The third episode of the “When Everyone Leads” podcast explores how the performing arts embody leadership.

The guest who brought the topic is Jill Landrith, the artistic director of Metropolitan Ballet Wichita. Landrith also teaches dance at Wichita State University and owns a dance school.

In its first season as the Kansas Leadership Center’s podcast, “When Everyone Leads” asks guests to bring a challenge to the center, which the hosts and guest then discuss and analyze through a leadership framework.  

It is hosted by KLC co-workers Brianna Griffin, the show’s lead producer, and Chris Green, who also serves as executive editor of The Journal. KLC’s Maren Berblinger, Julian Montes and Neha Batawala also produce the show.

The podcast is inspired by the book “When Everyone Leads” by Ed O’Malley, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation, the Kansas Leadership Center’s main funder, and KLC’s immediate past president and CEO; and Julia Fabris McBride, KLC’s chief leadership development officer.

The following is a transcript of the conversation with Liu, edited for length and clarity, followed by a discussion among the hosts and Montes.

Griffin: What challenge are you bringing to us today and why is it important?

Landrith: I’ve been involved in the performing arts since I was 4. And before I was 4, I remember sitting in the car while my mother was in ballet class. So, an entire lifetime of the performing arts, which I’m really pleased to be making a living in the performing arts in Kansas, where one doesn’t think that’s possible. And I feel that they’re very important for many aspects of your life and your education. But it’s trying to get new audiences and keep the audiences when a lot of people feel like the performing arts are dying off.

Green: Tell me about the performing arts. What’s in the performing arts “basket”?

Landrith: We typically depend on having an audience there viewing what we’re doing as we’re doing it. So, it’s happening live, as opposed to, say, a movie, which is recorded. We have our live audience right there with us interacting emotionally, physically, mentally with what we’re doing as we’re doing it.

Griffin: The time aspect of it, where somebody would be willing to take that big chunk of their life to go do literally nothing. We live in such a capitalistic society, where just going and spending that chunk of time for yourself and enjoying something can be difficult for people. ‘I’m not really getting much out of this.’

Landrith: Well, and also when you say sitting and enjoying something: If you’ve never experienced it, how do you know if you’ll enjoy it? I’ve performed in Europe where there’s centuries of tradition of people going to the theater. That’s one of their activities that they do. The theater I was with had so many activities every day that they had to have alternative performance spaces. The orchestra was going on and the musical theater group was going on all on the same night, every day.

We don’t quite have that tradition, more particularly in the Midwest, of ‘Hey, let’s go see a theater piece. Let’s go see a dance piece. Let’s go hear the orchestra.’ So, it’s trying to get someone to realize that, yeah, they would like it. And, they’ll go, ‘Yeah, well I’ve seen that on YouTube.’ Well, no, you would like being in the audience and actually experiencing this live, which is a whole different aspect.

Green: Performing arts — the definition that you gave — certainly includes what you do in dance. It could include a lot of other things, like everything from opera to symphony. How much common cause is there between those different performing arts? Could we get you guys all down at a table to have lunch and talk about your common challenges? Or do you all see each other as being very different and distinct aspects of the performing arts?

Landrith: We have gotten together in the past and shared our common concerns —scheduling concerns so you try not to schedule at the same time as another event so that your audience doesn’t have to choose, so we don’t dilute the audience. And we have concerns now with performance venues where we can get our voices heard on that. I don’t think it’s that we’re all in our own little island of thought that, ‘This is my art and you do yours.’ We’re all interested in each other’s arts because we’re all stronger when we’re all together.

Green: Talk to me about this problem of audience and getting audiences engaged. When you think about the challenges of audiences and the performing arts, what concerns you the most?

Landrith: In getting the audience, the concerns I have are people tend to want to go to things they know the story of. There’s a wonderful ballet called Coppélia. Nobody knows the story, so people avoid it. They know the story of Cinderella, so they may go and see it. It’s the familiarity. But you also want them to grow as an audience, but if they’re not in the building you can’t help them grow. Also, when you grow up with the arts, that’s what you do with your life and you go in and you look for the arts. When you don’t, you never think of, ‘Oh, I could go watch a play.’ And we do a certain amount of free performances that anyone can walk up to. But they cost us, so again it gets to a little bit of revenue.

Griffin: One thing I think about a lot when it comes to ballets, and I grew up doing ballet, so I can go to a ballet and I can understand what they’re doing with their body and the story that they’re trying to tell. I’m guessing somebody who grew up in a sports family or hasn’t had that where you understand that a light touch is something in ballet or you understand the nuances of what you’re trying to say, do you think that could possibly be a reason why some people maybe go one time but think, ‘This is not for me; I did not understand what’s going here.’? Or do you think, ‘No, if you go you’re going to understand; you just need to pay attention.’?

Landrith: A lot of it is not understanding. A lot of people when they go think, ‘Oh, I had no idea this was going on. OK.’ Again, it’s that familiarity. It’s not uncomfortable. You know what’s going on. You’re fine. It’s not threatening in any way. You’d think it would be transferrable. I come from a sports background, so it’s movement. And I also find it’s interesting when I get people who are not dancers to try certain movements dancing, and they realize, ‘Wow, that’s hard.’ Or, ‘Wow, this actually takes something to do.’

Or when I have them try choreography when they’re not dancers, and they realize, ‘Wow, that’s hard.’ Because somebody actually has to make up those steps. Somebody has to put them together and make it look good, and they never think to that side of it, too, which perhaps having a chance to become more familiar with it would be great. But if they don’t hear about it, how will they know to come? And we are certainly full of nonverbal communication in ballet. You just have to be able to sit and watch. You don’t even have to know the story. It’s, ‘What do you get out of it?’ Which is hard for people to go in and go, ‘I have to know what I’m supposed to get.’

Griffin: ‘Isn’t there a meaning in this?’ But what did you think the meaning was? Let’s have a conversation about you thought you saw. And then I can talk about my interpretation. And maybe you can change my mind. ‘Maybe I did see that. You’re right. I didn’t see that story unfolding. But you’re right.’

Landrith: I used to go and see a lot of dance performances with a friend of mine, and I would be absolutely in love with a piece and she would afterwards say, ‘That was the worst thing I ever saw.’ What do you mean it was the worst thing you ever saw? And we’d get in this long discussion. ‘I didn’t understand.’ ‘But wait—it was so obvious,’ which is really entertaining for us to share our opinions that way.

I love to find people’s perceptions of performing arts when they have no exposure. I produce the Nutcracker; I direct the Nutcracker and have for decades. At one point in time, I went to see other people’s productions, so I was at the Tulsa Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker. I was sitting there and there was a little girl who was 7 who was sitting next to me who had never seen a ballet before, and she had this running dialogue going on. And during intermission the mom apologized to me. I’m like, ‘Oh, no-no-no; this is my target audience. I want to know what someone who has no exposure, what they take away from it.’ And it was the greatest thing. This is exactly why I’m here.

Another thing is people think, ‘When I go to a performance and I’m in a theater, I have to dress a certain way; I have to behave a certain way; it’s very stuffy and I can’t enjoy myself.’ I tell people, ‘Wear what you want, and if you like something, show your appreciation.’ You don’t have to wait until the end. You can in the middle of something go (clap, clap), well done. And if you don’t like something, well you can think mentally to yourself, ‘I didn’t like that.’ It’s not really appropriate to say, ‘Oh, that was bad, boo.’ It’s a lot more of an engaging atmosphere than people think it’s going to be.

Green: I want to have you play along with me in a little thought experiment here, and I’m going to snap my fingers and suddenly everything you’ve wanted to change has changed. You have the audiences that you want, and everybody is totally enthused about the arts. Talk to me about what’s changed. What’s happening now that audiences have gotten engaged, that isn’t happening right now?

Landrith: First of all, artists are respected members of the community. People don’t go, ‘Oh, yeah, but what do you do for a living?’ Yes, you’re an artist. You have more engagement with the community that becomes more interactive when you have all those things. There’s your audience. They’re thrilled to be there. And it makes the creation of more art possible. With more audiences comes a desire by the public for more performances, so therefore you get to do your art more and bring it to more people.

Griffin: You mentioned artists being seen as artists, and you also mentioned the Midwestern of it all. I would add that artists would be seen as artists no matter where they live. So, if they’re a dancer, they don’t have to be a dancer in Los Angeles to be seen as a successful dancer. But if you can make a living dancing here in Wichita, you yourself are also a performer, a dancer. You should not get any less respect than somebody who’s doing that for a living somewhere else.

Landrith: Correct. And through all the performing arts that should definitely be the way.

Green: That sounds like a rich cultural place to live, where I’m going to grow and expand as a person as a result of living there. What do you think keeps us stuck from getting there?

Landrith: There’s a lot of different facets to that. To some degree you say, ‘How much do we spend as a country, as a community, on the arts per capita as opposed to countries in Europe?’

On a more local level, can we make it easier to get to the arts? They just changed the parking policy, and a lot of people are going to see that as maybe being harder, harder to find parking and more costly. That’s one more reason not to go. You scan a QR code. They do have a phone number if you don’t have a smartphone. It is a per-day charge as opposed to feeding the meter. So, in one sense, when I’m at the theater for a long period of time, I don’t have to run out and chuck quarters into it. But on occasion I have to run down and be there for half an hour and I’m paying for a whole day’s parking for that, as I understand it.

Green: So, what you’re telling me is grandma’s going to get confused. She’s going to get a ticket, and she’s not going to want to the ballet next time.

Landrith: In a perfect world, I can get there easily. The tickets can be affordable. And I’d be motivated to go often.

Green: Why isn’t it so much more accessible and affordable?

Landrith: Well, I know to put on a production it costs quite a lot of money—for theater rental, your wonderful stagehands, the costuming, the music. Everything costs money, which has to be reflected someplace. So, often ticket prices help offset that cost.

Griffin: So you, putting on that production, try your best to minimize that cost as much as possible, but you do have to charge for some things, so it can be difficult to figure out what is that good, sweet spot where I’m still making money and helping these dancers make money as well, paying the stage hands and everybody who’s involved in this production but still make it so people want to come.

Landrith: To me, the arts shouldn’t be exclusive. They should be accessible to everyone. And often price—I can’t afford to go. I can buy a movie ticket, and I have more options of when I go and where I go, to, this is when the symphony is playing, so that’s when I need to go. Trying to remove those deterrents to make the arts accessible to everyone—that’s something I think about a lot.

Green: That feels like a competing value that we talk about at KLC. The value of making the arts accessible to everyone, which you try to uphold, might conflict with funding it and putting on the types of productions you do. You’re choosing to try to make it more accessible at the expense of things that might be more financially beneficial, which is a great choice for society but maybe a bad choice for the sustainability of the arts in the long term. It leaves only the people who can afford to see it, who are the same people who are always going to come to see it and be able to afford to see it. And you’re not expanding the universe of people involved.

Landrith: That’s when you have your old audience—the people who come all the time—and then trying to get a new audience who need to find a new way of mentally accessing the arts or getting younger audiences to come in so they grow up with the habit of seeing it. That’s quite the undertaking when you’ve got a couple of kids you want to take to the performance. Now you’ve got to park and walk and go in and sit down without squirming, which is why I like the free performances in the parks because the kids can run around and watch and enjoy, and then they get to interact with the dancers at the end. But again, we have expenses that are along with that.

Griffin: Who are the people currently involved in trying to get people into the performing arts and get those butts in the seats?

Landrith: There are many people who are involved in that, from the organization I’m with, The Board of Directors[is this the organization’s proper name?], the marketing people, people who work with young kids teaching them dance, appreciating the art form. There’s art appreciation courses at the university, which expose you to the arts. So there are people on the educational side and the business management side and then the dancers themselves saying, ‘Hey, come and see me,’ which is a smaller group to draw from but still an important group.

Griffin: What do you think these people value the most?

Landrith:  I think today, people value experiences. But they don’t know what they could be experiencing. I know what I’m experiencing when I go to a baseball game; I don’t know what I’m experiencing when I go to a musical theater production or a ballet production or a symphony.

Green: What about people you’d like to see engaging more or differently? Who are these people? What are they like? What do they value? 

Landrith: I would love to see your young adult crowd. There are several opportunities where school children can go and see a performance of music or dance, brought in by their school, although COVID cut down on a lot of those trips. But the younger adult crowd, when they start having families and this becomes the tradition that they bring in their families, and we go from there.

Green: I’m thinking about this academic I know, a professor named Ron Heifetz. He’s been very influential about the ideas that are in this book. He’s a professor at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. I’ve sat in on his first day of class. His ideas are deeply infused in KLC’s ideas.

One of the things he talks about that’s always resonated with me—he played a stringed instrument—and he characterizes leadership as an art form. The leader is an artist, and if the leader is an artist, then every artist is a leader. And the characteristics that make you a good performer are the same characteristics required in leadership, because if you’re going to be on stage in front of somebody, you have to hold their attention. You have to capture them. They have lots of things they can look at and do, and you have to do something with that attention.

But you can’t do it all on your own. There’s a bridge or something that has to be extended. And if leadership is an art form, then it’s not necessarily a science. There isn’t a run of things you can do to exercise leadership, just like there isn’t a road map for doing every dance successfully.

How would we think about or appreciate the performing arts differently if we realize that every performance we go to is an act of leadership?

Landrith: Interesting. I’ve never considered that before. But when you say leadership, performing arts, being the conductor leading a group together to do something even as the individual—yeah. And the ability to communicate something to your audience, whether in a leadership situation at a boardroom table or from the stage, it’s all about the communication. And are you successful in that communication or are you hitting a brick wall? Then it becomes frustrating for everybody involved. And as an artist, when you’re successful you know it right then. You get that immediate feedback, which then increases. So, now you know that was successful; let me do that again. You lead the audience into what you’re trying to tell or into a different world or a better knowledge of themselves.

Griffin: You told me when we were dancing, and you had said to the class, that it’s like you’re dancing with the audience. You want them to give you a response, and you’re responding to their response.

Landrith: Having been in a production where the audience did not like the production or the subject matter, and you’re still require to be there. And sadly, it was in a very small, intimate theater and there were no wings. So, you couldn’t exit. You’re just waiting there, and it was when I was dancing in Germany, and waiting for the audience to applaud so you could bow and leave. But they wouldn’t clap, because they so did not like it. And you’re so exposed.

So, what happened was our leader—our director—would lead the audience by sneaking out, going around, running to the back, sitting and start clapping. And the audience would go, ‘Oh.’ And it was the quickest bows you’ve ever seen. Bow, bow, bow, and then upstairs to the dressing room. They were lost. And they needed someone to lead them in what to do now. What do we do with what we just experienced? So, yeah, you depend on the audience. Even if they don’t like something, your instant feedback makes you say, ‘Let me change this while I’m right here on the fly so I can get them back.’

Green: It occurs to me that’s everyone’s worst fear in performing arts but also everyone’s worst fear in leadership. You try to do something and it just doesn’t connect. And you’re sitting there waiting for the audience to applaud, for the people to do their next thing. And they just don’t do it. And I guess we all need someone to come around and go the back of the audience and start clapping so we can move on and try something else. But I think it keeps people from doing it. It probably keeps people from appreciating the performing arts because they haven’t been exposed to it, and they don’t want to take the risk, and it keeps them from leading, because they don’t see themselves as leaders or artists, and they don’t think people are going to respond to them. So, they don’t want to take the risk of being rejected.

Griffin: Where do our opportunities lie for leadership?

Landrith: So many places. In the performing arts. Out of the performing arts. Being able to look at the situation and say, ‘I’m in charge of my actions, so first I have to lead myself.’ And then how can that help lead someone, hopefully for the better? Together, if we both are leading, then we have twice the pulling power. If we all are leading, we have all the power of all of us combined to effect change.

Discussion among the hosts:

Green: So, we’ve been on the dance floor and now we’re on the balcony. What do we want to talk about? What are we thinking about?

Montes (KLC’s creative services manager and on-site producer and director): It was really interesting to hear it from a performing artist. I work with theKansas Creative Arts Industry Commission, so I help fund a lot of this stuff. It’s not my money; I just help people connect to it. To hear it from the perspective of the artist rather than the administrative voice was really interesting.

Green: It makes me wonder how we’d feel differently if we were doing this live in front of an audience full of people. Would it be good? Would it be bad? Would it be better? Would I freeze and not know what to say?

Griffin: I don’t think I would say everything that came to my mind, because then I’d be scared that I’d be offending some people.

Green: But you might be offending people anyway on this recording. You don’t have to see them.

Montes: I think we can talk all the talk we want on the couch, but to go and exercise and do it is a whole different thing, performative or not. To do the work of leadership, you’ve got to risk a bit of reputation and goofing up a little bit. The times when I’ve been performing where things have gone wrong, I was really dependent on whatever technical skill I had to make it work. But otherwise it was messy.

Green: If we’re connecting it to stuff in the book: It’s risky to go out there and put yourself on the line, to have something bad happen. And I think there’s also a hold to purpose. You’ve just got to keep going. You just can’t take one risk in leadership. That’s not what taking a risk is about. It’s about continually trying to take smart risks, trying to move things forward. Trying to keep going even when things get tough. Trying to find a way to connect when it’s not working. And maybe one of the reasons people fail at leadership is they either don’t try or they give up too early. They take one risk and that’s all they have the capacity for.

And considering that artists are one of our biggest risk takers, it makes me think people shelling out thousands and thousands of dollars for leadership training are wanting someone to tell them how to do leadership when they might be able to learn just as much by going to a performance and seeing what it means to hold the stage and people’s attention and to power through and connect with people. There is something to be learned there as well as a leadership class. And if you’re only looking in one place for where you’re learning, you might be depriving yourself of the full range of experiences that could really make you a leader who can influence your community and organization.

Griffin: I loved when you were talking about equating leadership to performing arts but also adding the audience perspective on what leadership could be. That is a way that we as audience members can lead. We can choose to find the beauty in what’s in front of us. When it’s a co-worker, did I let them know they were doing a good job?

Montes: In The Leadership Edge, there’s things about observation, interpretations, interventions. The idea that with art, you observe certain things. The interpretation is there for the taking.

Green: It’s a good entry point for understanding the differences, because you have the same experience but someone can see something totally different than you do. So, it’s a way of practicing diagnosis, whereas when we diagnose in real life, oftentimes the temptation is to say, ‘Well, you see something different; well, you’re wrong.’ It’s a little harder in a performance like that, so it makes it a good proving ground for practicing the skill. And there are schoolteachers who use paintings to teach observational interpretation skills to schoolchildren.

Maybe there’s a way to lift the curtain a little bit, like telling people what they’re going to see and what’s hard and what people are doing and what it means. Or telling them this after the fact. Or working to give people space to make their own interpretations but also to give them a sense of what they should technically appreciate about what’s being delivered. And maybe there’s room for the arts community to exercise more leadership in how they talk about what they do and meet people where they are. And who is better positioned to do that than an artist?

Montes: As a creative myself, it’s a different language, and to make that translation is a skill in itself.

Green: And maybe part of the problem is a performance can be too polished. If we want to have people to connect with the arts, we’re going to have to work to tell more people that this is for them and here’s why.

Griffin: We’re taught as performers to make it look easy. It looks easy so it must be easy, and everybody can do that. No.

Montes: The same kind of thing happens with managers, people with authority. People are trained to make it look easy, too.

Green: Maybe it should also be reassuring to us that you can struggle and be hurt and not have that come across to people. One of the things we teach in programs when we’re teaching people how to teach leadership is this idea of presence, of staying strong and holding steady in the front of the room. If we’re looking for models or examples of how you need that presence to exercise leadership, then the performing arts is a really great place to turn to for examples, because that is something you have to do in order for you to give audiences what they’re expecting.

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