Granite State of Mind, #78: The Connie Bean Center, Portsmouth
It was the fall of 1997. I had graduated from UNH in the spring, and was working for the Greater Seacoast United Way when one of the most odd sequences in my life began to unfold (and believe me, that's saying something). Claudia Terlizzi Chapel and her then-husband John were guests at my first wedding to then-wife Jen Strickland Cyr. (Everybody should have a then-spouse. Except you, Sarah Pace. Don't get any ideas). Anyway, John was serving on the Board of Directors at Ballet New England, the professional dance company and school headquartered in Portsmouth. The institution was undergoing some seismic changes, including the almost wholesale departure of management, and the Board was creating an Executive Director position. John recruited me for the job, and what followed was one of the more rewarding and exasperating years of my life.
BNE was in organizational and financial distress, given that the artistic director, school director, and company manager had all quit and moved down the street to set up a rival studio and company. BNE still enjoyed some advantages, though, including strong-willed and detail-minded new school director Angela V Carter and a determined Board led by Chairwoman Jacinthe Jaci Grote, Tom Ferrini, John Terlizzi, Jim Tucker, and others. I don't remember if Ellen Gramiak Patton or Carol Walker Aten or Martha Pursley Peabody were on the Board then, but they were certainly stalwart leaders among the parents. Somehow we convinced the families and community to stick with us, conducted the international search for a new AD that led to Bill Pizzuto, laid off the professional dancers (after some interesting adventures in Vermont), and put on the most successful Nutcracker the company had ever seen (thanks in no small measure to guest star George Hosker-Bouley), ending 1998 in the black and back on solid footing.
It was as exhausted as I'd ever been, proud of the work we'd all done, and fairly well convinced that my future did not lie with non-profit performing arts management. I have deep respect and admiration for those who do, who bring high-quality theater and dance and music to suburbia and do it all on a wing and a prayer. These are folks who fundraise every day, who often put their own paychecks in a drawer until the account can cover them, and who live and breathe the art they produce. They're miracle workers. And while I enjoy dance (having some experience with tap, jazz, and ballet as a youngster and a certain affinity for ballroom from my college days), it wasn't in me to make it my life's work. I moved on, back to UNH, and Ballet New England thrived for several years more before eventually closing its doors around 2009.
My primary memories of my BNE time come from the cozy confines of the Connie Bean Center on Daniel Street, where we occupied the third floor and the attic, and the studio on the second floor. It was a weird and wonderful experience for this 22-year old kid to show up to work every day surrounded by artists and music, always with a hundred things to do. Raise money, hire staff, recruit students, work with advertisers and venues and parents. Angela and I were a two-person whirlwind in those days, trying to make it all work. And then in the afternoons the kids would show up. At least, they were kids then - Ashleigh Tucker Pollock, Lindsay Lundy, Kate Boles, Sarah Peabody Avendaño and all the rest. Jeanne' McCartin and her masks, Dee Mayne and her costumes, James Franklin and Martha S. Bertsimas and Jamie McFerran Halcom and Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman and hundreds more. It was almost twenty years ago, but I can still remember sorting costumes and props in the attic, checking the mailbox across the street every morning hoping for a sponsorship check or two, and walking the streets selling ads in the program. Summerdance, Prescott Park, Culmination, Nutcracker. The old Bean has been replaced by new condos, but I can still vividly remember the slanting floors and ancient heating and cramped office space. And while I realized it wasn't what I was put here to do, I will always be heartily glad I had the chance to do it.