In 2012, Dramatics sat down with Julie Cohen Theobald to discuss her first year as the executive director of the Educational Theatre Association.

ONE EVENING in the winter of 2011, Julie Cohen Theobald (then Woffington) was paging through the messages on the Cincinnati community theatre email listserv, which she tried to keep up with when she could spare a few moments between the demands of her job and her duties as the mother of two small children. One message caught her eye: The Educational Theatre Association was looking for a new executive director.

Julie Cohen Theobald

Julie Cohen Theobald

She had never heard of the organization — even though she had lived in the same city as its headquarters for 15 years — and anyway, she wasn’t looking for a job. She was happy with the one she had as managing director for Procter & Gamble’s Frederic Fekkai line of hair products. She deleted the message.

Still, the idea of running a national organization devoted to school theatre had a certain nagging appeal. Theobald’s own involvement in theatre stretched back to fourth grade, when her mother had enrolled her in an after-school musical theatre program in the northern suburbs of Chicago where she lived. It continued at Glenbrook North High School and reached a peak of sorts while she was working on an undergraduate degree in public policy at Duke. There she was cast in several shows produced by a student-run musical theatre group, made her debut as a musical director on a production of Godspell, appeared in two drama department productions, and spent the break before her junior year doing summer stock in Texas. After earning her MBA at the University of Chicago, she went to work at P&G and quickly got involved in Cincinnati’s community theatre scene, rehearsing and music-directing shows at night while she ran North American marketing for Tide laundry detergent during the day.

She had given some thought to the possibility of pursuing a second career in arts management someday. A year or so before, she had even arranged to meet with some Cincinnati professional theatre executives, trying to get a reading on how she might prepare for such a transition. But that was a long-term plan, maybe five or 10 years in the future.

Still. Later that night (or maybe it was the next day: Theobald doesn’t remember exactly), she opened her deleted messages folder and found the email about the EdTA job.

Which is how, to shorten a long story, we happened to be sitting in her office on a July afternoon 18 months later talking about her first year as executive director of the Educational Theatre Association. Here’s how the conversation went.

You stepped off the corporate career track, where you had been very successful, to take a job in the nonprofit sector. Isn’t that a little bit crazy?
In some ways, my move to this job seems crazy, and in other ways it’s like my entire life led me to this. I was in theatre growing up, and I’ve kept at it. I majored in public policy, which has a lot of issues related to this job. Going into my senior year of college, I worked as an intern at the Kennedy Center, and that’s where I first began to contemplate the idea of arts management. I had an arts management certificate from Duke, and I thought about arts administration pretty seriously when I graduated from college.

It was crazy in that I wasn’t expecting it or looking for it, in terms of the timing of it. But I feel like it wasn’t crazy at all. It was actually a very easy decision once I started getting into it.

It’s been a busy year since then. Have you been able to check off most of the things that were on your list the day you started?
I only have three things that I keep on my desk all the time. One of them is my monitoring reports, to make sure that I don’t miss my reports [to the board]. One of them is my personal calendar because I’ve been trying to do a better job of remembering people’s birthdays. And then the third thing that I keep on my desk is my 2011-12 focus areas. I did this in my first month on the job. This is my personal checklist.

There were four things on it. Establish a strong reputation — building respect and rapport with the staff and the board and the chapter directors. Take over the operation — have a smooth transition. Lay the groundwork for the future in a five-year strategic plan. And professional development, which was more about my own understanding of nonprofit management. And there are detailed items under each of those headings.

And I feel really good about the checklist. One thing I had on here — establishing a regular communication rhythm with stakeholders — is something I would still like to structure a little bit more.

Julie Cohen Theobald at her first International Thespian Festival in 2011.
Julie Cohen Theobald at her first International Thespian Festival in 2011. Photo by Don Corathers.

What are the things you learned during your time at P&G that you think have been the most helpful to you in this job?
There’s so much that P&G has helped me with. So many things come naturally now that I was not very good at 15 years ago. The biggest thing that P&G does is train you to be a leader. When I came here and heard there were folks that were skeptical because I wasn’t a teacher, I wanted to say, “I’m not coming here to be a teacher. I’m coming here to be a leader.”

I think I’ve learned to listen to what people need and then communicate that in a really simple way so that everybody can embrace it. That’s what I have tried to do with the strategic plan. The whole strategic planning process, that came directly out of the P&G playbook.

Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from P&G that I’m applying here is: When you’re launching a product, say you’re launching a laundry detergent, the way you start is understanding the consumer. A.G. Lafley, who was CEO at P&G for a long time, had a simple saying: “The consumer is boss.” And whenever you get into a useless debate and can’t resolve it, you go back to “The consumer is boss.” What does the consumer need? What does the consumer want? Here, it’s like, the member is boss. We’re here to serve members, just like P&G exists to serve consumers, whether they are consumers of laundry detergent or paper towels or theatre education.

So, you start with the member: What’s on their mind, what do they need, what are the barriers, and then you need to structure the work around meeting those needs.

Why is school theatre important?
One thing is just the skills it teaches, which are life skills. It’s interesting to go to meetings in Washington and hear about how education is changing. There was a video that I saw about how education used to be like a factory. It was all rote learning. Now, there’s an increased emphasis on problem-solving and critical thinking. It’s all about how you think, how you relate to people, getting people to follow you, coming up with ideas, getting folks to believe in those ideas, communicating. All those things that education now needs to teach are really experienced in theatre. It’s just a great way to learn. It’s an engaging way to learn.

So, there is the educational value of the skills that are taught. And then there’s a secondary thing I hear a lot: Kids feeling like they can belong, and huge issues with bullying in this country, huge issues with self-esteem. I believe that almost all the social problems in this world trace back to self-esteem issues, whether it’s drugs or crime, child abuse, acts of violence, all those things go back to that. Theatre, when done well in the right environment, creates a family and an openness and an empathy for other people, by putting yourself in the character’s shoes, that I think makes people into better humans and that can help with a lot of the really big problems we have right now in this country.

It’s also got that built-in mechanism for positive response.
Um-hmm. The high, the adrenaline. Yes, totally. My kids are doing theatre for the very first time. My son is 5 years old now, he was 4 when he was in Willy Wonka [which Theobald music-directed at a Cincinnati community theatre last winter]. I remember the look on his face from the applause after the first night, and afterward he was so energized. On the second night, he started to really get it, and by the second weekend his performance was just lifted. He was so confident. In the beginning, he did all the moves and sang all the words, but the second weekend the way his face lit up, it was like, you know, he’d got the bug. I think there’s a spirit and a life when you’re onstage that hopefully carries through beyond that.

That must have been a moment for you.
Oh, I’m going to start crying right now. It was awesome.

What are the core strengths of this organization in your view?
Scale is a huge strength. Wow, do we have scale. Sometimes I think we don’t always use that scale to get everybody to understand the power that we can have. … We’re spread across the country, we’re strong in a lot of states. I think the passion for the mission is an important strength. Everyone’s got a passion for the mission. It’s something we all can agree on.

Just in terms of organizational strength and stability, if you look at our tax returns, our balance sheet, we are a very strong, stable organization, and we’ve got resources to accomplish whatever we want to accomplish.

I think we have amazing people. I’m amazed by the amount of stuff that we get done with the relatively small staff we have and by the passion that they have. And then we have these amazing volunteers. People do incredible things for us because they care, and they want to. So, I think the people are a huge strength.

The students, the student leadership — I think that’s an untapped strength. We leverage some of it, but gosh, we’ve got 80,000 students around the country and some incredible leadership and spirit. Right now, we still have a long way to go in terms of the tools to bring everybody together, so they’re not just coming together 3,000 at a time at the International Thespian Festival, but they’re able to communicate and work together on bigger stuff all the time.

I would also say that the board is a strength. We’ve got a dedicated, professional, productive board. There’s a healthy board dynamic, and not every arts organization can say that.

And what are the things that we need to work on?
Those things are listed in our strategic plan. I don’t think we have a lot of deficiencies. I think we have a lot of untapped potential.

You know, technology is one of the things I think we were starting to fall behind on, and I think we’re quickly catching up. That’s going to be something we never stop working on because technology is always in a state of change. …

Other things we need to work on: I think we’re the world’s best-kept secret. The fact that I have been involved in theatre my entire life, that I was living in Cincinnati a few miles from this office, and I had not heard of this organization, says to me we have a long way to go in terms of building our awareness and our stature. We’re doing it. We just have to share what we’re doing already with more people and the right people.

Diversity and access. We have a long way to go both in our own organization as well as in the field of theatre education. We know from the data that it’s really unfortunate that the people who probably could most benefit from theatre education, those students in high-poverty schools, are the ones getting it the least, so we have a long way to go in the field. But we also have a long way to go in our organization. That was one of the first things I noticed when I came to Lincoln [for the International Thespian Festival] last year, that there’s not a lot of visible diversity.

The fourth big opportunity we’ve identified is involvement and engagement. It seems like we’ve got this core group of people who are like the EdTA diehards, and they’re at the festival and they’re at the conference, and they’re volunteering for this and they’re volunteering for that, and they’re in the Hall of Fame. They’re wonderful people, and we would die without them. Then there’s a whole lot of people who are kind of more peripherally involved. They use the Thespian points in their school, they may or may not go to a state conference, they probably read the magazine, but they’re not as emotionally and physically involved and engaged as that core group. And I think the more we can get of that involvement, the more we’ll be able to get done, and the more impact we’ll be able to have on the field when it comes to advocacy. The question is, how do we ignite all these folks who are kind of in a more passive role right now into a more active role?

Julie Cohen Theobald, Jason Daunter, and Brian Curl at the 2012 International Thespian Festival.
Julie Cohen Theobald, Jason Daunter, and Brian Curl at the 2012 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Don Corathers.

What is your personal vision for where this organization will be and where school theatre will be five years from now, 10 years from now?
Right now, about 50% of high schools have theatre in the curriculum. And it’s under threat; it’s in a defensive mode. In public elementary schools, only about 4% of students have regular access to theatre. It’s almost nonexistent. So, my vision — and I don’t know if it’s five, 10, or 50 years — is that the majority of K-12 schools have theatre education in the curriculum, and that it’s expected and valued and recognized.

In some schools, everybody is involved in the theatre program and the whole community is behind it and it’s huge, and the football players are involved, and the choir teacher is happy about it. Then there are other schools where it’s this tiny thing in the corner, if it exists at all. I would love to see the majority of schools have thriving theatre programs, starting with high schools, then working our way down to the lower levels.

I think that’s the end goal. It’s hard to figure out how to make that happen, but I feel like the stronger the organization is, the bigger we get, the more resources we have, the more people we get involved, the more impact we can have on how decisions about school theatre programs are made. Some of them are made at a community school board level, and it’s one passionate teacher that turns it around.

Advocacy work needs to happen at every level. There’s a community and school board district level, there’s the state level, and there’s the national level. So, I feel that the stronger the organization is, the more we can have an impact at all levels. We can have a bigger impact in D.C. if someday we have an office there, and we have a professional lobbyist, and I have direct relationships with members of Congress. If you see where music is in the curriculum, they’ve made some strides, and we can look to get to that same level nationally.

At the local level, we need to give teachers opportunities to be part of a network, so they don’t feel like they’re on an island. They can go online and converse with other teachers all around the country, and we give them stuff to help them make their school board presentation, and their peers are rooting them on. And at the state level, it would be great if we had the staff resources to support our chapter directors on state issues like teacher certification and curriculum standards.

You sound like a person who is happy with the choice she made a year ago.
I’m very happy. I really feel like it’s a great fit. Like any job, I have tough days; I get stressed. But in general, when I come to work every day, when I go to bed at night, I feel very grateful this worked out.

This story is excerpted from the September 2012 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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