Never stop trying. No matter how many times you fail, no matter how much it takes to reach full potential — KEEP TRYING. You never know how far you can get if you never try. You never find out how far you can stretch if you never try.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Aaron L. McKinney.
Aaron L. McKinney is the Executive Director of Hi-ARTS, a leading cultural hub within the urban arts movement and the only institution in New York City, and one of the few in the country, exclusively dedicated to supporting and developing Hip-Hop and the urban aesthetic. A native of South Carolina, McKinney has more than two decades of experience in theatrical stage productions. Learn more about McKinney and Hi-ARTS by visiting www.hi-artsnyc.org.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I am southern born and bred, hailing from Greenville, South Carolina. Raised in a very close-knit supportive family, I was involved in the arts basically since birth. I started in a very creative church environment at a very young age. Throughout elementary school I took classical piano lessons and performed in several theatrical productions. In junior high, my focus shifted to music and I participated in band playing the alto and baritone saxophone. Imagine this small junior high kid carrying and playing an instrument that was just as tall as him when sitting down.
In high school, my focus switched back to theatre and speech and debate. I traveled extensively with the nationally ranked Southside High School Speech and Debate team and was afforded the opportunity to compete in Hawaii and California as well as many east coast locations.
Being a well-rounded child was encouraged in my home, so academics were just as much a priority as any arts or social activities.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) — shout out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). I originally enrolled as a five-year MBA Business major. FAMU was noted for its business school. I was following what people expected of me and not really following my passion. I basically flunked out of business school and after a few years off from school (working full-time in Tallahassee), I re-enrolled in school, however this time I was going to do what excited me: theatre. In FAMU’s small theatre program, students were responsible for both fulfilling tasks on stage and offstage. I worked closely with the Management Professor of the Theatre School to marry my business acumen and my creative passion and finally found my place working the business behind the art. By the time I graduated, I had more management credits than I did acting credits.
My planned senior capstone project in the early 2000s was on Black Broadway producers but there was actually not enough data, information and documentation for me to compile a project. I was able to interview a couple of the few producers who had Broadway credits. Those conversations inspired me to focus on producing works by people of color.
I furthered my education at California Institute of the Arts, earning my Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Management and Producing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Gosh — there have been SO many people that have contributed to my success. It wouldn’t be fair for me to name just one, so I will list a few major contributors who allowed me to stand on their shoulders:
Truman Humbert (Greenville, SC)
Naomi Rose Mock (Tallahassee, FL)
Kimberly K. Harding (Tallahassee, FL)
FAMU Essential Theatre Staff (Tallahassee, FL)
Pamela C. Zackery (Tallahassee, FL)
Daniel James (Atlanta, GA)
Carol Bixler (New Orleans, LA)
Shay Wafer (Los Angeles, CA)
Harry Belafonte (New York, NY)
Kamilah Forbes (New York, NY)
Raymond Codrington (New York, NY)
All of these individuals have greatly contributed to where I am today. There is no way I could just tell one story about one of these people. I have had and still have some phenomenal people pushing me to become my greater self.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One of the major highlights of my career occurred while I was working for an organization founded by Harry Belafonte, Sankofa.org. We frequently met in his apartment and it was such an honor to sit at his feet and listen to his many stories. Also, to hear how much fight was still left in him. One particular afternoon, we were meeting and his phone rang. His face lit up when he saw who was calling. He paused the conversation we were having to answer the phone. I sat internally screaming because at this point in my life, I not only worked with and for Harry Belafonte, but I was sitting, listening to a conversation between him and the late Sidney Poitier. That was a moment I will never forget.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I am not sure if I would consider this a funny mistake but it definitely was a teachable moment. During one of my first jobs in NYC, I was responsible for performance program content. One of the staff members had resigned and their last day was the day before a performance. They were moving out of state. However, performing was an artist they admired and looked up to so the person who was leaving actually was going to be there for the performance. I had taken the liberty to remove their name from the staff listing in the program. When they received the program and noticed their name was not listed, they flipped out and were very upset. They had worked hard on this performance leading up to their resignation and felt that to not be acknowledged in association with such a revered artist was a slap in the face. I had to apologize profusely and with a gift. Art making is such a collaborative task that this lesson taught me the importance of giving everyone who had a hand in the work their acknowledgement in some way. It is important to honor the collective effort of the community that it takes to make art.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
One of the most interesting aspects I am working on is the organization development and strategic planning process. It may sound boring to most but being able to help chart the course and build the infrastructure to ensure the sustainability of an arts organization is really exciting. There are a few projects in development that are really exciting but I am unable to announce any at the moment.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
Let the love of the work overshadow all of the rejection and failure. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t love what I do. The exhilarating magic of seeing artists and audiences connect, the exuberant laughter of an artist in process and the exciting potential of a project that has reached new levels outweigh the challenges and lack of resources so consistently faced. I come from a long line of ancestors who have made much with little. It is only befitting that I continue and hopefully make the way a little easier for those coming after me.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
There are always stories to be told, there are always visuals to be displayed. Rome wasn’t built in a day…….don’t try to do everything at once. Balance work and life. I am a workaholic and so I have many people helping me to unplug, to rest, to step away. Take meaningful vacations/staycations. Work hard but enjoy life. The work will always be there. Do as much as you can, when you can.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Listen — there is always someone in the process that you can learn something from, no matter what role they occupy.
- Observe — Take note of the people, the work, the narratives, the industry, the world…
- Be Open — Some of this work can be transformative. Be open to going on the journey to wherever the work leads you.
- Trust your gut. Your intuition will rarely steer you wrong. TRUST IT! In decision making, in engaging with people, you will know if it’s right for you.
- Never stop trying. No matter how many times you fail, no matter how much it takes to reach full potential — KEEP TRYING. You never know how far you can get if you never try. You never find out how far you can stretch if you never try.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
This is a great question and I haven’t done a lot of work in TV/Film so I am not sure if I have an adequate response to really go through the distinct differences. I know that that processes are different to execute and there are some transferable skill sets and some that are specific to the medium. From an administration perspective, the budget line items are different, the process to execution is different, the pre-planning is different, film and TV may have a post-production phase that doesn’t really exist in theatre.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Wow. I don’t feel worthy enough to receive such a compliment of being an enormous influencer. If there was anything I could contribute, it would be lead with love and trust!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Aspire to Inspire Before you Expire — every day and every person-to- person engagement is a prime opportunity for me to inspire someone else to be the greatest version of themselves and to reach their greatest potential.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Dr. Miguel Cardona — US Secretary of Education — I would love to sit and talk about the importance of arts education and ask why arts are usually the first to be eliminated when budgets are cut. Many districts and educational providers focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) but I would like to push the focus to Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
Organization- www.hi-artsnyc.org Socials @Hiartsnyc
Personal — www.thealmway.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Aaron L. McKinney photo — Photographer credit: David Genik