to embarrass the person, but you also don’t want that narrative of like everybody, I’m not really sure why this was an important part of this show.  I used the opportunity to be able to be in an educational component because I knew the person at the institution was not going to be able to use this moment. You just can’t when you’re the representative of the organization.

And this is maybe a donor that’s really important. And I said, you know, I think that in our society, we’ve been so preprogrammed to believe that great art comes from one place.  And I think this is to demonstrate it can come from different places and be equally powerful, equally important. And I think it’s what makes the show really important.

I remember coming back to the office and I was talking to somebody and I was like well, I had to talk to somebody who had a really racist comment during this lunch and I got this beautiful email back from our employee and saying, you know, fight the good fight. You always fight the good fight. I’ve had moments where I don’t do well. I don’t do the right thing and I really hope that in moments where I’m not doing the right thing, somebody can tell me that. I hope that the person who is sitting there who had such a completely uneducated point of view just took that information in and maybe has evolved their thinking just a little bit.

I’m not going to change you from having this opinion, but I do hope that I can offer a different perspective whenever your perspective is so off. Good work, Angela. Doing the good fight. Tried, I’m trying. You are doing great work. Thank you. You are modeling the way, and I think we are honored that you would share your voice on our podcast today.

But it wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t ask you to talk just a little bit more about some of the educational opportunities that exist and impact our community.  And then second part, is talk to us about how we can support the KCRep.  Well, we would love for people to come out to a Christmas Carol. It is such a joyful, happy time of year here.

I love this show. One of the things I think is amazing for me, this is my 11th year here with a Christmas Carol. And I’m always amazed that even at the end of the run, the people who are performing on our stage are so happy. They are so joyful. They’re so filled with love for our audience, and they’re never jaded about this show because this show has been going on here for 42 years.

Our Scrooge has been the Scrooge for 23 years. There are people in our audience who were raised with this guy being the only Scrooge they have ever seen and there’s something magical about that. His name, this actor? Gary Neal Johnson and he’s an incredible actor. But, you know, he has multiple generations who have seen him as Ebenezer Scrooge.

And so a Christmas Carol obviously is just what you can do right this moment. You can come bring your family, have this joyous night in the theater.  From an education perspective, I think the things that we’re most known for is our student matinee program. We bring in school kids from around the area, around the region to be able to see shows. Many of those students are seeing the show, sometimes their first live professional theater experience with us. But many of them are seeing the show for free, with a program we call the STARS program where we pay for buses, we pay for tickets for schools that cannot afford for their kids to be able to come. And we do that because we believe that access to theater is a really important thing. How are we going to develop the next generation of theater goers? We’re going to bring them to see our shows.

Nina Simone: Four Women is our next main stage production that will be down at the Copaken Stage downtown. And Nina Simone is part of a program that we started. This is our third year. It’s called KCRep for All.  And KCRep for All is the main stage production. And then we remount that same professional production in community centers, libraries, nonprofit organizations. Last year we went to a domestic violence shelter. We went to the veteran’s shelter. We did a lot of different partnerships with other nonprofits and our idea is how do we build an authentic relationship between theater, a community and the stories that we tell. 

We’re picking shows that go out on tour that we know will speak to an audience. That will have something of resonance with them. So our first show called The Royale was about the first African American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and about how he overcame that kind of racism in America to be able to claim that title.

The second show was called The Ripple, The Wave That Carried Me Home by a Kansas City playwright, Christina Anderson, who had a lot of acclaim.  And that show was about the desegregation of public pools, and it was inspired by that happening in Kansas City.  And, and it’s really a community about activism and about the price of activism in a family when your parents are so dedicated to a cause that maybe they are not as dedicated to their family unit and maybe what that can do to a child and whether that child leans into the activism or falls away from it completely because of their upbringing.

And then Nina Simone is just this icon of activism that, you know, this very specific thing happened in her life that caused her to become a real activist. And so we have dialogue with our community. We have meals with the community. We believe that breaking bread is a really important part of being able to hear what a community needs.

And we worked with the Center for Neighborhoods to be able to identify places that we could build a long-term relationship with and be able to make theater matter to more people. KCRep for All is not designed to become a feeder for our regular audience. Do we hope that theater becomes an active part of their life and that they want to seek out other opportunities? Absolutely.

But we believe in a long-term commitment to a community that will make theater matter to them. And that it is our privilege, as theater makers, to be able to provide that to communities who haven’t really had barriers to entry.

And what do you say to those possible legacy or traditional theater goers who might believe that you are pushing an agenda or trying to because there are those people out there who could say, oh, you’re pushing activism on us and you’re telling stories that have an agenda instead of just telling the story. What’s your answer to that?

I think theater does have an agenda. It is to build a more open society, a more empathetic society, a more inclusive society. And we do that through storytelling. And so, I’m very unapologetic that some theaters, theater stories are more activist and less entertainment.  We strive to make every experience that you have here one of both growth and entertainment. 

Angela, is there a website or where can people go to support the KCRep? They can check us out on kcrep.org.  And whenever I was talking about the KCRep for All, one of the things I will say is all of our public performances are free and open to the public when we do that public tour. And all of our sites will be listed on the website.

I encourage people to see it on the main stage first and then be able to come out and have this really intimate experience. Many of our locations have fewer than a hundred seats. Sometimes you can see it with like 10 or 12 people. And it’s just a very unique, amazing way to see live theater.

You have just been such a lovely guest for us to have. We’re so excited to share your voice on the Speak with Presence podcast. Thank you so much, Angela. Thank you for having me. This has been a joy. 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.

Everything you’ve said completely resonates with us. When you’re in alignment with your partner, it’s a beautiful thing.

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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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