The new distributive leadership model at the American Shakespeare Center connects fundraising, community engagement, and audience development
December 5, 2022
Stephanie Cabacoy shares that holding the titles of Associate Director of Development and Engagement while also working on group sales for the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) may sound “superhuman-ish,” but chalks up her ability to work across mediums to teamwork. A recent transition to a new distributive leadership model in the Staunton, VA theatre company made headlines in the The Washington Post and in American Theatre magazine in early 2022 after the company canceled their entire 2021 season. This new model, as Cabacoy will describe in the following interview, is based in lateral management, where representatives from each major department in the organization work in an egalitarian manner for decision-making. This is in juxtaposition to how the company has been hierarchically run since its founding in 1988, with one Artistic Director at the helm. With the 2022 appointment of Brandon Carter as the new Artistic Director, the company has made strides to welcome more voices to the management team by including seven other staff members who hold equal power to Carter in stewarding the future of ASC.
I had the privilege of interviewing Stephanie and asked her about her roles, the new distributive leadership model, and how developing new audiences is the key to linking community engagement and fundraising. The excerpts below are edited from the original interview for this blog.
The distributive leadership model
Liz: I would love to hear about the new leadership structure at ASC. I'm sure that you've had a lot of people asking you about the move that you've made in a co-management system. I would like to hear from an insider's perspective what that has felt like.
Stephanie: So, [often an organization is run] top down. You have somebody at the top, you have the people underneath them, and then you have everybody else, right? The distributive leadership model really puts the mission in the center of the organization that everyone is working towards; this circular goal. From this distributive leadership model, we have a representative from each of the different spheres that we have at ASC.
The four main spheres that we have are: Engagement, Production, Artistic, and Operations. Within the center is a management group where eight of us represent each of the spheres that are in charge of the day-to-day decisions of the organization. It means that not one person in this management group is making the choice, but that we are having thorough conversations from all different perspectives of the organization about any decision that is going to impact the overall company. Then, from this management group, we disperse that information out to everyone.
What this allows for is more collaboration and more communication. A good example is our production calendar and understanding: when is it a good time to do certain shows? Before, we worked like we were in a vacuum. The production calendar would be made between Artistic and Production and then later dispersed to everyone else. Getting to work with the Artistic, Production, Development, Marketing, and Education teams all in a room creates this collaborative environment. It has allowed for us to have conversations; it gives the staff cross-department educational opportunities. It makes a huge impact on our organization to make a shift like that.
Liz: It sounds like a system that requires everyone to have a very open mind. While it fosters a lot of collaboration and communication, can it be messy?
Stephanie: Yes. Yes, it is very, very messy. Does it take a little bit longer than your average, siloed, top-tier person just making one decision? Yeah, it does, but it gives us more opportunity for careful consideration, for when and why we are doing what we are choosing to do. The kind of hierarchical, top-down structure is so common, especially in theatre, which is such a collaborative medium, having things you're saying exist in silos seems like it creates a lot more difficulties down the road.
Liz: It sounds like [the distributive leadership model] creates more of an equitable experience for everybody working there, not just certain factions of the organizations. In your experience, working in this new kind of capacity, what skills are vital to be able to function in this co-management system?
Stephanie: Adaptability. Adaptability is so crucial. If Covid has taught me anything, it is that you have to be flexible.
Development and Community Engagement
Liz: How did you come to work for the American Shakespeare Center in 2014?
Stephanie: I always had a fascination for nonprofits, specifically in how they work with the community and how they become an economic vessel. Before ASC had come through downtown Staunton, it was a very low key town; but, once ASC and various arts organizations started coming in, it became such a big tourism industry. The way that non-profit arts organizations can have that kind of economic impact is something that I have always been intrigued by – how they interact with the community.
Liz: Being the Associate Director of Development and Engagement must put you directly in relationship with your community. That seems like a lot of hats for somebody to wear! What does your typical day look like?
Stephanie: I oversee Group Sales, Development, and Community Engagement. My typical day is kind of juggling all three of those. Right now, in Group Sales, we are in the midst of our student matinee season, so I have been pumping out marketing and collateral to get teachers to come back because this is our first full season without COVID restrictions. We have just been swarmed! We sent out a postcard to all of the Virginia middle and high schools contacts because we wanted to re-engage with every single school in the state. Now, we are taking the requests from each of those teachers and it is being funneled through my group sales team.
In Development, I have a team of four who cultivate major donors and prospects. One of the ways that we do that is through events, like the Shakespeare Uncorked series. We bring in a local winery or brewery to do a tasting before a show; it's a low stakes way we can interact with the patrons, see where they're from and get to know them. It's not an opportunity for us to ask for money – it’s getting to know our audience. We are also currently working on a higher-end series, the Founders Salon, where we invite a special guest and our co-founder, Dr. Ralph Allen Cohen. This is the busiest time of the year, so we're also gearing up for our end-of-year appeal, which is our annual appeal that happens between Thanksgiving and mid-January, where all donors are invited to support the theater and the work that we do.
In Community Engagement (which is a relatively new area for ASC), our Artistic Director Brandon Carter has a vision for ASC: bringing new voices to the table and breaking bread together. So, I find community partners that overlap in the themes of what we're producing on stage. For instance, when we did Macbeth, I thought we could have a blood drive on opening night! It was a stretch of a partnership, but we had a good number of our patrons participate, and it nearly doubled the local American Red Cross’ collection for that day! Another partnership was when we were doing Romeo and Juliet, our main student matinee title this season. Since Covid, the suicide rate for teens has nearly doubled – so, we partnered with Mental Health America and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We had all of our actors & staff trained in mental health with this program called Safe Talk. They helped give us the tools to be able to point out if somebody in the audience is becoming triggered, and have the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention representative onsite for every single student that day. For Community Engagement, it's bringing different aspects of the community into the playhouse, and sharing out from the playhouse what these other organizations do to our audiences.
Liz: How incredible to hold each of these positions and see how they intertwine. In other organizations, your jobs are often split between several different people. While you shared that you have help in your different departments, how would you say that you're able to manage being able to professionally manage that?
Stephanie: It really all banks on having a solid team. I have routine check-ins and conversations so that everyone has what they need from me, and I have what I need from them. It's knowing when to delegate, which is the hardest part when you become so invested in a project, knowing that at some point I gotta let this go into the hands of someone else. I would not be able to do half the stuff I can do without a solid team.
Liz: I can imagine there being a variety of challenges in your positions. What is the biggest hurdle that you have faced recently?
Stephanie: I think it's finding a way to get back to where we were in regards to the high levels of engagement. Specifically in the development world, the past two years have been hard for us to engage with our donors. We had to socially distance, we couldn't host events – our organization shrunk down to a bare-bones staff. Now, as we are ramping up with shows and events, it's really about making people feel re-welcomed and reengaged, especially as we head into our 35th anniversary.
New Audience Development
Liz: It's been so wild to see so many theaters, presenting houses, and arts organizations grapple with the pandemic. I can imagine it being an interrelated challenge for you with Development and Community Engagement. How do you re-engage the donors and make them feel “re-welcomed” back into the organization? How do you go about creating and implementing a development campaign for the ASC?
Stephanie: There has to be more to engage with to entice people to come back to ASC. We can crank out as much marketing information as we want, but if that meter isn't moving we have to find a way to make that meter move. This past October, we did a community concert called No Man Can Hinder Me by the Shenandoah Valley Juneteenth Organization. They performed African American poetry and music, and took us through a journey of Black history, which touches on our season’s themes with The Tempest and Une Tempete. In December, we have the Staunton Choral Society and the Voices of Unity. We're looking to continue our partnership with the Heifetz Music Institute and the Staunton Music Festival, who also bring their own audiences. And so, by branching out into community engagement, it's really about new audience development. We get to meet with these audiences, we get to talk about our shared experiences. In development, it takes a series of steps in order to get to the ultimate ask. If a theater or an arts organization is like, “Here's this cool thing we're doing. Come join us. Come be a part of it.” Then you're a part of it, you're invested in it.
Liz: I don't think I ever really considered how close development and engagement really are, or how they feed one into another – especially when you're talking about community partnerships.
Stephanie: The whole point is bringing people and art together, creating different audiences that can all enjoy the same types of content. We get to do programming that clearly matters.
Liz: Any final thoughts or advice for someone like me who will be re-entering the field after grad school?
Stephanie: Any opportunity is always like a learning opportunity. I did not start out in Development. I was working at ASC while I was in grad school, but in the Marketing department. When I interned at ASC in the Development department, it gave me a whole new perspective. Any opportunity for you to learn a different perspective of an organization… explore it.
Thriving in a collaborative environment, while “messy,” can be integrated into each level of artistic leadership. I look forward to seeing the model of lateral decision-making incorporated into more theatrical organizations as diverse voices are welcomed into executive management circles. If a theatre company that celebrates classical work can also be on the forefront of modern, equitable administration, then maybe other historied organizations can make that same leap if they take Stephanie’s advice and “explore it.
About Stephanie Cabacoy
Stephanie Anne A. Cabacoy approaches all that she does with a passion for building strong meaningful relationships. As the Associate Director of Development and Engagement, Stephanie oversees group sales, manages fundraising campaigns, and serves as the main point of contact for community partnerships.
She has been instrumental in establishing partnerships with the Staunton Kindness Challenge, the Shenandoah Valley Juneteenth Organization, Mental Health of America, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Stephanie also serves on the Staunton Tourism Advisory Board and collaborates with the Staunton Downtown Development Association.
Since joining ASC in 2014, she continues to build bridges between both local and national organizations and the work being produced on the Blackfriars stage. If you are interested in joining forces with American Shakespeare Center, reach out! Her door is always open or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephanie is a member of the management group, a co-equal group of individuals responsible for all vital facets of the company who provides leadership and primary oversight of ASC’s operations, programming, production, and engagement in a manner that supports ASC’s mission and vision. She holds a Master of Arts in Arts Management from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science from Mary Baldwin University.
Liz Gray is a graduate student in the MFA in Theatre - Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech