People & Places

Linking the community and fine arts

Englert Theatre development director expresses her creativity on and off the job

Katie Roche development director at The Englert Theatre talks to a patron before introducing the documentary film “Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney” in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Katie Roche development director at The Englert Theatre talks to a patron before introducing the documentary film “Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney” in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Katie Roche stands in her Iowa City kitchen, a kettle of water on the stove and two tea cups at the ready. Nine-year-old Stella and 6-year-old Joey scramble in with tablets in hand, asking for help getting games set up. Once the games are started and the tablets cleaned of the morning’s smears, Roche sends the pair into the next room, takes a deep breath, and smiles.

“Where do we start?” she asks.

It’s a fair question, particularly when looking at Roche’s professional life, her personal life, and how the two connect.

“I haven’t always had the perfect balance of work and family, but it’s better now than it’s ever been,” she said.

Roche is development director for The Englert Theatre, which hosts about two dozen events each month and is an active sponsor of music and arts festivals throughout the year.

Roche also sings in two local bands — The Awful Purdies, an all-female, mixed-genre quintet in which she plays accordion, xylophone, whistles and percussion; and Dandelion Stompers, a band self-described as “tasty New Orleans jazz with all the trimmings.”

Her day job, she said, epitomizes her philosophy on the link between community and fine arts.

“I’m no longer a religious person in any shape or form, but the Catholic worker was what I saw as my religion growing up — giving service. I think nonprofits appeal to me because I see a direct path through the arts in building community and creating equity.

“It’s so meaningful to be sitting in an audience and see a kid who may not see themselves reflected in the arts very much and then, all of a sudden, there’s someone like him on stage,” she said. “It’s wonderful.

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“The Englert should be a reflection of our community and a place where we can gather to experience arts and culture. We also strive to be an organization that you trust to challenge you to try new things, new ideas, to expand our sense of what the world is and what is possible.

“My day at The Englert is a mix of long-term planning and organizational development, fundraising,” she said. “Community outreach and partnerships are also an important way that we strive to serve every segment of our population.”

She said historic preservation is also important — particularly since The Englert is housed in a 105-year-old building. “It’s the last historic theater in downtown Iowa City,” she said.

Roche uses her visibility at The Englert to work with other musicians on the idea of “musical philanthropy.”

“I think non-profits appeal to me because I see a direct path through the arts in building community and creating equity."

- Katie Roche, Development director of The Englert Theatre

“I talk to artists a lot about how to value their time. People bring me in to talk to different groups,” Roche said. “A lot of artists don’t ask to be compensated properly. If it’s something that’s necessary for you to do, you need to do it and not give it away.”

Roche’s love of and involvement in music and community is lifelong — she grew up in Asbury, near Dubuque, and both of her parents were heavily involved in community theater and performances. Both parents volunteered and did endless community service projects in addition to working for nonprofits.

After college, Roche moved around the country, finding herself in New York City in 1999 where she immersed herself in the jazz music scene before coming back to Iowa.

Making a full-time career blend well with a family and not one, but two bands can be tough, she said, but it’s not impossible.

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When she and her husband, Joe, decided to have a family, she knew she had to find a way to make time for everything.

“If (music) is going to fit into your life in an ideal way, you really have to determine how much time you’re going to devote to it and be intentional about taking that time,” she said. “I kind of took making music for granted before I had kids. It was something I could do whenever I wanted. I’m lucky that I have a partner who is very present and very egalitarian. He is very much there for all of us.

“When women first have children, some settle in to motherhood and a professional life pretty easily,” she said “If you’re someone who also has a creative streak, you have that third component you have to exercise, too, and trying to find a place for it all can be tough. But if it’s something that is necessary for you to do, you make it work.”

Still, finding a comfortable balance between work and family hasn’t always come easily. A back injury in 2015 left Roche temporarily reliant on a walker and cane and forced her to slow down. It also made her learn to ask for help.

“It was humbling in a huge way,” she said. “I had a friend really set me straight while I was recuperating; she told me, ‘You need to figure out how to nurture your passion and energy, but not at the expense of your health.’ I really had to stop and take a look at how I was doing everything.”

What that meant was putting a cap on her availability to her two bands.

“That wasn’t easy, it’s still not,” she said. “You have these gigs that you really want to get, but then your calendar fills up — and then that one special gig comes along. Sometimes you make exceptions, sometimes you can’t.”

One of her biggest irritants? When people see her busy schedule and ask her when she sees her kids.

“It’s not like when I’m done singing I hang out for four hours,” she said. “We finish up, and I go home. I have a number of female friends who are musicians and the kids all know each other, so when we get together a lot of times, the kids come, too.

“I want Stella to know that you can be a devoted mother and still have a rich, creative life,” Roche said. “Even more for my son, I think it’s good for him to see women who are multi-dimensional.

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“There’s a point at which you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to be who you are,” she said, “and all this time you’re just waiting on you.”

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.