Debbie Chinn shares insights on the business of theater

Leo Polk, A&E Reporter

On Friday, April 30, the 20 attendees of the The Business Side of Theater lecture, presented by Debbie Chinn, were greeted by Aretha Franklin’s song, “RESPECT.” Hosted by Whitman’s Harper Joy Theater and facilitated by Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance Laura Hope, Chinn shared her extensive knowledge about the business side of the theatre industry and her own path to success.

Chinn has over 20 years of experience in theater company management. She is currently the Managing Director for Anna Deavere Smith’s Pipeline Project, Girls, Board President of Theatre Bay Area and also serves on the Advisory Council of West Edge Opera and on the Leadership Council of the National Small Business Association. 

Chinn’s lecture highlighted roles outside of the spotlight which contribute greatly to theatrical productions. She also shared her own personal motivations and goals to make the theater world more accepting to all. 

As a theater major during her undergraduate years, Chinn noted that she never received a conventional business education. Rather, she worked extensively throughout the corporate world, starting with a position selling coats at a department store, where she intuitively lowered the temperature of the store to facilitate more sales of coats. 

Chinn noted that much of her success and accumulation of business knowledge derived from a host of mentors, particularly female mentors, that helped her network, learn and move her way up into roles she hoped to fill. 

Junior Ryn Goldsmith-Zucker reflected on Chinn’s path towards business savviness. They worked the tech side of the lecture by setting up registration for the event, contacting Chinn for what music to play and by keeping track of participants. 

“She was pulled along by various female mentors who were also climbing their way up and brought her with them. They taught her everything she knows, and she just had to figure it all out. I thought that was really cool,” Goldsmith-Zucker said. 

Chinn also spoke on her experiences with racism, highlighting the alienating experience of being the only person of color on a board. Chinn found that there has been significant change in the diversity of the organization of theatrical boards, but she believes that there is still more work to be done. 

Another student involved in facilitating the Harper Joy lectures this semester, sophomore Natalie Traw, found Chinn’s commitment to better representation of black, Indigenous and people of color’s (BIPOC) voices in theater inspiring. 

“Debbie shared several stories about being a [person of color] POC woman involved in theatre, and I think that the most important thing she shared was that if you don’t advocate for yourself and for equity, no change will ever happen,” Traw said. 

Chinn did share some personal stories about how she fought for change while in her positions of power within theater circles by often engaging with social media around important issues. With the help of this grassroots methodology, she was able to remove an executive board member after his sponsorship of theatrical production with a white woman in what Chinn described as “yellow face” — make-up designed to exaggerate features attributed to those of Asian descent.

The students that attended the lecture, among others that have been hosted by the theater department this semester, felt this lecture was not just for theater students. Not only was it open to all of campus, but it also entertained students that might not be part of the theater major.

One student attendee, Junior Lola Bloom, reflected on this as an incoming transfer student who is new to Whitman’s theater department. Bloom noted Chinn’s charisma and her ability to make a subject that might sound mundane into a topic that grabs the attention of someone who might not even be involved in theater.

“These events were geared towards theatre, but the advice and lessons I have taken away from the lectures have been universal. They felt less like a lecture and more like sitting down with old friends. All of our guests were very accomplished and extraordinary people, but they always felt like real people rather than superheroes.” 

This was the last lecture from Harper Joy Theater this semester, but given their success, they are likely to pursue more lectures next semester. Look out for further communication about lectures from the theater department.