Interview: A ‘thrilling return home’ for TCR’s new executive director

Last Thursday, March 16, when Theatre Cedar Rapids announced their 2017-18 season (see below), they welcomed with it a new executive director. Katie Hallman, most recently of New Orleans, took the reins from Jim Kern. Kern had been serving as interim executive director since Casey Prince announced his departure in October, after a decade of navigating the thriving theatre through challenges, including displacement by the 2008 flood.

Hallman grew up in Iowa and got her undergraduate degree at Luther College in Decorah, but brings experiences from across the country to this new role. She answered questions via email about the magic of live theatre and coming home to TCR.

Theatre Cedar Rapids’ new Executive Director Katie Hallman. — photo courtesy of TCR

You’re originally from Iowa; did you have experience with TCR growing up? What, if any, shows have you seen there, and how did that influence your decision to apply for this position?

My first experience with TCR was participating in one if its summer camps while I was in elementary school. TCR had a huge impact on me from that young age, and was part of lighting my passion for live theatre. In 2005 I had the pleasure of playing Sandy in Grease, sharing the stage with former Executive Director Casey Prince. In my own experience and through the eyes of those cast mates, I know firsthand that the magic of live theatre, the core of TCR’s mission, is a tangible experience brought to life here in Cedar Rapids.

In January I had the pleasure of seeing Next Fall on the Mainstage, and the execution — the direction, performers, set and sound design — all reached the level one would expect from one of the country’s top community theatres. It reached a level that any professional theatre would be proud of. It’s precisely because of this talent, dedication and community support that TCR conducted a national search for an Executive Director; the organization is functioning at such an exemplary level.

There seems to be quite a lot of migration back and forth between NOLA, where you were most recently employed, and eastern Iowa. Artistically, what do you see as the most compelling similarities and the most challenging differences?

Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, where I was most recently employed as Managing Director, is in the midst of its 100th anniversary season, just a little bit older than Theatre Cedar Rapids and also a part of our country’s Little Theatre Movement. There’s a great power and responsibility inherent in leading an institution that has such a long history. The most exciting challenge with both institutions is in finding the balance between tradition and innovation.

TCR is at the center of urban renaissance and vibrancy in downtown Cedar Rapids. TCR, much like Le Petit, is in the heart of it all. It is invigorating to be a part of the growing development of bars and restaurants, festivals and urban residency. Our task at TCR is to lead the way with our fellow cultural institutions into a new era for Eastern Iowa that continues to honor the stakeholders and community members who have supported us for nearly a century.

With an MA in Music Business [from New York University] and experience at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center, what drew you away from music to the world of theatre?

I began my study of voice and piano at a young age, and, for me, the study of music was always tied to performance. This led to performing in various musicals, plays, operas, with Luther College’s Nordic Choir and with the professional Manhattan Chorale in New York. Just like moving from New Orleans to Cedar Rapids, the shift from working in music to working in theatre was not so much a complete change in course as it was a thrilling return home.

My first position out of graduate school was as the Director of Concert Operations for Manhattan Concert Productions (MCP). I had the pleasure of developing a Broadway series at MCP, fostering a dynamic collaboration between professional Tony award-winning theatre performers like Lea Salonga and Brian d’Arcy James with large student choirs at Lincoln Center. This provided an exciting bridge between my work in music and my work in theatre. While the production demands differ between the spheres of music and theatre, many of the same principles apply to managing organizations in a variety of artistic disciplines. My work in the theatre world in New York and New Orleans lends itself nicely to my work today at TCR.

Theatre Cedar Rapids’ current home first opened in 1928. — archive photo

What’s the driving philosophy of your approach to integrating arts and business? How do you maintain a pragmatic focus while honoring the creative drive?

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I have a mantra adopted from theatre colleagues: Only a healthy balance sheet can enable bravery in our programming. In the arts, we have a unique responsibility to the cultural economy of our region, and to the creative spirit in our communities that makes our work so vital. That responsibility requires our pursuit of financial health and sustainability.

Combining clearly communicated expectations with accountability and transparency allows us to maximize the broad range of skills and talents within an organization. TCR is fortunate to support a dedicated staff and more than 1,000 volunteers who annually contribute their time and talent both on stage and behind the scenes. People are central to the arts, and the people of Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa are our greatest asset.

What about the way TCR constructs their seasons excites you most diving into your new role in the year ahead?

The incredible facilities at the Iowa Theatre Building allow TCR to create an unparalleled and robust series of programming. It’s inspiring to see how Artistic Director Leslie Charipar and her entire production team have taken advantage of that opportunity. The entire staff at TCR is well-suited to maximize the possibilities for this institution, and I look forward to next season’s activities, both on stage and through our varied education programs, shining a bright light on all TCR has to offer.

Programming well-loved musicals and popular titles from the established theatrical canon ensures that TCR will reach the broadest possible audience on the Mainstage, while making room for new work and plays that push our artistic boundaries. I am particularly grateful that TCR has the Grandon Studio to really push our boundaries, and I’ve particularly been impressed by the thoughtful pairings between our Auditorium Series and Grandon Studio Series. In coming weeks you will see The Crucible [opening Friday, March 24] and Vinegar Tom [opening March 31] at TCR, two plays that both address paranoia, identity and historical witch-hunts, but do so from completely different perspectives. This same approach can be seen in our upcoming season with The Diary of Anne Frank and Bent, two plays that deal with the horrors of the Holocaust from different points of view.

It’s true that you can’t please all the people all the time — it’s especially true in art — but TCR’s programming provides enlightening entertainment that offers something for everyone. This is a feat that few theatres could even attempt, let alone accomplish, and I am tremendously excited to be a part of it all.

Theatre Cedar Rapids’ 2017-18 Season

Grease (Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey) — opens Sept. 15, Mainstage (in tandem with season kick-off gala, The Curtain Raiser)
Studio Improv — three sets of performances opening Sept. 21, April 19 and July 12, 2017, Grandon
Dead Man’s Cell Phone (Sarah Ruhl) — opens Oct. 20, Grandon
(A family musical to be announced on April 4, 2017 — opens Nov. 17, Mainstage)
Holiday Cabaret — opens Nov. 24, Grandon
Wild Party (Andrew Lippa) — opens Jan. 26, Mainstage
Underground New Play Festival — opens Feb. 8, Grandon
The Diary of Anne Frank (Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) — opens March 9, Mainstage
Bent (Martin Sherman) — opens March 16, Grandon
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber) — opens May 4, Mainstage
Fuddy Meers (David Lindsay-Abaire) — opens June 1, Grandon
Heathers: The Musical (Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy) — opens June 29, Mainstage