New CEO Kwofe Coleman says the Muny must represent all of St. Louis
Kwofe Coleman started working at the Muny for a simple reason: When he turned 16 and wanted a summer job, that’s where his older sister was taking the family car every evening to her own job as an usher.
Coleman got a job there too, pushing theatergoers who use wheelchairs up and down the outdoor theater’s steep aisles. After years of summer work and an education at Emory University, he’s been at the Muny full time since 2008. Coleman has managed various parts of the organization’s efforts — as house manager, staff accountant, director of communications and managing director.
He became president and CEO at the start of the year. Coleman takes the reins at a time when the Muny is completing a $100 million capital campaign, facing uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic and working to diversify the organization at all levels.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin asked Coleman, 39, about his history with the Muny and his priorities in his new job.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: The Muny is one of the best-funded arts organizations in St. Louis. But because of the pandemic you were essentially dark in 2020 and had a limited season last year. What shape will the Muny’s finances be in if you’re not able to go back to a full schedule in 2022?
Kwofe Coleman: Like at any institution, anytime you lose revenue that you planned on, everything gets a little bit tighter. So it'll be tight, if you lose another season. But this place has operated with a high level of financial responsibility, so we are in a position to withstand it. We're in a position to be here for the long haul, for sure.
Goodwin: You’ve had a lot of time to think about what you might do here if you had the chance to lead. What are some of your goals?
Coleman: One of the top goals is to make sure that our audience and the people that come to this theater, that it's representative of the community that we serve. It's a goal to make sure that we continue to strive to make sure that our audience represents all of St. Louis. That when a person comes into this theater, they see a reflection of themselves on the stage, they see a reflection of themselves in the audience, on the backstage crews, in the musicians. Across the board.
Goodwin: This is one of the longest-running and highest-profile arts organizations in St. Louis. You happen to be the first African American to lead this organization. Why is that important?
Coleman: That's an immense source of pride for me. I am in this position due to hard work and being what I believe is the best-qualified person for it, but I come to this job with my identity and carry my identity with a lot of pride. I talked a little bit earlier about people coming into this theater and seeing reflections of themselves onstage or backstage, but, you know, it's also to see reflections of themselves in all levels of leadership. So, I take that with a high sense of pride, but also a high sense of responsibility.
I've earned this position. And I need to make sure that young people understand that they have the opportunity to earn the same type of position. I hope that the next time there's a me, it's not even really a special story that they're an African American or person of color. Because talent and skill knows no color boundaries, only opportunity and access seem to.
Goodwin: In 2019, the St. Louis American Foundation gave its Corporate Diversity Award to the Muny. And at the time, you remarked to the St. Louis American that when you attend a staff meeting at the Muny, you look around and see more diversity than when you may go to an industry gathering of theater people from around the country. How diverse is the staff here?
Coleman: You know, I’m proud of the diversity of the staff. I think there are always steps to make. We have a really great mix of individuals from an ethnic standpoint, gender, sexual orientation, you name it. I think sometimes the word diversity gets so narrowly defined. A lot of it is race, a lot of it is Black and white, but that’s not the limit to it.
That’s really important to me because when we sit at the table and we make decisions about something that's going to happen in the theater or whatnot, I really appreciate it when someone says, “Not everyone is going to be able to afford that.” Or, “That’s not everybody’s experience.”
Goodwin: How diverse is the audience at the Muny?
Coleman: It depends on the show, in truth. Would I say it’s fully representative of the balance in St. Louis? No, not yet. Do I think that we are making the strides to get there? Absolutely. I hesitate to put a number on it because it just changes.
Goodwin: Could you tell me about your origin story at the Muny? It’s a very St. Louis story.
Kwofe Coleman: It’s the most St. Louis of St. Louis stories. One of my mom's best friend's husband worked for the U.S. Postal Service, Mr. Johnson. And he delivered mail to the Muny for the longest time. And so when my older sister was looking for a job in high school, Mr. Johnson's daughter worked here at the Muny, and Mrs. Johnson said to my mom that this was a place my sister could work. So one of my older sisters worked here and ushered for the longest time, and that's how our family got really connected to the Muny.
So then when I turned 16, my oldest sister worked here at night. This is where the car was going for work. So we worked here together, and it turned into a career.
Goodwin: What did you actually do in your first job here?
Coleman: I was a wheelchair pusher. So I was taking folks from the parking lot up to their seats, and out at intermission to the restrooms, and out back to their cars. It kept me in great shape. You know, these hills are no joke.
I met a bunch of people who, we were generations apart, but hearing their stories and understanding how important it was for them to come to the Muny and see a show — maybe they're with their grandkids, maybe they're with their kids. That is really one of the first times that I came to understand that this place, beyond what happens onstage, it really matters in the lives of the folks that come out here, who have made it a part of their tradition.
Goodwin: If you had to go out there and give a state of the union address for the Muny, what would your message be?
Coleman: I think at this point, the No. 1 thing is to assure people that we’re here. We’re going to continue being here. This is a very unfamiliar and shaky time for folks, especially in this industry. But we’re in strong position.
And I would stress to everybody how excited I am to have the opportunity to be the next steward of this great organization. When you have a moment like a leadership change, everyone stops and looks and expects to see some great, monumental shift — that all of a sudden, it’s not what it was. Over the past 100 years, we’ve continued to evolve. When people are very used to a thing, which happens when you’re 103 years old, you don't even realize that it’s continuing to evolve. And that’s all that we’ll continue to do.
The evolution will continue, and that’s what’s important to me. We will represent and connect with all the people of St. Louis, and we’ll make premiere musical theater on the stage. That’s what we’ve always done. How that’s defined continues to evolve over time. And that’s the job.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin