MakerSeries: Jen Wheeler Kahn Talks About How Her Passion for Theater and Giving Back Led To The Cre
Jen Wheeler Kahn CEO and Founder of Scenery Bags
In this new feature called MakerSeries, RyeTheNewsGuy.com will give you a first-hand look at some of the up and coming makers of tomorrow by showcasing some of their products that are making a splash in the industry. These makers are all apart of Broadway Makers' Alliance, which is a collection of creatives who’ve taken their passion for Broadway and created high-quality products and services for the Broadway and theatre community. RyeTheNewsGuy.com is a proud member of Broadway Makers' Alliance.
Jen Wheeler Kahn CEO and Founder of Scenery talks with RyeTheNewsGuy.com about the creation and idea behind her innovative company. Scenery makes bags and accessories from retired theatre backdrops and a portion of the proceeds from every sale in donated to TDF (Theater Development Fund) to take kids to see theatre. Jen talks about how she put pen to paper and wanted to use her passion to make a difference in the world. Visit Scenery Bags website to learn more and be sure to keep up with them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
Where did the idea come from to start Scenery Bags?
It came from a few different places actually. I was a professional stage manager for 17 years. So, you know, theater is in my blood and was my career and love, and it still very much is in many ways. But, I hated watching them throw away this beautiful scenery and our memories and art that I, and my friends in the same shop, had painted. So I always knew that was something that, as much as I love theater, something I didn't love about our industry was how much waste we created.
But I didn't necessarily think that I would create something that would help that. I just knew it was something that was a sad kind of sticking point for me. And then on the side for four years, I ran a blog on gift bags in an eco style, but, they were like these two halves of myself that I never thought would overlap. I had my theater side, and then my like eco friendly fashion gift bag side, which I was like, ‘Well that's fine, these are just two parts of myself and they'll never really have anything to do with each other. And then, one of my first summers after moving to New York, one of my best girlfriends and I did a road trip up the coast to Maine, which is very, very local-arts friendly. And I was so in love and inspired. I'm like, “This is so my wheelhouse, I love all this stuff.”
I love locally made things and upcycled things. And there was a store that made bags out of old sails from sailboats. I bought a bag and was like, “Oh, this is awesome. I love it!” And at lunch that afternoon, my friend Laura and I were talking and we said, “You know, where's our idea? We can make bags out of stuff. What should we be doing?” And it was at that lunch that this the idea for Scenery Bags was kind of planted. And then that night, I called my friend who owns a set rental company in San Diego. And I was like, “Hey, do you have any trash?” And he went, “Yeah, I don't throw anything away but we have to retire set-up drops all the time. You can have all of it. So, within 24 hours, I had a company idea and inventory. And then I kind of sat on the idea for two years, because it was the summer of 2015 when that road trip happened. And then I kind of kicked the ball down the road for two years acquiring more drops to use, looking for a manufacturer, all while I was stage managing full time. So, I did what little I could to keep the ball rolling, because I loved this idea and I really wanted to make it happen. But, it wasn't until Hudson was born
that it actually afforded me the time to be home and make it a real thing, and then it took off in the most incredible way.
The inside of a Scenery bag with the name of the show and number
I’m sure you didn’t expect the response that it's received
It shocks me every day. I mean, I was like, “Let's do this cute little side project and I'll see if people like it.” But, I knew that I loved it, and that we were saving this art that would have gone into a landfill. It was decreasing theatrical waste, and then being able to give back to TDF...It’s really a marriage of everything I care about. I could not be more passionately invested in a company ever. I mean, it was really like, “Oh, everything I've ever done or cared about my whole life makes sense now. Seventeen years of stage management would lead me to making bags out of trash [Laughs]. Not at all what I expected, but, I get to show up to my dream job every day. Now I work from home and fly out to my shop in Florida once a quarter and we work on new products when I'm out there and you know, set up our inventory cut lists so we know what bag we're rolling out when. But, it took off in a way that I did not at all expect. So, we spent the first year kind of like catching up and now since then, in our second year, we've been current, we haven't had any kind of a backorder, so, now we're really kind of like learning the ropes, which is fun.
You had mentioned TDF, one of the things that makes Scenery Bags so unique is that you take a portion of the sales and donate them to the TDF (Theatre Devolpment Fund). Can you tell me a little bit about where that idea came from, and the impact it’s had?
Well it was one of those like cart-way-before-the-horse situations because I knew when I had this idea, that I wanted the proceeds to go to kids who wouldn't normally have access or availability to see theater, and be introduced and taken to theater. So, in my total naivety, when I started Scenery Bags, I was like, “I'll just do it all. I'll start the company, I'll start the nonprofit and I'll take the kids to theater and it'll be great.” And then, my husband, very wisely, was like,”Why don’t you find nonprofit that's already doing exactly what you want to support and just give them money.” And I was like, “Oh actually that's a way better idea," because, logistically, in trying to start both of them, it would’ve sunk both battleships. So I went onto Mr Google and just looked up nonprofits in New York that take kids to see theater and there actually aren't as many as you would think. I was actually really shocked. Maybe I just did not do a very good job Google searching.
And then, I found TDF who I had already known about through TKTS and stuff, but, I had no idea the breath of what they do there. They already have an introduction to theater program, which was the first program I was supporting when we launched Scenery Bags, where they go in and they do eight workshops with students where Broadway professionals teach them about the show they're seeing and about theater in general and how to be an audience, they do acting workshops. So, they get an introduction to all facets of theater and then they get to see a Broadway or off-Broadway show at the culmination of the workshop, which is amazing, I was like, “Great, that sounds perfect. That's exactly the type of thing I want to be funding.” And so, it was a very quick conversation and they're like, “yeah, sure. Just send us your money[Laughs].” That's just such a lovely relationship.
Scenery's Measure in Love bag inspired by RENT
I mean, the favorite part of what I do is being able to give back to TDF and we've sponsored over 500 students through their program in our first year and a half. Which is super exciting to be able to sponsor them through their workshop and seeing a Broadway show. And also, any student who was an alumni of their program can come back to TDF and get an incredibly discounted alumni rate. So, they can see an off- Broadway show for like $10. But people just don't think to look for theater because it's just not a language and a medium that is taught in the next generation as much. So, I love that they're introducing these students to theater and giving them the ability to be a patron of the arts for life. And then, I believe starting in March of last year, we also started funding their accessibility programs for students with disabilities. Access to theater is access for everyone.
Your bags have really taken off and have become really popular in the theater world, what is one of your favorite pieces and why?
It's a really hard question for me because I'm bad about favorites and I swear that every drop that comes in is like my own new little baby, and I feel personally responsible to make sure that we are able to repurpose it. I have framed scrap pieces from the first two drops that we ever cut from The Desert Song and The Wizard of Oz. So, those hold a special piece of my heart just because it was where we started. Though, Mamma Mia, I think, is one of our most beautiful bags. And then also there is Veremonda, which really, no one's ever heard of that opera because it hasn’t been done in three-hundred years, but it's some of our most beautiful art, I think, that has ever come in.
That's incredible! Is there a bag that is your best seller?
Well Mamma Mia is by far our best seller, but also because we have the most of it, we have the entire show’s worth and all the drops are exactly the same. Our quickest sell-out was Wicked. We were given some scrap pieces from the Mexico City production of the show and they sold out in seven minutes.
Yeah, that was a record for sure. It was bananas.
Scenery's For Good bag from the Mexico City production of WICKED
Now, with pieces like Mamma Mia, were they from the Broadway Company or from different companies?
Well, the sets, a lot of times, will be a little bit interchangeable, but, we have the Broadway production, which is exciting. So you know, there's lots of different reasons why things end up at our shop and we are grateful for all of them [Laughs]. But we're definitely in contact with every show that closes on Broadway from the General Managers, to the Company Managers, Production Managers. They've all heard from me.
Well, I understand that Scenery Bags has expanded a bit and you have a new line of pieces called Show Deck Bangle. Can you tell us how that idea came about and what the Show Deck Bangles are made from?
Yes. I'm so excited about our new line because it really kind of magically landed at my doorstep. I got an email from someone who had sent us stuff in the past and they were saying, “Hey, we love Scenery Bags. I was talking with my buddy who has a shop out here and they have a bunch of show decks, they're getting rid of, Do you think you could use them?” And they put me in contact with the head of TTS Studios, which is the union shop that makes our show deck stuff, so, we got on the phone, and I'm like, “Let's brainstorm. This is too cool of an idea.” And so he kind of pitched me on coasters, serving trays, kind of like more home decor-type stuff. And I'm like,“Well, I'm not opposed to any of those items. But, as far as our brand and what is immediately in our wheelhouse, let's try to make maybe bangles and then maybe earrings. And then if those do well and people are supportive, then maybe we branch into home decor and stuff.” So, that's something else that potentially might happen. We actually did start with coasters andI mean we may circle back, but it was going to cost too much money per coaster, it just didn't seem like it was going to work out. And I loved the bangles idea. I'm like, “How cool is it to get to wear a piece of theater history?" I always joke that I am my own ideal customer, so if I like it, I figure my customers probably would too.
Scenery's new Show Deck Bangle
What’s next for Scenery Bags?
Well, the next things we're working on are more bag styles and then more things that we can make out of the show decks. So I'm working on some earrings now and we're going to possibly have some stuff for our boys, finally. Cufflinks, tie clip, pocket squares, and try to roll out a little more of a men's line. I know we've had a lot of very patient male customers who want to support us more than they are able to currently, which is wonderful. And then maybe potentially some home goods down the way. So we'll see. I just add things, add things and add things, it keeps life exciting.
That's super exciting! Well in closing, what advice you have for the future makers of tomorrow?
Two things. One, just do it. It’s never going to be perfect. It's never going to be exactly what you want. If I had waited for Scenery Bags to be exactly what I wanted and everything to be perfect and ready, I would still not have started this company. So, sometimes, you have to get things to a place where you're proud of them, and then jump and kind of figure the rest out on your way down. The other thing is when you get to a point where you can't figure them out anymore, ask for help. There's a lot you can do on your own, but you can't do everything in a vacuum. And it becomes very isolating working by yourself. So find the community. You know, we have the Broadway Makers Alliance, which is a wonderful community, but it's really important to have people that you can bounce ideas off of that can point you in the direction of lawyers and accountants and people that you're going to need to make your company run the way it's supposed to. And then there's something that I always tell entrepreneurs when I speak to them, you will feel unqualified because hardly any of us actually thought this was our future. We just had an idea that we couldn't shake and then made it happen. But, your passion qualifies you. If you love an idea enough to make it happen, then you deserve to be here.