News Column

The Connector

July 7, 2014

By Teresa Annas, The Virginian-Pilot

July 07--HAMPTON -- Picture Jeff Stern as an arts manager with tentacles, reaching from his home base at The American Theatre in Hampton across the water to arts creators and producers in South Hampton Roads. He's using his sticky tentacles to draw them back to his 400-seat performance hall, where they will be part of the theater's new season.

The stickiness is his friendliness, and his enthusiasm that local artists enjoy as he talks about how he wants to be part of the arts community and make a place for new shows to develop.

Stern is artistic director for Hampton Arts, which oversees The American as well as The Charles H. Taylor Arts Center.

He has been on the job for nearly a year and has already become known in local arts circles as a connector.

That's a new function for The American.

Stern, 47, replaced Michael Curry, who ran the organization and his popular performing arts series for the city for more than 25 years.

Curry built a following for his mix of emerging, national and international performers. Stern's first season at The American featured Curry's choices, since seasons are typically booked ahead.

Stern recently released the 2014-15 season, the first with his stamp on it. The lineup retained an eclectic mix of folk, dance, theater, classical, jazz, world music and more.

While the blend may seem familiar, many of the 26 or so premier acts are new to The American, from the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, capitalizing on a renewed interest in that instrument, on Jan. 13, to the Steep Canyon Rangers, a bluegrass band associated with comedian-banjo player Steve Martin, set for April 18. Tickets for premier acts range from $15 to $45.

The season opens Sept. 21 with classical pianist Teresa Walters. Big names on the lineup include three folkies: Arlo Guthrie, a series regular who returns Feb. 10 and 11 to relive his 1967 "Alice's Restaurant" song; Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, on March 15; and Judy Collins, who winds up the season May 9.

A new category of offerings also starts in the fall. Stern calls it the Lighthouse series, because the city theater is offering a beacon of hope to the regional arts community -- hope that new works might be presented at The American, then get sent out and seen beyond Hampton Roads.

For Stern, it's all about family.

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As it happens, Stern was the only person in his family to pursue the arts. He auditioned for his first show around age 9. Winchester Little Theater. Role: broken bookend.

He grew up in Winchester, a small city in northernmost Virginia. He took to theater, and soon after landed roles and backstage work at the professional Wayside Theatre in nearby Middletown.

From age 13 to 18, he spent his summers camped out at Wayside, learning alongside accomplished directors, designers and performers.

He had never been much of an athlete. Stern is a big guy -- 6 feet tall -- with a big personality who will tell a tale about himself, then laugh about it.

As a kid, he played on a baseball team but was afraid of the ball. He remembered swinging at two pitches and missing, then hearing a mother holler from the stands, "Oh for God's sake, throw it to him underhanded!"

Theater is where he found his tribe.

Stern studied theatrical design and production at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, then found work in Virginia and in California as a scene painter for feature films and made-for-TV movies and as a designer for stage.

The long hours required in film work caused problems in his new marriage, so he quit that gig and became a radio personality and a freelance producer and director.

In 2001, he took a job as manager of Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville, near where he grew up. He worked there until he came to Hampton, except for 2006-07, when he was managing director of the Wayside Theatre, which closed last August for lack of funds.

Franklin Park has a setup similar to Hampton Arts', though smaller, with performances in a 263-seat theater, a lobby art gallery and classes. While there, he learned how to operate within a governmental department, since it was part of Loudoun County parks and recreation.

"When the taxpayers are funding you, it's a little different than getting a grant or a corporate donor. Taxpayers take it personally and give you feedback."

Which is fine by him. "I like serving the public."

That's what attracted him to Hampton.

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Stern said he made a point last year of attending arts events in this region and meeting with creative sorts.

With a 400-seat facility, "we have a unique opportunity," he said last week in his office at the rear of the theater, which is set on a quaint stretch in the Phoebus area of Hampton. The overhead isn't as high as it is for larger venues, so the theater can afford to "take some risks and incubate work a little bit," Stern said.

Virginia Stage Company has an experimental, 90-minute production of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" scheduled for March that it will present in a slightly scaled-back version Oct. 10-12 at The American.

"I have some concept stuff I want to try," said Patrick Mullins, associate artistic director at Virginia Stage. He had been considering raising funds to mount a workshop production. Then Stern offered to provide him with a stage.

Mullins said he's excited that Stern is creating a place where new works can be developed. "I think it's outside of the box of what we've seen before" in this area.

Stern has created a slot for the "All the Way LIVE!" talent show for locals, which also will feature professionals. The family-friendly variety show will take place on the first Wednesday of each month starting Sept. 3. The 7:30 p.m. shows will cost $10.

Crystal Sessoms, owner of Seedahope Productions, has staged the talent show several times at other local venues, but is pleased to be in an established theater for an entire season. She co-runs the show with actor-producer Michael LeMelle. They will post audition information on www.seedahope.com.

Also new is a film series, led by locals who are suggesting titles. The Phoebus Film Club will show a range of documentaries, independent and classic films once or twice a month starting Sept. 11, for $8.

As for developing scripts, The American has already staged a workshop production. On May 28, the theater presented "Boarding House Requiem" by Patti Wray, a member of the Virginia Playwrights Forum who co-owns The Venue on 35th in Norfolk.

This season The American will present free shows provided by The Venue on the first Sunday of every month, at 7:30 p.m. Many of these presentations will feature in-progress plays.

Few theaters nationwide solicit fresh scripts. In most cases, a writer cannot submit his own work; only an agent or a "theater professional" can enter plays. Stern told Wray that he would be willing to stage local scripts he felt were ready for a bigger market and a professional production.

"It's exciting that maybe now through Jeff we might be able to get introduced" to the larger theater world. "Before, we didn't have a chance," Wray said. "It's put a fire under all of us, as writers."

All of this community activity at The American is serving Stern's goals, too.

More than 75 percent of the audience for the May 28 play reading had never been inside The American; Stern thinks that merely stepping into the handsomely renovated historic playhouse would make anyone want to come back.

"I could sit here and do my entire series on the phone or on the website. But, for me, if I'm not talking to local artists, I don't feel a part of the community.

"It's that whole family thing. I really like to feel a part of the arts family here. I really desire that personally. It's not driven by some master plan to raise ticket sales. It's just, I'm very inspired when I talk to artists.

"It's way more fun."

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Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485,teresa.annas@pilotonline.com

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(c)2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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