A Conversation with Angela Lee Gieras
Angela Lee Gieras is a financial whiz whose fundraising savvy is driven by a lifelong passion for theater, so she was in many ways the ideal choice for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s new executive director post. The Florida native, who as development director for the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville doubled that organization’s annual giving, says theater has been a constant thread in her life, starting at age four. “My fondest and most vivid memory as a child was of a theater production my father took me to, which was Annie.” Later she would study business at the University of Florida, with a minor in theater to fulfill her creative spark. “I actually took my very first acting class my first year in college, and I loved it but I thought, what in the heck am I supposed to do with this?” Later, working as a banker, she performed in community theater, and in time she found she could combine her financial skills with her love of theater. She served as associate managing director of the Dallas Theater Center before moving back to her birth city of Jacksonville to bring the Florida Theatre to new prominence. She joined the Rep staff on August 1st.
Working closely with artistic director Eric Rosen and the Rep’s board and staff, she wants to use her business sense to help the company realize its vision for the future, beginning with ambitious plans for next season’s 50th anniversary celebration. “I have the heart of an artist, but I have a head for business,” she says. Recently we caught up with Angela at the Rep’s offices on Troost and spoke with her about her life and career and her dreams for the future of Kansas City’s largest and most prominent theater.
Paul: Tell me a little about your first knowledge of this company, and about what made it seem attractive to you?
Angela: My first knowledge of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre was when I was the general manager of the Dallas Theatre Center, and we did a co-promotion with KC Rep. So I was familiar with the company from that point. And right around the same time that the Rep was looking for a new artistic director, the Theatre Center was also looking for an artistic director. … When the Rep picked Eric, I think everyone in the country knew what that meant for Kansas City, that he was going to bring this national exposure, and that he was known throughout the regional theater community as being a very ambitious and exciting director.
So that was the first knowledge. I knew about this job when my name was passed along … through other people. My background was pretty unique in the search, I think, as I’d had appointments in fundraising and in general management and financial management. And I had done a little bit of everything. So we went through the process, and each time as we moved further along it became a more exciting and fun prospect for me.
Your job in Florida was somewhat different in terms of the wide variety of presentations. What is your own particular passion? What things were you inspired by as a youth? Was theater essential to it, or was it more a variety of things?
I grew up in a household that was sort of devoid of arts. I grew up in Jacksonville, FL, where I was born, and I really discovered theater pretty late, in college … and I really found that theater sparked something inside of me. And I ended up getting a minor in theater and I have a finance degree in finance (from the University of Florida). Then I became a banker and I did that for a time.
You know what’s funny is, I actually took my very first acting class my first year of college. And I loved it but I thought, what in the heck and I supposed to do with this? I love it but my dad would kill me. So I really just did the finance degree, and when I took another (theater) class I was far enough along and more sure of myself. And I thought, I really love this, so I’m going to do this too. So I was one of the few people who had a major in business and was minoring in theater. I was taking all these theater classes with theater majors who were doing what they wanted to do … and they’re saying, oh you have a finance degree. But when I left banking really to pursue theater I thought it was what I really wanted to do, so I went in as a development director as my first job, and then my first theater was a small theater in South Carolina, a producing theater (The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville). I applied to graduate school the following year and I went to graduate school at SMU and got an MBA and an MA in arts administration.
Do you remember some of the early theater productions, when you first started to get into theater, that caused you to kind of “get the bug”?
Well my most fond memory – even though I didn’t grow up in an environment with a lot of art – my fondest and most vivid memory as a child was a theater production that my father took me to, which was Annie. And it is the most vivid memory I have as a child. I think I was 4 or 5.
Wow, you were even younger than Annie!
When I joined the theater department at Florida we did this amazingly creative production of A Flea in Her Ear, which I worked backstage on. We moved set pieces, and it was a massive set that was on casters, so we had to push it everywhere, and we had a rotating turntable that we had to turn. … We also did a production of Hair when I was there, A View from the Bridge, and others. … Building sets. And I was in an improv group in college, too. So I’ve been on stage in theater. When I was still a banker, in fact, the way I got my theater fix was to do shows at the community theater.
What was your biggest role?
I had the lead role in a play called the Battle of Swallowford, which is a play about Orson Welles’ War of the World. I think I was the only female in the cast.
You had great success in Florida in terms of their financial situation. I always wonder, when you’re fundraising for a company like this, what are the selling points? What kinds of things do you talk about with donors to get them inspired? And what techniques of your successes in Florida will be able to use here?
I think the #1 thing that makes me successful in fundraising is that I’m a relationship-driven person. So I believe that if you create strong relationships between a donor and an organization that you don’t really need a “technique,” because they’re going to see the value of it. And I’ve found that talking to people about what they’re passionate about helps you understand how to talk to them about the organization. I’m fascinated with people. … I came from a banking background where I learned a lot about how people make their living. And I don’t really view fundraising that much differently. If you take a personal interest in people and find out what makes them tick, what they like, what they enjoy, fundraising seems easier.
How do you view your relationship with the artistic leadership? How do you work with them in formulating the vision of the company? Do you see your contribution as being partly artistic or is it purely “You plan the shows and I’ll find the money”?
At its best, there’s not a hard line between one and the other. But I do believe that, certainly, I was hired to help make the artistic vision of this company a reality. That means financial management, that means fundraising, that means audience development. But you can’t operate in a vacuum, because artistic choices have business consequences. So … I see the relationship between Eric and me really being instrumental in helping the organization be successful, to help it achieve as much as possible.
As for me, and I’ve said this before, I have the heart of an artist but I have a head for business. … The way that I can be most beneficial is to use my business sense to help achieve (the vision) that they have for this company, that our board has for this company and this community.
Where does this company stand with respect to ticket sales as a percentage of revenue? What are considered good averages among theaters of this type, where does the Rep stand, and would you like to see those averages grow?
On average, for a theater the size of Kansas City Rep, ticket income is about 36 percent of the total income for the organization. Our ticket income is about 33 percent of our total income. We can and will do better. Over the next few years, we will focus on creating stronger bonds between our audience and the work we produce on our stage.
When you look at the upcoming season, what really excites you, personally, as a theater person?
I’m really excited about The Tallest Tree in the Forest, and I’ve heard great things coming out of rehearsals. … And then I love classics, so I really am looking forward to Romeo and Juliet. And I think Vanya and Masha and Sonya and Spike [which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play] is going to be interesting.
How hard is it to get a “hot” play like that, one that just won a Tony?
I think it is difficult. It is always better to be the largest theater in town to get that play. And I think Eric’s reputation is one of the reasons that we’re about to get it.
Is it scary being part of the 50th anniversary planning for a company that’s so new to you?
Oh no, no. … I feel like I have a good handle on the organization: I’m learning more every day, and I know what I don’t know, and I know that that’s a lot. I’m not too shy to ask questions whenever I don’t know something.
How do you see this company at this point in its history, and what are some of the areas you’d like to see it grow into?
I believe that the organization wants a national reputation: It wants to be known outside of the walls of Kansas City, while giving Kansas City the best theater it can possibly have. And I think that’s very achievable. And to say right now exactly what that means? I don’t think Eric and I have developed enough of a shared vision to say, This is what it’s going to be. Particularly because his voice is so important in this. I can tell you that the three most important things for me right now are audiences, fundraising and finances. Those are the three areas where I know I can make the biggest impact.
When you were in Dallas and Florida, were you aware of this company and what it was doing? What’s the sort of general national awareness of the KC Rep.
I think it’s a very good one. … It’s a very small universe nationally. KC Rep has a great reputation and I think it’s been boosted during the last several years. Certainly with A Christmas Story and with Clay and Venice.
What’s your first impression of Kansas City, in general?
Well I just went to the Nelson yesterday, and I just think it’s fantastic and so does my 8-year-old. And she is the wise one. I think it’s a wonderful family-oriented city. It seems sophisticated beyond expectations. I think people here have wisely invested in the arts and made this into a really wonderful, burgeoning arts scene. And that’s balanced out with other forms of entertainment, and sports. It’s got a very wide variety of things that make it a very livable city.
What are some of your bigger ideas on the subject of making theater central to American life – and particularly with younger people for whom technology defines how they experience art? What are the selling points these days for live performance of any kind?
I think with social media people are becoming more connected, but less connected. Theater is one of those art forms that is a communal experience: People sit in the dark and they watch a story. And what people bring with them into that space is what people use to define that experience. That’s what makes it really powerful, that I walk into a space – and what happened to me five minutes before goes with me, and informs how I view it.
I’ve been in a theater when, because of what I was going through at that particular time – it was a production of Our Town, not expected at all – but I started bawling, I mean I’ve never cried like that in a theater before in my life. … There are not a lot of (types of) live performances where you can have that kind of experience. That’s what makes it powerful for me, and I think that’s what makes it powerful for other people.
I think if young people come and they have a wonderful experience – because that’s part of it, it’s not just about the show, but about everything around them, from parking to when they leave – it being a good experience is what informs people as to whether they want to come back, and whether they want to make the space in their life so that theater can be a part of it. Because we make space for the things in our lives that we view as important. So our job is to help people view it as important.
Yet your average 21-year-old says, “I can watch Cabaret on my phone, plus I can’t afford the $70 ticket price.”
We have student rush! What I would say to any age person is to come, have an experience with us, and then make a decision as to whether you want to make this an important part of your life.
Can you give us a hint about some big things happening for the 50th anniversary?
I cannot. (Laughter.)
I have a fun question I often like to ask people in theater and opera. If you were a character in theater, who would you be? Feel free to give it some thought.
The character I would most like to be is Viola from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. First, I love Shakespeare and have a collection of prints of his plays that adorn the walls of my home. Viola is a strong character who is determined and passionate. She knows how to reinvent herself and be bold when she needs to be. I love the idea that she knows who she is, but others in the play do not really know who she is until the end of the play.
For tickets to the KC Rep’s 2013-2014 season call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.
To reach Paul Horsley send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501).