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Jennifer Wheeler Kahn on her journey from stage manager to Scenery Bags CEO
Few theatre-related businesses can claim 2020 as their best year, but that turned out to be the case for Scenery Bags, which transforms retired theatrical materials from Broadway blockbusters such as Wicked, Mean Girls and Kinky Boots into fabulous accessories. "People really missed theatre, and we were able to give them a tangible piece of what they were missing," says Scenery Bags founder Jennifer Wheeler Kahn about her company's bittersweet success during the shutdown. Not that she went unscathed. Since all her items are made in the USA, she didn't have supply chain issues. However, for safety reasons, "one of my shops closed and the other scaled way back," she recalls. To meet the exploding demand, "I started manufacturing personally in our home for the first time ever," which wasn't easy with two preschoolers underfoot and a husband concerned about his job as the general manager of Houston's Alley Theatre.
Thankfully, Kahn's 17 years as a professional stage manager turned her into a consummate problem-solver—there is no order too tall for her, figuratively and literally. She approached her pandemic challenges with the same creativity, innovation and integrity that inspired her to launch Scenery Bags in 2017. After years of running a popular no-waste wedding blog with her sister while stage managing, Kahn started to wonder if there were a way to combine her passions: theatre and the environment. "I never thought those two pieces of myself would converge," she admits. But after stumbling across a store that sold bags made from old sails from sailboats, she got the idea for Scenery Bags. "Everything in my life started to make sense," she says. Instead of watching gorgeous, handcrafted backdrops, costumes and floorboards end up as landfill, "I was able to preserve pieces of theatre that usually get thrown out."
Like Elphaba, however, Kahn wanted to be more than green; she also hoped to give back. Specifically, she wanted to help forge the next generation of theatre lovers. "In my naivete, I thought I was going to start a nonprofit to send students to Broadway!" she says laughing. "I had a three-month-old at the time, so I was like nursing a newborn while researching how to take kids to see shows." She started googling and came across TDF's School Programs, which bring more than 10,000 tri-state area public school students to see dozens of productions for free every year. "I remember calling and being so nervous because I really wanted it to work out," Kahn says. "The response was, 'Of course we'll take your money!'" Thanks to the partnership, a minimum of 10% of every Scenery Bags purchase is donated to TDF's Introduction to Theatre initiative and Accessibility Program for Students. "I am so thrilled with the work you guys do and so honored to be a part of it," she says. "My sister and I grew up performing, so access to theatre has always been a part of my heart."
Over the past five years, Scenery Bags has collected more than 30,000 pounds of theatrical materials from approximately 30 shows on Broadway and beyond. Sales of the company's handmade bags, jewelry, keychains and keepsakes have helped more than 1300 students experience the magic of live theatre.
Still, Kahn is constantly coming up with fresh ways to make Scenery Bags more green and greathearted. "I think that comes from my stage management background in a weird way," she says. "My inner monologue is always, 'How do I make this better?' Not just a better product, but how do I make it more ethical and sustainable? For example, our lining has become more eco-friendly and we're moving into recycled zippers. We're saving art and the environment and doing good in as many directions as possible."
With Scenery Bags' five-year anniversary coming up in July, Kahn is debuting some new products. She's particularly excited about the jewelry she's fashioned from Beetlejuice's stage floors. "No one else is really doing that and it's been really fun," she says. While she admits her sales have dipped since venues reopened—"theatre is back and fans want to spend their money on tickets. I get that. I want to go, too!"—she is thankful for what she calls "the best community in the world. Theatre artists and fans are so loyal and supportive. I started Scenery Bags as this cute little maternity leave project, and it very quickly took off. I accidentally created my dream job."
Top image: Scenery Bags founder Jennifer Wheeler Kahn holding one of her upcycled products. Photo courtesy of Kahn.