If in your business, you are being anything other than who you actually are, I don't see a world in which it can thrive long term.
Hello, it's Tony Howell, and I want to welcome you to my podcast. This is our opportunity to have conversations with changemakers, seeking ways that we, as artists, can use our gifts to change the world.
Today we're talking to Jen Waldman and if you don't know her, you should. She is an entrepreneur, producer, director, choreographer, actor, teacher, coach, facilitator, speaker, writer, podcaster, and ultimately a changemaker. This awesome woman has been seen on Broadway in Titanic and Wicked, but I think her life's work and biggest impact is seen in the artistry, integrity, and change that she fosters in others. She spent five years as the theater chair of the National Young Arts Foundation, is on her third-year co-creating with Simon Sinek and the Start With Why Organization, and her new podcast, The Long and the Short of It is an incredible journey, which she co-hosts weekly with coach Peter Shepherd.
Jen's the founder and executive director of the Jen Walman Studio, established in 2002 and on its 17th year. It's the premiere training studio for Broadway actors in New York City. Clients include Tony Award winners and nominees. And just last year, in 2018, 27 Broadway shows had Jen Waldman studio clients.
Jen, fortunately, and beautifully and humbly is my current client. She's also my former acting coach. And because the theme this month is #DesigningMyFuture and she is helping herself and others do so every single day, I knew that she would be the perfect guest. On to the interview.
I'm so excited to welcome you to my podcast. You're the very first guest.
I am so honored to be your first guest.
I'm honored to have you. So I want to start by saying that this podcast is seeking to make change in the world. So let's just start by sharing, what is on your mind today? What kind of changes are you looking to make?
Holy cow! Well… When I look at the world around me, what I see that needs to change is a posture of empathy and curiosity. I would love to see us as a collective culture, be more curious about other people's perspectives and viewpoints so that we can cultivate more empathy with each other. And more specifically in my artistic world, with the artists that I'm working with in New York and beyond, I would love to see people doing the kind of work that they're always talking about doing rather than just talking about it.
So what do you think is the biggest obstacle in people taking action and just talking about things and not acting on them?
Well, I do think that it's an integrity crisis. So I think the first thing is to get clear on whether or not you are indeed a person of integrity. When I look at integrity, what that, to me, is that what you believe, what you say, and what you do are in alignment.
And part of what I think is a big challenge, especially for interpretive artists, like actors, dancers, singers, etcetera, is that it often feels like they have to wait for someone to give them permission to do their work. And so that component of what you do can sometimes feel like it's out of alignment. Because there's an abundance of people and not as much an abundance of opportunity.
So what I hope people will start to do is shift their mindset around how they are seeking the work that they want to make. So rather than thinking of it as seeking permission, thinking of it as seeking other artists who are trying to make the same change as you, and then make it together.
I love that. And I know that you're very close with the Start With Why philosophies, is that in relation to sort of what you're talking about?
It really is. So for those of your listeners who don't know about Start With Why, Simon Sinek calls himself an unshakable optimist, and it's true. And his book, his first book Start With Why, really had a huge impact on the last 10 years of my life. And essentially the notion is that when you know why you do what you do, it becomes a whole lot easier to make what you do align with why you do it. And I've really adopted this mindset and it's transformed the way I live my life and the way I engage with other people. And I really follow this idea that when you are willing to be courageous enough to say out loud, this is what I believe. Other people who believe what you believe will find that courage contagious and come and find you. But you've got to be willing to call out what you believe, in order for that to be possible.
Now, I know that you have gone through many iterations of your why, and there are many belief statements. Do you want to phrase it today in 2019?
Sure. I literally just yesterday sent it to my friend Nadia, who works on Simon's team. I've revised my why language one more time. So the current iteration of my why statement is to help people know themselves so that they can express themselves.
I love that. And one of the things that I think that you are about, that I have read on things — that you're interested in creating a global community so that we all can sort of get to know each other better and have more empathy. So can you speak on that?
Yeah. One of the really amazing things that the kind of work I do has afforded me, is the opportunity to travel all over the globe and meet different kinds of people from different cultures and backgrounds and industries and ways of thinking. And every time I'm introduced to a different cultural perspective or a different national perspective, what I find is that my own work is enriched. And then I'm able to take that new learning and share it with other people to enrich their experience. And so these sort of silos that we put ourselves in are really keeping us as a global community from being the best version of what we can be. And that may sound a little Pollyannaish in the language that I'm choosing to use there. But the truth is that if we want to be able to have a great, full and rich life, we can't rely on what we know right now to do that for us.
Unless in this very moment, you believe you are living the greatest fullest and richest life possible. Then right now, in this moment, if you can't say that with confidence, then something is missing. Now it doesn't have to be that the thing that's missing is tragic. It might just be a little nugget of wisdom that you don't currently have access to, and you couldn't possibly go in search of it because you don't know it exists. So the idea is to kind of take the blinders off, open ourselves up to the possibility that a different perspective or a different way of thinking could be the little nugget that you need to enrich your life really greatly.
Now, I know you are that little nugget for a lot of people and you have many different ways to learn from you. But what I want to know from you, what are the experiences, people, cities, etcetera, that have taught you the most?
Well, I try to be a student of life every single day. So I actively diversify the content I'm putting in my head. I try to read things that I may not gravitate toward naturally. Try to listen to a lot of different kinds of speakers and perspectives. So I think the way I see myself as a student of the world, is when I see something, I'm curious about it, and I don't know anything about it. I try to learn something about it. So on the sort of broader spectrum there's that. But on the more personal human to human interaction, I recognize that in recent years I have changed the way I talk about the people I work with. For the early part of my career I thought of myself as a teacher and the people I was working with as my students. And I think that mindset was really limiting.
And I don't think about it that way anymore. Now I think about myself as a coach and the people I work with are my clients and we're learning from each other all the time. And so every day I really try to learn something from the people I'm coaching, because they have their own set of knowledge and skills that I am very fortunate to get to absorb while we're working together. So I'm working with a client right now who is visually impaired, and she is looking to make big sweeping changes in accessibility for artists, not just visually impaired artists, but artists with disabilities of any kind. And I feel like every time I have a conversation with her, I learn something that I didn't know about how I can make my own work more accessible and inclusive. And that's really exciting to me.
I love that. And I applaud that. And I thank you for that. One of the things with this podcast and the content over the years, is that I'm trying to have themes every month with minority groups and not just history — not just Pride Month, Black History Month, Women's History — but how can we create the future?
So I know inclusion is a really big word for you and a really big focus. What are some ways that we, the listener, can work to be more inclusive in our daily life?
I'm sure there are a million different ways to answer this question. And if you ask me the same question tomorrow, something else might be top of mind. One of the things I try to do is imagine what it might be like to not be me, looking at something or reading something or visiting a website or whatever the content might be. And so I'm working with you right now. So maybe I could talk a little bit about that. So you have been really instrumental in helping me sort of see the future for what the digital presence of Jen Waldman and Jen Waldman Studio might be. You're helping me to really pay attention and grow and not only articulate, but execute an online experience for people who are going to be engaging with me or my studio or my services, my content, generally speaking, my content.
And as we go through that design process, I'm always asking myself if I was not Jen, if I was for example, a man, how would I feel moving through this experience? Or if I was a person with a physical disability, how would I feel moving through this experience? Or if I was someone who was visually impaired, how would I engage with a website that has mostly a visual component? So I'm always asking myself, how might this be for someone else who is not me? And that has been really helpful. Where it has been a constant source of irritation is that I'm now starting to see the whole world through this lens. So I'm riding the subway, I see an advertisement. And I think to myself, wow, if I was not a Caucasian person, this would really turn me off because the only thing I see represented here are Caucasian people or wow if I was a man, I would perhaps feel insulted by the way this billboard is phrased. So it's a blessing and a curse to be able to see the world through this lens.
Yeah. It's definitely a volatile world right now. And I think that it's exposing a lot of our shortcomings, but hopefully change is on the way. And I thank you for leading that.
Well, I'll lead as much of it as I can. And when there are other great leaders, I will also follow them.
Well, I hope to join you on that yellow brick road. I want to circle back to coaches because I know that you work with coaches on occasion and then you're also a coach. So what do you think makes a good coach or a great coach? What are the differences?
Well, a great coach is someone who, going back to this curiosity and empathy component, a great coach is someone who is deeply curious and is able to acknowledge that they have some, but not all of the answers. So asking the right questions to help whoever the person is who needs coaching, get closer to the thing that they are aiming for rather than to move towards the biased perspective of the coach. So curiosity is probably one of the top three most important skills to be a great coach. The other is the quality of the questions that you ask as a curious person, like you've got to be able to ask open-ended, really juicy questions that do not lead the witness, that allow people to answer things in the way they need to answer them. And then I think the other thing that makes a great coach is the sense of being all in for the person that they're working with. Sometimes I hear people tell me that they want to be a coach as a "side hustle" or "side gig." And I think to myself, I know you'll provide some value, but I wouldn't want to be your client.
Because they're half invested?
Yeah. Well, I don't want to be something on the side. And I think this goes back to this idea of what is the big change you're seeking to make. So I coach and I also do a lot of other things. None of them are on the side. All of them are equally important in supporting the change that I'm seeking to make in the world. Coaching is one element of it, and there are plenty of other things too, but they're all in support of this major vision that I have about the world that I want to live in. So I would never call coaching or podcasting or teaching my classes a side hustle. It's all in service of a change that I'm seeking to make.
And is that change, helping people tap into who they are and the change that they're looking to make?
Well, I really inherently deeply believe that everybody is creative and it is our creativity that is going to move us as a culture and a global community forward. So I really see my role as helping people to tap into their creativity, regardless of what industry they work in, whether their industry would be labeled as creative or not.
Because when we're able to see the connection between things, which is essentially what I think creativity is, we can really start to make small and sweeping changes. So yes, my role is to help people tap into their creativity and figure out what they really think and believe so that they can then put that out to the world in whatever format they choose, whether it's a conversation or a podcast, or a building that they're going to design.
So for the listener, is there one particular great question you would like to pose to them or one particular exercise that you could sort of walk them through to tap into that creativity?
I really believe that creativity is the ability to connect the dots because when you connect dots between things, you make something new. That connection that you've made is the new thing. So I mean, maybe the simplest thing would be to look around you right now and find two things and figure out how they go together.
One of the exercises that I often do with my acting clients is they'll be working on a piece of material and I will grab a book, any book. So right now I'm grabbing this book, which is called, this is so amazing. One of my clients gave this to me. It's called You Goal Girl and it's a goal setting workbook. She dropped this off yesterday, she thought it reminded her of me.
So I will have a client working on a piece. And then I'll just open up to a random page, got to find one with text on it and then just drop my finger randomly on the page and see what I've landed on. And what I just landed on is focus, the word focus. So now we'll say, how do we incorporate this idea of focus into the work that you're doing right now? That requires creativity to be able to figure out how to incorporate focus and then we'll keep working and I'll drop my finger on another random thing. And well, this is a goal-setting workbook, so I just landed on the word goals. So what are your personal goals? What are your character’s goals? So I think one of the, maybe myths about creativity is that it's elusive, but I believe it's inherent. And if we have some really simple tools to help us tap into our creativity, we can be creative all the time.
What would you like to focus on next, Jen Waldman?
You mean in this interview or in life?
Let's focus on, so you said before we started recording, I want this to go deep. So I guess I'll focus on something deep. Ask me a question that would pull you and me together into the deep.
I love it. I'll meet you there. So one of the things that I would like to discuss is the ability of you and others to be so many different things, wear so many different hats and do them exceptionally well. So can we focus for a moment on your marriage and your partnership and any sort of wisdom you want to share from your success or failures in that area?
Well, whether or not my husband would agree with anything that I'm going to say is a whole other story, but my husband and I have been married for 10 and a half years now. We have a nine year old daughter. We were together seven years before we got married. So 17 years total. That's crazy when I add those numbers up. Some days I forget how old I am. It's just strange. I think for us and this of course would not work for everyone. We are extremely flexible and adaptable. So my husband is a director, writer and actor. So he travels a ton. I travel a ton. Our schedule is changing. It's impossible for us to predict from one week to the next, what is going on in our lives. And we really thrive on that. So I think our relationship has been able to survive because we have no fixed goals as a couple.
Now for other people, the thought of not having a fixed goal would be crippling. So for us, that really provides a sense of freedom. So if an opportunity comes either of our ways and we're interested or curious about it, we definitely encourage each other to pursue it because who knows where things are going to lead. And so far, our life has been just one crazy adventure and we love that. The other real secret for us is that we're extremely privileged to have my in-laws living five minutes away from us. So for other people who might have children and two artistic parents, having grandparents, aunts and uncles, and my sister also lives nearby. We're able to share some of the childcare responsibility. I imagine for other people that might be a little bit more challenging.
So it's just a matter of finding support as well. And then giving your partner the support and freedom?
And you know what's really funny. My nine year old, she's so wise, she uses the term chosen family for our really close friends. And so we do have our family close. I mean my parents and my youngest sister and her family, they live in California and we see them as frequently as we can, but far less frequently than we choose to. I mean, we really miss them a lot. But we have Mark's family nearby and we have our chosen family and it's true. Chosen family does step up and help.
So parenting, I do have a lot of parents in my audience. Can you talk to those people, whether they're prospective parents or current parents, just on lessons you've learned in that area?
Yes. So I mean, your kid is going to be who they want to be and who they are. I think that has been, I mean, it's so simple, but it's really hard to accept, just as an example, this is so superficial, but this for me was like a really big learning moment. I grew up as a dancer. I started dancing as soon as I could walk. It was my whole life during my childhood. I mean, five, six days a week in the dance studio, it was my number one passion above everything else. And my daughter has no interest in dancing, no natural ability for dancing. She has to work really hard to be physically coordinated. And I tried to encourage her and in fact, one day even dragged her to ballet class. And finally, I just had to go, she doesn't love this.
It's not even that she doesn't love this. She doesn't even like it. Why would I push her towards something she doesn't even like? And so that was a moment of having to release the idea that the thing that I love has to be the thing that she loves and it still stings a little bit because I loved that experience of being part of the dance community. But she also has developed talents that I couldn't even begin to fathom. At nine years old she writes music, like full songs and they're really good. I played one of them for a pianist I know. And he asked me whose song that was? I said, that is Kate singing Kate's song. She is writing. And he was like, what, that's incredible? At 43, I couldn't write a song.
I can't write a song. But as a former dancer, what is your relationship to dance now?
Well, I admire it quite a lot. I don't dance anymore. Although I still occasionally choreograph, if I'm working on a musical that I'm directing, although I'm directing less and less these days. I have less and less interest in doing that. I work with a lot of dancers and I find them as far as performing artists go, especially in the theatrical side of dance to be the most courageous people in the industry for so many reasons, not the least of which is, most of the dancers, who really identifies dancers first, who come to me are very fearful of using their singing voice. And yet they know that in order to improve that skill, they have to do it. So they get up in front of a room full of expert Broadway-level singers and sing with them. Now, I don't know many singers who do not identify as dancers who would get up in a room full of Broadway caliber, expert dancers, and dance for them. So the courage that these dancers display is just mind-blowing.
I love that. And for those listening, let's do the encompassing term of artists. Let's focus on show business for a moment or the business of the arts. What I think is an interesting discussion to open this up with is, where do you see the current balance of art in commerce and where do you think it should be?
This is such a tricky question Tony, it's so hard to really wrap your head around it because when you think about art as like the hubcap and then all the spokes of the wheel. Art travels in so many different directions to so many different audiences, it's hard to make any sort of blanket statement about where it's going. What I will say, however, is that I was just talking about this with some clients the other day, back in the good old days of masters, like Michelangelo, for example, the concept of artistic patronage was robust and flourishing. And the idea that an artist would be valued for the work they're seeking to make, rather than the work they've already made was a real thing. And in our contemporary culture, artistic patronage has nearly all but vanished with a couple exceptions.
And so artists are spending their days not making art in many cases, but instead making ends meet. And what I would love to see is a revival of the concept of artistic patronage. And that of course can take an institutional approach like grant funding organizations or endowments or things of that nature. But I also think there's a world in which people who consume art, people who love art can find an artist and say, I see what you're making. I want you to be able to make more of it. Let me make this possible for you and provide someone just on a private level, a studio space to work in or free training or something to that effect. So for my own work with artists, right now it's a long-term plan that I'm hoping to figure out how to make a more short-term plan, how to help inspire people who are capable of being patrons of the arts to become patrons of the arts?
I love that. And this feels vulnerable and scary for me to ask you, but as someone who's now on the other side of the table, helping artists with their business side of things I welcome your honest opinion. What role does branding, website, email, and social play in the modern artist's life?
When it's honest, it plays a huge role because in many cases we're finding people, meeting people for the first time on the internet. And so you can really smell a mile away when someone is full of it. And when someone is authentically representing themself. So when someone is authentically representing, that goes a long way. And I don't even think of it as we work in similar but different circles. So the word branding to me is not one that is really in my daily vocabulary. Mostly because most people don't approach it like you, Tony. They don't go to their clients and say, what change are you seeking to make in the world? Instead, a lot of branding looks like, we've done market research and what people want is X. So you should modify your brand to represent what people think they want. You would never approach it that way.
But I think branding as a concept really has that stigma around it and what I think it is, and why I love working with you, is figure out what you're about. And this is also in very many ways my own why. Figure out what you're about and then express it. And so where are you expressing it? You're expressing it on your social media platforms. You're expressing it on your website. And so when you know who you are and you're able to express yourself, people respond to that. I think it plays a huge role. What I see a lot of artists doing is looking around and going well, that person's very successful, so they must have figured out the formula for branding and marketing. So I'll just copy what they're doing and expect that it's going to work for me. Well, it worked for that person because that's really who they are.
I love that. I agree. What about your business? So you've taken many different curves in the road, but I would be curious to know for someone seeking to carve their own path and maybe change lanes, what are some of the life lessons and business lessons that you would want to pass on?
Well, the life lesson I learned from Oprah, which is when the little voice inside is a whisper, listen to it because if you don't, it will become a scream. I'm butchering Oprah's quote, but that was basically what she said, and that stuck with me. And so what I've really tried to do is make my choices before they become emergencies. When I feel that first little impulse like, oh, I think this is moving this direction. I tend to follow it. And I'm okay with not knowing where things are leading. This is similar to the question about my relationship with my husband. I have no idea where my business is truly headed. I'm following the flow. I'm listening to my gut. For a lot of people that is really uncomfortable. At this point, it's comfortable for me now to say, oh, this is interesting to me. I'm going to go in that direction.
But I will say that sometimes following your gut also means making a sacrifice and making sacrifices is very scary. And sometimes those sacrifices come in the form of money. Sometimes in the form of relationships, job opportunities, friends. And so being really clear on why you're doing what you're doing becomes vital in those moments, because if you are going to take a financial hit, but you know this is bringing you closer to your why, it becomes so much easier to say yes, but if you don't know why you're doing what you're and you know there's going to be a financial sacrifice to make along the way, why would you make it? Because it doesn't feel like there's any sort of payoff. So I think having a clear sense of my purpose has really made navigating my ever-altering serpentine path work.
And in terms of business, this goes back to the branding question that if in your business you are being anything other than who you actually are. I don't see a world in which it can thrive long term. So I think you've got to be able to walk your talk, again, even when it comes with a sacrifice, because at the studio, I did the math. I think I did the math after a meeting with you around how long would it take to get everyone who's currently on our waitlist through the studio, like into the doors, if we were to do it at the pace we've been doing it with the size classes that we're doing? And the answer was 12 years. But on the other hand, am I willing to sacrifice the intimacy of a small group class? And the answer is no.
So then after seeing those numbers, I was like, wow, now I need to be creative and figure out: how can I serve more people while still maintaining the intimacy of the group performance classes? And so far, what I've landed on is I'm able to grow the enrollment of non-performance-based classes. So our small group classes are still really small and now I'm teaching mindset workshops, and I can accommodate as many people as will fit inside the four walls of the studio. So you get creative without sacrificing the thing that is important to you. And it's really easy in this world to see opportunity and go, well, I want to grab opportunity, so I'm willing to sacrifice what's important to me. And I say, instead, get creative.
I love that. I think going back to getting creative and tapping into your purpose, do you ever battle with self-doubt?
Every single day, every day, all day, every day.
I'm so glad to hear that.
Yeah, it looks so shiny on the front-facing side of this. No, on the inside all day, every day. And that's why I have a coach because I'm really good at helping other people overcome their self-doubt, but I can't be the coach to myself. So I have a coach who, when I'm feeling those things, or if I just even have questions about, is this the best I can do or is this almost the best? It's so useful to have that trusted person. Actually this happened the other day. I sent him a keynote I was working on and he said, I wouldn't change anything. And I'm like, oh my gosh, that's what I felt but I just assumed. And to be clear, this is the first time I've ever gotten that feedback from him because usually it's tweak this, work on that. But I started applying previous notes before I even started working on this new one. So I delivered this keynote actually yesterday and it went really well.
Awesome. Congratulations. What do you want the future to look like? So this month is all about #DesigningMyFuture. So if Jen Waldman was #DesigningMyFuture, what does that look like?
Okay, well, how far into the future am I looking here?
Okay. Let's do five years into the future. Five years into the future. What I'd like to see for my own life is that my studio now represents the patron of artists' mentality and that we have people from all different industries who consume art, who are helping to fund it. And we're making it a tuition-free space for professional artists to continue to work on their craft and make things. So that's my five-year dream. Actually I don't want to call it a dream, I'm going to call it a goal that has a vision attached to it because I believe it's real and possible. And in the work that I'm doing with people of influence who already have a pretty sturdy platform, I'd like to be helping those people to cross pollinate their ideas more and work with each other instead of against each other, to really bring about the change that they all are seeking to make, which is most of the time, the exact same thing, they're all aiming for the same. So we can all work together. And I'd love to be sort of the bridge between people with fantastic ideas.
Where can we go to learn more and connect with you?
Well, very soon you'll be able to go to JenWaldman.com designed by Tony Howell. And in the meantime, I think you can type my name into Google and find a bunch of stuff. I mean the studio has its own website. JenWadlmanStudio.com. I also have a podcast called The Long and the Short of It, that I co-host with my coach, Peter Shepherd and on the JenWalmanStudio.com site, you'll also find my blog, which posts once a week.
So before we go, Jen, I have this little creative idea that as I was researching you, I found some words that I think will mean a lot to you. And without censoring yourself, I just sort of want you to give a spontaneous definition or word association. We'll see what comes up. Artist.
A person who is able to output the world as they see it.
People on the receiving end of that output.
A group of people who choose to come together because of their shared values and beliefs.
Inclusion, plus access, plus opportunity equals diversity. Diversity plus curiosity, plus knowledge plus caring equals belonging.
Lifting the walls. That means something to me. I don't know if it's going to mean anything to anyone else, but lifting the walls.
Speaking from the heart.
What people are going to say about you as they're lowering your casket into the ground.
Make it new.
Who you say you are and who you show up as, they're the same.
It's going to make me sound a little, woo, woo. But trusting the voices.
What your great, great, great grandchildren will know about you.
Well in a word, why.
So that concludes this game. And I'll just wrap up this podcast by saying thank you so much for being here and offer you one final opportunity. This is a conversation with changemaker Jen Waldman. Any final thoughts that you want to say about making change?
Yes. I believe every single person is capable of doing it. And in this world where the word leadership and anything with the word lead in it, has become such a buzzword. I think that in some ways people feel an obligation to step up as a leader, but they don’t inherently feel like one. And so I'll just put out there that a leader needs something in order to exist, which is followers. And so you don't necessarily need to be leading the charge toward the change you desire to make in your world. Look around, see who is leading toward change and then follow them.
And I will just say follow Jen Waldman. You're amazing. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you, Tony. I loved it. And congratulations on everything that you're doing. It's amazing.
Thank you so much for listening and thank you to Jen Waldman for being my guest and most importantly for the work that she does every single day in the world.
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