I did an interview for VOYAGE HOUSTON’S ‘Bold Journey’ series.

We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Jennifer Decker a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.

Jennifer, so great to be with you and I think a lot of folks are going to benefit from hearing your story and lessons and wisdom. Imposter Syndrome is something that we know how words to describe, but it’s something that has held people back forever and so we’re really interested to hear about your story and how you overcame imposter syndrome.

I was so relieved when I learned that ‘imposter syndrome’ was a real thing, and that it wasn’t just me who worried I wasn’t good enough. When I started my company, I had acting experience, but everything it took to run a theater company I had to learn on my own as issues came up. I really had no help or mentor in the process of this. Because of this, I was often very insecure about whether I should be doing what I was doing. As my company became more well-known, we began to attract some really amazing artists, and that’s when I started realizing that I was only just an ‘okay’ actor, not great like some of the people I then had access to. So I spent a LOT of time struggling with imposter syndrome, wondering if I should quit before everyone found out I shouldn’t be among them. It still creeps in at times, but I mostly overcame this by reminding myself constantly that nobody taught me anything about how to do any of this, yet I still managed to create a company from literally nothing, and that the projects I produced were good enough that people were coming to see our shows and writing about us in the press. Also, these fabulous artists were seeking me out to work with us, so that must mean they trusted what I was doing. The biggest thing I had to do was to acknowledge that I wasn’t the most talented at acting, which was the thing that had led me to theater in the first place. Once I came to terms with that, I was able to work hard to get better at the things that are more in my wheelhouse, which are leadership and directing. With my focus more on those things, I have been able to better develop those skills, and now I’m pretty confident that I have every right to be doing what I’m doing. It was a long process.

Thanks, so before we move on maybe you can share a bit more about yourself?
DECKER: I founded Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company in 2001. We started out as an experimental theatre but evolved to find our place in the arts community into a theatre that focuses on plays by women. Before it became more mainstream to include plays by women in artistic seasons, we managed to be the first to premiere plays in Houston by playwrights like Naomi Wallace, Marina Carr, Edna O’Brien, Dawn King, Jen Silverman and others. We still focus on female artists when choosing our season, even though most theatres are also trying harder to do so in recent years. I also teach English at Houston Community College, where I recently won a student-nominated teaching award, which might be one of my most treasured accomplishments. I’m very proud of my work in both places. I am also a freelance theatre director. In April of 2023, I am directing “Photograph 51” for the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC theatre, and in May 2023, Mildred’s Umbrella is presenting the world premiere of “Tooth and Tail” by local playwright, Elizabeth A.M. Keel. .

Looking back, what do you think were the three qualities, skills, or areas of knowledge that were most impactful in your journey? What advice do you have for folks who are early in their journey in terms of how they can best develop or improve on these?
DECKER: I always knew I was good at running things. I have a unique talent for multi-tasking, and I’m able to juggle many things at once. Every job I’ve ever had, I’ve ended up a manager of some sort, whether I was trying to be one or not, so that was no surprise to me. Another thing that has impacted my journey is optimism. I know that if I apply myself to something and make sure I have the right people on a team, even if the other things aren’t quite in place yet, things wiil work out.

One thing I would say to people who are early in their journey is to make sure you give other people ownership and credit when they are contributing to your work, but always remember to take credit for yourself, too. One thing I always struggled with was allowing myself to take credit, even though I was handing it out left and right to everyone else. I still struggle with that, but awareness of it keeps me from letting it get me down.

What is the number one obstacle or challenge you are currently facing and what are you doing to try to resolve or overcome this challenge?
DECKER: The number one challenge when running a non profit theater is finding the money needed to keep it going. Most theatres would have to make their tickets 3 times more expensive to run on ticket sales alone, so we have to constantly find funding elswhere. I didn’t know anyone when I started the organization who could make a huge donation or be a benefactor, so we have always operated on a shoestring budget. I have learned over the years to write grant proposals, and a bit of our funding comes from there, and we have hundreds of people who give us small donations. Those add up, but it’s an ongoing struggle.

We overcame part of this challenge by giving up our permanent space, and moving our offices to a virtual environment. Lower overhead helps keep the budget up a bit for the productions and to pay the artists a bit more.

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