An Interview With Kristen van Ginhoven, Who Started a Theater Company to Benefit Women
Five years ago, Kristen van Ginhoven was an actor and graduate student in theatre education living in Western Massachusetts. Then she went and read a book called Half the Sky. By the time she closed the cover, she had decided to start her own nonprofit: the Women’s Action Movement Theatre. I spoke with her on the phone about the repercussions of reading humanitarian journalism, the practical steps she took to get her organization going and what she’s had to give up in order to pursue a career in nonprofits and the arts.
Kristen! What is WAM?
WAM is a professional theater company to benefit women and girls. We have a double philanthropic model. The first part is to highlight women’s stories and women theater artists in the shows we produce. The second is to donate 25 percent of our box office proceeds from our main-stage productions to organizations that are taking action for women and girls. The shows run for three weeks, about 10 performances.
Tell me about yourself and what you did before you started WAM.
I was raised near Montreal, spent some time in the States when I was growing up and then moved back to Quebec. First I worked as a professional actor. But I eventually realized it wasn’t fulfilling to me in that you’re never going to have enough work.
The turning point was that I was talking to one of Canada’s top theater actors, and he was still catering in his 60’s because he needed to make more money. I thought, “This is not something I’ll be able to do my entire life.”
I wanted to find a way to have more income and stability, but keep doing theater. So I decided to get a teaching degree. Then I landed a position at an international school in Belgium, where I taught theater for four years. I really fell in love with the field of education while I was there, and for the first time I could have my own apartment and buy new clothes and take vacations.
While I was abroad I met my husband, a computer science professor. He was offered a job in upstate New York, and I was ready to get some postgraduate training in theater directing. I thought, I could act and be an adjunct professor and direct—that would be three different ways to be hired. So I decided to come with him to the States; I could get my graduate degree at Emerson College in Boston.
During this time, were you already involved with feminist activism or other kinds of social justice movements?
Amazingly, when I look back on it, I was unfortunately one of those people who felt that it was so overwhelming that I didn’t do anything. Feminism was a part of my consciousness—I was an actress in Canada and I wanted to work at the Stratford Festival, and there were literally roles for three women. I knew of gender parity issues in theater, and that this was a problem in movies, but it wasn’t something I spent a lot of time reading or thinking about.
Your website says you were inspired to start WAM when you read Half the Sky and learned about global efforts to fight poverty and inequality by empowering women economically. But that’s such a big step, to go from reading a book to starting a nonprofit theater. What was the process like?
The circumstances around reading that book and why it made such a big impression were that I was living in the States with my husband, but didn’t have a green card. I wasn’t able to work, but reading this book made me put it in perspective and realize how lucky I was.
The idea of using theater to benefit women and girls was fully formed by the time I put down the book. I thought, “I need to find a way to use what I do to help women and girls.”
What was it like to start a nonprofit?
We met with a lawyer at one point to get his advice about something, and he offered to help us pro bono so we could gain nonprofit status. I really went into it blindly. I certainly didn’t have a full picture of what it meant to run a nonprofit.
But what I really felt at the time is that, I’m not someone who’s going to get on a plane and go to a conflict zone or work with women who have been sexually trafficked. I don’t have the skills or the resilience for that. But I can create an entertaining evening in theater, and I want to use that to help people who do have the courage to be there.
What kinds of financial considerations were involved with starting WAM?
At the beginning, I couldn’t work anyway, so I was just driven by the fact that I was taking action. When I realized how much work was involved and that I was passionate about it and had the skills for it, that’s when I started thinking about how I could get a full-time paycheck.
I still don’t get a salary now—I get a stipend. I have freelance jobs on the side with ISTA [International Schools Theater Association] and I do other artist-in-residencies.
How many people do you have working for WAM, and how do you decide what to pay them?
Probably up to 100 people per year, including volunteers and the actors and the people who do behind-the-scenes work, special events and administrative duties.
We hire Equity actors, and we’re using something called the Small Professional Theater Agreement to pay them. For other workers, we have a budget and a rate that we use based on what the going rate is for other organizations of our size.
We also have people who do 10 hours a month of administrative duties or oversee the play reading series. I negotiate pay with each person, but it’s never more than a stipend, and everyone’s always working way more hours than they’re getting paid. We’re trying to give the best rate we can. At the same time, we don’t want to feel like we need to raise all this money every year, and that we’re constantly increasing our budget by an amount that feels overwhelming.
What are your long-term financial goals for WAM?
We’re not interested in becoming an enormous nonprofit. We just want to sustain one full-time person (me), a couple part-time people, and pay the people who work with us a standard wage.
That would mean that we have to get to at least three times our current size. Our current budget is $100,000, and we would have to get to at least $300,000 in order to have me as a nonprofit executive who could make a $30,000 annual paycheck, which is still extremely low. But it’s already overwhelming to raise $100,000.
At the same time, the first year, our goal was to raise $10,000 and we raised $15,000, so I can’t believe that five years later we’re at $100,000. We’ve come an enormous distance.
What kinds of sacrifices have you had to make to run the organization?
(Laughs) Living a stress-free life. At one point I took another job for six months as the coordinator of a new performing arts center, because I was feeling so upset about not earning an income. But I left when I got a call from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, asking me to be an assistant director on the play 42nd Street. I had applied to the festival prior to getting the job at the performing arts center, but I didn’t think I had gotten it. And then a lifelong dream came true.
This is the best job I could possibly have. I’m my own boss, I’m doing something I’m passionate about and creating jobs and opportunities for people. I’m an activist. But the tradeoff is that I don’t have a full-time paycheck or a job that I can just finish at 5 p.m. and go home.
There’s a lot of minutia involved too. People don’t want to input data for free, and I can’t afford to pay people to do it. So on a Friday night I might be sitting on a couch doing that when I would much rather be out having a drink.
What does your average workday look like?
What I try to do on average is be in the office by 10 a.m. and work until 6 pm. In the evening, if I have no other obligations, I’m on the couch doing another couple hours.
One thing I’m trying now is to turn off my laptop by 10 p.m. And I can’t have my phone by my bed. Otherwise I would just be doing work all the time.
It seems like people often have to have all this economic and cultural capital in order to do good professionally. What are your thoughts on the barriers to working in social justice and the arts?
It’s something I spend a lot of time trying to reconcile for myself. I can’t change the world’s perspective on work in the arts and in the nonprofit world. But I’m lucky that my husband and I have a lifestyle that just requires our nice little house and second-hand cars, and a vacation every once in a while. We’re happy with the life we have.
I’ve also realized there are different ways to be compensated. I live in a culturally rich area, and because of the work I do I get to attend a lot of incredible events—plays, museums, dance shows, galas. We could not afford to do that on our own.
In terms of the big picture of how society values money and decides on compensation, and the fact that the arts are undervalued—that continues to be a frustration. If you look at nonprofits and the arts, women are more likely to take these jobs that are lower-paid.
Did you have a tendency to be a leader before you founded WAM, or is that something that took you by surprise?
It was a surprise. My sister was a business major, and we thought she would be the one with her own business—I was the artist. I think it helps that I’m organized and a planner, which you have to be when you’re a teacher. A lot of potential sponsors respond to the fact that they see me as a grounded artist, as opposed to the flaky stereotype.
Because I’m terrified of failure, I did tons of research when I was figuring out how to start WAM. The first book I read was called, How to Run a Theater. Then I got obsessed with Gary Vaynerchuck, the “Wine Library” guy. His first book is called Crush It, about social media marketing. And then I read Fundraising for Social Change and The Artful Journey.
But really it was the people that helped. The marketing director at [local theater company] Barrington Stage spent hours with me going over what she does, and I sat down with development directors, accountants, board members. Those have all made an impression.
I read that you think part of the reason WAM has been able to succeed is its location in the Berkshires. How has location mattered?
People come to the Berkshires to collaborate. Everyone I’ve approached for help has been what we call in the improv world yes, and-ers: yes I want to help you, and what can I do. Other companies are always letting us rent space or borrow props, and we have a ton of educated staff members and people who are willing to mentor me.
What’s been easier than you expected?
I was petrified the first time I had to sell the idea, or when I had a meeting with a bank and had to ask for money. I would prepare myself the entire day and then be exhausted afterward and just go to bed. Now it’s easier. We’ve done so well, we’re a good investment, and we’ve had so much positive reinforcement.
What’s been surprisingly hard?
Getting people to actually come to the theater. I think in general, every performing arts venue has this issue. It’s so hard to get butts in seats.
I think our focus on women is a very charged topic and comes with a lot of stereotypes. People think they’re going to come into a play and see people pontificating about the terrible state that women are in today and a lot of ranting, which is not at all our aesthetic. We’re coming at the subject in an uplifting sort of way. But we generally get women and their daughters, women and their friends.
What advice would you give to somebody who has an idea about how to give back but isn’t sure where to start?
Contact somebody who works for an issue that you’re really interested in—someone who can tell you how to help. The other thing is that everyone can find their own ways to create change. It might be to be a donor and write a check, or it might be to get on a plane and go work for Doctors Without Borders. The important thing is to find a way that you’re going to feel like you’re doing something.
This is the first in a multi-part series of interviews about how people are turning philanthropic ideas into realities. To nominate a future interviewee, email email@example.com.