Shatter Some Glass
My mother, Kay Smith, died last year, peacefully in bed just shy of her 96th birthday with her best earrings on. The gentle death of the devout Roman Catholic.
She raised daughters—myself and my sister Bridget—as a single mom (my dad, her beloved husband, died at the age of 33 just before I was born). Family was everything to her.
Mom brought us up at a time when there were very few single moms and she did it with great style. She told me when I found my passion no one would stop me. And she was right. She took my sister Bridget and me to Alaska searching for money and adventure. She found both.
A social worker for 40 years, Mom was gutsy and kind. She was always the first to tell someone the truth even if it hurt—she wasn’t always nice, but she was always kind. She taught me to be a good Democrat and to always take action, whether it was going to vote, speaking my mind, demanding a better seat in a restaurant, or taking food to the sick when they needed it. She was Irish to the core—I fight, therefore I live.
She supported me through starting Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska by helping me fleece my grandmother for $10,000 to start the theater—which we paid back within a year. She loved to act. She performed in countless productions at PT, always counting her lines to find out how important her role was. And she was very, very good and funny and deep onstage.
Once she bemoaned the fact that she wasn’t “wise” but she was so much more than wise. She took action, she spoke out, she was fearless, she was a feminist, and she taught me to be the same.
So, what does it mean to be a woman in a leadership position at an arts nonprofit in today’s world? You have to be fearless, you have to speak out, you have to take action and speak up about being a feminist.
How can the arts empower other women to take leadership roles? When you find your passion, believe that no one can stop you. Search for adventure. The old adage—there are no small parts, only small actors. The American regional theater movement was founded by women—three women in three different cities across the country, Margo Jones (Dallas), Nina Vance (Houston), and Arena Stage’s Zelda Fichandler in Washington, DC. I am honored to have taken the helm of Zelda’s flagship. It’s important to remember that these women were at the forefront of an entire movement—while we struggle with gender parity among current directors of regional theaters, the movement itself owes everything to these three women. Any woman trying to burst forward should take strength from that. And remember and speak their names. We are here because they took action.
How do you encourage other women to become leaders in their organizations or sectors? It’s always by leading by example. Be gutsy and kind. Be the first to tell someone the truth even if it hurts—you don’t always need to be nice, but you do need to be kind. Speak your mind, demand a better seat in a restaurant, and remember to take food to the sick when they need it. Leadership is bold and compassionate. Women don’t have to act like there is only testosterone in their veins to be strong leaders. It’s the opposite, actually—the best leaders know when to push and prod AND when to hug and console. It’s a balance and it’s not easy.
What about obstacles and challenges? Of course, there have been many, many personal and professional challenges. I take resilience from my mother’s example—taking off for Alaska, into the unknown, for money and adventure. A bold move for a single mother. Stop seeing it as a challenge and start seeing it as the joy of being alive. An obstacle is actually your best friend. It’s clarifying. It’s energizing. If you don’t relish problems and fixing them, find another profession. This one isn’t for you. I love looking at that glass ceiling. Find ways to break through it.
Shatter some glass.
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