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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2019

Developing A Sense Of Community: An Interview with Rozella Kennedy

Wednesday, June 19, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Rotimi Agbabiaka

Having a dependable stream of donations is often the deciding factor in whether or not a nonprofit theatre stays afloat. As the person who cultivates this stream, a company’s development director plays a pivotal role.

In January, California Shakespeare Theatre announced the arrival of Rozella Kennedy as its new director of development. Kennedy’s eclectic path to this role included working as a writer and editor, managing marketing at the ACLU and helping establish three nonprofits in her previous home of New Mexico, including Santa Fe New Music, which she founded with husband, composer John Kennedy, and ran for ten years.

Rozella Kennedy. Photo courtesy Ms. Kennedy.

What does a development director do at a theatre company like Cal Shakes?

I’m actually the director of marketing and development. That’s still somewhat rare in performing arts but we’re starting to see it more in other nonprofits and it certainly has models from the business world. I think it’s a great model and I’m really happy to call our team Markevo. It’s a combination of marketing and development which we used to call Devo.

For us, and for me in coming into this role, all of these things are about the journey of the person. Most folks think of development as being a relational art form. It’s not transactional, it’s not about “give me your money” and sales but I actually also maintain that even when you think about marketing now, it’s not transactional, it’s relational because people, especially for the arts, they have so many choices for what to do with their time including the choice of staying home to watch Netflix or the Warriors.

So if we approach a ticket buyer or a subscriber as just a transaction, we’re missing out on a big part of it because the way you get people to come back and stay and feel like this is a theatre company that belongs to them and that they belong to is by creating a sense of community and tribe. One day I might wake up and buy a ticket but the next day I might make a donation or I might add a donation to my ticket purchase or I might talk to a friend and tell them what a great time they’ll have at Cal Shakes. So at the time I’m also an ambassador but I’m still the same person. It’s just different facets of me showing up. So what I’m trying to instill—and it’s hard work, it goes against the practice that basically everyone has been adhering to for decades—but what I’m trying to do is create a sense of the whole person and engage with them at whatever touchpoint they want to engage with us on.

What are some of your strategies for building this feeling of community?

First we do art that’s exciting and compelling and we do it in open air space where you can look around the theatre while you’re eating your sandwich and whatever you brought in for a picnic and you look around and you see the other people in the amphitheater. That already is a unifying feeling a little bit like when you go to a baseball game … you see all sorts of people and they’re all there enjoying themselves tor the same purpose. I think that’s a very energizing thing that breaks down barriers.

I think the things we tack on to the performance—the Grove talks and the talk-backs and the dramaturgy and all of that is very anchored in the now. So it gives people who are traditionalists the chance to stretch into an exciting modernity and it gives folks [for whom] maybe this is their first time going to live theatre, it gives them an anchor into the real world experience.

We’re trying to use social media not just to sell tickets but to tell stories and to give you inside insight into feelings and sensations so you’re like, “Wow, I love these people. These people are cool; I want to hang out with them.”

Can we create sort of this giant big club that can exist as an antidote to the times we live in that are so fractured and so horrible and so hateful? Can we take two hours to come together and to be really purposeful about telling stories, and feeling great, and being together. That’s my work, that’s the work I’m instilling with the team and trying to instill out to the whole company, and that’s what makes it feel not like: “Oh, how many tickets did we sell?”

What are some of the challenges you encounter in this work?

The biggest problem is there’s never enough money and that creates a scarcity mentality and in the arts we need an abundance mentality because we’re about innovation and creativity and dreams and inspiration. Feeling constantly stressed, having to squeeze every penny and dime, it can create a little bit of a desperate approach to fundraising. I think what we need most, what I’m trying to work on, is a little cushion of support, a risk capital support, to give us space to step into what we need to realize. That’s the biggest challenge from the fundraising side and that really comes down to being in people’s consciousness and that leads to… branding.

When I started this job, a lot of peoplesome of my friendsthought [Cal Shakes] was earthquake insurance. So we aren’t well enough known and I feel that’s because everyone puts their head down so much when doing great work and they’re in their tunnel and we’ve got to find ways to shout who we are from the rooftops and be real conscious and not embarrassed and not assume that people know. Because when we have our passion we assume that everyone else has it or we sort of say, “If you don’t know, too bad for you.” We can’t do that. Look at the brands that we interact with on a daily basis; they’ve all come into our consciousness.

So I think shaking the mentality that marketing your brand is a nasty thing for an arts organization. I think the biggest challenges are money, awareness, and having the courage to forge a new model.

Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Learn more about him at