Saturday, March 15, 2008

John McConnell Tries Retirement (Again)

(News-Herald, March 13)The end of this month marks the end of John McConnell’s tenure as general manager of the Barrow-Civic Theatre in Franklin.

It is not an easy job. The Barrow has had several people in the position over the last fifteen years, and, to be perfectly honest, not every one of them had the chops to handle the job.

Managing a theater like the Barrow requires a multitude of skills. There is an army of volunteers who keep the place functioning, and managing volunteers is a special skill because, well, nobody is paying them to put up with anything they don’t want to put up with.

The Barrow has become the jewel of downtown Franklin, but that in turn gives it a responsibility to be an active member of the local commercial community. The general manager needs to connect, work with, go to meetings with, and otherwise connect well with the other area businesses.

And since it’s a theater, the general manager also has to stay connected with as many of the varied strands of the local artistic community. More contacts, more networks, more meetings, more egos.

But since it’s a regional resource, the Barrow also has to connect and compete with the larger world. And that requires a level of expertise as well. If you want to play the game in the wide outside-the-county world, you have to play by the world’s rules.

On top of all that, a manager of any regional theater operates forever on the edge of financial disaster. I can remember when the theater first opened and people would ask the question, “Well, how long until the theater is a self-sufficient money-making venture?”

The answer, discovered and rediscovered in thousands of regional theaters across the country, is “never.”

That’s not a bad thing. A theater is a big black hole of capital expense. There’s always something to be fixed or maintained, always new equipment that would be great to have. I can’t imagine any theatrical facility’s manager announcing, “We’ve got everything we could ever want or use. No need to raise any more money ever again.”

So you have to find contributors, sell memberships, figure out what the local breaking point is for ticket costs, and then guess what kinds of acts will be make back the money it takes to book them, all coordinated against the schedule of a thousand other local events (and figuring in the random factor of local weather).

Even if you were good at it, the general stress of operating check to check, booking to booking, depending on the public to support a service that many view as a luxury item—all that would be enough to give an iron man a permanent ulcer.

John McConnell certainly didn’t have to take the job on. In his career at Oil City High School he contributed as much to the growth and vigor of arts and music in this area as anyone ever has. Take that teaching career, add all the work he’s done with Civic Operetta, and he could have retired to play shuffleboard, drink exotic beer with funny names, and take cruises to far away warm places. Nobody would have said anything but, “He’s certainly earned it.”

So having him at the helm of this important regional asset has just been gravy for the rest of us. Not since Toby Saltarelli oversaw the transformation of an empty shell of a building into a living, breathing theater has someone done so much to make the Barrow a model of powerful positive change in the larger community.

I don’t know who will be replacing him; I don’t even know who has applied for the job. I wish them luck, and not just because John’s shoes will be hard to fill. To stand up and take a leadership position in the region takes vision, determination, and a thick skin. Taking a stand and making a difference guarantees that you will be a target for everything from cranky phone calls to lawsuits.

The new manager will take over a facility that faces some enormous challenges but also possesses enormous strengths, including a wide web of connections to the community and the region.

Those strengths exist today both because of the gazillion hours of hard work by an army of volunteers (and a handful of people whose pay is only slightly greater than volunteer pay) but also because of the leadership and dedication of John McConnell.

So as the month winds down, there will be no better time to drop him a line at the theater and let him know that you appreciate his stewardship of this community treasure.

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