Acting for leadership

Ken-Matt Martin | Executive Director, Pyramid Theatre Company

The IdeaCreate opportunities for Des Moines business leaders to create art together, take acting classes or participate in plays in order to take a walk in another’s shoes.

“Diversity is about bodies, inclusion is about culture. You can recruit 100 more black students to your school and still have a racist campus.” – DeRay McKesson

Who is allowed to make art? It’s a question I am constantly asking myself. I seek out those who don’t often get an opportunity to be considered art makers and work to give them the tools to make theater.

Since I believe the arts should be used to educate, inspire and challenge our ways of thinking by introducing us to other ways of living, I think every Des Moines business leader should take an acting class or at least do one play in their adult life and perform it for their entire company.

Theater asks us to step outside of ourselves and our own experiences so that we can briefly experience the life of another human being. When was the last time you literally took a walk in someone else’s shoes? I believe that the arts can and should be used as a catalyst for social change.

How can we build spaces that are more equitable and inclusive by using art as a community building tool? When I directed “Fences” by August Wilson in 2014, the cast included a single mother of four, a district judge, a nurse, a teacher and an Ivy League MFA student. In what other forum does that group of people come together as a team to build something that can leave a lasting impact on their community?

Since 2015 I have been asked to contribute to a myriad of “diversity” initiatives in Des Moines. The requests to contribute to these efforts by businesses and nonprofits all have an eerie sense of familiarity in how they come my way.

Let me set the scene: I’m at my desk at home or in rehearsal and my phone chimes. It’s a nice, well-intentioned white woman (this is an important distinction because it is almost never a man) emailing or calling me blindly and asking if I’d be willing to participate in their organization’s focus group, panel or discussion so they can get a “diverse” array of voices in the room.

Typically, they are really asking me to be the sole black face that can show up and speak to issues of “diversity.” I shouldn’t have to explain this, but diverse means so much more than race. True diversity encompasses those who are racially or ethnically diverse or are members of the LGBTQIA community, differently abled, neurodivergent, liberal, conservative, all of it.

I’m not an expert on equity, diversity and inclusion issues (EDI), but I am a black man who started a nonprofit in Iowa, and you certainly learn a few things about EDI work when you’re on that journey. I believe that Des Moines will be greater when more people have an opportunity to get to know each other via making art together.

Imagine if the CEOs of Principal Financial Group and Bankers Trust co-starred in a production of the play “True West” by Sam Shepard directed by my colleague Tiffany Johnson. Can you imagine what would happen if a black woman directed two non-actor CEOs in a production about two bickering white brothers from Texas?

Magic would happen … and lots of it.

I want to challenge Des Moines to make more art together if we are going to be the city that we wish to be for the future. >

Engagement and design thinking coach

Lisa Rossi 

We should build an improv leadership academy, using improv to inspire leaders to take risks, undergo radical collaborations, live in the moment and tell stories to enact change. We could host a series of community conversations designed to increase empathy and understanding of differing viewpoints and backgrounds. Or perhaps we could create a database of people who would like to “interview” someone else in town. We could match diverse people, and then they could share their stories with others. >