Worth the Risk: An Interview with Amanda White

Amanda White headshotAmanda White is a 2008 graduate of the Arts Administration program and member of ARAD’s inaugural Alumni Committee. She currently serves as the Managing Director of Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis. At Mixed Blood, Amanda was the first director of the Radical Hospitality program, which provides no-cost access to all mainstage productions for any audience member, and erases economic barriers in pursuit of building a truly inclusive, global audience.

Amanda is also an actor (she holds an MFA in theatre performance) and Co-Artistic Director (of her company, DalekoArts). She has also done stints at The William Inge Center for the Arts, Lincoln Center, The Araca Group, and Theatre Development Fund.

We had five questions for Amanda, and she had answers.

Hannah Fenlon: What were some of your most formative, exciting or surprising experiences as a performer?

Amanda White: I’ve had the true privilege of lots of exciting and surprising moments as a performer, both on stage and in rehearsal. My first time on stage was at Miss Andrews’ Preschool, in a three-act play called The Silver Thread.  My family came to see it, and they brought Wesley, the little twerp red-haired 5-year-old guy who lived next door.  It was dreamlike, and I was hooked.

The SIlver Thread
Amanda (with her mother) after her first performance of The Silver Thread.

I think the most formative experience I’ve had as an actor, though, is a summer at the School at Steppenwolf.  I spent a few months in 2007 training with the company at Steppenwolf in physical/vocal techniques and scene study.  It was probably the scariest, most exhilarating development work I’ve done as an artist.  My classmates were incredible, and we closed the summer with Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead.  It’s a gorgeous play, and it was an ensemble effort that I think changed the way I want to work.

For lack of a better descriptor, it ignited something in me—a need to collaborate in risky ways, a belief that the true power of the form is in community, a longing to work with artists who will dive really deep into not only material, but into context supporting material.

Hannah: What were some of the most critical things you took away from the ArAd program, and how have they supported your career trajectory thus far? Was there a class you took (outside of our required curriculum) that surprised you with its relevance, or changed your perspective as an arts administrator?  

Amanda: I say this with no hyperbole: the ARAD Program changed the course of my life. In terms of classes: I loved nonprofit law, Martin Vinik’s “”Business Policy and Planning” class gave me some great preparation for assessment and feasibility study, (former ArAd professor) Joan Jeffri’s work in both arts access and business constructs in the arts were fascinating, and Jane McIntosh (who I later worked with at Lincoln Center) introduced me to the high that is nonprofit fundraising; her class gave me that first spine-tingling suspicion that I might be one of those weirdos who loves raising money for a great cause. I also found it a total honor to take classes at the B-School. I learned so much about nonprofit finance and accounting there, and those concepts have played no small part in my career to date. I was also completely smitten with an Issues in the Nonprofit Theatre course taught by Gigi Bolt and Ben Cameron, a dramaturgy class taught by Christian Parker, and a theatre marketing class taught by Nancy Coyne, all at the School of the Arts.

Biggest plus by far, though? My classmates. I was in an incredible cohort of people who became my close friends, and who’ve gone on to do great things in the few years since our graduation. Having them in those classes also raised the stakes—I felt responsible for preparing for a level of conversation, research and insight worthy of thought leaders. They’ve remained my friends and colleagues in every sense of the word— they are the foundation program officers to whom I now submit grant proposals, I talk over with them ethical and practical implications of leadership decisions, and they are creating the outreach, development and documentation models I consider “crush-worthy” in our field. Take some advice from your old pal Amanda: don’t let your classmates out of your sight for more than an hour or so for the rest of your lives. You need them, and I bet they’re fairly cool.

Hannah: On a scale of “Mouse Infestation” (1) to “TONY Awards” (10), can you describe your experience in the New York arts world?

Amanda: TONY Awards. Not literally, but in terms of getting what I wanted. When I first moved to New York, I learned quickly that while Broadway was the great theatre dream of my childhood (and hear me now shout, without shame or reservation from the rooftop of the Gershwin, that I LOVE musical theatre most of all), I wanted a different kind of life in the theatre. I wanted to be immersed in community, to find ways in which theatre impacted life around it. About fifteen minutes after I unpacked my bags in my first NY apartment, I trekked over to Ensemble Studio Theatre, helmed then by the late, great Curt Dempster, to beg for a place on the team. I believed it to be an institution committed to fearless work. They let me hang around, organizing their Box Office and pulling together the company archives. I followed Curt around, watching him work and learning about how he found balance in management and artistry. It seemed to me that these little companies needed people with strong backgrounds in management and business practice who were also obsessive and passionate artists. I knew I wanted to be one of those.

I started writing grants for a few companies here and there, and realized I knew nothing about fundraising, so I went to TDF and asked the Development team if I could intern with them. They raised their eyebrow at the non-student intern, but took me on.  I watched them and worked with them to fundraise into place the new TKTS booth and staircase, and the satisfaction I felt in seeing construction start was huge.  After starting at Columbia, I got a play development internship with The Araca Group, commercial producers with an office on Broadway and 48th.  About a month after I started, the whole play development team moved on.  The principals told me that I could either find another internship, or I could manage the play development arm in the transition. I decided to take on the challenge, and I went to 4-5 plays every week for months, honing my understanding of good work, producible work, interesting and challenging work—work that’s utterly worth the risk.

After graduation, I went to work at Lincoln Center, serving on both the Strategy and Major Gifts teams. I learned there what it means to look someone in the eye and make a powerful and concise case for the impact of an arts organization on its community and field, and to then ask that person to step up personally in support. All in all, my love affair with New York will last my lifetime. I got from it what I asked for and fought for, it taught me how to do what I love, and it will always be my city.

Hannah: For those who don’t know about it, Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality model is an exciting experiment in providing audiences with no cost access to any of Mixed Blood’s programming. It’s transformed Mixed Blood’s commitment to audience and community engagement in more ways than just offering free tickets, however, as the organization has found a host of new ways to deepen audience connection to its work. You can read more about it in an interview with Amanda on Howlround and on Mixed Blood’s website, but what I’m interested in is a picture of how, if at all, the program and its mission have altered or impacted the surrounding community since its inception (and that could mean Minneapolis funders, other arts orgs, others in the nonprofit sector, etc.). Can you tell me a little about that?  

Amanda: Radical Hospitality is no longer an initiative at Mixed Blood—it’s the way we do business. When RH launched, we knew we needed to find the way in which we expand the pool of support for arts attendance. It couldn’t any longer be just about earned income; we had to prove that access to the arts is a quality of life issue for Twin Cities residents. We went to local community, foundation and corporate leaders with some of the things we were learning from Mixed Blood’s guests: that people are empowered to be more successful and healthy when they see their own community heroines and heroes on stage, and when they witness their own stories told in public spaces. Several of those leaders accepted this premise, and Mixed Blood’s work became as much about social service as art.  While some of you will no doubt argue with me that art should be appreciated for its own sake (and while I will happily high-five your insight), I believe there’s something here that gets to the heart of theatre-making.  People need it. Like they need sustenance. There’s support, love, honor and respect in community storytelling. And while that’s always been true, Radical Hospitality gave us an organized way to talk about quality of life through the arts at Mixed Blood.

Hannah: Radical Hospitality is such an impressive “national test model”, as you described it in the Howlround interview. Are there any other models (or fragments of models!) that you’re itching to test out as a theatre leader?

Amanda: YES. I have a lot of terrible, crazed ideas every day. I think some of them could work. Here are two things I’m thinking about right now: For one, I really want to figure out how to get Uber or Lyft or any “yellow cab” service on board to work with arts organizations in the city (and by “city”, in this case, I mean Minneapolis, but let’s hive mind this in all of our cities) to bring our guests to us. Transportation is one major barrier to arts access that keeps our community members from engaging with our organizations in meaningful ways. Mixed Blood has a transportation fund for this reason, but it’s limited in its resources.  What if there were places all over town where you could press a button and call an arts cab to your location, free of charge? What if you could buy or reserve your ticket in the vehicle? Think of the awesome ways in which we could track how we as a field create and develop users of the arts. (Where has Agnes Artlover gone in the art cab this month? Did her experience at the art museum prompt her to check out the symphony? Or vice versa? She could take a survey in the cab to give us quantitative data about her experiences and motivations. Obviously there are a lot of things to think through, but the possibilities are endless.)

And two, I can’t stop thinking about gamification. How can we use technology to enhance the experience for all of our guests while implementing a strong mutual sense of connectivity and play? What if the way in which you paid for a ticket was by agreeing to do something good for the community in which the arts organization exists, and it was documented “video game style” in the Lobby or performance space as you entered (e.g., I want a ticket to BAM, so I will register to read to these Brooklyn preschoolers for one hour on Thursday, and that accomplishment will pop up on a Lobby screen as I check in at the Box Office)? One of you exceptional ARADers–tell me how we do that, you hope for the future, you. And call me when you graduate. I want you to hear me say that your generative drive, your creative sense and your brave mind are what the world needs.

Amanda White is in her third season as Managing Director at Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  With a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Program in Arts Administration, she has served as a member of both the Strategy and Major Gifts teams at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in Play Development for Broadway producer The Araca Group, and as Associate Artistic Director at the William Inge Center for the Arts, where she was placed as the recipient of a Theatre Communications Group Future Leaders Fellowship. She holds an MFA in Performance from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and she is an alumna of The School at Steppenwolf Theater Company.  She has worked as a producer, director and actor for theatre companies throughout the United States, and she is currently the co-Artistic Director and a founding member of DalekoArts, an ensemble theatre company in New Prague, Minnesota.  In addition to being an adjunct faculty member at St Mary’s University, where she teaches in the Arts & Cultural Management program, she is also a member of the Board of Directors for Minneapolis’ award-winning Walking Shadow Theatre Company. Amanda is also a member of ARAD’s inaugural Alumni Committee.

Hannah Fenlon graduated from Kenyon College with a BA in Drama, and is finishing her second year in the Arts Administration program. She has worked as a freelance producer and casting director in Chicago (where she co-founded Two Birds Casting, a casting facilitation service for theatre) and spent two years as an Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago. Hannah has worked with Goodman Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Indiana Repertory Theatre, the Ojai Playwrights Conference, A Red Orchid Theatre and Theatre Communications Group, with whom she planned the 2014 National Theatre Conference in San Diego, CA and Tijuana, Mexico and the 2015 Audience (R)Evolution Convening. She also works as a Marketing Assistant for Creative Capital in NYC.

Amanda is also the first in our “Alumni Conversations” series, short-form interviews between current students and alumni. Be on the lookout for similar interviews in the coming weeks & next school year!

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