Storytellers in focus: Chris Kingsley
Chris Kingsley* is the Chair of the SpeakeasyDC board and Associate Director of Local Policy & Advocacy at the Data Quality Campaign. A longtime show-goer, Chris decided to step up to the plate and lead our board of directors during our rebranding. Here he speaks with us about plans for the future and how he's trying to meet the bar set by former SpeakeasyDC Chair Mike Boyd.
What brought you to SpeakeasyDC?
I have been a chair of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, so not an arts organization, but I ended up at brunch with some other people who were SpeakeasyDC board members, and they were looking for people. They needed someone with experience in specific kinds of finance, not something terribly exciting, but something that board members can do. I was like, “I love what you do, and if I can be helpful sign me up!” This year Mike Boyd, who has been such a north star for us as a board, is stepping down after 6 years. Under his leadership our organization has almost tripled in size. I am stepping into his very big shoes, at least for this year, to kind of keep us on the rails as we announce the new board members. I'm terrified. He really did such a great job, but I'm excited. We ended up doing this big board development process, and I was amazed at the people who came out. They all have different levels of experience with SpeakeasyDC and the arts, but they're all totally in. They're impressive people [with] great networks and great intentions, so that's something to work with. I'm just trying to figure out how to get more resources into Amy's hands to do what she knows best. Like all of our stakeholders, volunteers, and audience members, I love storytelling and am trying in my own way to support it.
What will you be doing with the organization as you start out?
The biggest, most exciting, and scariest thing we have on the books is the rebranding that you may have heard about. In a large part, I think that maybe we have outgrown the SpeakeasyDC name. But the more proximate cause is a legal dispute that happened with somebody that registered a similar name down in Atlanta years ago. At a certain point, it's just not worth the fight to hold on to, so we're just going to view it as an opportunity. We need a new name, one that captures both the changes we've experienced as we've grown locally and helps give us a higher profile nationally. I really love that so much of our organization is the way that people come to shows because of word of mouth, but I think there's a real opportunity to get Amy, who's really the best at what she does, out in front of the bigger group in DC and nationally. So it's just the chance to really rethink what kind of image and presentation and branding that we want to do. If we can get through that and not lose people along the way as the name changes, I think that would be wonderful. |
What makes SpeakeasyDC different from other non-profits?
My favorite thing about SpeakeasyDC is the community of people that it attracts around storytelling. It's got these deep tendrils into different DC neighborhoods and different DC communities. I think it comes down to the people, and we talk about this at the board meetings. The teachers, volunteers and anyone involved in what we do are some of the hardest working, most interesting, most committed people I have ever met. I'm amazed that I show up at a show and I see someone who works with us that I haven't seen for 2 years, but they're still like family. There's just not too many organizations that can be successful like that on the merits of amazingly committed people who just love what that organization does and show up to help just out of love. It's a pretty incredible and organic scene. When I fundraised last year I said it's the “keep DC weird” pitch for me. I wouldn't want to be in a town where it didn't have these kind of characters, and we didn't have the kind of fun that we have with SpeakeasyDC. Sometimes we show up wearing a suit because that's our day job, but we've got to take the time to loosen our ties, come out and support great art. That's what's fun about this.
Any ideas for events going forward?
So I'm sort of a neighborhood dork. I really believe in the power and specificity of a certain place. When I was in college there was this organization called Scribe in Philly, where I went to school, that was in the business of helping local community organizations make a video about something. There was a whole process figuring out what kind of story they wanted to tell in a different medium. I went through it, and I remember that I was kind of a punk, and I gave the executive director a hard time. He was coming here to talk about this and I was like, “It just seems like you can have a lot more impact if you could actually get this stuff off the VHS tape and use the internet. Like what are you trying to do to get this word out?” I remember him very gently bringing me up short and saying, “It's not clear to me that the most impact i'm having is the number of eyeballs on me. I think it's through the work that we do with that community to tell that story – to give these young people the skills to shoot and edit and all that.” I thought about that with Speakeasy, and I don't know if anybody would ever go for this, but we could do a series of really fun shows that were based in a particular part in the metro area. It's like it's own universe, and there are characters that walk those streets, and the businesses, and the anchors. We would have to do it in a way where it's not just a bunch of old guys around a fireplace, just chewing and spitting, but where you are trying to bring in an entertaining way to some of the young people (especially in a town that's as gentrified as DC) a way to say, “This is what this place use to be, this is what this place was about”.
What are your favorite SpeakeasyDC memories?
My favorite thing about SpeakeasyDC is the community of people that it attracts around storytelling. I'm in education policy, and to see a combination of teachers, poets, administrators, and in some cases civil rights folks get up on stage and talk about that during the After-School Special show was amazing. I thought, “Man, this should be happening all over the country. This is such an important conversation!” It was so dignified and raised up the work of educators, which is a really hard job to accomplish. I felt great about that! Another thing, and this is probably because I am a pointy-headed finance guy, but last year's Sucker For Love show proved to me that I'm in the right place. There was something that happened where one of the bands cancelled, and the late show wasn't going to happen, but we ended up with a single band playing two sets and almost sold out both of them and threw such a party up there. Not to sound skeptical, but I keep waiting for us to hit a saturation point where people are like “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we've done the storytelling thing”, and instead every time we do one of those shows and Amy asks, “Who's new tonight,” half of the hands are in the air.
*Before you send any angry emails... yes we know Chris has not technically told any stories yet on stage. We are working on getting him up there ASAP! In the meantime, hold your emails, indulge us a little and help say thankyou to Chris and his contributions to the SEDC community.