Jennifer Bielstein. Photo by John Nation.
A Conversation with Jennifer Bielstein
By Kathi E. B. Ellis
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved.
At this time of year, theatre folk tend to turn their eyes toward our fair city and Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. This year, however, Jennifer Bielstein has turned her eyes northward. The first week of April found her in her office at the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis, MN as their new Managing Director.
Bielstein joined Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2006. In the decade since, she has seen – and overseen – significant changes in the community and in the theatre itself. The landscape of Louisville’s cultural scene has shifted considerably in these ten years. The Yum! Center is in operation; the Speed Art Museum closed for renovation and is now open again; leadership has changed at several landmark arts organizations; NuLu is thriving; Portland is developing as the next cultural district; the number of small semi-professional theatre organizations continues to burgeon. As Bielstein says, “There’s just so much for people to do now.” Trying to plan a special event in any given month, it is now impossible to ensure that it will not coincide with a local opening, a touring show, a fundraiser, etc. “But it’s a good thing ultimately,” she believes. The more growth there is, “the more things thrive and more people get involved.”
Involvement may be the watchword for her tenure at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Prior to coming to ATL, Bielstein worked on a number of Chicago initiatives that put the patron at the center of the arts experience. Among these were Theatre Thursdays, a city-wide monthly program which introduces new audiences to theatre, and Jammin’ at the Zoo, which attracts a wide variety of patrons to the popular summer concerts at Lincoln Park Zoo. At ATL this patron-centered approach resulted in working intentionally to change the perception that the Humana Festival is only for out-of-town theatre professionals: at the beginning of the Festival, passes for Locals encourage Louisvillians to experience the plays early and thus build excitement about upcoming offerings; social events surrounding the Festival have opened up to the public; panels are offered throughout.
From enhancing Main Street signage around the theatre complex to making systems more user-friendly (remember having to mail in tickets for an exchange?), Bielstein wanted the ATL experience to reflect the welcome that she experienced when she originally moved to Louisville. And for its 50th anniversary, ATL closed down Main Street for a “y’all come” block party. Much of what makes all of this possible, of course, happens behind the scenes. New customer service software, greater investment in technology, and systems to help the ATL staff interact more effectively with patrons streamline the interaction between customer and theatre. Whether via technology, opening up tech rehearsals to the public, or bringing in a highly regarded chef to the on-site restaurant, the goal is always the same: to enhance the theatergoer’s attachment to and sense of ownership in the theatre.
Bielstein became a visible leader in the arts community both within Louisville and through the Commonwealth-wide initiative designed to generate funds in support of a wide array of arts, cultural, and community-centered developments in Kentucky cities. Locally, the Arts and Cultural Attractions Network brought together more than 100 cultural and environmental organizations for a year-long festival of collaborative programming, the 2015 YES Fest, under Bielstein’s leadership. She took on leadership roles at the national level as well which included her work in the League of Resident Theatres.
In talking about what she will miss most about her time in Louisville, Bielstein comes back time and again to the people, “hands down.” She cites the warm reception she received when she moved to Louisville and the community’s overwhelming belief in and support for ATL. She’s already making plans to come back to enjoy a show next season, maybe a future Humana Festival, possibly the Derby… and she believes that not only is ATL in a strong place to move forward, but that the company provides a great opportunity for her successor – who will find her or his place in Louisville’s welcoming community.
As the Minneapolis Star Tribune headlined its article about Bielstein joining the Guthrie’s senior management team, “Searching for a Managing Director, Guthrie finds a star in Jennifer Bielstein.” Louisville’s arts firmament may be a trifle dimmed as Bielstein takes up her tenure at the Guthrie, but the foundations and infrastructure that she nurtured within ATL’s walls, with its patrons, and in the larger community are stronger as a result of her time here.
Demonstrating that leaving behind the good energy of Louisville is a challenge, Bielstein’s last words were, “Go see the Humana Festival this [final] weekend!”
Kathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society an a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.