Carla Sullivan of The Shubert Theatre: “Think OUTSIDE of the box and do some research!”

Think OUTSIDE of the box and do some research! We all sit in front of Zoom to celebrate holidays with family, attend meetings with colleagues and have cocktails with friends. Think about what you love (and loathe!) about those experiences and apply this personal insight into your event. Also, attend some other virtual events! I […]

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Think OUTSIDE of the box and do some research! We all sit in front of Zoom to celebrate holidays with family, attend meetings with colleagues and have cocktails with friends. Think about what you love (and loathe!) about those experiences and apply this personal insight into your event. Also, attend some other virtual events! I know both myself and our team have learned so much that we’ve applied to Next Stop: New Haven through our attendance at other events, even non-theatre related!

As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carla Sullivan.

Carla (Supersano) Sullivan is the Vice President of External Relations at The Shubert Theatre in New Haven, CT. She began her Shubert career as the Director of Development in 2018, and more recently oversees marketing and communication, education and outreach and ticketing in addition to her fundraising responsibilities. She has spent the majority of her career in the not-for-profit space, formerly working for The Valley Community Foundation and her alma mater Fairfield University, where she raised 1m dollars+ annually for The Fairfield Awards Dinner, benefiting the Multicultural Scholarship Fund. An active volunteer, Carla has held leadership positions in numerous organizations and currently serves on the Board of Directors at Broadway Method Academy in Fairfield, CT. A lifelong singer, performer and patron of the arts, Carla returned to the stage in February 2020 to play the dream role of Donna Sheridan in “Mamma Mia” at Center Stage Theater in Shelton, CT, sharing the stage with her husband and daughter. Carla lives in Shelton with her husband Sean and three children Kelsey, Elise and Matthew. She can’t wait for the return of live theater to performing arts venues!

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

While I like to consider myself “worldly”, I live in my hometown with my husband of 30 years. We went to high school together and our kids went to the same high school,, so I guess that makes me a bit of a homebody! My parents are both musical (my Dad played piano in a wedding band and my mom was a singer and dancer), so they raised my brother and I with a love of music and the arts.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

I was a communications major in college with a minor in music. I was not on the path to be a professional performer and we did not have an arts administration program, so I sought out an internship my senior year of college at The Shubert Theatre! I interned for then development director Pamela Tatge (now Executive Director for Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires) and my career in the not-for-profit space was born. After stepping out of the full time work force when my children were young, I had worked, volunteered and consulted with several NPOs before becoming the Director of Development at The Shubert almost 3 years ago. Staff reductions due to COVID resulted in my promotion in August 2020 to Vice President of External Relations overseeing marketing and communications, education and ticketing in addition to my fundraising responsibilities.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Although I wouldn’t call it funny, when I first arrived at The Shubert, I was eager to set goals and plan for my first full fiscal year and offered to lead the team in a brainstorming exercise about what we as a team would like to accomplish. I stood in front of the team with my flip chart and started asking for feedback and then shared some of my own, based on observations made during my brief tenure. I was completely blindsided when a colleague told me that my desire to for high quality customer service to our patrons was “disrespectful” to those who had been on staff for much longer than me and that I shouldn’t be critical of current practices because I didn’t know what they all had endured as long time staff members. It was an eye opening preview of what we are experiencing today where two people can look at the exact same thing and come to completely different conclusions. It reinforced for me how much words matter and to constantly put myself in someone else’s shoes when looking at a problem or situation, even though I may see it through a totally different lens. Not at all funny, but I certainly learned from it.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Because the Shubert is “the Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits”, I’ll share a Broadway musical story! Lin Manuel-Miranda became a household name because of Hamilton, but before Hamilton, there was In The Heights which remains my favorite musical. Most times I go into a show knowing at least something about the story and a few of the tunes, but I went to In the Heights only knowing that it had won the Tony Award. WELL…after the first number, I was completely speechless and remained so for the next 2 hours. We saw it three times the week it closed on Broadway and multiple times since. It is a beautiful story of love and family and neighborhood and place and the connections that bind all woven together in music and movement. Incredibly powerful.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My Catholic grammar school principal often quoted “to whom much is given, much will be required.” I draw upon that Bible verse often to remind me to remain grateful for an abundance of blessings, even during challenging times, and to continue to give generously of my time, talent and treasure.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

Working in development and volunteering, , I have years of experience organizing fundraising galas, donor and board appreciation lunches, and educational programming. However, March of 2020 threw us all a curveball pushing anyone who works in nearly every industry to rethink their jobs, experience, actions and outreach.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

We launched our new signature fundraiser, Next Stop: New Haven, in 2019 to celebrate three things we all love — theatre, Broadway’s rising stars and the amazing restaurant scene in the New Haven area. Our first event was in-person, featuring a casual dine-around in our lobby and mezzanine area, and then a 60-minute show in the theatre that featured performances, fundraising and fun. The evening was capped off for select ticket holders with an on-stage dessert reception after the show.

We had all of our plans set for our second event to be held at the theatre on Monday, April 27, 2020, but the theatre closed after a touring performance of “Cats” on Sunday, March 6. We made the decision in late March to cancel the fundraiser in accordance with state regulations and for the safety of our staff, patrons and partners. Inspired by another charity event in Connecticut, our small remaining team committed the last week of April (when the live event was scheduled to take place) to mobilize and bring our community together, from the safety of their own homes.

In addition to raising funds for The Shubert and bringing fresh entertainment into the community, the goal was to also infuse much needed funds into the restaurant industry in our area when both indoor and outdoor dining was still closed under state mandate. Scheduled for Monday, May 18 (so just three weeks of planning!), my team of four (with several helpers and volunteers!) assembled Next Stop: New Haven: at Home!, a 75-minute live program which included a cocktail making class with the owner of a historic local bar, a cheeseboard assembly class with the owner of a local restaurant, Broadway trivia, performances from two Broadway up-and-coming actors and a peek at the theatre’s next Broadway series. Priced at just 75 dollars, the “ticket” included not only a log-in to the live event, but a goodie box picked up curbside that afternoon from the theatre, which included purchased food and beverages (including ingredients for the cocktail and cheese segments!) from five area businesses and Shubert branded glasses. We were also proud to make a monetary donation to a local charity feeding hospital frontline workers.

The event sold out, accomplishing the goal of raising funds and awareness for the theatre and the local establishments. As a result, we assembled a similar live program and curated party box on Monday, October 26 with a new list of restaurant partners and performers (with a Thanksgiving food drive add-on during the curbside pick-up), and in late December, completed a family-friendly Next Stop: New Haven: at Home Holiday edition! complete with cookies, hot cocoa, an elf-hat making class with a theatre costume designer, a cocktail for parents, a reading with Santa and a holiday sing-along with Stephanie Jae Park (Eliza in national tour of “Hamilton”), all hosted by Holly the Elf from the North Pole. The December event donated family-friendly tickets and boxes to a local community library.

With Valentine’s Day just two weeks away, we have a “Late Nite” edition planned for February 11, featuring a local comedian, cocktail making classes and Broadway performances.

Nearly one year in, we are proud to have put together FOUR virtual events with a small and mighty team, continuing to infuse money into our local restaurants and bring The Shubert’s well-loved performances into our community.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

I’ve attended a number of fundraising, informational and educational virtual events over the past months — as we all have! — and I have to say that the most entertaining and engaging was Magic for Humans at Home with Justin Willman! He was fun and constantly interacted with the live audience (including my own family for one of the segments!), kept it moving quickly, and kept us intrigued.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

It’s getting difficult, because as much as we all rely on Zoom to connect on professional and personal levels, I know that everyone has Zoom fatigue. So I think it’s about really thinking about keeping the streaming program tight, fast-paced and fun, and getting creative about how to interact with your audience, whether it’s through a live trivia game, sing-along or even knowing everyone else “attending” the event is drinking the same cocktail and snacking on the same treats.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

Despite having such a short amount of time to put together our first program in the Spring, we spent a lot of time experimenting with different platforms to host our program. We ultimately settled on StreamYard, where we have a lot of flexibility on branding, live-chat and an overall clean look. The livestream is hosted on YouTube, and in addition to including a postcard with the link to the program in the party box, we also email it out about an hour or so before the start of the show.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

To have a successful live streaming event, you definitely have to have a member of your team with technical knowledge to make sure the quality of the overall production is “worthy” of the ticket price.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1 — Think OUTSIDE of the box and do some research! We all sit in front of Zoom to celebrate holidays with family, attend meetings with colleagues and have cocktails with friends. Think about what you love (and loathe!) about those experiences and apply this personal insight into your event. Also, attend some other virtual events! I know both myself and our team have learned so much that we’ve applied to Next Stop: New Haven through our attendance at other events, even non-theatre related!

2 — Think about how to engage your audience. You don’t want them just sitting home and watching a screen as many are now doing for too many hours each day! Can you get them up to move? Chime in via chat? Build a cocktail during the stream? Encourage people to have their video “on” by hosting a costume contest? Think of a creative way that works with your event to have them interact with the screen, especially if it’s via Zoom!

3 — Make your audience feel together, even when physically apart. This was a KEY component when we put together our first virtual Next Stop: New Haven in May — we wanted people in their houses around the state of Connecticut to feel connected in a way other than just watching the same program stream as their friends, family and neighbors. While it’s a lot of work to plan and assemble (I’m not going to lie!), the party box has been a key part of our event connecting people through two things we all love — food and drink! We’ve gotten great feedback from past attendees how connected this has made them feel to other guests, while knowing their ticket helped support several local businesses.

4 — Watch the clock! Just because a live event was successful in the last running 2, 3, maybe 4 hours, a virtual event will NOT translate to run that long! We’ve found it best (and I’ve participated in several workshops stating the same) that one hour is the sweet spot….it keeps people tuned in, engaged and interested, but once you pass that 60-minute mark, all bets are off. For our children’s event, we targeted 45-minutes and kept the pace moving fast to keep the kids interested, tuned in and engaged.

5 — Collaboration and partnership has been a key to the success of our virtual events. We’ve been proud to work with neighbors in our backyard to support local business owners and charitable organizations, and collaborate on how we can help one another. This has definitely been one positive takeaway from the last 11 months — some creative and fresh collaborations and partnerships for The Shubert Theatre!

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

The first step I would strongly recommend is to make sure you’re surrounded by an energetic, hard-working, all -hands-on-deck team. This is a new world we are still navigating one year in, and it takes dedication, time and determination to pull off a virtual event. Second, I would do some market research on the types of virtual events happening in your area to see what’s “worked” and hasn’t worked. I’m finding in Connecticut I’ve spoken with several of my colleagues at other theatres around the state to share ideas, feedback and tips to learn from one another’s successes and mistakes. Lastly, don’t be afraid to think outside the box! The GOOD thing about this new world we are navigating is that we are setting the rules so now’s the time to take a deep breath, be brave and try some new things while remembering the end goal is to help people connect, even when physically apart.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Support the arts! The arts have the power to transform change and bring people together. When you experience something live — seeing a show, watching a musician perform and studying a piece of art in a gallery — part of the magic of it all is not knowing anything about the people around you that you’re experiencing it with!

I think the challenge when we make it through to the other side of COVID and people can start to safely congregate together again in these situations will be to create a space where everyone is on the same playing field and can be experiencing art together — no matter your ethnicity, educational background, financial status, etc.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

That’s EASY! Lin Manuel Miranda (per my answer above sharing my love for him and “In the Heights” before he became a household name)

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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