Geri Wright has long loved the theater. Now, she’s taking on the mantle of managing director at the Arizona Theatre Company, replacing Billy Russo after his four-year stint. She arrived in early January and is ready to stabilize the organization.
“Theater is my favorite art form,” Wright says. “It always has been. I feel like my experience in the nonprofit and charitable world really can play a significant part of the managing director role at ATC.”
ATC is often called the state’s theater company. In its 53rd season, it is a professional, resident theater that performs in Phoenix and Tucson in front of 130,000 guests each year. This past year, Sean Daniels took the helm of artistic director. The first season he has chosen for 2020-2021 will be announced soon.
Wright spent eight months at ATC as the senior director of development for the 2014-2015 season. She then went on to be the executive director, president and CEO of Act One Arizona, an organization that brings arts to children and schools in Arizona. She’s looking forward to bringing her talents to the ATC table.
“Act One really prepared me for this role,” Wright says. “It’s a young organization and I built it. It was 4 years old and is now 8. I more than doubled, almost tripled the budget, quadrupled staff, built the infrastructure and developed the board. Infrastructure really matters. You have to have a solid board and staff and a solid staff communication. If that is in place, everything else will grow.”
Act One arranges and pays for field trips for children from Title 1 schools to attend arts and cultural events. They also spearhead the Culture Pass that is available in Metro Phoenix and Tucson libraries. Arizona residents can check out the free Culture Passes that allows them to visit cultural organizations and more than 120 different performances.
Under Wright’s leadership, Act One more than doubled the number of field trip participants to 180,000 and the Culture Pass partnered with 60 arts organizations.
Upon announcing her departure on its website, the Act One board president cites Wright’s leadership as being the foundation to the growth they experienced.
“Geri’s leadership has been instrumental to the expansion Act One has experienced over the past several years,” says Mistie Hague Wishaar, the board president. “Her ability to build organizational capacity through board development, a focused mission and vision, sustainable fundraising and efficient program management has established Act One as a critical partner for arts organizations, schools and libraries to bring access to the arts throughout our communities.”
Wright feels strongly that a love for the arts begins in childhood, which is why it is important to expose young people to the arts. She remembers a field trip during her childhood in upstate New York when she was taken to see her first Radio City show—the Rockettes.
“I remember driving down to the city, the velvet curtains, the little seats, the legs flying and the costumes,” Wright says. “I was hooked. I thought this is amazing and people make a living doing this. I was only 10. That’s where it really started with me.”
Now back at ATC, she’s ready to apply all the skills she’s learned. She points out that nearly all performing arts organizations are right on the cusp of a deep crevice that threatens their sustainability. It’s the sort of position that she is well-equipped to work from and to help ATC back away from that danger spot.
She says many needed elements are already in place. She praises her predecessor, Billy Russo, for turning the organization to a positive future and cites the artistic brilliance and talent of Daniels.
“The biggest change that needs to happen is really mobilizing,” Wright says. “That’s the secret to success—mobilizing people to a common goal, whether that is fund raisers or board members or staff or volunteers. That’s what I plan on doing.”
China Young, the former executive assistant to the managing director and board liaison who is now the artistic manager for ATC, has been working with Wright to help her sort through the company’s infrastructure. She says Wright has been working at understanding what structures currently exist, what needs to change and what could just be supported.
“In another year, we’ll really be able to start flying as an organization,” Young says.
Young says throughout the changes, Daniels and Wright are the perfect team to bring stability to the organization.
“She is excellent at organization and communication and I think that is something that ATC is in desperate need of,” Young says. “We have been in a state of transition for so many years. With Sean coming on board, it is very clear that he is dedicated to ATC for all the right reasons. He won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. It’s a good opportunity for us to really look at our structure and how that needs to be addressed. (Wright) is an excellent person for that.”
Wright comes to ATC with a strong belief that the arts are critical to the health of a community and that the theater has a vital role to play in the cultural life of the state.
“Arts are really important to the community and to Arizona in general,” she says. “I passionately believe in it. I’m a motivator. I’m a realist. There are certain practical steps to get to an end goal. Once you break it down, it makes it more realistic and then people can buy into it easier.”
Her long career in the arts, including getting her start as an administrator at a museum, helped her develop the ability to identify and execute the necessary steps to lead ATC toward continued, sustained success. Positioning the theater to do that takes a combination of administrative, management and leadership skills to keep the theater vibrant and positioned to grow and thrive.
“As my career has progressed, I have gotten older, wiser and stronger,” Wright says. “Because of my basic knowledge and success as a fundraiser, moving that into the administrative end of it and the building governance and structure and financial, which I love as well, it makes me a unique combination to be at ATC. I enjoy the arts a great deal, but I’m a builder. I love building and making sure the teams are solid and the structure is in place and really looking for growth.”
Wright says one of her main strengths is building a team that has a mutual vision and shared goals. It is a team that stretches from the board to the staff to volunteers. While some in the theater industry look upon their boards as being symbolic or necessary evils, Wright rejects that philosophy. She says a successful board rolls up its sleeves and gets involved.
“I can bring that cohesion to the board,” Wright says. “The board members are my thought partners. In an ideal world, they are my coaches, my trouble shooters. It’s a hand-in-hand relationship. That’s what I’m planning on moving the ATC board toward. It’s a good, solid board, definitely. We just have to start moving in the same direction. All it takes is a leader.”
ATC is organized so that all artistic production staff reports to Daniels and all development, marketing and fundraising staff reports to her. On day two at her new position, she says her first step was to really look into the areas that she is responsible for to make sure they have the right people in the seats and that they’re all moving in the same direction. She says she trusts Daniels that he has all of his house in order. Together, she feels they will be able to put their state theater on a national stage.
“We are moving in that direction,” Wright says. “I think Sean’s vision to produce more shows that travel from Arizona is going to happen. He’s very talented and I’m excited for the future of ATC. I believe in him. I think he’s got a great vision.”
They are a team that complements each other, she says, because they are both communicators who err on the side of over communicating rather than being reticent. They form a partnership where they are more alike than different, but their differences help bring new viewpoints to the table and widen both of their perspectives.
“I’m clearly not as creative as he is,” Wright says. “He’s got the creative side; I’m more of the logical and business side. The two complement each other and we look at things differently.”
With everyone she works with as she undertakes this new mission and role, Wright is eager to build on her success at energizing and inspiring all who work at the theater.
“I love building teams,” Wright says. “Because this is the truth. No one does this alone. No one leads an organization by themselves. No one does all the fundraising or governance. If they say they do it alone, they’re not being truthful.”
Arizona Theatre Company