Spotlight Interview: Kathryn Gigler

Kathryn Gigler: Director of Education & Community Engagement, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Pittsburgh, PA

WFU Class of 2010

Double Major: Psychology & Religion

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Kathryn Gigler walks us through her path since graduation from WFU, the Pittsburgh creative scene, and quality advice picked up along her journey thus far.

DeacLink: What did you study while you were at Wake?

Kathryn Gigler: I double majored in psychology and what’s now known as religious studies, and participated in the honors psychology program.

DL: Since you’ve graduated, how has your career unfolded? Can you walk me through your path from graduation day to your current job?

KG: I went straight to graduate school at Northwestern University after graduating from Wake Forest, in pursuit of a doctoral degree in cognitive neuroscience, because I was really into the human brain. I started out with a focus on intervention work with older adults experiencing cognitive degenerative diseases, and ended up switching my focus to the more basic science around human memory systems.

At the same time, I realized I wanted to be doing more applied work in the world, and so I started volunteering in the field of anti-violence. I worked as a rape crisis counselor for the YWCA of Greater Chicago, and at Northwestern University as a member of their task force on sexual violence prevention and response.

It was then I discovered you could actually have a job in the field of social impact, and so I accepted the position of executive director of the Women’s Center at Elizabeth City State University, an HBCU in the UNC system. I loved the students and the work, but I still felt like something was missing. I decided to relocate to Pittsburgh, where my family is from, and I worked freelance gigs for a couple of years, serving as a consultant with HPW Associates and an advocate-educator with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape.

I had danced at the pre-professional level through high school, so when a position opened up at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, I was immediately interested. I had begun circling back to arts education via volunteer work in Pittsburgh, and was thrilled when I was offered the position of director of education and community engagement. I’ve been at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre since March 2019.

DL: What led to you decision to pursue a PhD, and how did you choose your particular program?

KG: When I graduated from Wake, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, other than that I wanted to have an impact and to make the world a better place. Looking back, I put pressure on myself to enroll in graduate school immediately after graduation. I googled “good programs in cognitive neuroscience” and found Northwestern University; as someone who had grown up on the east coast, I didn’t realize what a strong program it was during the application process! I ended up getting very lucky in Chicago and at Northwestern.

DL: How did you find and apply to the various positions you’ve held (online, inside references, other outlets)?

KG: My career has been almost entirely interest-driven. For example, I decided I liked the brain, so I went to graduate school; I became passionate about violence prevention, and I toggled over to the social justice arena. For me, it has also always been about thinking about how I want to make a difference.

I do think there are different ways of positioning yourself to do that. I chose to relocate to Pittsburgh because of family, and because it’s somewhere I have always loved, and so I’ve been happy to build a life here. So location has been a huge additional factor in my career path.

Of course, reaching out to people is always a really great approach. I’ve found that in general, people like to help the people coming up behind them. Once you're there, you will want to help other people as well.

DL: What led you to choose a career in community education?

KG: I knew I wanted to move into an arts organization as a next step. I wanted to return to that positive change-seeking environment and have an immediate impact. I liked that people were drawn to see performance art, and to look for social impact with that art, and I personally had experience with dance versus other visual art forms. In Pittsburgh, I got involved with a local company, Attack Theatre, and I loved the work they were doing. I got to know the dance world in Pittsburgh, and I could see myself fitting in long-term. I felt that I could use the skills I had from my research background, and I knew that I would enjoy the community engagement piece given my strong relationships with various community organizations. The interest level was there for me, and luckily my skill set made it a good match.

DL: What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in the space?

KG: Reaching out to anyone you know- or anyone you want to know- is a great place to start. In addition, lots of openings start out as volunteer opportunities, because many arts organizations are interested in hiring from within For this reason, I think it’s important to build relationships at specific organizations within the local arts scene. You want to be attending shows and talks and panel discussions. In addition, there are lots of great art-based meetups in most communities. These groups allow you to get your face out there and your profile known within the local scene.

DL: What do you think Wake could have done better to prepare students for life after graduation?

KG: I do believe that a lot of this comes down to the work students are willing to put in to get involved on campus and in the community, because as an environment, Wake encourages people to pursue so many different interests. As an example, I loved the performing arts in college, but would never have attended the Secrest Artists Series if I hadn’t had a friend running that program, because I had so much else going on in my life; it took that personal connection to get me in the door. The staff and faculty care so much about the programs that are being put on, and it’s that last piece- getting students in the door- that sometimes seems to be the biggest hurdle.

Personally, I would have loved it if someone could have better linked arts, social impact, and science for me. I do think that Wake is now taking a more intersectional approach to the arts and sciences, and hopefully that is helpful to students like me!

DL: What is your favorite part of living and working in Pittsburgh?

KG: The size of the city makes it a great place to be in the arts. It’s big enough that there are always all kinds of things going on, but small enough that there is a six degrees of separation mentality within the arts community. This feeling makes it easy to get involved, as you can go to one or two events and immediately feel connected to the larger community. I believe that this is true across artistic disciplines, and that this encourages collaboration and teamwork across institutions. For example, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre partners frequently with partners like the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Science Center, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. There’s a lot of ecosystem building in Pittsburgh that makes it a very cool place to work in this sector.

DL: What is your favorite part about your job?

KG: I love relationship building, and I love working to make sure that the relationships I am building are based in trust. I love getting to know people and organizations, and cooperating to figure out what we each can do to improve each others’ experiences. Of course it’s fun being the one building monster puppets with kids at community festivals, but at the end of the day, it is for me about the larger social impact arts organizations are able to have, and that starts with one-on-one relationships.

DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?

KG: I always say “try everything.” I wouldn't be where I was if I hadn’t done so at Wake, and I’ve been even luckier in my career path. I am a research nerd - I look everything up, and I deep dive into everything I’m interested in. As you can tell, I am passionate about a lot of different things! If you are interested in something, pursue it. The creative professions tend to be more vocational than typical 9-5 jobs, which can make careers difficult, but also so worth it. I believe that you know it when you feel it; follow your intuition as you make your way through your career path. Lots of good things are happening in the arts right now, and following your gut will help you find them.