Leadership Notebook Prompt #4

Am I telling a story about my goal that resonates with the people who want to hear it.


I don’t think that I am entirely. And I don’t think that we are as an organization.

I reviewed my notes yesterday from the Sinek Ted Talk and I think we have have been working outside in on his chart. We have been starting with What, then How, and casually mentioning a potential why. And that is the reason the idea isn’t sticking with people. We have approached it like the TiVo example.

We need to focus on the why. And then put our strategy together for the how and what.

The next prompt asks me to tell “my story / the story four different ways each for an audience with a different world view”. I struggle a bit because what is the story. Is it the saving of the Southern, the re-emergence of the Southern, the building of the ARTshare program, all of this? Maybe it is all of that, the story I keep telling when someone asks me “what happened?”.

#1 For the underdog

We had no backing, no funding of any kind. If we were going to do this we were going to have to pay for it ourselves with the razor thin operation margin that we had lived on for four years. In other words, if we turned this on IT MUST WORK. Or we would find ourselves erasing the struggles of the last four years in a matter of months and closing the organization.

The launch of ARTshare as the penultimate re-emergence of the Southern was a gamble. Strategic gamble, but we were betting the whole building on this idea. And because we had no chips tucked away to cover us in the case of losses it was really go big or go home. It was what pushed me to say “we can’t pilot this, we have to go all in and turn it on and make a big splash with it”.

And the bet paid off. In just 16 months the organization was more solvent than it had been in nearly two decades. It has garnered strong attention, and is now one of the first programs people are mentioning when asked “what innovative things are happening in the performing arts in the Twin Cities”.

#2 For the millennial

Disruption. If there is a word that Silicon Valley is constantly bantering around it is disruption. What is the next app, website, program, that will disrupt the current status quo. VCs love this kind of stuff. They want to back winners but they love to back winners who will topple current forms to become the new dominant form.

And we are seeing disruption being embraced in so many other circles: politics, social justice, media, entertainment, retail. And while the nature of the performing arts, and perhaps arts in general, has always been disruption in the form itself (realism, surrealism, dada, absurdism, contemporary, post-modern, mashup, etc). The BUSINESS of the performing arts has rarely been disrupted. Consider that in Shakespeare’s time a patron who wanted to see his latest work: came to the box office, bought a ticket, sat down, and saw the show.

How to disrupt that process? With the Southern we wanted to capitalize on the disruption caused by Netflix, the move to all access memberships. To give to the performing arts the same kind of ease and convenience that Netflix, Spotify, Apple Music, MLB all access, etc have given to their respective mediums.

And so we crafted a program that allows for just that. ARTshare gives members all access to our shows a monthly fee. It’s not revolutionary, but the industry is stagnant enough that this is a disruption. And it is causing waves. And in being ahead of that curve, riding the disruption, we are able to iterate it and adjust it before others even have a chance to institute something similar in their operations. And being in that space will make all the difference.

#3 For the philanthropist

Doing the right thing can be tough, it usually is. The easy thing would have been to accept the public’s outcry that the Southern should just call it quits after 30 years of operations (and 100 years of physical existence).

But we didn’t see it that way.

What we saw was an opportunity.

Yes there was a ton of baggage, yes there was systemic failure in operations on all fronts, yes there was a huge pile of debt, and yet there was a love by this community for this space.

This space that has touched the lives of so many artists, that has been the birth place of careers and companies, that has given patrons life changing experiences, that has pushed and pulled artists to reach new heights of their creativity, and that has created stories that make up such a great part of the tapestry of the cultural narrative in the performing arts community of the Twin Cities.

That’s why we couldn’t just call it quits. That is why a small group of people choose to put every ounce of their will into saving the Southern Theater. And at the first glimpse that the Southern would be ok, that we started to turn things around, the artist community was there. Because they LOVE the Southern. They carried us for three years while we built a program that would reflect the values of that space, and that would embody the heritage of theater that has touched so many lives.

#4 For the unititiated

When I say theater, if your first thought I the droning of your 9th grade English teacher discussion Romeo & Juliet then you are not alone. If I say dance and you think pink tutus you are not alone. Many people’s first experience with the performing arts does not leave a great impression nor does it instill a life long appreciation of the art forms.

At the Southern we aim to break those stereo types.

When you set foot into our theater for the first time you are greeted by a space where the ghosts of the stories are nearly tangible. There is more than just a history to the Southern, there is a magic that you can feel as you view it’s epic 106 year old arch over an immense stage. And yet when you sit in your chair you’ll find yourself comfortable and cozy, as if sitting in your living room to watch a movie. This is a different dynamic than the elitist art from people refer to when they say “I went to the theater last night”.

And then there is the art on our stage.

Spanning genres and styles, the performances at the Southern are like nothing you have experienced before, they are bold, dynamic, and always new. There is a rawness to a piece at the Southern, the art reflects the broken space, sometimes a little rough around the edges, but always exciting, boundary pushing, and never safe.

It is art that asks you to question yourself, it is art that reflects on the absurdity of your life, it is art that laughs in the face of conformity, it is art that goes deep into the soul hunting for meaning. And when you come to the Southern and experience this art, you walk away hungry. Hungry for another experience that is vastly different from your first, but is threaded together by a deep desire for breaking from the routine of the every day.

Don’t worry, there is always more to eat.

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