A Q&A with Heather Hitchens CEO of the American Theatre Wing

Heather Hitchens is the President and CEO of the American Theatre Wing, an organization that invests in brave work, supports creative growth and celebrates excellence in bringing inclusive stories to national culture through theatre. Heather is a nationally recognized arts leader with nearly 30 years of experience in performing arts administration, policy, and program development. Her work has made her the only woman leader within the EGOT quadfecta. As President and CEO of the American Theatre Wing, Heather is charged with maintaining its brand of excellence and prestige – she oversees and shapes the Tony Awards (Broadway), OBIE Awards (Off-Broadway), and the American Theatre Wing’s other vital grant-making, professional development, educational, and media programs. Her passion for theatre continues to make a lasting impact in the industry.

Every leader has a goal and problem they’re trying to solve. What was the inspiration that started your journey?

I discovered the power of the arts as a young child when I began playing the drums and participating in the arts activities in my elementary school. This early exposure to the arts really lit me up and fueled my passions. At my school, arts were offered to every child – not as an elective, but as a central part of the education. It was only later that I learned that not everyone is afforded this luxury, and my focus quickly became about helping people of all ages, but especially young people, benefit from the power of the arts.

What would you consider your biggest accomplishment and why?

My biggest accomplishment has been bringing my full artist soul to my CEO roles, joining creativity with pragmatism in ways that build high-performing, innovative, and forward-thinking organizations.  Some of the specific achievements at the Wing I’m proudest of include the highly acclaimed Tony Awards telecast I helped shepherd in the middle of the recent writers’ strike; the multi-million dollar initiative I created to address the systemic pipeline shortcomings in the American Theatre, utilizing seed funding donated by Andrew Lloyd Webber; and the almost $300K in emergency grants the Wing distributed directly to more than 500 artists in the midst the pandemic-related shutdown.

What challenges have you faced in the workplace, especially your experience in male-dominated environments?

I think every woman who has survived and thrived as a leader, which I have been fortunate to do, has been underestimated, had their accomplishments diminished, and made to feel unwelcome in various “clubs” from time to time in their career.  I am no different, but I have also been extremely fortunate to have those experiences countered with amazingly supportive and generous mentors who helped me navigate those situations and literally pulled me up into the business.

Can you share some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from your successes and failures in business?

Listen more, talk less.  Never allow yourself to “arrive.”  Stay curious, and continue to evolve and learn.    Do the things of which you are afraid and at which you think you’re no good.  Build and nurture relationships with mentors and elders, but also with the next generation.  Above all, have the courage of your convictions.

How do you prioritize self-care and well-being while managing the demands of your business?

It is a constant challenge, but I have learned maybe the hard way from time to time that caring for your own well-being is crucial to professional success and achievement.  My best ideas and most effective solutions have come on hikes with my husband and Chocolate Labrador.

If you had one piece of advice for someone just starting out, what would it be?

Relax.  Worry less.  You can ‘what if’ yourself to death.  The truth is: nobody knows what’s around the corner.  Could be great, could be awful, but believe in your ability to deal with whatever it is. 

Do you have a favorite quote or motto that inspires you?

Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn.

What initiatives or actions do you believe are crucial for fostering a more supportive and inclusive business environment for women?

Inclusion must be practiced as a principle and not a program.  We need to create professional environments that foster curiosity, creativity, diversity, and participation, and in which the best ideas win – no matter where they come from.

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