Organization uses theatre to help affluent family businesses deal with wealth education issues
Wealth education and money management can strain family ties to the breaking point. Shaking the Tree Foundation has come up with a novel way of getting family businesses to talk about wealth and how to use it effectively. Perhaps “novel” is the wrong word. “Dramatic” is more like it.
Shaking the Tree, a not-for-profit organization based in New York, mounts professional-caliber theatre pieces that promote responsible stewardship of inherited wealth and dramatize such vital issues as legacy, generational succession, interpersonal dynamics, philanthropy and donor education, and wealth management. Affluent private families hire the organization to perform their theatre-based workshops at their family meetings. Other clients include private banks, financial industry associations and financial institutions, which use the programs to provide a forum for their family clients to discuss often sensitive and divisive issues, as well as to train their advisors on how to address such issues without damaging client relationships.
Launched in 2000, Shaking the Tree uses these Living Case Studies “as a centerpiece of workshops to help affluent families and their advisors clarify their relationships with wealth and with each other.”
The storylines sound like something out of a nighttime TV drama. A wealthy grandfather secretly marries a much younger, self-made woman with a son from a previous relationship. A widow, unschooled in finance, must make tough decisions in the wake of her husband’s death. A rivalry between two brothers explodes during a family business meeting.
But each Living Case Study is rooted in real-life cases and allows for Shaking the Tree’s creative team to transform specific issues into pieces with universal resonance. “We are all from the industry,” said co-founder Paul McKibbin, who is also a managing partner of Family Office Metrics. “We build our stories around composite cases that we have observed. My firm, for example, works with family offices and families of wealth, and my exposure to their challenges informs Shaking the Tree. We learn a tremendous amount through creating each Living Case Study, and receiving the feedback of diverse audiences. In essence, it teaches us safe, fair and effective ways to discuss the issues that business-owning families face.”
“These plays appear to be about dollars and cents, but the bottom line is relationships,” observed co-founder and artistic director David Kersnar, whose “day job” is as artistic director of Chicago’s Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company. “If money is getting in the way of that, my job (with these plays) is to create real relationships and real conflict and authentically dramatize how to defuse that conflict.”
Kersnar also founded and instructs for Lookingglass’ Education and Community programs, which is how he came to the attention of Shaking the Tree co-founder Maryann Fernandez who saw the potential of using drama and storytelling to develop wealth management initiatives. “This format allows family members to experience representations of conflicts they may be experiencing. It makes you buy in to what is happening onstage.”
“Clients suggest a theme they want us to focus on and we’ll brainstorm actual case studies,” Kersnar said. “The more specific, the more universal you become. Families around the world have issues, and they appreciate seeing something that is culture-specific to, say, Seattle or Chicago. It allows (the audience) a little bit of distance that makes it easier to talk about some of the more difficult issues.”
From actors to the set and costumer designers, Kersnar recruits professionals from Chicago, Los Angeles and New York to bring these shows to life. The actors have a special challenge: They must be able to stay in character during the post-production audience Q&A. “It always amazes me how much the audience buys into the reality of what we are presenting,” Kersnar said
Shaking the Tree is entering a new stage in its development. It recently presented productions in Saudi Arabia, where they performed seven shows in a two-week period that happened to coincide with the “Arab Spring.” “To be there at a time of such amazing change,” Kersnar enthused. “There was a hunger from that audience to grapple with these issues. You feel like you’re a part of the change that is happening.”
Do the plays need to be tailored to Middle Eastern audiences? “There were far less cultural differences than we imagined”. noted Shaking the Tree Acting President Stephen McCarthy. “We thought we would need to adjust, but just as with western families, generations of successful Arab businessmen in their 60s and 70s have 30- and 40-somethings who want a seat at the table.
“We did a conference in Bahrain in January. The stereotype is that women have a lesser role in the family business, but in many ways we were wrong. Many complex questions were directed at the female actors, and some of the most astute questions came from the women in the audience. It’s evolving. Women tell us it’s not like the old days. (They say) ‘We are competent, we have MBAs, and we want to be a part of the process.’
McKibbin said he is moved and inspired by the responses the Living Case Studies evoke. “It is why we do what we do,” he said. “We believe that these affluent family businesses we work with are important. They create jobs. They are a vital part of society. (Our productions) help family members address feeling they couldn’t talk about, and they respond with gratitude and emotion.”