What are We Leaving Behind?

by Karena Fiorenza Ingersoll

in SpotlightOn

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For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.

Taking her cue from one of the questions provided by TCG “As an executive leader what issues in the field do you hope to address? How would you like to do so?”

Karena: Growing up as a young Latina kid in Los Angeles in a predominately Asian community, I knew all of the bad words in at least four different languages, but I didn’t really have much exposure to professional artistry or artists. What I did have, however, was an older brother who I revered and who was involved in high school theatre. I remember seeing a play or two of his, feet dangling over the chair, enamored by the worlds these overconfident high school students were creating right before my eyes. I understood, even then, the power of community. I understood that in ‘community’ we are all made better when we have people invested in our lives and speaking truth. This was an important revelation because I had seen it throughout my life through my own family and culture. To my parents’ we-came-here-for-a-better-life-and-you-want-to-go-into-the-arts?!? chagrin, I found a community to invest in within the theatre: A beautiful dysfunctional collection of broken people who all (thinking with good will) want to add value to the society we live in. And I fit right in.

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy and impact recently. The notion of human capital – this idea of investing in the people involved in your organization and, like any other form of invested capital, can ultimately be beneficial for the organization – is lovely in theory, but means absolutely nothing when actions do not follow the words that are spoken out-loud (and lauded in our organizations’ printed materials). Leaving a legacy is more than just giving lip service to “human capital.”  It is about actually putting your money, time, resources, words, and sweat equity into others. For me, it’s also about not putting people into boxes or “checking something off your list” but more about ensuring that the game is equitable for all and that everyone has access to it.  People aren’t perfect— humans are irrational, messy, fabulous beings. There’s compassion that is required to live in this life so I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t follow up on what they say 100% of the time. But, if we dig deeper, our actual responsibility as leaders in our field comes down to the words we wield. Our deals live and die by them. Our social contract with patrons is based on our word as organizations. Our promises to our artists, employees, and colleagues are built on the palabras that come out of our bocas. If you make a habit of not keeping your word, if you aren’t true to your word, and if others don’t believe that you will honor your word, then one’s life in the arts has been wasted, and thus, wasted an opportunity to truly leave a legacy.

I think many people like to talk about human capital but there are few that are actually really skilled at developing people. What does it mean to invest in staff and colleagues? How does a leader leverage people’s strengths, identify their potential, and give them the tools to succeed beyond their or your know-how? Can a leader put him or herself (and their own self-interest) aside and meet the individual where they are at versus treating them like a project?  When staff turns over, whether sporadically or in tsunami-like waves, it can be easy to rationalize it by saying things like “it’s their time,” “opportunities abound,” “the industry as a whole is seeing this trend,” and so on. Some of these statements may be true, but many of them are just plain ‘ole excuses that people use to evade the real issues. The difficulty as a leader (hell, a person!) is taking an honest assessment of the present situation. It’s important to ask questions like “What are the aspects of my organization’s culture, starting with myself, that I need to work on to ensure that the best and brightest (who we’ve invested many resources into) are seeing opportunities of growth and intrigue within my own institution?” And I’m not saying people should just stay in a job if it is not good for them (god, no! leave if you need to!), but, rather, I’m saying that we can’t continue to promote the idea of human capital and not do anything tangible about it.  It takes effort and it takes a huge amount of self-awareness and selflessness to invest in others, but research and articles abound on the ROI, and there are undeniable positive effects on the art on stage when we invest in our artists and on people who are making theatre happen.

Part of my own self-reto (challenge), is to be a known person of character— One who can be trusted and whose actions support her statements. Despite my own shortcomings as a human, I strive to be one whose mind and heart are in the right place and not just when the actions or results benefit me, either professionally or socially. Because, let’s be real, you can’t invest in others without understanding and accepting yourself, strengths and weaknesses alike, and be constantly working towards betterment.

I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from some amazing mentors throughout my career who have shown me that leading by example and being a person of integrity is key to being authentically successful. Without them, navigating the sometimes rough organizational and cultural waters would have been difficult.  I’ve also been able to amass an amazing network of colleagues, including my newfound SPARK leaders, who allow me to process the difficult questions like how to deal with the micro-aggressions and moments of oppressions (and let’s call a duck a duck, sometimes just plain racist interactions) in work environments that are usually masked behind “intellectualism.” I’ve also reached out to (and allowed) these amazing colleagues and mentors to speak truth into my life so that I can ensure that my legacy will not just be about bricks and mortar but about investing and supporting the next generation of theatremakers. And who knows, maybe the next time a little Latina girl is dangling her feet over a chair, watching a performance for the first time, hopefully seeing herself and/or her culture realistically represented, it will be because I helped bring her to the theatre and her mundo (world) to the stage.

Karena Fiorenza Ingersoll brings more than a decade of experience as a leader, fundraiser and producer in the performing arts. She currently serves as the General Manager for the internationally recognized Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Karena also functions as the General Manager for the multi-disciplinary ensemble company, UNIVERSES. Previous tenures include associate managing director of both Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Berkeley, CA) and Yale Repertory Theatre (New Haven, CT), executive director of contemporary dance company Robert Moses’ Kin (San Francisco, CA), and annual fund manager at Aurora Theatre (Berkeley, CA). Karena is also a freelance arts management strategist and artist representative, partnering with individual artists and ensembles whose work gives voice to underrepresented stories and perspectives. Recognized nationally, Karena was invited in 2014 by Theatre Communications Group to be part of its SPARK Leadership Program’s inaugural class. She holds two bachelor’s degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA in Theater Management from Yale University.

  • Jennifer Armstrong

    Truth! I’d love to meet up, since we’re in the same city, and discuss more!

  • K

    Jennifer/anyone who’s not a spammer: reach out anytime. my email is first initial first last name at hubbardstreetdance dot com.