Leading Kelly Strayhorn Theater: A Conversation with Joseph Hall
December 14, 2022
“My leadership style is typically collaborative. I don't like to be the only decision maker”
— Joseph Hall, Executive Director, Kelly Strayhorn Theater
In November 2022, I virtually met Joseph Hall, the Executive Director of Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST) in Pittsburgh. Joseph developed an interest in the arts at a tender age; the Church was his first inspiration.
Growing up as a preacher's kid, Joseph never missed a church service. “There is so much theater and drama within the church and religion in general. So I think as a little child being a preacher's kid, there wasn't a Sunday that would go by where I wasn't in church, singing, being in community with each other, greeting each other, hugging each other, checking up on each other, and learning from the sermon that the pastor delivered on Sundays.”
Joseph believes that theater is his church: “I'm not a church member any longer. I am not religious, but I really view the theater as my church. The church was one of my first inspirations. The other inspiration was growing up, and becoming an artist. I played the piano. I sang I was very involved in my art classes, and I went on to college to be a visual art major in sculpture and ceramics.”
He started as an intern at KST and worked his way up to the role of Executive Director. My conversation with him was about his leadership role at KST, and his inspiration to venture into arts administration.
VINCENT: What are your specific duties at Kelly Strayhorn Theater?
JOSEPH: One of my duties is to set the vision for the theater. Of course, I can't set the vision without the help of our staff, our board, and our stakeholders. It takes money to execute almost anything and so fundraising is a big part of my responsibility. Another responsibility is to create and maintain relationships with stakeholders.
VINCENT: What is your leadership style?
JOSEPH: My leadership style is typically collaborative. I don't like to be the only decision maker and I think we have so many knowledgeable people amongst us on the staff and on the board. Typically the best ideas come from conversations with various folks in a group. I base our decisions and how we're moving forward on conversations with staff, board, and stakeholders. I trust that staff members will lead projects that they are in charge of, and that they will bring problems and solutions when necessary. Our new vision for the organization is called “owning our future thriving where we live.” When I think of ownership, it’s about owning our bodies, having the ability to make decisions for our own bodies, owning our intellect, and being confident in that.
It is about owning our communities and being able to contribute to the type of neighborhood and community that we want to see in this world. And so when I think about ownership inside of the organization I also think about staff owning their contributions to the organization, their skills, their talent, and that they do have something to offer in order to reach that vision. I rely on staff members to help take us to the next level. I'm always reviewing work, reviewing decisions, and if I need to, interject, ask questions, or shift direction, because I am closest to our strategic plan and to our vision. But I try to, really rely on our staff members to get us there.
VINCENT: How has that served you under the organization so far?
JOSEPH: Well, I began this job in March 2020. That was about 2 weeks before the pandemic shutdowns. Our previous strategic plan under the previous executive director was expiring. We needed to begin a strategic planning process and decide what the next years of our organization will bring. With that process, I was adamant that all staff who wanted to participate could participate. We had selected a number of board members and select artists, and community leaders as well. We navigated the process together along with our facilitators Lisa Yancey and Jolita Crossland from Yancey Consulting to decide what our new strategy moving forward would be.
VINCENT: How have you seen the industry change in terms of management styles because of COVID-19?
JOSEPH: A few things. We certainly have to remember that during the pandemic there was a resurgence of Black Lives matter due to the murder of George Floyd. That impacted as much the way we worked as the pandemic did. There are many companies now adopting the Diversity Inclusion and Equity department or, Director of Diversity Equity Inclusion, and Access. There are predominantly white-led arts organizations in Pittsburgh that now have a shared DEI director. It was a wake-up call.
VINCENT: Does your organization have a community engagement strategy or plan? How do you engage your community?
JOSEPH: We don’t have a formal community engagement plan but we have always engaged our community. Kelly Strayhorn Theater is known for being home for the community. Our mission is to be a home for creative experimentation, community dialogue and collective action rooted in the liberation of Black and queer people so one of the ways that we engage our community is to present works that reflect current issues and topics that our community is interested in, whether that be a particular, dance program that tackles issues of social economics and identity or whether that is a conversation that we are presenting.
VINCENT: Thank you so much, do you have anything else you'd want to add specifically about the leadership at Kelly Strayhorn Theater?
JOSEPH: It's so important to infuse who you are, your background, into your role. Folks are as much interested in me as a leader as they are in Kelly Strayhorn Theater, and that's something that I've learned over the last several years. It's a vulnerable place to be but one with great reward. I am learning that who Joseph Hall is inside of this role is as important as what Kelly Strayhorn Theater does as an organization.
Herminia Ibarra asserts that “It’s not enough for leaders to spot collaborative opportunities and attract the best talent to them. They must also set the tone by being good collaborators themselves.” It appears Joseph understands this and it has served him in his leadership roles. He shared with me that his “leadership style is typically collaborative. I don't like to be the only decision maker and I think we have so many knowledgeable people amongst us on the staff and on the board. Typically the best ideas I think come from conversations with various folks in a group. So I base our decisions and how we're moving forward on conversations with staff members.”
Vincent Maluwa is a graduate student in the MFA in Theatre - Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.