REPRESENTATION MATTERS — For a child, their story, their experiences suddenly matters and is important if they see it on stage
Diversity is exciting! We go to the theatre to experience entertaining and interesting stories. Life would be boring if we just told the same story over and over again.
Diversity is good for business — From a purely pragmatic standpoint, we are in the business of selling tickets and there are a lot of amazing people who want to expose their children to the power of live theatre. Of course, it’s my job to make everyone feel welcome. I want them to come to a show, see something on stage that resonates with their experience or maybe introduces them to someone else’s experience and want to come back again and again.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make Film and TV more representative of the US population, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nina Meehan. Nina Meehan is a founder and Executive Artistic Director of Bay Area Children’s Theatre where she has directed and premiered numerous productions including The Day the Crayons Quit, the Musical, James and the Giant Peach TYA and Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site, the Musical (TBA award-winning). She is a proud champion of new works for TYA and has produced and created original adaptations of Goodnight Gorilla, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (TBA award-winning) Inside Out and Back Again, She Persisted, the Musical and a world-premiere bilingual version of the Cat in the Hat. She is an award winning Youth Theatre Director and a TBA Award winning Director for her TYA work. Nina proudly sits on the Theatre Services Committee for Theatre Bay Area and serves as the President of the Board of Directors for TYA/USA. Nina received her BS in Theatre from Northwestern University and her Masters in Nonprofit Administration from the University of San Francisco.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started performing as a kid and adored the opportunity to create interesting characters and immersing myself in imaginative worlds. I started teaching theatre at age 16 at a local drama camp and I immediately loved discovering the power of young people engaging with performance in a fun and supportive atmosphere.
As an undergraduate, I had the privilege of studying with Professor Rives Collins at Northwestern who introduced me to Creative Drama, Process Drama, Storytelling and Children’s Theatre. I remember the power of going into a Kindergarten class and engaging the children in an imaginative treasure hunt adventure. I will never forget being surrounded by 20 enthusiastic kiddos “lifting” an imaginary treasure chest with every ounce of their energy. And then the hush of silence as we “opened” it…only to discover the “magical seashell” that we had been hunting for. This power of kids to fill in stories and create worlds is so powerful and I am deeply grateful that I get to spend my days’ inspiring kids to create and understand our world through story.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My career is never dull. On any given day, I am just as likely to be discussing the intrinsic motivation of a Unicorn or the costuming options of a singing Crayon as I am a budget or a marketing message. One of the most interesting projects I have taken on was working with author Barney Saltzberg and playwright/composer Austin Zumbro to create the musical “Beautiful Oops, the Musical” based on the bestselling book. The theme of the book is “Every Mistake is an Opportunity to Create Something Beautiful” and this idea resonated with me deeply as both an artist and a leader. For the show, we created a musical in which everything went wrong — the set falls down, there is no script, we get lost, the lights shut off, etc. — and from those disasters, something fantastic was created. The show was a huge success and was nominated for eight Theatre Bay Area Awards!
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?
I make a mistake every day. If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking risks and you aren’t learning. So, mistakes are at the core of growth and improvement. In terms of a funny mistake specifically, there was definitely a season when I lost sight of where our advertising was being placed and our children’s show got double billing on a poster with “The Clitoris Festival” (yes, we produce in Berkeley). Clearly, the lesson learned…when you are doing work for young people, it is important to know who you are partnering with and be clear that your message must be appropriate for all ages.
Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
Bay Area Children’s Theatre has had a longstanding commitment to casting our shows with actors who represent the diversity of the Bay Area. California’s population under the age of 18 is a majority-minority, so it is our obligation to make sure that ALL kids can see themselves represented on our stages. In addition, we work to commission new work that is bringing underrepresented voices to the stage. For instance, this season, with She Persisted, we are telling the stories of Sonia Sotomayor, Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, among others. We have also brought to life the book “Rickshaw Girl” about a little girl growing up in Bangladesh, “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” about a little girl in ancient mythical China and “El Gato Ensombrerado,” a bilingual version of the Cat in the Hat, just to name a few examples.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
On opening weekend of “Rickshaw Girl”, a little boy came up to one of the actors in the show. The little boy asked for the actor’s autograph and then said “you’re brown, like me! I’ve never seen anyone on a stage before who looks like me.” At that moment, that little boy was not just connecting to the story of the show, but also breaking down an unknown barrier about who he could become. That happens every day our actors are performing.
Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in film and television and its potential effects on our culture?
- REPRESENTATION MATTERS — For a child, their story, their experiences suddenly matters and is important if they see it on stage
- Diversity is exciting! We go to the theatre to experience entertaining and interesting stories. Life would be boring if we just told the same story over and over again.
- Diversity is good for business — From a purely pragmatic standpoint, we are in the business of selling tickets and there are a lot of amazing people who want to expose their children to the power of live theatre. Of course, it’s my job to make everyone feel welcome. I want them to come to a show, see something on stage that resonates with their experience or maybe introduces them to someone else’s experience and want to come back again and again.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
- Bring in diverse directors to helm the creative aspect of a show
- Bring in diverse playwrights
- Bring in diverse voices at the organizational and board level
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is having the vision to see what the world can look like if you make small changes every day towards a larger goal and having the perseverance, patience and galvanizing people skills to execute those small changes.
I started this organization 15 years ago with 5 people and an idea, today we reach over 125,000 people with our programming. This happened because of keeping the eye on our big goals, working as a team, growing our stakeholders and trying to get a little bit better every day.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Having it all is a myth. Every day is a choice of how you spend your time. Choose wisely. I am a mom of three kids and a leader of an arts organization. For me, learning to say “no” to certain kinds of obligations, both at home and at work was critical to my growth as a leader. For instance, I am not able to volunteer at my kids’ school every week. I choose ONE thing per year that I can do to support the school. Similarly, I cannot be there for every single evening rehearsal for work. I choose the most important ones and I hire people I trust to be my eyes and ears when I am not there. Having it all implies you can do it all, and you just can’t but you can be really smart about what you choose to do and choose not to do.
- Running an arts organization takes two parts of your brain at all times — money and art. One cannot co-exist without the other. Early on in my career, I learned that running an arts organization was running a business. In our very first season, we had one show that sold really well and then we had two that did not. The two that did not were beautiful pieces of art, but we were not in a place at that time in our organizational development to be able to lose money on our shows. In order to do great art, you absolutely need resources and that means a solid business model.
- You will see yourself, both the good and the challenges reflected in your organization. I am very much a verbal and auditory processor meaning I think and speak at the same time and most of my biggest “ah ha” moments come during a conversation. I also remember best when I hear things said out loud. As a result, early on there were very few systems put in place that recorded information in a written form. As the organization grew, it became critical that we shifted that culture, but there are still remnants today in our org culture that reflect my work style.
- Collect the right people Building an organization is not a one-person job. It is a TEAM SPORT! On my team right now, there are people who started as actors who are now working in education, stage managers, who are working in the production office, a props designer who heads up our shop. Bringing people in who are passionate about the work and helping them find a home within the organization is one of the things I love most about my job.
- Do yoga…every day. My Producer, Christina, who is the second half of my brain, can tell just from how I am answering emails if I have done yoga or not on any given day. Taking the time to step away, to breathe, to connect to my body is the way that I am my best self. So yes, yoga is leadership for me.
You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
I would inspire a movement where creativity is celebrated as much as a correct answer…where music and art and drama are given as much time and attention as math and science because creative thinkers are the ones who can see their way to the other side of problems. Linear thinkers get stuck when there is not a correct answer, but there are so many situations in life when there is no one answer and the path towards solving the problem takes twists and turns constantly. Our future needs thinkers that can solve equations, but can also explain them. Our future needs dreamers who can envision a bright world, but can also take the steps to get there.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I don’t really know any “Life Lesson Quotes,” but I definitely live by the mantra that we use in theatre…there is no such thing as a mistake only a “happy accident.” (this is very similar to Beautiful Oops)
This is relevant because you have to let people have the opportunity to take risks and not all risks work out. If we see mistakes as opportunities to learn, we are always in a growth mindset and we aren’t operating from fear.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Dr. Jane Goodall, I have been obsessed with her work since I was a child. Her work on the environment and our natural world breaks all barriers and communicates a complex problem in the most direct and human terms possible.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Bay Area Children’s Theatre on Facebook
Nina Meehan Arts for Kids on Facebook
@BACTheatre on Twitter
@BACTheatre on Instagram
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!