Securing Theatre’s Legacy in Nashville

Stories need to be told, beautiful stories and powerful stories. The arts center our culture and offer us insights into the lives and realities of other existences. Sometimes they entertain us, but sometimes they educate us morally, and spiritually—and when they’re at their best, they do both. But the arts, and theatre is no exception, cannot exist without financial support, infrastructure … that is, it requires business. 

Kathleen O’Brien has been a force in the business of Nashville theatre and arts scene for decades. In 1988, she came to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) to work in media and public relations, working her way up to become the organizations President and CEO in 2005. During her tenure, her love of theatre and the arts has driven O’Brien to secure the financial future of TPAC, and to organize the business model to maximize the Center’s ability to share more stories with our community. 

After serving in that role for an astounding thirteen years, in 2018 O’Brien announced her pending retirement—though she will continue in her current role until July 2019, giving the organization ample time to insure a smooth transition. 

Between summer trips, O’Brien took time out of her schedule to sit down with O&AN to look back over her career and how Nashville’s theatre community, and TPAC in particular, has developed over the last three decades, and where she hopes it will grow in the future. 



Tell us a bit about how you came into the theater, and how you got involved in administration. 

Well, before I worked here, I worked for a liberal arts college that had an arts program. They had performing and visual arts, they had ballet department, theater department. They also booked shows and had a celebrity concert series. And we did a little bit of programing on top of that. There, I actually had a combination of Lisa [Kennedy] and Tony [Marks]'s position.  

I was familiar with Nashville because my grandmother lived here. I wanted to relocate to Nashville and found out that there was a position available at TPAC and that there was a strong education program here… It just was the perfect opportunity for me—working for an organization with a mixture of mission driven programs, as well as earned income projects that support those things. 


Did you have any educational background in this, or has this career path been a happy accident? 

Well, I always loved theater. I grew up in Maine and my parents took us to summer stock theatre at a professional theater in a place called Lakewood that's still operational, as a matter of fact. When I was up in Maine in May, we went to a performance up there.  

I fell in love with it... I saw OliverMy Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music there, and just absolutely fell in love with ... I mean any kid just looking up on stage and you're transported and it's magical. So I loved it from that perspective. But, then, to have the opportunity to work in it?  

But I'm not an actor. I'm not an artist. I leave that to the professionals. 


So when you came to Nashville in '88, who really helped you get your bearings in the industry here?  

Well my employers did at the time, and the people that I directly worked for did… Warren Summers and James Randolph helped lay the foundation of introductions. We had a number of resident companies at that time, so getting to know those organizations, those folks. And then the other arts, you just ... arts begets arts, begets arts, begets arts. And you just start developing relationships and learning more about them and what people are trying to accomplish with their organizations. Then you try to lock arms and collaborate, because two plus two is more than four. 


So as you worked your way up the ranks at TPAC, most of your career was in public relations. What was it like trying to work PR in a new place for a local theater organization? And how did your career in that develop? 

Well, I was proficient at was institutional public relations, so what was new to me, outside of the one offs that I had had at the college, was creating a network of support and going to people in the community for public relations tied to shows—where you're actually trying to look at what does each has to offer in terms of themes, potential stories.  

Those were the days when I would go down to the Tennessean and have a deskside meeting with Clara Hieronymus, and we would map out the two to three stories that we would get for every show. It's not that way anymore. Of course, we have more shows, and I don't know that they have desk side meeting anymore … and lovely Clara was just a jewel. 

And so I learned it by collegial relationships and by just digging in, and doing it. My job on the institutional side was to let folks know what we do on our mission side, and the other was to let folks know what we have on our stages. 


How did the move into a more administrative role change your relationships and perspectives on the mission at TPAC? 

I actually think that the path that I took was so very helpful, because anybody in my position, who's leading any organization, needs to know … [how] to promote and advocate for their organization. And having the knowledge of what it is that we have to offer and what we're promoting, that certainly helped me.  

But one of the things I miss is doing what Lisa [Kennedy] does, working directly with the companies and taking the artists around. I got the interviews and put them in my car and took them to lunch. 

Remember Dody Goodman? We were at lunch once and she said, “Oh, this eyelash is bothering me,” and she took the eyelash off and stuck it right on the edge of the table and we had lunch! And Debbie Reynolds, who wanted to give some money to some homeless person across the street because she just felt like she could help… 

As I took on new responsibilities, I had to shed some of the things I loved doing, things which actually got me closer to the art and closer to the productions. Now I've got to make sure we've got the right ticketing system, the funding that we need, the insurance to meet our needs, and good benefits. All those kinds of things. So ... 


What are some of the things that you feel like have changed at TPAC that you're particularly proud of?  

Well, we're financially sustainable. We've increased our net assets, probably by seven to eight million dollars, which is a huge gain; so, financial stability. We've done several business model changes. We now curate, book, and present Broadway on our own, where prior to that we had partners who bore risk with us but who also enjoyed benefits from it.  

We have our own customer relationship management platform, which includes a ticketing system. So we did not renew our relationship with Ticketmaster. We now have the relationship with our customers, rather than them calling a call center, in some place other than Nashville, who may not know who we are or what we are. 

We've increased the number of capital improvement projects since I've been in this position. We're creating a completely new donor program. And, as we speak, we are building something we should have had 38 year ago, and that's a donor room, so that we can thank our donors properly for supporting the mission, the work that we do. 

And probably one of biggest, for me, outside of the financially sustainable, is our educational programming. When I came into this position, we had four education programs. We've added two new education programs, and they're all thriving. 


So to take a really broad view of the Nashville theater community, what are some of the big changes that you've seen over your entire career here?  

Nashville has shown that it has a healthy appetite and they want more theater. When you look at Metro Nashville Arts Commission, which is a granting organization, there used to be so many fewer slices in the pie of funding. Now there are so many organizations that apply for funding, and that's a good thing.  

So now we need to help raise the level of funding from the city, which is something that has been discussed and worked on for a long time. But I think that Nashville has become much more of an arts community. We've got a lot of things to offer. Nashville attracts artists now… So I think we've elevated, certainly, the offerings and the infrastructure that's needed to support it quite a bit.  

And, when I say we, I mean all of us collectively. I think TPAC has had a huge role in that, but we’ve certainly not done it by ourselves! 


For the LBGT community, the theater holds a very special place… I don't know if you've observed how the role of our community in the Nashville arts scene has grown or evolved over the years? 

I think that community has strengthened in many aspects in Nashville, which is a good thing. I'm hoping that the LGBT community feels the love that it deserves, like any community should. I mean, we're all from the same planet, and we all should love one another with the respect that is… 

I think the LBGT community strengthens our industry, not only from the contributions that are made creatively, but just the consumption of the arts and financial support. And, certainly, by providing, as any community does, some beautiful stories that need to be told. Or some difficult stories that need to be told. I can't imagine our industry without ... I can't imagine our world without it, let just say it that way.  


From my perspective, it seems to me that more programming of interest to the LBGT community has been popping up here lately. Is that an intentional diversity goal, or is it more just, mainstreamed, so we see more of it? 

I think yes to both. I think communities want all different types of programming. And not just the types of programming that whoever is sitting in the audience watching it sees themselves on stage. They want to see other people's stories.  

That's what we are. We're storytellers, and yes we want to offer those kinds of things where it's just fun and entertainment. But those need to be sprinkled into program offerings that do take you on a journey, that do transport you to see a different perspective, going in a variety of different directions that do cause you to ponder and think and reflect. If we're going our job, we're doing all of that.  

And I think the world—maybe not all pockets, but I think Nashville for sure, and other areas of the country—are wanting those luscious stories to be told, therefore, there's more content being created. So there's more programming, whether it's theater, concerts, whatever… I've said for many years, we don't prescribe what you enjoy, we will describe it and then you figure out if you want to come see it. 

The world is made up of many communities and it's important that lots of voices get heard. 


Well to take a final turn back towards the more personal, what are some of your favorite shows that you've seen here or elsewhere—shows that were impactful for you or had a message that you feel are important? 

Well, Les Mis is my all time favorite… Nobody should sneeze, cough or chuckle or anything during “Bring Him Home.” That's the most beautiful song from the most beautiful musical, and that was first offered here in the spring of '89, so it was my first season here. And I remember it was right during the Tiananmen Square timeframe, and I just saw the correlation there...  

There's a line towards the end of the show that I think kind of sums everything up. And it's “To love another person is to see the face of God.” How much more pure can you get? Who would not want to see the face of God? All you have to do is love another person and you're seeing it. So, to me, that was impactful. 

I enjoy Phantom of the Opera, but I also love a line from one of its songs: “you alone can make my song take flight.” That means, I don't need you to have a song—I've got my song—but you alone make it take flight. So, I own it, it's mine, but you make it take flight. 

Something that I probably should have mentioned is a show that I love and am very proud of is the world premier that we did of Part of the Plan. I just love Dan Fogelberg’s music, but I also love the story. That show would not have worked if the story had not been as strong... 

There're a lot of shows I've loved and seen a lot. I like the ones that do make me think. I loved Rent. But Les Mis is gonna be my favorite... 


What about theater personalities? Who are some well-known or well-loved theater personalities that you had interesting or fun experiences with here? 

Marvin Hamlisch, who sent me flowers the next day. I think I still have the card. Debbie Reynolds. Debbie and I, I took her over to WLAC, which is over in the Demonbreun area… I had Debbie in there, she was being interviewed, I was the quiet mouse in the corner. A gentleman came in and he ended up … he was homeless. So, she just noticed it through the glass.  

When we left, we went out the front door and he was across the street with another guy. And as we were going to the car, she stopped, reached into her purse, pulled out a wad of cash, and said, "Will you do me a favor? I know this doesn't solve the problem, but it will make me feel better… Would you take this over to this man?" 

It was probably a hundred bucks or so... So I said sure, and she just stood on the sidewalk, and I walked across the street and he was with somebody else at that time. And I said, "Sir, do you know who Debbie Reynolds is?" It appeared that he wasn't quite sure who Debbie Reynolds was, and so rather than going into all that about her being a movie star, a television star, I said, "She wants you to have this." And I handed him the cash. And he turned to her across the street and yelled, "Debbie Reynolds, I love you!" And it just made us all feel good.  


So, from this office, where would you like to see TPAC or the Nashville theater community in another 10 years? 

I'd like to see continued growth on both sides of the stage. I'd like to see … there are some fine arts organizations that are developing some really important works, and they need to be supported. Ticket sales, as you know, does not cover it all. The infrastructure that's needed, it's like any industry. It needs to be supported.  

And I think we've got so many new people moving to Nashville, I hope that they will continue to ask for all different kinds of arts, theater, where different topics are covered in respectful ways, so that people can be entertained and learn at the same time. And then we can have our Mamma Mia's that are just joyful and fun. 

But I love the arts being a platform for learning, even when you don't know it, whether it's historical stuff or it's just perspectives. I think more of that, more of that. And this city is so fortunate, and the region is so fortunate, to have all that we have, let's not forget that it needs support, because it can't do it by just earned revenue. And to lose it, lose any piece of it, would be disastrous. 

And I think Nashville will. I think it's not just the people who are moving here, who are demanding it and wanting it and enjoying it. The long established Nashvillians are enjoying it as well. So there’s a lot more to come. 

As I'm retiring and going into my Act Two, I feel good that I'm leaving this company in really good condition financially, as well as in terms of programming, staff, and capabilities. There's lots of room for TPAC to grow. And I think it can. And I'm confident the board will choose the right leadership so that will happen. 






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