IOWA CITY — At a time when unrest and upheaval have called into question the relevance of arts education and financing, upholding the arts has become even more important, “precisely because there are so many problems going on in the world,” said Paul Brohan, programming director at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.
“Practically every culture on the planet have proved to us that the human voice raised together in song, that the beat of a drum, that the expression of a character onstage, that the right combination of composition and color on a canvas have ways of teaching us things, of connecting to our deepest sense of who we are as humans and of our deepest sense of who we are together as a community — that the arts are always available to us as a leader and a salve and a joy and an entertainment,” he said.
It’s his job to find world-class artists and bring them to Hancher. Now entering his second year with the University of Iowa’s world-class showplace, he returned Wednesday from a six-day conference and bevy of showcases in New York, where he and other arts presenters could sample hundreds of performances “to see what might the future hold” for their home stages, he said.
But that’s just one facet of his job. Unifying diverse art forms and artists at home and abroad with students and the larger community is the overall mission.
“With an organization like Hancher that resides and is committed to the work of a major research university like the University of Iowa, you commit yourself to a multidisciplinary approach to your work,” he said. “You try to have an open-minded approach to (how) a university might best be reflected in the work that artists bring to someplace like Hancher.
“You try to do your best to understand the desires, needs, and perhaps even some of the provocation that a community might need and desire,” he said, “as the performing arts enrich our lives and continue to instruct us on how we can keep continuing to a better existence and a better association among all of our partners on this planet.”
Many artists come not only to perform, but to engage with the community through residencies that take them into classrooms, public workshops and related performances. Some of these engagements are planned long before artists arrive. Others happen in the moment.
One of his favorites was a request from a Mount Vernon High School group attending “Les Miserables” in early December. They were hoping someone from the cast of the national Broadway touring show might speak with them for a few minutes and tell them about their career. Brohan said it was gratifying to see that even after being onstage for three-and-a-half hours, lead actor Nick Cartell, who played Jean Valjean, and Paige Smallwood, who played Eponine, came through the stage door to speak with the students.
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“The generosity of these actors and of these humans to come out and want to share a few minutes of their experience with these high school students gives you a good sense of the kind of artists who come to Hancher,” he said.
Likewise, Broadway and screen star Kristin Chenoweth brought a group of UI musical theater students onto the Hancher stage to help her on a gospel number near the end of her New Year’s Eve gala performance. In October, jazz bassist and composer Rufus Reid presented seven residency events open to the public.
“There’s a duality of intention at play,” Brohan said of the outreach opportunities. “ ... We hope that artists are actually enriched by their time here with us, however long or short it may be, as well as the artists having that duality of relationship with our community.”
Collaboration is at the core of Hancher’s mission and at the heart of Brohan’s career path that began in his native Michigan.
A theater major at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, he had his sights set on designing lights for Broadway shows after his graduate courses at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But in 1983, a yearlong university gig to finance that New York move changed his life.
“The oddest thing happened. I fell in love with teaching,” he said.
One year turned into four years teaching lighting design, production management and arts administration at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus.
He also became general manager for Ballet Michigan, a professional touring company in Flint. That helped steer his career trajectory toward arts production and management positions at the University of California in Santa Barbara, the University of Maryland, Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation in Baltimore. Freelance lighting design kept him on the creative side of the stage through most of those years and broadened his knowledge of opera and dance.
“The thing that drew me to lighting was the ephemerality of it, the sense that it’s here and gone,” he said, “and that you know when you see good lighting, but you can’t describe it because you can’t touch it, you can’t hold it. The fact that that is an aspect that I can embrace has led me to be really open and insightful as interesting projects have come up, and as I’m able to support artists in the work that I now do. I think there’s actually a very straight correlation between the two.”
Seeking those intersections led Brohan and his wife, Beth, to Iowa City at the end of November 2017. He knew of Hancher’s work, impact, reputation and staff, so when he heard about the job opening, “it really, really seemed like a natural fit,” he said.
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He brings to the UI institution “a wealth of experiences across all the disciplines of the performing arts at various levels of creative process, and wealth of experience with many artists and many projects,” he said.
“I have found that to be so integral to the work that I’ve brought to Hancher and the work that I’m doing here, as a contribution that I feel that I can make not only to the history of Hancher, but a contribution that I can make through all of those experiences and my own knowledge that I can make to the University of Iowa, to the audiences of Hancher and to the community of Iowa City and this region.
“I’m really excited to be working here. ... Since I’ve been here for a year, I’m just so impressed and so grateful for the openness that exists here, a kind of innate curiosity that seems to pervade the campus, and the desire to collaborate and find new things and find new ways to work together. That is not only rare but is essential and needs to be more essential than we’ve found in higher education.
“This a great place for me to be.”
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