By Barb Van Atta
In a year that saw financial upheaval for even the nation’s most prestigious arts organizations, the Broome County Arts Council’s annual Heart of the Arts awards are going to people who have had the courage to guide established groups in new directions and the vision to launch new opportunities for artists and arts lovers in our community.
Three HOTA awards are granted every year. The 2011 recipients, announced today (Sept. 21) at a press conference at the BCAC office, are: Terry McDonald, executive director of the Roberson Museum & Science Center in Binghamton; Reed Smith, general director of Tri-Cities Opera, and, jointly, the founders of S.T.A.R. (Southern Tier Actors Read), Judy McMahon and Heidi Weeks. (See following article about Lifetime Achievement honoree Lance G. Hill.)
McDonald was nominated for “…her positive, humane presence … which sets her apart from those who merely ‘manage’” and for her “knowledge, experience and, above all, heart for the community to take on the daunting task” of leading such a complex museum as Roberson through recent, difficult years of change. Smith similarly was cited for “guiding Tri-Cities Opera through a major change in artistic leadership this past year.
“In the difficult climate in which U.S. arts organizations operate, the ability to make significant strategic changes is absolutely necessary for their long-term survival,” said the nominating documents, “… and Reed deserves much credit for doing what was necessary to ensure that TCO remains a vital artistic force in this community.”
As administrators, McDonald and Smith worked to shore up the foundations of established organizations, while McMahon and Weeks, both professional performers, saw a niche for a new group. S.T.A.R. brings “local actors together to read plays they probably would not have the opportunity to perform at local theaters because they are costly to produce, are out of the mainstream and risky to mount, contain controversial subject matter” or are classics that may not be in popular demand. In its first year, S.T.A.R. has produced eight often sold-out staged readings throughout the community.
BAMirror checked in with each of the winners, asking them a little about their background and, as they say in acting class, their “motivation.”
Judy McMahon and Heidi Weeks
“To be an actress was always my career choice since I was a little girl,” said Chicago native Judy McMahon. “There were the usual dress-ups and high school plays and putting on shows in the basement where my relatives indulged us. My major in college was theater, and I was fortunate to be accepted into the acting program at the Yale School of Drama.”
After acting professionally in New York City in various off-Broadway productions, summer stock, children’s theater and Shakespeare in the Park, McMahon took a hiatus for married life and motherhood. She ran the The Inn at Starlight Lake in Pennsylvania for many years and started a community theater group in Deposit, Theatricks by Starlight.
In 2000, she began performing with companies in and around Broome County, such as the Cider Mill Playhouse, Hangar Theater, Chenango River Theatre, EPAC, Ti-Ahwaga Players and Know Theatre. “I found a wonderful and welcoming theater community here,” she recalled.
McMahon, who also teaches acting and speech, is a director as well as an actor, and sees S.T.A.R.’s staged readings as a happy combination of those two loves. “If what I do in presenting a character or a play that makes you laugh or weep, or causes you to think about the world in which you live in a new and different way, my job is done. And I am grateful,” she said.
Like her S.T.A.R. compatriot, Heidi Weeks was bitten early by the performance bug.
“My involvement in the arts started when I was a very small child following my mother (2010 HOTA Lifetime Achievement Award winner Margaret “Pokey” Crocker) around
to various locations so she could perform puppet shows for the Junior League. I loved it! I then started taking ballet classes when I was 7 years old. … I also grew up going to the Cider Mill Theatre and was enthralled by it and loved watching actors … perform magic on that stage. That all just propelled me into a world of dance and then eventually, at age 25, into the world of acting.”
Weeks, a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse School in New York City, studied theater and dance at the State University of New York in Binghamton and Purchase and improvisation at Second City in Toronto. After nearly two decades as a professional actor in Canada, New York and Los Angeles, she returned to the Binghamton area in 2009. She has performed at the Cider Mill Playhouse, the Goodwill Theatre, and Chenango River Theatre and recently was nominated for a NY Emmy Award for her portrayal of Millicent Barnes in the “Mirror Image” episode of WSKG-TV’s dramatization Twilight Zone Live. Like McMahon, she has both directed and appeared in several of S.T.A.R.’s performed readings. Also an acting teacher and private coach, Weeks has led youth drama programs the Discovery Center of the Southern Tier, the Chenango River Theatre and the Stillwater Residential Treatment Facility in Greene.
Weeks describe performing as “like breathing for me. The world of acting and directing is something that I know I will always do, no matter what else I may be filling my life up with. But being here in Binghamton and co-founding S.T.A.R. rather than staying in New York or Toronto definitely gives me an opportunity to actually be part of creating an artistic community rather than desperately trying to stay in it. This group also allows my fellow actors to always create and learn and perform. I love that.”
You might start detecting a pattern here: Terry McDonald also found her calling as a child. “I was in fourth grade when I decided my career would be in the arts. I had just won an in-class contest for a Halloween placemat design. I beat out Nicky Dahlheimer. And, listen, if you saw how well Nicky could draw, you’d understand what an ego boost it was. But that’s just it with kids. You can never predict the influence artistic opportunities can have.”
McDonald’s path to museum administration took some twists and turns. In college, she explored both architecture and interior design before settling on landscape architecture. “The great thing about all these courses of study is that they teach design process. Essentially, I learned how to problem solve. I worked in, and with, municipal planning offices in and around my hometown of Minneapolis for about 10 years before I got the itch to return to school.”
By this time she was married with two children, and she describes her grad school plans as “pure indulgence. … Nonetheless, Wayne (husband Wayne Claypatch, an artist) encouraged me to do whatever my heart desired even if it meant pulling up stakes and moving, which we did — twice.” McDonald earned master’s degrees in art history and medieval studies, then came to the Binghamton area in the 1990s to pursue a doctorate.
After completing her course work at BU, she began teaching art history at Broome Community College (“I’m doing that again, by the way. I love it”). The meandering career path then led to The Cloisters in Manhattan, which is part of the Medieval Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I was so fortunate to land this job. The Met was an amazing training ground, and my particular position allowed me to see the overall structure of the organization and gave me access to every department be it curatorial, education and visitor services, development or legal counsel. I could see the museum as a solution to a fascinating and complex design problem.”
Only one issue: She was commuting back to Binghamton every weekend. “After almost four years of sad farewells at the Shortline bus station, I decided to see if I could find something close to home. It was my good fortune that Roberson Museum and Science Center took me in (in 2004 as Director of Education).”
Within a year, she became the executive director of an institution she describes as an icon of the community, where, together with her “enormously talented and professional staff and devoted trustees,”
she is “striving to position Roberson as a center of community activity.” She has worked to clarify Roberson’s institutional identity, bolster public relations and improve the organization’s financial stability
McDonald said she benefits every day from the people who love the museum, from visiting families and kids to exhibitors to donors and volunteers. “Basically, I do what I do so I can truly be part of an extraordinary community and share in its impressive creative energy.”
Classical vocal music has been part of Reed W. Smith’s life since his early teens, but the General Director of Tri-Cities Opera frankly admits that he stumbled into what became his life’s passion. “I started singing to get out of playing the trombone in the junior high band. (The music teacher conducted both the band and the choir, so I cut the only deal she would allow.)”
Smith sang in various junior and senior high ensembles and in high school musicals in his native Madison, Wis., but wasn’t seeing the arts as a career path yet. He opted for a biology major at Lawrence University, a liberal arts school in Appleton, Wis. However, he was able to take private voice lessons at Lawrence’s music conservatory.
“My voice teacher organized a trip – four hours each way — for a group of us to attend a student matinee performance of Tosca at the Chicago Lyric Opera. I was hooked. Soon after, I organized an “Opera Society” at Lawrence, the main purpose of which was to take more trips to Chicago Lyric.”
Smith, who evolved into a tenor, sang the baritone role of Papageno in The Magic Flute, while at Lawrence but still wasn’t completely on a musical career path. He came east on a full scholarship for a Masters in Plant Pathology at Cornell University in Ithaca. Again he took private voice lessons and ended up cast as a shepherd in an Ithaca Opera production of Dido and Aeneas. His shepherdess was a Binghamton University masters candidate and new TCO soprano, Judy Berry.
“Judy and I started a relationship in the production,” Smith recalled. “Our first kiss was on stage.” The couple will celebrate their 29th anniversary in November.
Berry introduced Smith to TCO and its founders, 2008 HOTA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Peyton Hibbitt and the late Carmen Savoca. Smith finished his masters, then moved to Binghamton to pursue a career in opera. Smith’s three-decade association with TCO began as a resident artist, singing primarily tenor leads in more than 15 major productions. When not performing, he worked in other capacities: as a carpenter and custodian in the 1980s and as the assistant director of main-stage productions in the 1990s.
As a professional singer, he also performed with the Mississippi Opera, Washington Summer Opera, Virginia Opera, Queens Opera, Ithaca Opera Association, Rochester Philharmonic & Rochester Oratorio Society, the Catskill Choral Society and the B.C. Pops. From 1993 to 2000 he resided and sang in Wuppertal, Germany, where Berry had a contract.
“When TCO lost its executive director in mid-season, I telephoned the company to let them know I was available to help out — at least on an interim basis. Four days later I was back in the U.S. and on the job. That was 10 and a half years ago (in December 2000),” said Smith, who this year was honored with a Distinguished Service Award from OPERA America “for his exemplary leadership of Tri-Cities Opera.”
In one way, the head of a 60-year-old opera company is still the college kid who organized an opera society. “I must admit,” Smith said, “that part of the reason I do what I do is because I’m a bit selfish. In this job I get to hear great singing and see operas.
“However, it was really Carmen (Savoca)’s philosophy of the nature of opera that intrigued me most — the portrayal or expression of the human condition in such a powerful and succinct way. After having had the experience of being in the midst of such an expression (on stage), I feel obligated to help keep the art form vibrant by providing audiences with opportunities to experience this expression. … I truly believe that, were it not for opera and TCO, my life would have been far less full, so I am committed to seeing TCO survive.”
About the awards and the ceremony
The 2011 Heart of the Arts Awards Celebration will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, in the recital hall of The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. This is the eighth annual celebration of individuals who have made a significant contribution to the arts in Broome County. Three annual HOTA awards honor recent contributions. The recipients are nominated by the public and selected by the votes of BCAC’s more than 100 members and by its board of directors. The Lifetime Achievement Award honors long-term contributions. Again, the recipient is nominated by a member of the public but is selected through a vote by the board of directors.
The ceremony, which will feature tribute performances by local artists, is free and open to the public. Past Lifetime Achievement honoree Bill Gorman will be the master of ceremonies. For more information, call 723-4620 or email email@example.com. To find out about past award recipients, visit bcartscouncil.com and click “Heart of the Arts Awards.”
Do you have a story to tell about Heart of the Arts Awards honorees Terry McDonald, Judy McMahon, Reed Smith or Heidi Weeks? Please share it here. You also can use this space to offer your congratulations to the BCAC’s “Class of 2011.”