Family Office

Navigating Tough Family Wealth Challenges With Education Theater

Joe Reilly, July 26, 2018


Regulator FWR contributor Joe Reilly talks to this year's winner of the publication's outstanding thought leadership award about challenges facing wealthy families.

Family office consultant Joe Reilly, a regular contributor to Family Wealth Report, interviews Stephen McCarthy and Paul McKibbin of the educational theater group Shaking the Tree, which turns twenty this year. Shaking the Tree was the winner of the 2018 Family Wealth Report Award for Outstanding Thought Leadership.

Joe Reilly:  What is Shaking the Tree (STT)? 
Steve McCarthy:  STT is a two-decade old non-profit theater company whose Executive/Creative Board members have direct experience in the fields of law, business, family office, philanthropy and theater. We develop and produce “Living Case Studies” which are 30-45 minute professionally cast productions using skilled actors to portray critical issues facing families of substance - such as allocation of money, succession, control of business/foundations etc. These talented SAG/AFTRA actors complete the live performance, then “stay in character” afterwards so that the audience can ask them questions. We have written 15 different plays over the years and showcased them for families, family offices, wealth managers and conference providers.  We have also added facilitated DVD workshops to be a bit more cost effective.  While our intent is not prescriptive, this process is a great way for people to start an important discussion around difficult topics.

It is a unique group in the family office world. What was the original idea that spurred its formation?

Steve McCarthy: To my recollection, the original program took place at an IIR conference in Phoenix back in 1997 when Paul McKibbin, Maryann Fernandez, Pat Lebon, Fredda Herz-Brown, Kathryn McCarthy and Scott Budge among others developed a play for a conference session that turned into a learning tool and ultimately the approach that we at STT use today.

Paul McKibbin: The technique mostly came about thanks to Maryann Fernandez who was producing the event. She was always exploring new concepts and hit on the idea of using a play to present a family case. My then employer – SEI Investments – was a sponsor and was asked to help with shaping the story. I was an English major in college and drew the lucky straw, along with the late Scott Budge. It was a huge success and we were asked to do it again a few months later. Several others followed. The five of us working on the project were employed at different companies and we hit on the idea of asking the sponsoring banks and others to contribute the intellectual property to an educational not-for-profit. We decided to give it a name…. and Shaking the Tree was born!

What goes into creating each of the performances?
Steve McCarthy:  Each play is individually crafted with the working and creative group first putting together composites of characters. Then potential plot lines with the issues and conflicts are worked out and a written draft is prepared by David Kersnar, who is an artistic director from the acclaimed Looking Glass Theater in Chicago. The work is reviewed by the team for content/perspective and subsequently a casting call/reading by the actors/rehearsal occurs. In addition, we spend a lot of time on planning/mastering the “feedback loop” (i.e. actors answering questions from the audience - post performance - while staying fully in character) since that part is extremely important for an effective audience experience.
Paul McKibbin:  Additionally, we must build our stories in many layers, beginning with the dilemmas and conflicts we want to explore, and then very carefully create backstories for each character that makes them real. We draw insights from the actors, the director, team members like Steve with first-hand experience, family consultants and also specialists like Don Kozusko …..their collective input is critical to the process of creating authentic stories around real-world problems. Importantly, we also ensure that we don’t fall in love too much with any one character – our conflicts are always right vs. right.

How do the families themselves respond to the performances?
Paul McKibbin:  Families respond on a very personal level to Shaking the Tree performances, because they recognize their histories, frustrations and secret stories in the action that is unfolding on the stage. We have learned how crucial it is to have a mix of families in the room so that everyone experiences both the personal connection to the stories – and a safe distance that allows them to learn and comment. We are always in tune with the question of “is this a safe enough environment for everyone?”  

Family members respond from their personal experience – even if it was long ago.  We have had older family members evoke the frustration they felt many years ago as children with their own parents. We have also had the opposite, where senior family members are shocked at the degree to which they see their children impacted by the behavior of a character – or realize the degree to which they care about their happiness over other considerations. We have especially seen family members leave with a renewed determination to share their feelings and experiences with each other.

Steve McCarthy:  Well, it is a carefully crafted storyline, “which sometimes protects the guilty”, and allows the individual family members, often from different generations, to react to this “foil” in a very novel, reflective way that is long lasting and can hopefully change behavior patterns and decision-making. I think it’s partly the way we tailor the stories based on real experience, but also the presentation format, because we have thought for more than twenty years now on the best way to create a safe harbor where the issues can be voiced, but in a supportive/listening environment.

What are the topics and how do you select them?
Paul McKibbin:  We have taken on the topic of preparing next generation family members, and family succession on several occasions. We try to follow a few rules such as no bad guys.  We are always right vs. right. We also like strong family members, as it takes away from the story when someone is unable or unwilling to try. We have a formal process for developing the narratives that starts with who the family is and what the central dilemma is. We create backstory for every character that gives them depth and lets the actor develop a true first-person ability.  We often ask the actors to develop these further.  

We also diagram out the relationship triangles, dilemmas and conflicts. Our stories are not quite play length, they end without resolution, and this is handled by the family staying in character and having a facilitated conversation with the audience. This interaction works because the characters have a backstory, and because we create a script for this along the lines of a guided improvisation. There are often surprise conflicts hidden in the outline for the interaction. We try to imagine every question possible, and we teach them how to support each other the way a real family would. A family member might get miffed if you ask them, “how much money do you have?” but who wouldn’t?

We adjust as we put it together – the characters are people and have real chemistry, positive and negative. The actors really add to the creation of their characters. One guy we brought to the middle east turned out to be an expert martial artist and so the two brothers fit a playful brawl into one of their scenes. Our director, David Kersnar, is a great collaborator. We write, direct, create, block and train as a team, but he is the real artist.

And then you put it on and what you thought were jokes no one laughs at, and they love parts that you totally didn’t’t intend to put in. They like or dislike people – they read people differently than you intended. I love Robert Frost’s saying, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

You have worked with a large number of families over the years.  What do you think is the one major issue facing families today? 
Paul McKibbin:  I think the biggest issues is a timeless one, the issue of being a family and staying connected, but also balancing the tension between liquidity, capital and control in one or more family enterprises.  Other issues like technology, social change and business change are always there, but the enterprise family is the most adaptable thing on the planet. As business people they overcome any and all challenges, but the slow change of generations, the growth of the family and the fundamental math of family growth are always there. The most amazing families seem to build entrepreneurship into their DNA somehow and create this virtuous cycle of always having a new venture, a new artist, a new thinker. Shaking the Tree has been a great experience and I hope it has helped some of these amazing families thrive. I really believe that business owning families are one of the fundamental pillars of civil society.

Do you ever follow up with your groups? What kind of feedback do you get if you do?
Paul McKibbin:  We had a remarkable experience with a play sponsored by Don Kozusko – we presented it at the CFF gathering in Chicago, and when the group came back together more than half a year later we invited anyone that had seen it to come and speak with us about the experience. Twenty people braved a winter storm to show up. I had always wondered – do people remember the story, think about it, learn from it? We were blown away by how eager the group was – after several months – to go on discussing and how much they had thought about it in the interval.

I once had lunch with the new head of a family office that I was working with.  He had been a private banker, and our conversation turned to the topic of how difficult it was to explore family issues in a meaningful way. He became very enthusiastic about an experience he had had in an event where his bank had sponsored a Shaking the Tree presentation. It was the only environment where he had seen people overcome their reticence and share. Now my work with him was on restructuring the office – he had no idea that I was a founder of STT or that I even knew about it - and I had not been present at that performance. It’s great feeling when you hear that your work has come to good.

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