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Jennifer McEwen, Executive Director of True Colors Theatre Company

Jennifer McEwen, Executive Director of True Colors Theatre Company

Meet Jennifer McEwen
Let’s Do This is thrilled for you to learn more about Jennifer McEwen. Jennifer is the Executive Director of True Colors Theatre Company and a Board Member for Théâtre du rêve, “Theater of the Dream,” the only professional french language theatre in the country.

Jennifer McEwen joined True Colors in 2008 as the Director of Marketing and PR. She formerly served as the Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Horizon Theatre Company and as the Media Relations and Operations Manager for the Ansley Park Playhouse. Jennifer has worked in marketing and development for Opera Carolina and in promotions for Basin Street Records, Inc., an independent label in New Orleans.

Jennifer was a member of the Arts Leaders of Metro Atlanta Class of 2010 and was selected to the 2010 TCG/American Express Leadership Bootcamp. She is a member of the National Arts Strategies 2016-2017 Chief Executive Program: Community and Culture, which brings together an international cohort of fifty CEOs who are working to lead change. Jennifer was also named one of Georgia Trend Magazine’s 2016 40 Under 40. Jennifer holds a Master of Arts in Arts Administration from the University of New Orleans and a Bachelor of Arts in Music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Get to Know True Colors Theatre Company
When Tony Award-winning Broadway and film director, Kenny Leon and Jane Bishop teamed up in 2002 to design a new theatre, they envisioned a smartly-managed, inclusive theatre company that would achieve both local and national impact.

True Colors Theatre Company now produces four plays each year and develops programs for the greater community to connect through theatre – creating the opportunity for community members to have a dialogue around pertinent issues like education, diversity and inclusion, among others. The theatre company also hosts an annual event for students across the country.

The August Wilson Monologue Competition is open to high school students and focuses on the ten plays of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, each of which is set in a different decade of the twentieth century. As part of the competition, students are asked to perform a short monologue of their choosing from one of the ten plays.

“The goal of the competition is to build partnerships with schools and theaters across the United States, and to create educational materials about August Wilson that allow students to connect these important theatre works with educational curricula like history, social studies and literature,” says the Associate Artistic Director of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, Todd Kreidler.

True Colors is currently featuring Exit Strategy by Ike Holter through March 19th. The play tells the story of a Chicago public high school that is slated for closure – the impending shut-down causes tensions in the school’s already volcanic neighborhood to rise to the breaking point. As a small group of teachers launch a last minute battle to save the school, they put their careers, future, and safety in the hands of a fast-talking administrator who comes on strong; but might actually have no clue what he’s doing. You can buy tickets online.

LDT: What path led you to Atlanta?
JM: I grew up in Connecticut, but my dad was transferred to Atlanta in the 90’s. Then I left for undergrad and grad school and I ended up back in Atlanta in 2005.

I was a voice major at UNC Greensboro and decided that I probably wasn’t going to be a professional opera singer when I grew up. So I went to the University of New Orleans and did my masters in Arts Administration in 2003, which was a pretty new degree field at the time. When I was there, I was focused on music management and interned with Basin Street Records, an independent record label that publishes artists like Kermit Ruffins and Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. I got to love everything that is so culturally fulfilling about New Orleans.

I left New Orleans in January 2005 and I went to write my non-thesis report, based it on my practicum experience with an organization out of Charlotte, Opera Carolina. It as a wonderful experience and it got a lot of great hands-on work in marketing and fundraising. It was a great team there and they produced really beautiful music.

As a 24 going on 25-year-old coming most recently from New Orleans, Charlotte was just a little too conservative for me. It was very Generation X of me, I just picked up all my things and moved to Atlanta.

I waited tables and managed a restaurant while I wrote my thesis report and really fell into theatre via marketing and PR. I worked with the Ansley Park Playhouse and Horizon Theatre. Then I came on to True Colors as their Director of Marketing and PR in 2008.

LDT: What is a typical day in your life?
JM: A normal day is in the office… and working with the staff on how we’re going to meet our earned and contributed revenue goals and planning for current and upcoming seasons.

I always subscribe to the philosophy that my job is to take the dreams of the artistic director and figure out how we can pay for them. I work with Kenny to plan the season based on his vision, then work with our full team to figure out how to raise that money and sell those tickets. We have a very talented team that does production, fundraising and marketing at True Colors. It‘s actually pretty fun most of the time.

When I was promoted in 2011, the title was Managing Director. True Colors was in a really scary financial place. The organization had about 10% of the operating budget in documented debt, cash flow hadn’t been managed properly, people weren’t getting paid. The first year to eighteen months, I learned there was also roughly ten thousand dollars of undocumented debt so there was a lot of reorganizing to do to get on track. The board had decided that it was important to keep the company alive and truly committed to rolling up their sleeves. Kenny asked me to step into the administrative role and I created a three-year plan to pay off the debt and build up a reserve fund. We consolidated roles and laid off some people. We reduced our programming that first year – strategically, not canceling shows. Instead of a five play season, we did a two-play season.

At the end of the first year, we had paid off all the debt within eighteen months and we had an estimated three months of working capital in a reserve fund. It was a lot of hard work and totally insane, but also awesome.

Now five years later, we have an operating reserve and we haven’t had any glitches in cash flow management. It was strictly cash flow management and strategic planning that got us out of that position. And now we have this lovely reserve which has allowed us to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

My dream was never to run a theatre company, but I will say I am very passionate about the work that True Colors does and I think it plays an important role in the topics inclusion and diversity. Theatre offers a safe space to allow people to have difficult conversations around race.

When I started this, I talked to Kenny and asked, “how long do I have to do this?” We said, ok, we’ll commit to one another for three years because that’s what we thought it would take to right the ship. Then, we got to the end of the three years and other opportunities came up. So then we committed to another three years. So far after each planned course of action and defined time period, new opportunities for the company present themselves so we smartly and strategically keep growing the programming, resources, and community impact.

Every step there is a new goal, new important work, community outreach… we’re discovering that we can facilitate in an effective way. It’s almost like the job keeps recreating itself, which is super great and exciting.

When I stepped into my job, in my mind’s eye, my role was to create organizational permanence. Now as the company is going into its fifteenth year, we’re learning that if you have that firm foundation you can build upon that and we have some exciting plans around the corner.

LDT: What is your rose? Thorn? I.e. what frustrates or challenges you in your work? And what is the most valuable, exciting part?
JM: That’s a good question. I think they are actually one and the same. I think it’s personality management.

There are a lot of leadership skills that go into being the administrative leader of an arts organization. You have to be able to talk the business talk with your corporate funders and major donors. You have to be able to relate to the needs and sensitivities of your artists so they can have the most lush ground to create their work from. And then you have to support all of your staff and artists, and designers, and directors.

I think supporting your human resources is one of the most important things you can do – in all aspects of an arts organization and meeting those needs runs the gamut since they can be varied. It’s not just dealing with one person – just a numbers guy, just an artist or actor. I think that’s what makes it fun and exciting, but it means you have to be able to switch hats.

LDT: What do you feel most proud about in your current role?
JM: I definitely think that debt pay off and organizational restructuring is a big feather in the cap. But I’m very proud that in the last few years, True Colors has received some of its highest critical acclaim for its work on the stage. We’re picking interesting and challenging work and producing it on a high level which I’m proud of.

I’m also proud of our community conversation series. We started it in 2013, which we thought would be a one-off at first with our production of David Mamet’s Race.

We talked about race and the influence of race within the legal system which was extremely interesting. From there, it launched these topical conversations around race, difference, understanding, but also current events and how we meet the needs of this community that we’re serving.

A number of years ago we licensed this play Detroit 67, then four months later Ferguson happened. I thought, “oh my gosh – we have to create a forum for people to talk about race and riots.” So we did it.

We had an interesting panel at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Michael Skolnick who works with Russell Simmons in NYC, Terry White who was the prosecutor in the Rodney King trial, and some other educators and lawyers moderated by Johnita Due from CNN.

There was this woman that stood up. She said, “back in the 60’s, we were freedom riders but what is our role now?” Then there was this other 20-something woman said, “we can get on Facebook, Twitter, and that but how do we make an impact and have our voices heard?” By the end of the forum, these two women from different backgrounds were in the back of the room together talking, plotting, planning on how they could work together. That was super cool.

Dr. Meria Carstarphen got in a conversation with Monica Pearson to create a public forum with the superintendent to have a conversation about why we’re closing schools. There’s a lot more we can do with it. We’re starting to get more recognition around it. We facilitate it all internally.

We did a panel this past fall, moderated by Dr. Glenda Wrenn, MD, MSHP, Director of Behavioral Health for the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine and talked about that and mental health stigma in the African American community that I thought was very impactful. There are so many more factors that come into play for a person of color than if you’re white. We’re building a safe space, and using the themes from our plays as catalysts for conversations. I think art automatically breaks down barriers. For the most part, it helps people access things in a different level and engage with it from a different place.

I have the privilege to work with Tony Award Winning Director Kenny Leon. Using that brand to build upon the True Colors brand automatically helps create a space that the people trust. It helps build a safe space where people know that they can voice their opinions, and it’s going to be a protected conversation.

LDT: What is your target audience? Who do you work with?
JM: At True Colors, our target audience first and foremost is the African American community. Our ticket buyer is majority female, but we work with people of all backgrounds, colors and religious affiliations. We have programs for elementary school kids all the way up through adults.

One of the things we do is the August Wilson Monologue Competition which is a program for high school students. It was founded at True Colors in 2007 in one high school and it went national in 2009 with partners in Pittsburgh and New York.

We are now in 12 cities across the country and hundreds of schools now, reaching thousands of kids.

August Wilson wrote this series called the American Century Cycle. He wrote ten plays with each play depicting a different decade in the 20th century. Essentially documenting the first hundred years of the African American experience post slavery.

We’re super proud of that program. To start in one high school in Atlanta ten years ago and now be reaching thousands of kids across the country, that is something. These plays are about the African American experience, but ultimately it’s about the American experience.

August isn’t taught regularly across the country in the high schools. Our secret unwritten mission is to get August Wilson in the curriculum. He won two Pulitzers. There’s this beautiful rhythm to August’s work and these monologues. These kids really gravitate to it and get it, faster than adults do. When you have a kid that was born after the year 2000 and they’ve embodied these characters and they see their family and neighbors in these characters, it’s really beautiful.

LDT: What is your outlet from work? What is your passion, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
JM: I’m obviously very motivated by my family, I have a young daughter and nothing is more rewarding than toddler giggles and hugs and kisses. I love to practice yoga and go hiking with my husband, dog and daughter. Basically, any opportunity to be outside. And as far as work goes, I’m lucky. I get out of bed in the morning to do my part so we can produce the best art. I’m just trying to do the best I can each day.

LDT: How do you maintain work-life balance?
JM: With some difficulty. But I will say, that is a bigger priority – I might not always be successful, but I hope that I’m working toward establishing work-life balance. Not just for myself, but for our staff. I can’t make people take time off, but if you’re not fulfilled personally it’s burnout central. And working at an arts organization is hard work. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a lot of hours, it is a lot of nights and weekends. I’m working with people at corporations, radio stations, any other business where they clock in at 8 and 5 and I have to available those hours. Then I have to be at the theatre because that’s our product – you want to be there engaging with the artists and customers. You want people to know you and have a role in their experience when they come sit in the dark next to each other and breathe the same air as the artists.

It can be a challenge particularly with a two-year-old. It’s a lot of polite negotiating. You have to have flexibility and you have to know where it means the most for you to put in the time. With my daughter now – just the commute in Atlanta traffic trying to pick her up from school on time was crushing my productivity. I take meetings, conference calls, coffees, but if I don’t need to be in the office I can often knock out a lot more without that commute so I’ve allowed myself some flexibility in that department. I do protect that 5:00 to 8:00 pm slot during the week, that’s my daughter’s time when we don’t have a show running.

LDT: What do you want to do next? What is your next goal or initiative?
JM: I’m not quite sure. We have some exciting potential projects coming up at True Colors that would really be a big deal. Fingers crossed. I really want to finish up what we’ve started here at True Colors over the next few years and do my part of creating this legacy for Kenny in Atlanta that is solidified with these next phases at True Colors and having a rock solid foundation for this theatre that focuses on diversity for artists and stories being told. That’s the very near future.

And I hope that I do my part to raise a successful and contributing member of society with my daughter. Those are my two current goals. The first two years of my daughter’s life was like, “I’m keeping her alive. We’ve got this!” And now it’s like, “how do I help mold her into the best version of herself?” That’s been more fun and stimulating than I can put into words. But I’m always open to conversations about new projects and ideas.

LDT: What kind of connections are you looking to make or need?
JM: I’m always looking for people within the community that want to have a conversation around diversity and inclusion. No matter what their cultural background is. I think we need allies of all colors and status levels in this conversation. That’s just so important to the True Colors work right now. And of course, anyone who wants to make a donation to the theatre company (we’re a 501c3).

LDT: How do you think your industry is going to change in the next 5 years? 10 years?
JM: I don’t know. You know, there is a lot going on in our world right now. I believe cultural impact starts with artists. I think out of all of this societal uneasiness, we’re going to see some really great written word, performance art and visual art.

And then, what’s next with tech? We are having conversations with people in high tech industries. How can we do it differently? Make it better? Tell stories and impact the greatest number of people?

I think there will be some really impactful work coming out of this time period we’re living in right now.

LDT: Where would you like to be able to put more time/focus on more?
JM: I always feel that there’s just not enough hours in the day about getting the word out. There’s always going to be more opportunity to create buzz.

Then personally, trying to soak up every moment with my family because it changes so quickly.

Question from the Previous Interview
Desmond Timmons, Park Manager of F.D. Roosevelt State Park: What is your why? Why do you do what you do?
JM: I do what I do to create a space to produce the best art and have the deepest and most impactful conversations. It really does drive absolutely everything that we do or at least try to do.

Also, I try to create the best workspace for artists and administrators. And make sure everyone feels supported and appreciated. That’s ultimately, one of the big keys as to why I’m in this role.

Generation X-ers go where they want to live and then they figure out how to make money. I didn’t think I was going to be a theatre person. Now, I say I’m a theatre convert. I never studied or practiced, but here I am playing a role in producing great content for a theatre.

LDT: What’s your question for the next interview?
JM: How does your work impact the community, and how could you potentially make a bigger impact?

LDT: Who or what kind of people would you like to read an interview from? 
JM: I would love to hear stories about people that took a wild chance and it all came together. Someone who really took a gamble and was able to create these new success stories. I think that’s always interesting and always so topical in every line of work these days.

Let’s Do This! Stop, Collaborate & Listen

If you’re interested in a future collaboration or learning more about Jennifer McEwen and True Colors Theatre Company, you can connect with them and follow their journey using the links below.

True Colors Theatre Company

Jennifer McEwen

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