Episode 122: Robert Hartwell, Elaine Welteroth and Sebastian Thiel on Letting Go Of Control

Jun 23rd

We’re really grateful to have Robert Hartwell on this week’s show. Robert is a Broadway actor best known for his role in the hit musical Hello Dolly. In 2016, he decided to step away from acting to nurturing the next generation of talent though musical theatre programmes run by his company, the Broadway Collective. The Broadway Collective has since become wildly successful and to date, Robert is the only African American CEO in professional musical theatre education in New York City.

Robert talks us through his approach to his work, from the importance of serving others to finding balance and creating space to take care of himself.

Key Takeaways

  • Serving others and having gratitude for the opportunities available to him has always been central to his way of working
  • His work with young people has always been guided by a strong sense of a personal calling
  • Despite his success, he has still faced difficulties, such as several of his team leaving during the pandemic
  • His own interpretation of greatness currently centres around expanding family, taking care of his team and finding love

We also hear from Sebastian Thiel. Sebastian is the director of the BBC’s brilliant comedy drama Dreaming Whilst Black. Sebastian tells us what book he’s been reading during lockdown, and how it’s helping to change his life.

Finally we hear some very pertinent words from American journalist, editor and TV host Elaine Welteroth. Elaine explains how the advice that may have made sense early on in your career might no longer be so relevant as you gain experience.


Imriel Morgan
Welcome back to Wanna Be, the podcast that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be in 30 minutes or less. I’m Imriel Morgan, the founder of Content is Queen, a podcast agency and club for ambitious podcasters with phenomenal taste, high expectations and a desire to sound as good as I do right now. Both of our studios are now open for business, so please do head to contentisqueen.org to check out the membership options. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here. Wanna Be’s focus is to help you take consistent action to build a successful life and career in the creative and entertainment industries. Today I’m back with three inspiring guests who are going to help you reimagine your life and your purpose, make gratitude part of your daily practice and press pause on overworking. Let’s get into it.

Today’s guest is Robert Hartwell, the founder and artistic director of the Broadway Collective where he is training the next generation of Broadway artists. Robert’s credits include Motown The Musical and the Tony Award-winning revival of Hello Dolly, starring Bette Midler. Oh my god! In this episode, your cup will be overflowing because Robert is so full of wisdom and gratitude that you cannot help but benefit from his life. This conversation will help you realign your goals and actions with your purpose, deal with adversity and develop enviable discipline. Let’s go.

Imriel Morgan 1:30
Who did you want to be before you became who you are today, and why?

Robert Hartwell 1:34  

I wanted to be Oprah, because…

Imriel Morgan

No way!

Robert Hartwell
Yes! She was that person that allowed everyone to feel seen and had a way of also doing it all. I was fascinated by her as a kid because at a young age, someone told me ‘oh, Robert, you need to choose one career path’. But I saw her and I thought, ‘okay, this person’s a TV host, a TV producer, an actor, an author’, and I was like, ‘oh no, you can absolutely do it all!’. So I totally wanted to be Oprah.

Imriel Morgan 2:17  

You know what? That is probably… That makes sense. I feel like I also wanted to be Oprah. Like she does do it all. I remember watching something about her. She’s like, ‘I was just so fed by my work, it didn’t drain me, it energised me. I just didn’t feel like I needed to sleep or rest’. I just thought that was so interesting, because it’s almost like she didn’t burn out fully while she was living in her purpose, and I thought that’s so different from what we hear about like, ‘don’t burn yourself out. Don’t push yourself too hard’. But like, what if it energises you? What if that fuels you? I’m curious to know what you think about that?

Robert Hartwell 2:49  

Absolutely. I think if you’re always coming from a place of service, that the universe always then feeds you back, right? So even watching some of the trials and things that she’s gone through, I mean, and I don’t know her yet, but to see from like a bird’s eye view of like, ‘oh, wow, she just kept going, but was able to do it’. Like, yes, you have an incredible team, but also because you’re coming from a place of truly wanting to help people. And I think when you do that the universe always has your back in that way.

Imriel Morgan 3:27  

Yes. Amen. I agree. And you have been giving back for quite some time, like you built the Broadway Collective, which is just incredibly beautiful to look at, but also just this incredible platform. And I had listened to a couple of your interviews before I asked you onto the show, because I was like, ‘who is this man? I need to learn everything’, because I thought your work was just so phenomenal. How you speak about it, and this idea of giving back and being of service and wanting to create the next generation, and build them up and uplift them, but in this very holistic way, I found truly inspiring and actually just vibed with me on that level. Because that’s kind of what I would like to do with podcasters and storytelling and getting people to just share and build and grow and have equitable space on this planet. So yeah, I would love to know where does that come from? Where does the need to give them and that drive to give and be of service come from for you?

Robert Hartwell 4:21  

Well, first Imriel, I’d love to say that you already are doing it. Your work just speaks for itself, and again, I’m just honoured to be here. But I have to tell you, I think it comes from my family and how they raised my brother and my sister and I with the core value that anything that you’re given in life is a gift. And yes, you should enjoy it for yourself but that you should also share your gifts with others. And so when I got the opportunity to move to New York City and have a 10-year career on Broadway, yes that was wonderful and yes, it was incredible. But I knew it was a gift that didn’t belong to me, right? And you can feel in moments in your life, when it’s time to give the gift back.

And so I’ve just always felt like, ‘oh, wow, this is the most incredible ride ever, like getting to perform and getting to go to opening nights and getting to go to the Tony Awards. It’s so great’. But you’re getting all of those blessings, because there is a young person who wants those things. But you, as the receiver of that gift, you want their experience to be lighter, and leaner and more momentum-filled, then your journey was. So if I can share something with them, that helps that happen, that makes me go, ‘okay, I’m doing what my parents taught me to do’.

Imriel Morgan 6:00  

Yeah, that’s so nice. It made me think about the fact that the mantra of paying it forward has been on the top of my mind for 2021, I just cannot shake, like, we need to pay it forward, I need to pay it forward, I need to give back. The next generation’s load needs to be lighter. However, I make that happen, it just cannot be this difficult. Like there should not be the first to do ‘X’ and the first to do ‘Y’ anymore. Like it can’t be this. This can’t be their mission. And of course, we live in this world, so it’s going to be unfortunately, but we have to just do something. So yeah, I really applaud you that you’ve managed to not only take that lesson from childhood, and then carry it forward, but you’re now like living and breathing that. And what’s the response been? What’s the reception been like for you?

Robert Hartwell 6:45  

You know what, I’ll start with something physical. There’s not a week that goes by actually, one just came yesterday, that like a beautiful thank you card from a student or a parent doesn’t come to our office. And so to see people not only start to get the wins that they declared on a piece of paper when they started working with you, but to also come back and to say, ‘thank you’, that is the ultimate gift, you know? And because you do get the opportunity to talk to so many people who are working to create access and working to create a livelihood for themselves, the reality is it has allowed me the opportunity to never go hungry one night in this city. You know?

Imriel Morgan 7:49 
Nice. New York’s a tough city!

Robert Hartwell 7:50  

New York’s a tough city. And I know that that’s not everyone’s story, and so I say that with grace and humility, but truly with with a lot of gratitude.

Imriel Morgan 8:01  

No, that that’s fair enough. I’ve been to New York. Every time I’ve gone, it has taken all of my money.

Robert Hartwell 8:08  

She is so rude. She’s so… you’re like, ‘um, excuse me?’

Imriel Morgan 8:15  

No, I really loved what you said about having gratitude for the opportunities that come to you. But I also think, like you said earlier, it’s like this act of service, always giving back and always feeling like you…. I guess it’s that idea of having a sense of duty to others, that you will always be fed eventually, or the rewards will come. And I love that the idea but what I said about duty, I wrote that down as this word of like, do you see it as a sense of duty? And do you see it as something that you are called and meant to do? Or is it something that you work at and try hard to do? And it’s something that you have to put effort into? Because I think that that’s quite an interesting distinction that some people want to make.

Robert Hartwell 8:57  

Imriel, you’re getting all up in my business! I love it. I love that so much. So here’s the thing: one, you’re so rude and I love it! Just getting right to the heart of the question. I love it. I really, I really love it. It’s fantastic. I have to say it’s absolutely a calling, you know, and I tell our students a lot of times. I’m like, ‘you’ll feel really good about something and then you’ll feel the calling and like the nature of then how you move through life just changes after that’. So real talk: last night, we are in the middle of a new launch for our summer program. And it had to take a huge pivot because of, you know, this thing that we’re all living through right now. And I usually end work every night at 6pm Eastern Time. Well, last night it was 5:30am Eastern Time when I got done. Now, trust me, I have never sat at my desk that long before in my life. But I have to tell you, I was in such peace last night sitting here at my desk, because I was like, I feel like this is the closest I can get to God on earth.

Imriel Morgan 10:21  

Oh, wow. That’s a beautiful feeling.

Robert Hartwell 10:22  

No, I mean that. Is it wild to be sitting at your desk? I could not feel my butt. It completely numbed out. But I was like, ‘this is so much bigger than me’. You know, and I do believe that it is temporary risk for long term reward that is connected to again, something so much bigger than you. So yes, it definitely feels like a calling and not a duty or something that I’ve chosen, but that it’s chosen me.

Imriel Morgan 11:01  

That’s fair enough. I think that’s quite nice. Because then as you say, you get into that flow state. It doesn’t feel like work. And for some people it does, and that’s fine too, that’s okay. Some people do have to work at things. But it’s nice when it feels natural. And you know you’re doing the exact thing. Did you envisage that for your life? Has this always been the path you’re on now? Has that been the path that you envisaged being on? Or actually was it quite different?

Robert Hartwell 11:29  

It was quite different yet quite so the same. So quite different in the sense that if you would have asked me while I was in college, ‘what are you going to be doing when you’re 30 years old, or 40 years old, or 50?’, I would say: ‘oh, I’m going to be performing on Broadway’. I had no idea that at 28 years old, I’d start to think about walking away from this thing that I had worked so hard for and go out on my own. I don’t have a business degree like, what? But when I think about it though, Imriel, it’s like, do I have a business degree?. No. But have I been an entrepreneur my entire life? Yes. Because my mum was a single mum. And so to go to these musical theatre summer programs, and to go to the dance classes and acting classes that I needed, I had to raise money, right? So it’s always been in my DNA, in my blood, that money does not have the final say, but my footwork does, right? And so it’s just like, ‘how hard are you going to get out here and do the work to make it happen for yourself?’ So I do think it’s like completely different. I would be like, ‘wait, I’m going to be a business owner and like, quote unquote, manage people? Lol’. But if you would say like, ‘no, you’re going to be an entrepreneur, and you’re going to be figuring things out on the fly and just making more decisions with less and less information’. I’d be like, ‘oh, yeah, I’ve been doing that since seven’.

Imriel Morgan 13:07  

Yeah, that’s so nice, though. I love when people become accidental entrepreneurs, I definitely can empathise and relate to just realising it’s time to step back and actually really think about what do I want to do? I want people to tell their stories. We need to change the world. Stories change the world. How do I do my part in that? And so I can definitely understand that the urge becomes so strong. But yeah, definitely, if you asked me, like, ‘what were you gonna do when you grow up Imriel?’, it definitely wasn’t going to be that! It was going to be like: doctor, studying CSI level, like body stuff. It was very different. Yeah, I love that.

Robert Hartwell 13:44  

But in a way, you’re doing that. You are CSI investigating lives right now. Like, you literally just got all up in my evening, like two minutes ago. So yes, you are doing that. The platform is just a little different.

Imriel Morgan 14:00  

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We’ll come back to Robert in a few minutes. I want you to get to know Sebastian Thiel, who is an incredible filmmaker and emerging director. Sebastian recently directed the BBC Three show Dreaming Whilst Black. Here he is with a quick message for you.

Sebastian Thiel 15:07  

Hey, what’s up? My name is Sebastian Thiel. I’m a filmmaker. And right now what I’m currently working on improving right now in my life is learning how to live a life completely happy, without external things bothering me. So things that I can’t control. And a book I would recommend that actually probably teaches this or helps with this is called Inner Engineering by Sadhguru. I think it’s an amazing book that explores what it’s like to delve deeper into yourself. So that is a book I would highly recommend and is currently supporting my growth.

Imriel Morgan 15:53  

Oh, my God, I love that he said this today. So much has been beyond our control and I know I’ve been losing my mind and stressing out about things beyond my control. This is definitely the reminder I needed and I hope it serves you well, too. You can learn more about Sebastian’s work by following him @SebastianThiel on Twitter and Instagram. Now, back to the fabulous Robert.

Imriel Morgan

I really want to know about the walking away from Broadway, because even though you’ve walked away, you’re still in it, but you’re not in it in the same ways. But what was the thing that made you feel like, ‘actually, I need to tread a new path now?’. What was the thing that happened? Was it one thing? Or was it a series of several moments that led to that?

Imriel Morgan 16:35  

Yeah. So when we opened the company in 2016, I knew that I really wanted us to have a summer program, and we opened in the fall. But I knew that that was going to take a little time to build up to that. So when we finally did our first summer program in 2017, I believe it was, it was the first time that I had students with me for an entire week. Because at the time, we would only ever see students for one day. I’d fly to Chicago and work with students for six hours, and then work online with them for the rest of the year. But this was like a concentrated one-week 10am to 10pm, Monday through Sunday with them and their parents. But what was cool was that at the same time that we were doing that summer program, I was performing in Hello Dolly on Broadway. So the students, I would spend my entire morning and afternoon with them, and then I’d run to the theatre and go do my show. And what I realised was that as I was at the show, I was thinking about my students, and I was thinking about are they okay? I missed them. I had chaperones to take care of them, do all the other evening activities and things.

But a turning point for me was halfway throughout the week, my mum and I did a parents’ session with the parents and we’re sitting in this rehearsal studio in the city. And the parents were just looking at me like, ‘I don’t know if you know, but what you’re doing is different. And not only our children’s lives being changed right now, our lives are being changed’. And it was like they were ministering into my spirit and giving me permission, because they didn’t even know that I was starting to grapple with, ‘am I about to not do eight shows a week on Broadway anymore right now?’. You know, because I’d been juggling it for a couple of years of running the company plus doing that. But seeing those parents, because it’s one thing to have the support of students, right, like, I love my kids, but for them to give me permission to say, ‘hey, what you’re feeling is real and this transformational energy that we’re feeling is real’, that’s when I knew I’m going to miss the next calling on my life if I don’t step forward in faith and do this thing full time. So it just felt so natural. Yes, it was scary, but it took some time but when I saw then see me it was a wrap.

Imriel Morgan 19:26  

Wow. That’s lovely though. Having that validation… we need this. We want this. We want you to do this. What you’re doing is special and needed. There’s no better feeling, surely? That’s wonderful. Well congratulations and well done.

Robert Hartwell

Thank you so much.

Imriel Morgan

I would love to know what ‘great’ looks like for you right now in this this lane that you’re in, this moment in your life. What is ‘great’?

Robert Hartwell 19:53  

It looks like expanding family, and I think that goes many ways. As far as expanding our team, we’re a team that works really hard, but really stands with our mission. And ‘great’ looks like taking care of them. ‘Great’ looks like making sure that they have the tools that they need to succeed, not only here at this company, but as they journey on into life. I would also say ‘great’ looks like love. And I think so many of us, especially those of us that are single, that have spent the pandemic living alone in our singlehood, you’re ready for that level of expansion. So it’s family, and it’s love. And it’s just, it’s faithfulness, as well, to just continue to trust this moment, and know that it is not meant for your harm, but that it’s all coming together.

Imriel Morgan 20:56  

Wonderful. Can you describe a moment that felt challenging or difficult for you?

Robert Hartwell 21:03

I think a recent business thing that happened.

Imriel Morgan 21:05  

Go for it then.

Robert Hartwell 21:07  

So during the pandemic, our business really grew. It doubled, actually, because we’re an online company, right? Online education is what we do. And so we were very grateful for that. But our student numbers doubled but our team didn’t double, right? So we were just working double, triple, quadruple overtime. And what ended up happening is at the beginning of this year, we were going into January, and we have a very small team, there are 16 members. And three of them put in their notice at the top of the year. And when you’re a tiny team, and you’re a tiny family, it felt so personal. But we also knew that we loved each other, and that there was no bad blood and there was no malice and there was no ‘you did this to me’. There was none of that.

But what it did was it was the most inconvenient situation at the most inconvenient time. But that breaking was our breakthrough. Because had they not left, we would have just ran through this year exactly like we ran through last year, really trying to make it work everyday with six people. So when they left, I was heartbroken, because that was like my family that got me through the pandemic. We did a lot together last year, right? But what it did was set us up to now welcome…. We’ve welcomed like 12 new team members in the past three months. But had that not happened, you know, like allow the breaking to be the breakthrough. Because I thought at the beginning of January, I was like, ‘oh goodness, this is over. This is over.’ But it wasn’t actually. It really was just beginning. Like their new path was just beginning. They took a leap of faith and did something that felt new to them. And then it gave those of us that were still here at the company a moment to reimagine and see a bigger possibility for ourselves, you know? So it’s been quite a journey, but I look at these new team members and I’m like, ‘wow, that would have never happened had something pretty sad not sparked all of it to happen’. 

Imriel Morgan  23:48  

Yeah, that’s so wonderful. I love your mindset, because it is about seeing the silver linings and finding the positives in these very challenging and trying things. Because I think I would definitely be heartbroken if my team just left. One of them was like, teetering on the edge for a second and I was like, ‘what will I do?’. But like that fear, I kind of look at fear as this kind of GPS navigation of, well, it means we’re about to enter something exciting and new and different. And it’s another opportunity. So just as much as it’s not great in that moment. And like you said, it’s inconvenience, like inconvenience will stop us doing a lot of things more than fear will, I think sometimes.

Robert Hartwell

No question. No question!

Imriel Morgan

Yeah. Like people will really sleep on how just being inconvenienced will stop you from doing certain things. So I really love that use of that word. Because that is just the essence of it. It’s like, ‘this is not great timing guys. Could you leave in like six months? Or 12, so I can plan?’.

Robert Hartwell 24:47  

It was like, ‘nope!’, but you know, that was the best part. It was so like, ‘welcome to 2021’. It was well, here we are…

Imriel Morgan 24:56  

That’s a lot! I would love to know what you’re working on improving right now, going forward.

Robert Hartwell 25:03  

Absolutely balance, and finding time to step away and enjoy life outside of work. And I think it is, not I think, I know it’s pretty difficult when you really love what you do. It’s so easy to sit at the computer all night and truly feel like you’ve just been fed. But last weekend was the first weekend in quite some time that I literally unplugged from the back of my desktop – like I like unplugged the power strip. I was like ‘we are taking the entire weekend off’. I put my vacation responder on from Friday to Monday. Actually, I had a friend reach out and they were like, ‘are you okay?’, and I’m like, ‘yes!’. You should be proud of me. Like, send me flowers. This is amazing! I’m taking time off’. So what am I working on is balance and space for taking care of myself, you know, because you can’t show up to pour out if you’re not pouring in.

Imriel Morgan 26:13  

Thanks for saying that, because I needed to do that today! I have definitely been doing the overtime. And I’m like, the thought of even just unplugging the desktop just gives me anxiety of like, ‘I’m gonna miss something, something’s gonna happen, the world will come crashing down’. But that’s never the case. It kind of just keeps going,

Robert Hartwell 26:31  

No. You’re going to be fine. Because you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to to send you an email that says ‘circling back in’, and you will get to it when you get to it.

Imriel Morgan 26:43

Exactly! Thank you so much Robert. This has been enriching. Can people from anywhere be a part of Broadway Collective?

Robert Hartwell 26:50  

They can! That’s actually something that’s been really special during the pandemic is that it’s grown. So we have students in Australia and Japan, like literally all over the world now. So students and anyone that wants to learn and connect with Broadway performers can, as long as you have wifi, I got you.

Imriel Morgan 27:09  

I love that. I’m definitely going to be plugging this everywhere. So thank you so much for one, doing the work that you do and just being a complete inspiration.

How full is your cup right now? Just so much joy coming from Robert. I was living for it. For anyone interested in getting into the theatre, I highly recommend following Robert @sirroberttakespics, and do check out the Broadway Collective at @bwaycollective and bwaycollective.com. It is a phenomenal program. I highly recommend looking into it if you are interested in breaking into this industry.

Before we wrap up, here’s the author and around badass Elaine Welteroth with some must-hear advice, that’ll put an end to the part of you that always wants to do too damn much. You know exactly what I mean. Take it away, Elaine.

Elaine Welteroth 27:57  

It was a quote I found online from — this is random — but Crocodile Dundee. And it said, ‘bite off more than you can chew, and chew as fast as you can’. And I just remember finding that in my early twenties, when that really defined my strategy in my pursuit of success, and I related to it. I was like ‘that’s it!  That’s the secret to success, right there’. And I would tell everybody, my interns or whoever was on my team. And then, I burnt out. My body was giving up on me. And I just realised maybe there’s another way, you know? Maybe that wasn’t exactly right. And so I’m now sort of operating under a slightly different premise, which is: ‘bite off that which you can chew, chew, as needed, digest fully and make time to laugh’. It’s good for your digestion, you know? You don’t have to take yourself that seriously all the time.

But I also think there’s different reasons, different seasons different, you know… I think that I probably needed to spend my twenties the way that I did. That probably was in some ways my only mode of operating, for a reason. But it afforded me now the perspective to say ‘okay, that’s not really how you need to operate forever’, you know? There’s an end date on that on that MO. So I think the same piece of advice could be the best piece of advice in one part of your life, and maybe not the best for the rest of your life. And I think it’s really having the discernment, cultivating the discernment, to know when something, when someone, when some job, whatever it is, is no longer serving you and being able to pivot and move on.

Imriel Morgan 30:02  

That’s a wrap. Thank you so much for listening. I hope this half an hour has made you think, reflect, and contemplate what your next step should be. I’d like to encourage you to think about one person who would benefit from the messages shared today and I’d love for you to share this episode with them right now. If you’d like to hear the extended interview with Robert, all you have to do is screenshot and share this episode to your Instagram stories and tag @contentisqueenhq. Until next time, bye!