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Q&A With Columbia Festival of the Arts Executive Director Todd Olson

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Todd Olson is in the middle of his first year as executive director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, a position he assumed after spending the last 11 years as the artistic director of American Stage Theatre Company in St. Petersburg, Fla. — where his impact was proven with a recently received Best of the Bay award for Best Director, as well as the Theatre Tampa Bay Award for Outstanding Director for last season’s “The Amish Project.”

He was also last year’s recipient of the Florida Professional Theatre Association’s Richard G. Fallon Award for Excellence in Professional Theatre. All told, Olson has directed more than 150 plays, musicals and operas, including “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra,” which he co-created at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville; and “I Left My Heart,” which he also co-created, at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

Other plays Olson has written include “Lysistrata,” “Casa Blue, the last moments in the life of Frida Kahlo” and “Joe Corso Re-Enters from the Wings,” which won the 2012 Holland New Voices Playwright Award at the Great Plains Theatre Conference and is now published on Amazon.com.

Olson received his M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina and is a graduate from the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard. He has been a teaching fellow at Harvard and has taught at Vanderbilt, Boston University, University of North Carolina and the University of South Florida. Part of the attraction for his taking his new job with the festival, which is in its 28th year, was the opportunity to live in Columbia, which he does with his wife Charlotte, and their children, Jonas, Corinna and May.

What attracted you to your new job?

Partially the change, as well as the importance of what the Columbia Festival of the Arts means to our community. Plus, I have a family of five, and this is a good place to raise one, especially due to the cultural corridor between Washington and Baltimore.

There are not many cities contemplating an arts park, meaning Symphony Woods, like Columbia is. This aspirational planning is a positive reflection of a dynamic area, which is just where I was looking to make a permanent move.

What challenges are you facing with the festival?

Strategic planning was done before I got here, so now we have to act on it. There were many other good ideas that we have to put in motion, most notably spreading the festival throughout the year. I think that means we’re heading toward getting more educational opportunities; we’ll develop a young professional board, too. New blood, new energy, new ideas abound.

I think Nichole Hickey did a great job of shepherding the organization through the recession. Now, we’re poised to keep building and getting healthier.

How are the finances of the festival at this moment?

Fine, so far. Fundraising is steady as she goes, the board is supportive and as we court new sponsors, I think they will respond. They have so far. They include the Rouse Company Foundation, Abrams Development, W.R. Grace, Mays & Associates and BB&T, with more to come.

Where do your fundraising efforts stand?

We go talk to anyone who will give us a few minutes to hear our story. I think many people like the changes, and I’m finding that there is a lot of affection for the festival in the community. About 15% of our total contribution income comes from corporations, with Columbia Association our biggest contributor at $105,000. The rest of our money comes from individuals. We get grants, too, from entities like the Howard County Arts Council, which gave us $67,000 for this fiscal year.

What we’re trying to do as we create the new festivals is reach out to new sectors of the market for support. I’ve been meeting with potential new sponsors, with the goal of reaching what we’ve projected for our budget, which is $650,000, so we will want to raise $480,000 and earn $163,000.

How much does the festival need to make to reach those goals?

We need to sell about $95,000 in ticket sales over two festivals (spring and summer).

Do you think many people understand the importance of the arts in their communities?

I think many of them do. [Columbia Founder] Jim Rouse had it right in the first place: Communities have to be fun and have things for people to do. And when you build institutions dedicated to art, the hope is to wear them out with passionate use.

In Florida, the debate concerned whether people come for the beaches or the arts; here, more people are moving here all the time — and they want Shakespeare when they want it, classical music when they want it, modern dance when they want it, etc. And if we’re not presenting that, they let us know.

How do you estimate the importance of the arts in a local business community?

When people contemplate a move to any area, they want to know about what arts the community has to offer. And since this area is growing, we want to add to those offerings. Cities revive themselves when the citizens demand revitalization, and that’s why I think you’ll see growth in the arts here.

What is your biggest challenge in heightening the festival’s impact?

I’ve been here five months and haven’t found that yet. People are game, the board is supportive, the staff is ready for the changes. Ask me in another five months.

Have you seen the new format — which will encompass four three-day weekend events, one each season — work well in other cities?

Not exactly how we’re doing it, but in the mid-Atlantic region there are literally hundreds of weekend festivals, so we know it works. We did plays in Florida year ’round, which was partly due to the climate. What we want to do is keep what our local festival has done best and add more diversity in the process.

The first quarterly festival under the new plan, “American Routes,” is set for April 17–19. What will the main features entail?

Details to come, but we’ll be fully producing two plays, one set in the American Civil War and one in a one-room schoolhouse in Amish country. We’ll feature an evening of American opera, and a reading/book signing by a celebrated Ethiopian-American novelist. We’ll offer two live drawing sessions, and two readings of new plays, one that takes place in Maryland after the Civil War, and another about American icon Orson Welles on the occasion of his 100th birthday.

We’ll also present three interesting music events, from an Afghani jazz musician, a classical marimbist to original chamber music played by a brilliant, up-and-coming group of 20-somethings who are originally from Columbia. And we’re still planning.

Will there be any new features to the festival that year?

I like what we’ve done, but I have a background in opera and theater, so I’d like to see more on both of those fronts. I’d also like to see some local groups who have not been involved in the past from the Baltimore-to-D.C. Corridor get involved, especially if we can do something together that neither could do alone.

How will you put your stamp on the organization?

Well, two of us from the staff just came back from a showcase in New York at an Association of Performing Arts Presenters convention, and we saw a great many artists and groups from all over the world that we might like to include in the future, with the proper funding. That’s one way.

But, all told, I think we’re pretty inclusive and that the festival has been a fun event. We’ll just be refining the overall effort as we move along and work toward increasing our endowment.

Might the planned changes in Symphony Woods and Merriweather meld into the festival?

I think anytime you can make homes for artists where arts organizations shine, and have such places where people will want to spend time, that’s very attractive. The potential with Symphony Woods is to create a cultural epicenter in central Maryland, and that’s exciting. Everyone knows those upgrades will take some time, but I think the community is willing to be patient with great things on the horizon.

Do you plan to continue your teaching career and your writing?

If I have that opportunity, yes. But my first order of business is to work here. Still, I write quite often, and I don’t want part of my artistic self to evaporate. Who knows, maybe one day one of my plays will be presented in the festival.

I’m working on a musical right now with an Austin composer that takes place in Arlington National Cemetery, called Section 60, about the newest section of the cemetery dedicated to the most recent deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.