Chad Whittington moves from understudy to the lead role at Columbus's prestigious theater organization.
In November 2016, the Ohio Theatre hosted “Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella,” a touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical. Nine months later, a real-life Cinderella story occurred at the Downtown Columbus theater company: The Columbus Association for the Performing Arts—better known as CAPA—named Chad Whittington its new president and CEO. Nearly two decades earlier, Whittington started his career at CAPA sweeping the floors of the Ohio Theatre, which is owned by the arts organization. “The rest is history,” Whittington says.
Back in 1998, Whittington, then an Ohio State University education major, accepted that first CAPA job to help pay for college tuition. His duties included cleaning, changing lights and working the security desk. During that time, Whittington also was a self-described “wanderer” on his educational path. Eventually, he moved from teaching to accounting upon discovering his proficiency with numbers while taking an accounting class and added on business to allow for eventual management, remembering how he led student groups in high school. Still, he had no clear career trajectory.
When a position opened in the CAPA finance department as Whittington was finishing up his accounting degree, he seized the opportunity. Since then, it's been a steady rise for Whittington at CAPA, accepting a series of increasingly important positions (controller, vice president and chief financial officer, executive vice president and chief operating officer) that culminated with his appointment to the top job in August 2017. “It was just something that worked out,” Whittington says. “I will say once I was here at CAPA, it's very easy to become passionate about what we do. Even when I was cleaning the theaters, I'd watch rehearsal for BalletMet, watch the kids come in for a student performance of some show, the awe on their faces—especially the students that were there for the first time.”
In fact, another college experience also helped spark Whittington's interest in the arts. While a first-year student at Ohio State's Mansfield branch, Whittington attended a symphony for a mandatory music class. “I can still remember that concert, being there in a historic theater—the Renaissance Theater in Mansfield—and watching these musicians on stage creating this amazing art just for those of us who were sitting there that day. That made an impression on me. My passion for the arts really grew and developed just as I was starting my career at CAPA,” he says.
It is part of what drives him now as CEO—making sure others don't have to wait until college to experience the joy of the performing arts. “I think everybody should have that opportunity to connect to the arts in some way.”
CAPA itself is also a Cinderella of sorts, having begun in 1969 in response to a potential demolition of the Ohio Theatre, which had functioned as a movie house since 1928. CAPA, comprised of Ohio citizens, raised more than $2 million in less than one year, purchasing the theater with those funds and renovating it. Now, the nonprofit owns or manages a handful of local theaters and presents the national and international shows that fill them. Whittington says he enjoys his continued role of maintaining the buildings—a huge part of CAPA's mission.
“It's addicting I guess, taking care of these old buildings,” he says. “(They are) a part of our community that, from a cost perspective and a complexity perspective, they just don't build theaters like the ones we've now preserved.”
And both taking care of and filling the Ohio Theatre, Palace Theatre and Southern Theatre—all owned by CAPA, and the four Riffe Center theaters in the Vern Riffe Center for Government and the Arts, the Lincoln Theatre, Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, the Festival Latino, the Valentine Theatre in Toledo—all managed by CAPA, is no small feat. In addition to all that, CAPA provides back-office services for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Columbus theater company CATCO-Phoenix and Franklin Park Conservatory, and does marketing, event management, ticketing, sponsorship and public relations for all Broadway productions in Columbus. Whittington describes his job as 9-to-5 plus nights and weekends, and it's easy to see why. Still, he loves his new role.
“Once I got … more into the operational side of the business, or being involved in the community, I realized, ‘You know, this is a lot of fun and I can do this and I want more experience with this,'” he says.
“No two days look alike,” he adds. “It's working with the staff internally to set direction and strategy for the company, then taking that vision out in the community—talking to community leaders, talking to other arts leaders, figuring out how we can be good collaborators and good partners with the arts community, with the community as a whole. That's really where my time is spent. I have a great team to get the shows on the stage. My job now is more about strategy and community contact and dealing with the board and making sure that, from their perspective, we're doing what we need to do.”
And a big part of what they need to do is make sure CAPA is filling Columbus with national and international artists around the offerings of local arts groups rather than competing against them. “There are a lot of competing interests among the arts organizations, but we all want to raise the profile of the arts community as a whole, so trying to find that right balance between those things (is important),” he says.
But bringing unique artistic offerings to Columbus is also important to Whittington. “You don't have to go to Chicago or New York to see those things,” he says. “We can do those things right here in Columbus. You work out the fees and figure out can we get enough support to make this show worthwhile. In other situations, maybe we lose money on it. If it's right for the city, if it's important for the city to have an artist, we'll do it even if we lose a little bit of money on it because it's part of our mission.”
To be right for Columbus, Whittington says, you need to be able to offer something for all its residents, and having a diverse group to cater to is good for arts organizations like CAPA, as well as a challenge and a risk. The recent showing of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” at the Palace is an example. Whittington was unsure of the idea, but it quickly sold out. He took his 8-year-old daughter Violet to see it. “One of my goals is making sure that everybody in the city feels welcome in our buildings, that we have something for everybody. That means we have to program to people's interests, so we do have to provide a lot of diverse offerings,” he explains.
As Whittington settles into his new role, a top priority is making sure all corners of central Ohio feel welcome in CAPA's theaters and are able to experience the arts. He says he is trying to figure out how to bring performing arts to community centers and other spaces in areas underexposed to theater. “I think you will see us out in the community more, doing things outside of our theaters. (CAPA's theaters) will always be home, but you're going to see us expand our footprint out into the greater community as well.” Because he didn't have a lot of access to the arts growing up in Michigan—nothing beyond the “things that happen in your high school gym”—he is especially motivated to make an impact on local education. “We're going to do more to make sure that happens. It's really a combination of both (going to the schools and bringing kids to the theaters),” he says.
Whittington has a score of new ideas. He keeps things fresh by welcoming the ideas of others—both internally from staff and externally from arts and community leaders and arts lovers. “Hearing what they need, what they want, what they're excited about is a great way for us to generate ideas out of that,” he says. Right now, CAPA and other organizations are all pitching in on a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance that will take place in 2018. “Those opportunities to work together, they come from conversations among the arts groups.”
Whittington considered leaving the nonprofit just one time. A year or two into his job as controller, his contemporaries were getting jobs at large accounting firms, and he thought he might want the same thing. He interviewed with Arthur Andersen but didn't get hired. Not long after that, Arthur Andersen folded. “It was kind of my lesson that sometimes the grass isn't greener on the other side,” he says. “It was the right decision to stick around. After that, I really never looked around again.”
That longevity has benefited Whittington, particularly in molding him as a leader. Though he didn't plan to move into the role of chief executive, or even think of it in the beginning of his career, mentors along the way helped him reach new professional levels, with the crescendo of CEO.
“In the controller career, (there) was the CFO job that I was hopeful to have eventually. I had a great mentor who was the CFO for many years here at CAPA and worked and grew under her and hoped eventually to take that position. Once I got into the CFO position, I got more exposure into all the different areas of what goes on at CAPA.”
Whittington also credits Doug Kridler, who was president when Whittington began working within CAPA, and Bill Connor Jr., CAPA's late CEO who died in 2016 from cancer, with being good models of leadership.
Kridler, now president and CEO of the Columbus Foundation, is not surprised about Whittington's rise. “The ascendancy to this position is a just reward for someone of such care for and dedication to this important civic organization,” Kridler says. “While I led CAPA, we raised Chad from being part of the cleaning crew of the Ohio Theatre to being a key part of our accounting staff, and since then, he has proven himself time and time again to both the board and to his fellow CAPA staff members.”
That admiration was evident when CAPA staffers learned of Whittington's CEO appointment: They gave him a standing ovation.
Whittington names honesty and integrity as top qualities of leadership. “Certainly with some of the news that we seem to hear every day right now, that's especially important,” he says. “I don't agree with everybody around here all the time. Part of having the right senior team is getting people who have different views—that's how you come to the best decisions—but they always know that I'm being honest with them about what my position is. I think that's important, especially in the nonprofit world where we're not being driven by shareholders. People are doing this because they have a passion for what they do.”
Kridler can see the same qualities in Whittington. “The city needs CAPA to continue to be successful given its broad responsibilities across our community,” he says. “You have in Chad a genuine and trustworthy collaborator to build on that success.”
Another leadership lesson Whittington learned—through a mistake—is the importance of a good team. A few years ago, he needed to make a quick hire and settled on a mediocre candidate. He found that “you pay for that mistake for either a long time, or you pull that Band-Aid off and make a change.”
He says his fellow players, the staff at CAPA, are the No. 1 reason for its success. “I'm not doing this by myself—I've got a great team around me. One of my biggest responsibilities is making sure I've got a great team, and when I don't do that, it can have an impact on the entire company. I learned that lesson … and now I'm much more patient in my hiring to make sure I get the right people.” He mentions a recent appointment—Executive Vice President Elfi Di Bella, the former CEO of YWCA Columbus—as an example. “A great hire,” he says, “one where patience paid off to make sure I got the right person.”
When Whittington isn't working, he is hanging out with his wife and daughter. However, as things settle down, he'd like to return to a favorite hobby—flying. He says it's something he has always been interested in, even growing up, and, luckily, his father-in-law is a pilot. While dating his now-wife, her father took him for a spin in the sky. He was hooked and took lessons shortly thereafter. While getting his pilot's license was fun, it also was an instructive challenge.
“You learn a lot about your self-confidence,” he says. “You do your training with the instructor for 12 or 15 hours and then you have to go up in that plane by yourself. When the wheels lift off the ground, you realize the only way you're getting back down in one piece is if you do it yourself with the training you've had.”
Though it's been about a year and a half since he's been up, he is looking forward to seeing again that “different perspective on the world.”
For now, Whittington is pursuing his vision for CAPA and, on a larger stage, for the impact performing arts can have on the community. “The arts bring people together. You sit next to somebody, you don't know what their political beliefs are—you don't care. Certainly we need more of that right now. It doesn't matter what you think outside of the theater, you can come together and enjoy what's happening on the stage.”
Chloe Teasley is staff writer.