Good evening everyone. Thanks for having me here this evening and thank you for that lovely introduction, Joyce. And let me just say that, as I am sure you are all learning, Joyce is a real dynamo. She preceded me as Producing Director at the Perseverance Theatre and was/is a formidable performer and producer, who later founded and ran her own opera company in Juneau and it has been such a blessing to once again be in the same community with her and Patrick and their daughter, Ari, and I am honored, humbled, and, to tell the truth, a little nervous about talking to you all here at St. James Episcopal tonight at her invitation. So I will try not to make this a waste of your time.
So, as Joyce mentioned, my name is Jeffrey Herrmann and I am the Managing Director at Seattle Repertory Theatre. I know what you’re all probably saying to yourselves: what is a nice Jewish boy from Connecticut doing here speaking to you all this evening. And, not only that, but what is the leader of a theatre company doing here? What could I possibly have to share this evening that might inspire and get you thinking in new ways about the work of stewardship here at St. James Episcopal?
Well, like any good theatre artist, I’m going to save the big reveal for the second act. So let me start instead by “setting the scene.” I am still relatively new at Seattle Repertory Theatre, having just finished my second season at the helm of this venerable institution and, as Joyce said, prior to moving to Seattle, I ran Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, a smaller theatre company located in Washington DC, which is focused exclusively on edgy and experimental new plays.
So, I was living in in our nation’s capital with my beautiful wife, Sara, who grew up in Alaska, where we met, and our infant son, Jonah, and I was very, very happy there—how could you not be working at an organization called “Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company,” right? But when Seattle Repertory Theatre—one of the largest and most prominent theatres in the country—came calling, it was very hard not to sit up and take notice of this opportunity. Obviously, the chance to return to the Pacific NW was hugely enticing to both me and my wife…but I also saw that the resources of an organization like Seattle Rep would enable me to embrace artistic work of a scope, scale, and depth that was impossible at the smaller organizations where I had spent my entire career.
So, how many folks here have maybe been to see a show at Seattle Rep in the past? That’s great, that’s great…well, for those of you who aren’t so familiar with the Rep, we have been located downtown on the campus of Seattle Center since our founding in 1963 and, since then, we have grown into one of the largest theatre companies in the NW. The Rep produce eight plays each season in our two theatre spaces, welcoming more than 120,000 patrons through our door annually. In addition to producing a balanced diet of artistic work for our community—including classics and new plays, musicals and straight plays, stuff for families and edgier fare—we also have a vibrant new play development program, deep community partnerships, and expansive educational programming for youths. I am hoping that some of you maybe saw the show COME FROM AWAY last season—this was a wonderful new musical we World Premiered over the holidays which told the story of the 38 planes that landed in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 after the ground stop was called and American airspace was closed. This small town with just 6000 residents took in more than 7000 passengers from around the world for an entire week and demonstrated the power of community and compassion at a time when we were also seeing the results of humanities worst impulses. It is a beautiful, humane, funny, and deeply affecting work that became the most successful show in Seattle Rep’s history and, in fact, I just returned from Washington DC with a group of about 40 theatre donors and Board members to see the production at Ford’s Theatre, from where it will travel to Toronto and, then, next spring, to New York, where it will open on Broadway, which is super exciting.
I arrived at a very challenging moment in Seattle Rep’s history two summers ago. My predecessor as Managing Director retired after 29 years at the helm of the Rep and Jerry Manning, the Artistic Director, who I interviewed with and was set to partner with, unexpectedly passed away three weeks after I said yes to the job. His associate, Braden Abraham, was immediately appointed Interim Artistic Director and we both started together on the same day…so talk about a big change, right? Boom! Instant new leadership, just add water. It was a big change for an organization that had not seen much change for many years. And as you know, change can be difficult, especially for those of us who have been brought on board to effect change. You know I had a lot of experiences with staff and Board members right after I arrived when they were like, “Oh, I am so glad you are here, we are so ready for change…unless that means you want me to do something different, in which case, I’m not down with that.” But, you know, that’s human nature…it’s just the problem of change.
But compounding it was the environment Braden and I walked into, which was very fraught—people were still grieving Jerry’s death, with tears regularly being shed at people’s desks, and everyone very nervous about this fast-talking carpet bagger from DC who the Board had just hired as the new manager and financial watchdog. Indeed, the organization had been severely impacted by the financial collapse in 2009, with the budget dropping from $10 million to $7 million. In response, the theatre tightened its belt, shrinking the size and scale of its shows and, in return for an across the board 20% pay cut for the entire staff, dropping down to a four-day-a-week work schedule. Despite all these corrective measures, the organization still started to run operating deficits 2013 for the first time in more than 40 years.
So what did we do? Well, here’s where I’m hoping you maybe start to see how my work at Seattle Rep connects to the work you are engaged in here St. James Episcopal. There’s a gentleman named Michael Kaiser, who used to run the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, one of the largest arts organizations in the country. He’s also a leading intellectual figure in the field of arts administration and specializes in turning around struggling arts organizations. Michael Kaiser articulates a model for healthy arts organization that starts with putting “Astonishing Art” on your stage. The artistic work has to be astonishing and consequential—that is your product, it is what you do, your reason for being, and it has to be compelling and excellent. Then you need to “Aggressively Market” that art to sell tickets and bring patrons through your doors; you then need to engage those patrons and “Build a Family” out of them, binding them to your organization; and then you ask those people to “Donate Money,” which you then invest in even more astonishing art, which you market even more aggressively, and build your family further, and on and on. It becomes a virtuous circle that can propel an organization forward. But when an arts organization is in trouble, the natural inclination is to cut back on the artistic programming and cut back on your marketing, because, well, that’s where all the money goes. But if the artistic work is inconsequential and not good and you are not marketing it aggressively, then you have fewer patrons, a smaller family, and fewer contributors, which means even less money the next year to produce astonishing art and to market it. It becomes a vicious cycle that only serves to take an organization down. So, when times are tough, Kaiser advises that you fight the natural inclination to cut away at your programming and marketing; rather, you must double down on your programming and marketing at these times.
My analysis when I arrived at Seattle Rep two years was that it had gotten itself into this trap Kaiser warns against of cutting back on artistic programming precisely at a time when you need to be investing more in this area. And it’s true: people don’t want to see one- and two- character plays in an 865-seat theatre—they want to see work of scale and size and substance and I really think Seattle Rep had gotten away from that. So Braden and I committed to reinvesting in our artistic product, as well as the other three quadrants of the Kaiser model: marketing, family building (or what I’ll call “community engagement”), and fundraising. Our first season, we made the decision to program playwright Robert Schenkkan’s two LBJ Plays, which chronicled the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, featuring a cast of 18 actors performing the two shows in repertory on the same set over 7 weeks at the holidays. It was an enormous financial risk and, with considerable trepidation, the Board approved a deficit budget in order for us to invest in this production…but the risk paid off handsomely. At the time, the two plays became the #1 and #3 highest grossing shows in Seattle Rep’s history; these plays also powered our subscription campaign for the season, provided an exciting opportunity for fundraising, and attracted a level of media and press attention we hadn’t seen in many years. Thanks to all of this, we bested the deficit budget we passed for the season significantly, nearly getting ourselves back into the black.
Given this success we saw that first season, we maintained this strategy of artistic investment last year, saying yes to the enormous musical COME FROM AWAY, which is now the highest grossing show in Seattle Rep history and on its way to Broadway…and I am pleased to report that we ended last season with a balanced budget for the first time in three years. And, you guessed it, we are doubling down on this strategy once again this season with the biggest show we have ever mounted in Seattle Rep’s history: the immersive disco musical HERE LIES LOVE, which tells the story of Imelda Marcos and the People’s Power Revolution in the Philippines and will run for nine weeks next spring. I hope we’ll maybe see some of you at the theatre for this show, which is really going to be quite an event…if it doesn’t kill us!
I could talk in great depth about our work in all four quadrants of the Kaiser model at Seattle Rep—Astonishing Art, Aggressive Marketing, Family Building, and Fundraising—because I think there’s a lot of applicability in each area to the work you do here at St. James, but that would make my remarks way longer than any of us have patience for, so thought I’d just talk a little bit about “Astonishing Art” and the criteria we employee to select that art before I wrap up with some thoughts about fundraising and how we think about and talk about this challenge at the Rep. And, again, my hope is that you are able to see similarities between what we do in the theatre world and the work you do here in the church.
I should maybe start by briefly describing the relationship between me and Braden, my business partner. So, I am the Managing Director at Seattle Rep and Braden is the Artistic Director. We are co-equals and we run the theatre together, reporting directly to our Board of Directors. This ‘two headed monster,’ as it is sometimes referred to in the field, is the dominant leadership model in the not-for-profit theatre. The Artistic Director selects the plays and oversees the artistic product while the Managing Director handles the business end of the operation—marketing, development, human resources, Board relations, etc. The way I like to describe it is that Braden is the “chef” and I manage the restaurant; or, alternatively, Braden has his hands on the wheel of the car while my feet are on the gas and breaks—right? So, he sets the direction and I get us there. I also like to say that Braden has a much harder job than I do because he has to actually select the plays we program…and we know from the Kaiser model that everything starts with producing “Astonishing Art.” In other words, if the artistic work is not good, I can’t market it, I can’t build a family with our patrons, and I can’t raise money. Everything starts and ends with the quality of the work on the stage. You know, there’s a very famous saying in the theatre which is, “You can’t stop them from not coming.” In other words, you can’t force people to buy tickets—you have to give them a compelling reason to get off their couch or turn off their TV or put down their phones or any of the other million distractions in our lives. And I’ve never believed in blaming people or the internet or our society if we are not selling tickets to our shows. If your theatre is empty, it’s not the audience’s fault; it’s your fault for not programming exciting work, making sure people know it’s happening, talking about it enticingly, and pricing it in an accessible way.
A word Braden and I talk about a lot in relation to our programming is ‘relevance’—that everything we program on the stage of Seattle Rep has to be relevant to what is happening in our world or our nation or our city or our homes. I tell people all the time that, “I work for a theatre company, not a museum.” Now, my friends who work in the museum world hate this, but what I’m trying to communicate is that theatre is a living art form and it is only as valuable as it is relevant to people’s real lives, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their anxieties, and their ambitions. That is our value proposition. People will only come and they will only donate and otherwise support Seattle Rep if we can demonstrate the relevance of our work to their actual lives. So, this has a lot of implications for what we choose to program on our stages: it means selecting plays that connect to issues we are actively wrestling with as a nation, as a state, as a city, or as a family; it means selecting plays that can serve as a platform and inspiration for conversation and dialogue on those issues, through conversation we actively facilitate in our theatre before and after the show with artists or content experts, and through spontaneous conversation you might have with your partner in the car on the way home and in the next few days after attending. Finally, relevance means programming work that is reflective of the full diversity of our rapidly changing city. Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle has put equity and inclusion at the top of the agenda for his administration and for the city and it is a call we have heeded at Seattle Rep which, to be honest, for almost the entirety of its history, has been a homogenous and largely white-focused organization, staffed by, led by, programmed with, and attended by white people. But we all know that our city and our country is changing rapidly—if you look at demographic projections for the U.S. and for King County, you’ll see that whites will cease to be the majority by 2040. If Seattle Rep does not get out in front of this demographic wave, we will be left behind. So not only do I believe that the work of equity and inclusion is the right thing to do morally, but I also believe it is the right thing to do financially. And we know that the work of diversifying audiences starts with your programming—if artists of color and stories of color are on our stages, audiences of color will follow. So I am particularly pleased that more than half the performers on our stages this season will be actors of color and that we are programming plays which will telling African American, Vietnamese, and Filipino focused stories this upcoming season. That’s another way we can demonstrate our relevance to our community, our region, and our patrons.
I’ll wrap up here with some thoughts on the challenge of fundraising which, in accordance with the Kaiser model, is so much easier when supported by astonishing art, aggressive marketing, and the work of family building. You know I spend a lot of my time at the theatre working with our development department and talking to donors and supporters of the Rep, explaining why they might want to donate their hard-earned money to a place like a theatre. There are a few things I’ve learned in the nearly 20 years I’ve been doing this work that I hope might be helpful to you all. The first is to always speak in the language of values—philanthropy is merely an expression of someone’s values. And so your job as a fundraiser is to connect the work your organization achieves with the values of the individual you are speaking with. If you can articulate how a contribution to your organization makes that person’s values manifest in the world, you will garner their support. Second, it is a lot easier to ask someone to give to your organization when you have given to the organization yourself. This is why I start every fiscal year at the theatre by making a personal pledge—I mean how can I go out and ask someone to write check with a straight face if I haven’t written a check to the same cause? The third thing I’ve learned is that people give to people—when someone I know asks me directly to support a cause, I am so much more likely to give than if I were to get an unsolicited letter in the mail. While time intensive, there is nothing more powerful than asking someone face-to-face for their support; and if that’s not possible, the next best thing is a direct phone call, followed by a personal letter. And finally, the fourth thing I’ve learned is how important it is to thank people. It’s amazing how far a simple thank you and gratitude can go. Someone once beautifully described development to me as nothing more than good manners…and I really believe there is great truth in that.
I want you to all take a moment to think about the causes and organizations that you currently support—and I bet your giving meets with each of these principals. In other words, I bet that your giving is an expression of your personal value system—you write checks to causes that express your values and beliefs and to organizations you have a personal connection to (probably because they are in alignment with your values and beliefs). I bet you also were more likely to give when someone you know asked you personally to give; and I bet you were more likely to ask someone to support a particular organization or cause if you yourself were already supportive. And I bet that when you were promptly and genuinely thanked, you were more likely to continue giving to that cause or organization. Whether you are raising money for a theatre or a church or a political candidate or cause, I think these principals all hold true.
I’m going to finish up here by sharing a little bit of another speech I gave last spring, at Seattle Rep’s annual fundraiser, where I asked attendees to dig deep in support of the Rep’s annual fund campaign. My hope is that this is going to connect a lot of the threads I’ve spoken about so far tonight in terms of the importance of relevance, speaking in the language of values, and, especially, this idea that people like to give to people. Indeed, I can’t think of any organizations that are so invested in and dedicated to connecting people as our religious institutions. So here goes…here’s what I said last spring:
“I am going to let you in on a little secret tonight: we are not actually in the theatre business here at Seattle Rep; we are really in the people business. That’s what a theatre really is—it’s not the plays or the props, the sets, or the costumes, or even the tickets; a theatre is a group of people coming together from different backgrounds and experiences, united in common, beautiful purpose.
You know when I was in graduate school—and yes there is graduate schooling for Managing Directors and I am still paying off the loans—my professors and mentors would say over and over again, “The theatre is the most collaborative of the art forms.”
And it’s true—unlike so many other forms of creative expression, theatre only emerges out of collective work. It just doesn’t happen any other way. That can be so frustrating at times, let me tell you—but it is also what is so inspiring and powerful about the form.
Think about that musical, COME FROM AWAY, which was on this stage just four months ago. It took so many people working together to create that experience— writers, actors, musicians, directors, designers, technicians, administrators, Trustees, ushers, concessionaires…and, last but not least, an audience.
Speaking of the audience, there’s a quote I love by English playwright Lee Hall, who writes:
“Whether you are a writer or an actor or a stage manager, you are trying to express the complications of life through a shared enterprise. That’s what theatre was, always. And live performance shares that with an audience in a specific compact: the play is unfinished unless it has an audience, and they are as important as everyone else.”
Right? It’s not theatre until there is an audience in the seats, taking part in that “shared enterprise.” That is what we do here in the theatre—we ALL come together in a shared enterprise. And in coming together—artists, technicians, audiences, administrators—and engaging with one another day after day, week after week, year after year, pursuing this enterprise together, we build relationships and we build a community. We learn how to understand one another, how to talk to each other, how to bridge the divides between us, and how to live together.
At its best, then, a theatre is a microcosm and a model for how we want our society and our world to be—people coming together in their difference in order to achieve a common aim. And, at such a chaotic and fractious time in our national politics, my God, we need such models more than ever, right?
You know, I remember sitting in a room filled with other not-for-profit and social service leaders maybe ten years ago. We were all asked to go around the room and introduce ourselves and talk about how our organizations served the community. Almost everybody there was a representative of some amazing organization dedicated to serving the sick, the destitute, the damaged. And I was like, “How the heck did I get invited to this? I run a theatre company. I can’t compete with any of these people. These people are all doing God’s work.”
And when it was my turn—and I don’t know where it came from in the moment—I said, “There are so many people here working every day to solve the worst problems in our society; and I have the privilege of working every day to support the best of our humanity, bringing people together in order to help all achieve their full potential. And we need that to make a healthy community, too.” That’s when I realized that theatre people do God’s work, also.
So when you attend and support a theatre company, remember that what you are really supporting are people and this ability to build community. And I mean that literally. Look at our budget—you’ll see that 68% of our expenses go to people in the form of salaries and benefits. And that is as it should be—theatre is a labor-intensive art form and I say that as a virtue. Theatre demands and thrives on people working together; and the more the merrier.
I read a book recently that argued that capitalist endeavors, especially manufacturing, harness technology in an effort to improve efficiency, eliminate people, reduce labor costs. But as you may have noticed, theatre is not like most capitalist endeavors. Quite to the contrary. Yes, over time, advances in technology do tend to produce greater efficiencies; but we will always need 14 actors to perform HAMLET.
And this is precisely what I love about theatre—the way it runs gorgeously counter to how things are supposed to work. And that it is a fundamentally human exercise—created by humans, about humans, and for humans. And that it brings people together to achieve something that would be impossible apart. It is a shared enterprise. And it represents the very best of who we are.
So I will say it again: when you support a theatre, you support people. Nothing happens in this space without people uniting with one another in common purpose. That is why people are our greatest resource…and why tonight we ask you to dig deep to support our ability to bring all these individuals together—and that includes all of you.
Your support and your support alone makes this “shared enterprise” possible. And we can’t do it without you. Thank you.”
I hope some of what I’ve shared here about the history, philosophy, and operations of Seattle Rep this evening—and most especially—this idea of a “Shared Enterprise” that we are all engaged in is helpful to you all here St. James Episcopal as you embark on your stewardship campaign for the year. I am so honored to have been asked to come and speak with you all, especially because I have always believed that places like theatres and places like churches are actually in the same business of searching for meaning, creating community, and fostering the best of our humanity through “shared enterprise.” So thank you, Joyce, for the invitation and this opportunity to spend some time with you all and, like any good theatre producer, I’ll just close by saying that I’ll hope to see you at Seattle Rep sometime for a show. Many thanks for your kind attention and best of luck with your campaign.