Wonder Women is a blog series that lets me introduce you to amazing businesswomen doing remarkable work. Meet Sarah K. Chaplin, President and CEO at State Theatre New Jersey.
Built in 1921 as an opulent movie palace in the heyday of silent film and vaudeville, State Theatre New Jersey (STNJ) is now the premier venue for the New Brunswick arts community and a proud member of the League of Historic American Theatres. Last August, Sarah Chaplin was appointed to lead STNJ into its second century of providing world-renowned programs and arts access to the community. An accomplished arts management executive with an established reputation for turnarounds, Sarah’s mission is to ensure STNJ remains a vibrant institution for the benefit of the people of Middlesex County and the entire region. Find out why Sarah is uniquely qualified to helm this beloved venue.
Q: When did you first realize that you were doing your life’s work?
A: I’m passionate about presenting theater because it has the possibility of exposing people to new ideas. I experienced this vividly one evening when I was managing a two-venue facility. On one side was the symphony season opening and on the other side was Drake, the rap artist. So, we had a mix of two audiences who were obviously very different. Before the start of the symphony, an elegant woman in her 80s wearing a beautiful fur coat came up to the house manager and me in the lobby and asked what was going on in the other theater. We told her it was a rap concert. She asked if she could peek in and we said, “Sure – be our guest!” The woman stood in the back of the theater for a couple of minutes and when she came back, she said, “Well now I can tell my granddaughter I’ve been to a rap concert.” That’s when I realized that presenting theater is where my heart is because it connects us.
Q: What is the one word that best describes you?
A: I think “tenacious” is the one word that I would probably use the most. Through my tenacity I have the drive to see things through that I believe in. I have the stubbornness not to give up. It’s a common trait of women in business because we have to believe in ourselves and what we’re doing. We have to be tenacious about seeing it through and not accepting “no” for an answer.
Q: What is the one daily practice that energizes you the most?
A: I like nothing more than to go and sit in an empty theater. There is something special that I love about sitting in an empty theater and imagining it filled with people. I just absorb all the joy, excitement and energy that lingers there, and all that I believe comes to that room.
One of the other things that I love most about my job is sitting in a theater full of people. I watch the audience more than the show. I just like to watch their reactions and hear their gasps and laughter and sighs. So, I go into the theatre and I imagine all that has been and will be. It’s like a sacred place to me. I believe that theaters are living, breathing things. We have to use the past to breathe life into the future. We have to encourage people to come so that they can create their own histories with the theater and thereby pass those onto their children and friends. The theatre is a building, but it’s also a feeling. It’s four walls, but it’s a place to come together and I think historic theaters like State Theatre New Jersey have that wonderful nostalgia aspect to them as well as the opportunity to be a part of the future.
Q: What can women do to realize their ambitions?
A: Be tenacious! We have to continue to push, not only for ourselves, but also for each other. We have to help each other and not see each other as competitors. We’re all in this together and we need to embrace and celebrate the things that make us distinctly women.
As a woman, I don’t approach a problem a same way a male in the same position would and I can’t pretend that I ever will. I have a different experience and there is strength in that experience. My way is not wrong and me accepting that my way is not wrong helps other people know that it’s not wrong. If I trust myself then others will trust me. The Arts is a very difficult industry for women at the top. There aren’t that many of us. We constantly have to think about how our male counterparts approach their work, and how we can do it differently by embracing the differences.
Q: How has your skills in communication helped you be an effective leader?
A: I think my background in the theater is very helpful because I’m a storyteller. So, I am able to paint a picture for people I’m talking to. I think that allows me to use words in a powerful way. I also always try for transparency when I’m communicating. I am known to come into organizations that need to be fixed. It was not anything I ever intended to be, but it’s just how it worked out. I’ve found that to bring about change I must be transparent and truthful. My ability to tell a story and to be clear in that story telling is probably what has helped the most.
Q: Being trained in the theater, do you adopt a certain persona as a leader when you are communicating to key audiences?
A: No. I gave up acting a long time ago in favor of paying my rent. I don’t regret it for one tiny second. The path I chose was the right path for me. But I do think that I certainly call upon some of my training and experiences as an actor. I think that I have a dramatic flair when it’s appropriate and that certainly comes from some of my training. You learn the arc of a story and use it to help the arc of a conversation and guide it where it needs to go. And when I speak to larger audiences, I’ll call upon my specific training for vocal control. It’s a valuable skill to be able to utilize, but I never would have thought it would be helpful to me as a leader.
Q: Who is the most interesting influencer for you right now?
A: I would say that my female peers who have succeeded in becoming leaders at art institutions are definitely great influencers for me. Deborah Rutter, who is the President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, is an incredible woman and very inspiring. I’m also inspired by the women who have taken the lead in terms of changing our political landscape. Over 100 women were elected in Congress last year. I think that will start influencing a lot of things and I look forward to being a part of it.
Q: What motives you?
A: The roar of the crowd or the collective gasp or the eyes of a child lighting up with wonder when a circus acrobat swing out over the audience. I thrive off the energy that an audience produces. It motivates me and it’s why I go to almost every show we have. I want to gauge the audiences’ reactions. I want to talk with them and know that we’re going on the right path and bringing in performances that touch them.
Over the holidays, we co-produced with Crossroads Theatre Company a community event celebrating the various cultural traditions. That really motivated me too – just to see the people who had otherwise never been to the theater really get engaged. Finding new ways to get a more diverse audience and to be here for the community and do things with them rather than for them motivates me.