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Episode 82. Focus On Your Audience - Sidonie Garrett

In this episode, Focus On Your Audience, we sit down with Sidonie Garrett, Executive Artistic Director at Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. 

Sidonie dives into how preparation and presence go hand-in-hand, highlighting how she finds success in honing her story when captivating an audience. Be inspired by her mission, vision, and hard work in helping the performing arts flourish in Kansas City. 

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In this episode, we talk to Sidonie Garrett. She is the Executive Artistic Director of Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. Sidonie’s voice is one you want to hear. She’s making major impact in Kansas City, not only in the impact that she’s making in South Moreland Park with her free theater, free Shakespeare every summer, but in education for kids.

And in this episode, you’re going to hear all about the importance of arts and education, what it takes to be a real leader and the kind of skills that you need to lead an organization, to be fiscally responsible and to still create a vision when you’re talking about a nonprofit that has many challenges, especially after COVID.

And the fun part for us is really making the connection between presence on the stage and presence in your life as a speaker. So take a listen to Sidonie Garrett on the Speak With Presence podcast. Here she is.

I think my leadership model is getting the best possible people. I think knowledge of people is one of the key skills to have in a leadership position. People are everything. 

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. So today we are on location at the Kansas City Young Audiences Building where the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has its offices.

And we’re here with Sidonie Garrett, the Executive Artistic Director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. And the mission of this organization is to make the works of Shakespeare and Shakespeare-inspired works accessible to a diverse audience. And that’s through free professional outdoor festival that they’ve got and additional free and paid performances and educational programs.

And Sidonie has made a big impact on the KC community and with the presence of her Shakespeare productions. Many times they, well, she has been awarded best play in Pitch Magazine’s Best of KC. And I want to welcome Sidonie. Welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast. Thanks. Great to be here. So happy to have you.

Alright, we’re going to dive right in today. We are just going to cut past it because we have so many questions for you. And so we just want to start, you know, being in the world of theater and in your background and the work that you do.  The word presence is used in many contexts. That could be for some executive presence that could be leadership presence. Stage presence. Just curious, how do you define presence?

I define presence almost like the phrase being in the present, which is what we use in the theater. So we say, are you being in the moment, being present. Meaning, you know, we’re having a conversation right now, so I’m checking what’s going on with you, facially.  I’m listening to the intonation of your voice. We are connecting, and I’m responding, right?

The essence of being present on stage is about listen and response. And if we can always remember to do that, as you know, factors can remember that. It’s hard to go wrong because you are responding really genuinely, honestly with lines to the person who’s giving you their line, but they become conversation in a much more rich and meaningful way, the more you actually listen and then respond exactly the way, you know, that whatever you’ve heard expects of you.  

So I think also stage presence is a big thing in terms of how powerful a character can be, how in command of their space they can be. Having presence is important too, because why do we want to watch someone? What makes us interested? What shows do you love to watch the most and what are the primo characters in there that make you always want to watch them?

That’s something to do with presence. They have some, you know, innate thing inside them to bring presence to the fore. I think it’s really important as a leader to have presence and  it’s not just about being in control or, you know, it’s about those things in some way. But control to me is always also about how am I presenting myself.  I have to represent the organization for which I work and also the people that are involved there.

So, how I am in the world is important because while I’m in this position, I’m representing the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. And this equates directly to any time I’ve done workshops where actors are working on monologues or how do they present themselves when they come in for auditions?

You have to know where you are and who are you talking to, even though it’s just you up there. So if I’m in Julius Caesar, if I’m doing a scene or a monologue from Julius Caesar, I have to know who am I in this world, and I’m making a speech. So who am I talking to? Am I talking to one person? Am I talking to an assemblage? Am I talking to people that want me dead? I mean, all of those things inform what we do.

So hopefully when I go speak in public, no one’s out there going, I want her dead. But you know, you go and you want to engage with people, and it’s all about how you walk into the room, whatever room it is, and understand how clearly and loudly must I speak if I’m not augmented by a microphone.

Is there a large group of people connecting with them. Using our eyes and all of that is all part of presence and knowing what you’re talking about before you get up there is really important, too. So being prepared. And then just feeling confident, I think, too, is everything. And I think it’s also knowing what your story is, honing your story, and making sure it’s really clear. And that equates, again, to knowing we have great stories to tell at the Shakespeare Festival.

So, getting to tell William Shakespeare’s stories in a modern context is a great gift, but you’re not worried because the script’s bad, right? You’re not worried that the story is bad. So how do we meet the story? But also in life if it’s a personal story I’m telling, or if I’m trying to tell the story of the festival and explain why would you want to be involved? Why do you care about what we do? Or I’m talking about how I’m directing the play.

All of those things require me to be present and in the moment and also bring my own sense of personal presence to the room. I want people to feel like they have ownership in what we do as well because the audience is key. Without them, live theater is nothing. So, we need our community. We need more and more people of our community to keep coming and participating because they’re part of the synergy of what live theater is, what classroom work is, what learning and growing is.  It’s really important, I think. So, presence is through and through all of that.

Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is summer. There are educational programs indoors all year round, but in the summertime, that’s when you really put on your productions, correct? That’s our major production every year. We have done some indoor work as well, and we’re doing some collaborations that are different.

But yes, the core activity that we do, and the reason we were founded, was to do free Shakespeare in the park. So that’s what we do every year, and this will be our 32nd year of doing that. Models after New York’s City Shakespeare Festival. Yes, very much so. Our founder, Marilyn Strauss, was from Kansas City, went to New York, was a Broadway producer, actually won a Tony for the play “Da” as a producer, and knew Joe Papp.

The story’s probably less dramatic than the way Marilyn told it, but I’m sure that at the core of it is the truth, I mean, I’d tell a dramatic story too if I was involving Joe Papp, right? So yes, Marilyn knew Joe Papp and she wanted to come back to Kansas City and apparently they had a conversation where she talked to him about doing a festival and he said, told her, she would always tell me this, keep it free and keep it professional.  And so that’s what we do. Keep it free and professional.

So you’re producing Julius Caesar in 2024, which is a play about massive change and deceit and power and so many other things you could tell us about. Why did you choose this particular Shakespeare for 2024. 

A play about a Republican trouble seemed like a good story to tell right now. I think there’s probably few among us who are not concerned, focused in many ways on what’s happening in our current political climate on either side of the fence. So, I think the play’s important as a reminder of what happens if you don’t listen. There are two female voices in this play, both of whom say, don’t do that, don’t do that. What are you doing? Don’t do that. And no one listens, of course. So the female voice is completely shunted off to the side, which may not actually be factual because women, many women in ancient Rome were actually pretty powerful because of their families. But in the context of the storytelling, it certainly becomes this masculine, muscular story, that is really focused on huge things that existed in the Roman Empire. Which were powerful leaders. Each of whom had their own private armies that were part of the overall army, so they could command and control, which was a dangerous place to be.

You don’t want one person, who doesn’t like the current government having control of their own army. That’s a problem. So, you know, our country was founded on the idea of Republic. So we call it a democracy, but actually it was founded on the Republic, right? The Roman Republic. 

So the separation of powers and all of that. I think it’s great to present a story that is from antiquity that still has complete resonance for today. And let people make their own decisions, too. Who are you listening to? Who’s telling you what? How are you being convinced of things?

And I think that’s something we all need to look at. If we could all be a little more present as we listened. Yep. For sure. And listen. I think also, I mean, just listen. Listening is important, you know, and sometimes we don’t do that. We’re all guilty of having gut reactions to things that we are opposed to what we believe.  And I have to remind myself sometimes to sit back for a minute, stop, okay? Listen to what they actually said as opposed to those three words that really made me mad or made my head go. 

JRT, we need to get our tickets for next summer, too. We need to get them purchased. We do have reserved chairs down front you can purchase or you can come and sit back a little ways on your blanket or in your chairs and it’s free. That’s right. But we’ll welcome a donation at the gate of course. But do you take tickets or everyone just brings their stuff and comes? Everyone brings their stuff and comes. VIP all the way.  I want to see the action up front.

Alright, let’s switch gears just a smidgen here. So let’s look at this from another hat that you wear. Alright, so you are the founder of the KC Theatre Alliance. One of them, yeah. And we know firsthand that founders create new initiatives to address a need to fill a gap to create change in order to make the world a better place. Just like we were talking about.

 So what change were you hoping to influence with the creation of the KC Theatre Alliance? We wanted to do sort of a two-fold shift. We wanted audiences to have a much easier way to engage specifically with theatre. We started looking at other models in other cities and Chicago has a great theatre specific presence.

I think it’s just called Chicago Theatre. They have a website, there’s a calendar that only shows theater. What’s happening each day and evening in the theaters, like plays as opposed to other live performance arts because we have ArtsKC Go, which is a great thing in our city that the ArtsKC does.  It focuses on theater, dance, music, all kinds of stuff.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But, you know, sometimes we’ll get people I just can’t figure out what’s playing in the theater, you know? And so we thought this will be great. We’ll be able to also highlight different companies, you know, during a 12-month period on a website, if we create a specific website where people can go and that would serve our public, right? That would serve the audiences who really want specific information and easy access to theater. And then on the back end of that, we hoped it would help our theater community connect better.

We all have our own files of actors and designers and people who have wanted to work with us, right? And people who have worked with us, but sometimes there’s no overlap. So that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know some actors that have only ever auditioned for another theater in town. So, we wanted there to be a place where actors and designers and anyone who works in the theater, all the tech people, everybody, could upload their information.

That way we could see their resumes, we could have their information to contact them. It would have been a great opportunity for people to have a sort of a clearinghouse. Suddenly we all have access to all the information about people who work in the theater. And that way we could also share information with them on the back end of something, you know, just a members only kind of thing.

And it would also bring the theaters sort of more together, which we are pretty much anyway, but also in a more formalized way. We had one huge gathering. It was delightful. This all happened right before COVID. Our industry was sort of decimated. So we’re not where we hoped to have been. We’re going to work on how do we go forward from here.

I want us to at least try to find a way to come together once a year and say, you’re all invited. Everyone’s invited. I’m invited. You know, we’re all there and it’s not me, but it’s the community and whoever’s, you know, kind of the board of that organization at the time and say, we’re going to meet.  Everybody will get a few minutes at the mic to say this is what our theater’s doing this year. We’re real excited. And you know, the time to mingle and communicate together is the best thing possible.

We’re always interested in models and partnerships, the yin and yang of designer technician, director stage manager, CEO, COO.  And so we’re wondering about your role as executive artistic director at Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, to understand how you navigate or do you do the dual roles of both being an executive to make things happen and the artistic vision that envisions things. Could you talk about that? 

I think both sides of my brain, whatever that is. I don’t know if it’s both sides of my brain, but I know what the timelines are. I understand how our business works in terms of the when does this have to happen? When does this have to happen? So I do, I think my leadership model is get the best possible people to work with and in every aspect.

So that’s day to day. That is, you know, seasonally. That is in every position. Get the best possible group of people together. And that has served me and this organization really well. I think knowledge of people is one of the key skills to have in a leadership position. I think, you know, people are everything.

So, they’re our greatest expense, they’re our greatest capital at the same time. I mean theater is a collaborative art, so getting all of the work done that has to happen. Raising the money to make a free festival happen is, you know, I keep saying the cost of free is high and it is right because we still have to pay for everything.

We have to expend the same amount of money and then more some, you know, to actually create a theater in a park every year. And it takes a lot of hard work and it takes a dedicated group of people. I think it’s important for me, leadership wise, to always make sure that people have what they need.

And that’s the producer on artistic side, but it’s also, I look at myself as a producer on the executive side too, because what do people need to do their work?  If they have what they need and they have an environment where they feel valued and like they can succeed. 

And they have a leader who lets them do what they were hired to do as well as is there to help them as needed. And that’s across the board, right? That’s just working with a bunch of people. The last thing you want in a cast is someone who’s generally unhappy, who is fomenting because that’s who they are or how they are. It’s just hard when you have someone who’s unhappy in some way.

And when you take that and then you say, let’s go outdoors in Kansas City in the summer and let’s take an unhappy member of the company out there and let’s see how that helps us. Because you know suddenly, we are it’s hot, we got rained on, whatever’s happened, right? You have to walk. I mean just the sheer span of how far you have to walk outside to get from the green space to the stage outdoors versus indoor, where I’m in the wings, I’m suddenly on stage, I’m in the wings. I’m on stage.

Everything is more difficult. So when you have a well-meaning, well-intentioned genial group of people who are suddenly brought together and they start to get excited about the work and you’re able to provide a space for them to succeed together. You know, it makes all the difference in the world. 

The business portion of this, we have a great board who helps. We have board members who help me all the time. We have a CPA that works with us all year who helps manage the financials. Those are not, you know, my primary skill set, but I’m certainly much better at them than I was when I started.

I’ve learned you have to be savvy about all of that side of the business and make sure you know what you’re talking about when it comes to any of the numbers, right? Because people want to know numbers, and that’s important. We have to be responsible, fiscally. And I have to, I never have to argue with myself as, you know, because sometimes the art executive director might have to say to the artistic person, hey, I’m not sure we can spend all that.

Wait a minute. Do you need this?  I get to decide to spend it. Right. I do. And yet, I often won’t because I’m pragmatic. And I also understand, you know, with help I’m going to work to raise this much money. So I’m also pretty fiscally responsible. I understand the limitations of where we are and what we have.

So I try to be very focused on what must we spend this money on and how can we not spend that money? That is probably the best thing I do. Sometimes that and people. I mean, I’m very conscientious about the bottom line and I also and there to say we really need more help here and we’ve got to spend some money because this has to happen.

And I’ll tell you right now that’s happened a lot with the need for understudies. With COVID. Yeah. With COVID. You know, it’s hard to not have them. So we keep trying to think about what if we don’t? And then you start to go, well, we’re going to have to figure out how to raise X amount more dollars and also enough for costumes for these people who will be understudying these roles. We need them.

And it was proven last year that we did, because our lead actor, who was playing Prospero, injured his ankle, did a horrible ankle sprain, on tech, the first day of tech. And the whole next day, his understudy had to go on and do the whole tech. He was brilliant, thank goodness. I mean, we had a great human in that role, and he did a great job.

But, what happens if? If we had to cancel a week because someone was out with COVID, and we didn’t have a cover?  We’re a three-week run in the park. So all that work, you just go, we’ve lost. You know, how much money did we lose, you know, all that time. So costs continue even when you’re not performing, right? You still have to pay people, so it’s a lot to think about and manage.  Again, I have incredible people who we all work together as a team. I rely on them for their expertise and what they bring to the table. And my job is to hire the right people. 

Right now, what’s important to us as we go around Kansas City and share KC Voices, is how can we lift you up and how can we help share with others your mission and how can people support your work?

That’s a great question. Thanks for asking that. We do have a year-round fundraising of all kinds, but we have a goodwill society membership. Membership is sort of like a season ticket for us. But it’s more. It brings people to us in a way that’s like you’re really part of what we do and it’s an ongoing support generally.  When people become goodwill society members they often stay with us for several years and it’s money that we sort of hope we can count on and we know these people really care about what we do.

So they will get some reserved chairs in the park, and there’s different levels of support from $250 to $1,000, but they can come out, there’s a Goodwill Society tent for members so they can go in there before the show and sit down on a cozy couch and have an adult beverage and, you know, something cool to drink and then go see the show. 

We also do a rather large fundraising event every February, usually the Saturday closest to Valentine’s Day. It’s called Romantic Revels, this year we’re calling it Roman.  It’s a fun party. An evening with dinner and dancing and silent auction over at the Intercontinental Hotel. So people can certainly buy tickets to that.

We do year-round Sunday workshops for kids. I think they’re nine to 18, so they can come and study Shakespeare every Sunday throughout the year. We do a fall and a spring semester of that. And then summer camps. We do summer camps for kids as well, ages five to 18. So they’re in different parts of town. We do them at various sites, but you can check all that out on our website at

I’d love to talk about education for one second. Because we need to be able to bring programs to students and not just the Shakespeare Festival. It’s all of the performing arts and arts organizations in our city that have amazing programs. And for years, you know, you could get programs into students at schools. Sometimes they bring the students out to, you know, I know students are coming to see A Christmas Carol at the Rep right now and they also travel to the Kauffman Center to see performances, or sometimes I’m sure they take field trips to the Nelson-Atkins Museum or something.

But getting programs into schools has become very difficult, if not impossible. And it’s disturbing to me and many of my colleagues, because when I was in school, the art lady came. That’s what we called her, the art lady. And we got to see, you know, we would see slides of famous pieces of art.

Whether I ever saw those pieces of art in real life, from a very young age I went, that’s pretty cool, and it was, the implication is that these are for you, they exist in the world, and you are part of them, and they are part of you, right? So you’re seeing these pieces, and you’re learning where they are housed, and you’re hearing about faraway places, you’re getting the whole sort of experience of what this is.

Then the music lady would come, and we would hear various pieces of music, right? You would understand again, this is something I may not even think I like it right now, but at least I know it’s for me. When I was probably in junior high and high school, actors from what used to be Missouri Rep came down and they talked to our class and suddenly that changed my life because I went, oh, you don’t have to be a movie star.

You can just be a professional actor and people will pay you money, right? That’s where I went. Oh, because before it was always like, I’m gonna be on TV, I’m gonna do this, you know, I should practice my Oscar speech, right? As a young performer, you think that, right? And it was like a real moment of clarity, of a real person, who was not movie star esque in any way, but was telling me, this is what I do, and I make most of my living from this.

So, you know, this is a real job, and it takes discipline and rigor, and you know, you need to maybe get some more education to do it and but if you know, this is something that’s a viable option for you. And if you don’t get those things in school, where are you gonna get them? What if you wanted to be a lighting designer and you didn’t even know that was a job but then suddenly a lighting designer shows up and you’re something this coalesces everything in my brain as a high schooler that I could actually do this for my job.

This is a thing. I just think there’s a real dearth of opportunity for arts organizations and their programs to engage with students right now. It’s a huge issue and it’s going to require a huge movement to shift that.

I just sit there and I think with my skill sets that I’ve learned in working with Jen, I was like, I would have been the ideal stage manager had I even had any idea. But arts and theater was no part of any part of my upbringing, both from a parental standpoint or an education standpoint. And I didn’t even become aware of it, honestly, until I started my career and it was someone else that introduced me to it. And I was like, I mean, I say all the time. And, Jen hears me say this all the time, as a professional in industry.  Whatever corporate industry you’re in, I would hire theater majors day in, day out, or artistic, creative like minds because they’re brilliant hitters across the span of the organization.

I appreciate you saying that. I hear you say that often, but I also think on the other side, like, yes, there’s people come in and share with you what’s possible. And my first podcast, Ditch Your Backup Plan, is about that. It’s about exposing people to the careers that exist, stories of rewarding careers between starving artists and celebrity.

That’s the tagline. However, on this podcast and what we do in coaching leaders and executives now, it’s the other side of it. If we have children in education right now who never get exposed to theater, who maybe won’t take it as a career.  People who are like, oh yeah, I did some theater in high school. I mean, it wasn’t my thing. We are missing out on them gaining presence.

They will not be able to tell a story, to speak with presence, to have an awareness of their  connection to other human beings because they’re just on devices. And this is even maybe a bigger reason as much as, you know, my whole life has been about theater. This is maybe the bigger reason that we need artists in the schools so that they can expose those who are on digital in the digital platform to real live interactions.

So we’re singing the same tune here.  When you’re working with a particular student and a young person and you see something happen and you know it’s happened. You know, even if they don’t tell you. You got something new. You grokked it. You grabbed it, and I saw it happen. It’s really exciting and it’s fascinating.

When we used to do a thing called Shakespeare to go and Romeo and Juliet to go. And when we did Romeo and Juliet to go for students, we’d do like three sword fights, we’re doing a very shortened version of the play with nine actors, but live music and sword fights and all of it. And watching them see it up close, and you know they’ve been trying to read it in class. And some of them have been just like, I hate this, this is horrible, what is the point, you know. And then you see them watch it and they go, this is exciting.

You know, there’s nothing like that. Nothing like it. Nothing like it.  Well, Sidonie, we are so honored to have you on the podcast. We really appreciate you inviting us into the space and we can’t wait to share your story on our podcast. Thank you so much for having us. I’m delighted to talk to you both. Thank you. We’ll see you this summer. Yay.  Thanks.

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 to book a free call. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week.

So many things are different outdoors, let me tell you. But yes, sound. The sounds that we hear most often are helicopters. Sometimes it’s sirens. One year it was a bagpiper. Yeah, really there was a bagpiper. I don’t know what, where that person, where they’ve gone, but they would do it pre-show.

 They never did it during the show, which I was grateful for. I kept going, am I going to have to go down there and try to talk with this person and say, please, it’s great. But could you not play from this time to this time? We never did. And apparently, they knew our schedule, but they would just play for a while and then they were gone. So it’s definitely a unique experience out there in all ways.


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

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Jen has been magical in helping me to identify my voice and my VOICE! The ways that she has holistically addressed my strengths and my areas of improvement have all made me feel so much more confident.

-Cate R.
Politician, Chicago, IL