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VIProfile: Patience Long

By Lee Rennick

While the song lyrics above by Stephen Sondheim are from a musical about vaudeville in the 1920s, they express the feelings of those who love theatre right now. While Center for the Arts (CFTA) has been “dark” during the COVID-19 quarantine, the hope is that everything will soon be coming up roses, and the curtain will rise again under the continued direction of Patience Long, who had been leading the Center to new heights before coronavirus came for an extended visit.

“Our motto right now is ‘The Show Will Go On’,” said Long. “This has been an extremely difficult time for the Center and the community as a whole, but we are here and will continue our mission. We can’t wait until we can welcome our students, performers, patrons and audiences back into the Center.”

Previous to the shutdown of live theater, CFTA was selling out shows 90% of the time and had seen a 40% growth during Long’s tenure. The Center is now more successful than it has been in 25 years.

“I think a lot of people were shocked in the theater community when they hired me as the Executive Director because of my lack of experience running or performing in a theater,” said Long. “But at the time, what the Center needed from me wasn’t someone familiar with Theater, it was someone who could help raise money and awareness. I took a business approach to running the Center. Since the number one source of revenue for The Center is ticket sales, I knew we had to do better selling shows.”

Quickly she learned that the higher quality shows you have, the more tickets you sell. She learned that the more talented artists you have, the higher quality of show. And she learned that a more experienced, team-oriented production staff attracted the talented artists, which gives you quality shows, which sells more tickets.

“I surrounded myself with people who knew theater,” said Long. “I tried to clean up the Center as best I could with limited staff , money and volunteers. I added policies to keep artists and children safe while in the building.”

Her first hire was Denise Parton, whose job was to cultivate the children’s program. Over the past five years, Long has expanded the core staff , then hired additional staff to help with box office, concessions, children’s programs, marketing and the facility. Her initial staff of three turned into a staff of 23.

“Our children’s program moved from the seventh-highest source of revenue to the number two source with more than 800 children participating in our programs yearly,” said Long. “The board that hired me trusted my judgment and allowed me to make some tough, risky decisions.” 

Another thing Long did was get CFTA involved with the Boro Art Crawl. The gallery is open to the public at no cost so anyone walking downtown can enter the building and take a moment to enjoy the exhibits. Yet few realized there was a gallery, except those who came to a musical or play. By connecting to the Boro Art Crawl, more people were introduced to the gallery and art sales increased.

“Connecting with the Boro Art Crawl has really helped the community of artists and art enthusiasts to know about our gallery,” said Long. “We love being a part of it.”

CFTA has between eight and 12 shows each year with an accompanying artist reception. During the month of June, they have continued hosting art shows via an Art Gallery Online. It has allowed them to provide a space for artists to show right now and a space for the community to view amazing work by local artists.

Long has accomplished a lot during her short tenure at the Center, especially since she had no background in theater—except the one show she tried in college when she got cast in A Christmas Carol.

“Let’s just say that my performance was less-than-stellar,” said Long “so, from then on, I have been strictly behind-the-scenes.”

Born and raised in Nashville, she graduated from Antioch High School, then attended Middle Tennessee State University. At MTSU, she was in the Band of Blue as the drum major for five years. That is where she met her husband, Dr. Brian Russell. A month after graduation, she married him and the following year they moved to Rochester, New York. In Rochester, he obtained his Master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music.

“While in Rochester, I learned two things,” said Long. “First, you don’t mess with Lake-Effect Snow and second, I had a passion for raising money for non-profits. At the time, I had a job at Volunteers of America in Western New York as Public Relations and Special Event Manager—and I credit that job with launching my non-profit career.”

After her husband graduated, they moved back home to Nashville where she started working for MTSU in the alumni office. After their first child, Cadence, was born, they moved back to Rochester where Brian received his Doctorate.

“On our second round in Rochester, I started enjoying the foot of snow that would fall every winter and relished my time at Gilda’s Club raising money,” said Long. “After our second child, Chase, was born, we moved to Bloomington, Illinois where Brian was Assistant Professor of Music at Illinois Wesleyan University. I started working for the local hospital…raising money through the annual fund and major gifts. We were there for about three years and a few months after our third child, Constance, was born, we decided to move home for good.”

They bought a home in Murfreesboro because of the great school system and they were both familiar with the city from their time at MTSU. Long worked for CASA Nashville as their Development Director for three years. But, when the Executive Director job opened at the Center, she thought it was a perfect fit.

“It combined my experience in non-profit management and fundraising with my passion for the Arts,” added Long. “Luckily, the Center’s Board thought so too, so in September 2015 I was hired.”

Before COVID-19 Long and her staff were enjoying the fruits of their labor. They had worked hard to choose the right shows, attract the right people and give the community what they wanted.

“We were fulfilling our mission to the best of our ability,” said Long. “One of our biggest successes under my tenure was Newsies, which was performed in January of 2019. We had been told by some that we didn’t have enough men to cast in the show and we didn’t have enough local talent to pull off this show which required heavy singing and dancing. The staff believed we could do it, so we went for it. We tasked our newly promoted Artistic Director at the time, Mark David Williams, to direct it. To date it’s my favorite show the Center has performed. Anyone who saw it knew they were seeing something that was very special. I was told by countless people that our show rivaled some by bigger theaters and we couldn’t add enough shows to fill the demand. We are hoping to bring that show back one day!”

Now, like all theaters, they are struggling, but thinking outside the box to survive. They shifted in person youth education classes to online and launched a spring session in April and May. In these sessions, they have taught visual arts, acting, choreography, music theory and more via Zoom. While those classes weren’t as popular as in-person classes, they still feel a huge sense of accomplishment by finding another method to deliver their education programs.

“We’ve also been trying to have a more creative presence in our social media outlets” said Long. “Content was added to include live Facebook posts that included vocal performance, drink tutorials from the bartenders who work during the shows, story time for children, visual art tutorials and more.”

In June, they launched their online art gallery and to date, more than 30 artists have submitted works.

“We have also been hearing from the community about wanting our shows streamed,” said Long, “where they can watch our shows from the safety of their home. When COVID-19 first hit and we shut down, the royalty companies that we use to secure the rights to shows were not allowing streaming. However, since then, they have been working on allowing theaters to stream and we will announce a new streaming platform in June. We are researching this to see if this would be a good fit for our theater and if the demand is there.”

During the summer, they typically have their summer camps, but because of the pandemic they had to cancel them. That’s when their education team led by Denise Parton came together to create a unique, interactive, online camp: CSA TV. This includes live classes in acting, choreography, art, makeup, songwriting and music theory. It also includes a new TV show produced by their artists and starring Center for the Arts teachers and students. And they are pouring over the CDC and TN Pledge guidelines to determine how to proceed with July camps.

Currently, they are also working on how to make the theater viable, as they could not have profitable productions and follow social distancing guidelines. So, one of the best things Long says the community can do to keep CFTA continue to build and grow productions and programming is supporting their online activities. So…

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