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BWW Interview: Heather J. Strickland of Raleigh Little Theatre

BWW Interview: Heather J. Strickland of Raleigh Little Theatre

I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Heather J. Strickland, who this week will begin her tenure as the new executive director at Raleigh Little Theatre taking over for Charles Phaneuf, who had departed back in late January this past year. Strickland brings with her over 15 years of extensive experience and success in developing organizational strategy, branding, fundraising, and cultivating engagement for nonprofit and public service organizations. She has been involved with RLT since 2005, starting as a volunteer and stepping into the roles of director, teaching artist, and board member over time.

To start things off, how have you been doing during this time of quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic?
HJS: Well, I am very much missing being in a theater and experiencing art. It's been a while since I've been able to do that. Also just being in a room with other artists and my colleagues is certainly something I miss, but holding up OK. I am home with my eight year old daughter and we are figuring out how both of us work full time and go to school full time and coexist in the same space doing that together.

You'll be starting your new shift as Executive Director for Raleigh Little Theatre in a few days. How did the opportunity itself come about?
HJS: I was serving as the president of the board when the opportunity became available. I was so grateful and honored to be in that role. I was really excited about the possibility of being in that role for a couple of years because Raleigh Little Theatre has meant so much to me for so many years. It's been a part of my life since about 2005 in so many different ways. So it was an organization that I already care tremendously about. So my career, which is based in nonprofit management and statewide systems level government work as well as development, really felt like it was this perfect moment of the alignment of the career that I have been on for my life as well as my passion for theater and specifically Raleigh Little Theatre. So it didn't take long before I made the decision to resign from the role of president so that I could pursue the opportunity.

How excited are you to begin?
HJS: Oh, I can't wait. The staff at Raleigh Little Theatre are all individuals that I respect and admire for their creativity and their artistry and their dedication. So I am thrilled to be working with folks that I already know and had some relationships with. Also just the idea that I get to spend my full time work at a place that I would just go to feel better about a day. So that's exciting. Even given that it's certainly challenging times and there are tough roads ahead, not only for Raleigh Little Theatre, but I think all of our arts organizations are really going to struggle for the next year. I still am excited about what it means to be spending all of my time really thinking about how do we stay relevant? How do we stay connected to our community? How do we create art in this time? Because those are the things that I would be thinking about anyway. So to be able to do it on a regular basis is still something that I'm really looking forward to.

Going back to the beginning, when did your interest in live theatre begin?
HJS: I think I was born with it. At a very young age, my parents had exposed me to a lot of theater. I was actually born in upstate New York and there was a children's theater up there that we visited on a regular basis. I was in my first play when I was in kindergarten. So the acting bug fit me very early and it was just something that I sort of always did. When I went off to college, I was a communications major with a minor in theater. I was a few years into college, and because I was pretty far ahead in a lot of my credits and was potentially looking at graduating early, I actually decided to bring my theater minor up to be a major. When I did that, my parents thought, "Well, we always thought you were going to do that. We weren't sure why you always thought this was a hobby. Clearly it was something that was way more than a hobby for you." And then one of my early jobs after graduating was starting to work on the administrative side of the arts. I was actually the marketing director for Carolina Ballet for a couple of years, and really just started to see that not only did I have a passion for the arts, but I also had a skill set as to thinking about how do we support the arts and how do we engage other people in the arts. And how do we really think about the arts as a vehicle for social change?

How did you first get involved with Raleigh Little Theatre?
HJS: Before I even moved to North Carolina, I was living in Florida. That's where I was raised and where I went to college was really kind of wide open. Somebody had told me that there was a good theater scene in Raleigh, North Carolina. So I came up here to visit and that same friend said, you must go to Raleigh Little Theatre to see a show. And so on that visit, I attended a production of Mother Hicks at RLT. It was being produced in the Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre. It was a great production, and I clearly remember walking out thinking, "You know, if this is the kind of theater that is being produced in Raleigh, this is where I want to be." So I moved up here and eventually ended up onstage at RLT in 2005. I got to play at Rosalind in As You Like It, which was produced out on the amphitheater stage. That started my volunteerism with RLT, and then from there, I just became more and more involved going from an actor to a fight choreographer to a teaching artist, and eventually to a board member.

Recently, RLT had to cancel the remaining productions of their 2019-20 season while some other events have been postponed due to the covid-19 crisis. North Carolina Theatre just did the same thing with plans to resume performances in 2021. How difficult of a decision was it to make?
HJS: There's certainly the very obvious financial impact because there is absolutely lost revenue when we have to cancel a show. But there's also a very real emotional impact when you have to make those decisions because especially for our RLT, many of those shows were already starting. The creative teams were already starting to work on those, they were if not already cast, starting to think about casting, and there is heartbreak for the community. You put time and energy and work into creating something, and then for theater and art, the culmination of that is when you put it in front of an audience is a significant part of the process. When you don't get to do that after you've put so much creative energy into something, that's heartbreak and it's painful. So we feel that for the artists that were involved in those shows, and then we feel it for the community that doesn't get to experience all the work that was put into that. So for as much as there is a real financial pain that is felt when we don't have the ticket revenue from those shows, I think the emotional impact is so much worse when we can't share our art and our hearts with our community.

For the productions that were cancelled, can you see any of them eventually getting produced in a future season?
HJS: I don't know. There's still so much uncertainty about planning for the future and then what seasons (even after the next one) sort of look like. I think there's always sort of this hope that we can figure out how to bring back these things, but at this moment, there's no way to know for certain what any of us are going to be able to do.

Phase 2 for reopenings in the state is currently set to expire on June 26th. What are the plans right now for when RLT eventually reopens to the public?
HJS: There's still so much that is unknown because even though potentially, we are allowed to have more people in our space, I think there's still a lot of unknown of how comfortable folks will feel being in spaces because we're going to be dealing with this pandemic for a while until there is a vaccine of some sort. We're going to have to be very aware of social distancing, so some of the things that we're starting to think through right now is how do we ensure that we're putting the safety of our cast and our crew and our audience members as a priority and ensuring that we can create a space where all health and safety guidelines are in place that people feel comfortable coming into them and feel comfortable with the measures that we have put in place so that they can be a part of some sort of theatrical experience. So it's thinking through those things, it's thinking through what is possible when it comes to creating theater within these guidelines, but we're also thinking about how we stay connected to our community. I absolutely know this is true for Raleigh Little Theatre to stay connected to our community is just as important to us as creating great theater and getting great education programs. We are here for and about the community, and so we've got to be a little bit more creative and think a little bit differently about what it means to be connected to our community. So all of those things are the things that we're seeking about what is possible when we do open our doors back up.

In conclusion, for those who would like to have a career in the theatre, where do you think would be a good place to start?
HJS: I think it depends on what aspect of theater you're really looking to go into. I think the thing that first comes to mind is a career in acting, but there are certainly so many other areas that you can explore within theater and that doesn't exclude the administrative side of theater. Depending on which one of those career paths really speaks to an individual, there's so many great programs out there when it comes to arts administration. Then when it comes to the greater side, I think finding as many different teachers to learn as many different ways of doing the artistic side is probably the best to being really well rounded as well as being really clear about your own individual style and the strengths that you bring to the art.

Heather, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview. It was great getting to talk to you.
HJS: Thank you so much! I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.

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