Jennifer Bielstein ’11 EMBA began her career in theatre in Chicago the traditional way, she jokes: by working in a restaurant. But she quickly found a job in the box office at Apple Tree Theatre, then moved to marketing at Northlight Theatre and Steppenwolf, which led to her first executive director opportunity, at Writers Theatre. From there, she moved to Louisville, where, while serving as managing director of Actors Theatre of Louisville for a decade, she also managed to make time to earn an executive MBA at Bellarmine. In 2016, she moved to Minneapolis as managing director at the Guthrie Theater, and on Sept. 1, she became executive director of the acclaimed American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco. The native Texan is married to Shane Spaulding, who was a stage manager when they met in Chicago and now works in events management.
What drew you to theatre?
My junior year of high school I took a theatre class. At that time, I fell in love with the experience of creating plays. I knew early on that the collaborative nature of working with a team to create a production was something I wanted to be a part of in my career.
Describe a transformative moment you’ve experienced in the audience.
There are so very many. I think the best are when you learn about yourself and when you learn about others. For me, there are productions that have caused me to reflect on my personal relationships—Time of Your Life, Three Days of Rain, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Seascape. There are some productions that are haunting and impactful as I see others’ lives portrayed—Buried Child, The Christians, Detroit ’67, Seven Guitars and Cardboard Piano. I have the great pleasure of seeing many plays, so these are just a few that immediately come to mind.
What are your duties as executive director at A.C.T.?
I am co-CEO, working in partnership with the artistic director to lead the organization. We will work together to provide overall leadership, strategy and direction, to shape our core programs, and to represent the theater locally and nationally. I specifically oversee a team of people leading marketing, development, finance, HR, IT, facilities, visitor services and general operations.
What part did Bellarmine play in your professional story?
I wanted to pursue an MBA for some time. During my first few years in Louisville, I encountered a number of people associated with Bellarmine and continued to learn of the caliber of its programs, so I ultimately decided to pursue the executive MBA to fulfill my goal. The program has been incredibly useful to me. As a nonprofit leader, I really wanted to ensure that my brain was thinking of things from all angles, so it was quite useful to participate in an MBA program that was not specific to nonprofits or the arts. I especially enjoyed learning from others in my class and my cohort partners. We had a group that nicely represented a diversity of business perspectives, from the military, international business, manufacturing, large national retail, service and more.
Funding for arts education always seems to be under siege in favor of “important” subjects—i.e., subjects that will lead to jobs. Yet a city’s arts scene is also touted when companies are looking to relocate. Why do you think the arts are an important part of American life?
I could probably spend this entire interview on this one! There are studies that prove that: Participation in the arts leads to more success in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Arts advocates say that it should be changed to STEAM to add arts to this mix. Participation in the arts leads to stronger communities: We build empathy as audiences learn about themselves, learn about others or are simply entertained. Empathy builds stronger communities.
Participation in the arts leads to more active citizens who vote, who volunteer and who are active in their communities.
A.C.T. recently commissioned a study of gender inequity in leadership at members of the League of Resident Theatres, where women haven’t held more than about 25% of artistic or executive director positions in any one year over the past two decades. What advice do you have for women who want to attain a role like yours?
Find mentors and sponsors who can provide counsel to you and who can help you to achieve career growth. I have been fortunate to have several, and I continue to turn to them and to be grateful to them for their support and advice. Be fearless and persistent, and advocate for yourself. I have found over the course of my career that there have been moments, especially early on, where I have had to very proactively sell myself to convince recruiters or boards that I am capable. For women in leadership roles, support others and lead by example. It was as I left Louisville that I really learned how much of an impact I had on other women who simply found hope and inspiration in observing me in a leadership role. That has inspired me to continue to take on leadership roles locally and in the field so that I can continue to serve as a model to others.
By Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org