Millennials on the Rise: How this new era of historic theatre managers is changing the game

Last week, I attended the League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) annual conference in Nashville. Several hundred of us meet annually with an aggressive agenda: tour historic theatres in the cities we meet in; connect with other people who, like us, love the often crumbling theatres we work in; equip ourselves with new ideas and knowledge; and connect with industry providers who offer specialized services for these incredible buildings that have a heart and soul.

The League has a long history, and—if you look at our board and constituents—is mostly white and aging. The young folk are the few GenX’ers who have quietly made their mark. We’re a friendly spot for women and LGBT folks and inclusive of everyone who shares a passion for a historic theatre (defined as one “having historical or architectural significance in the community”).  Led by Ken Stein, a top-end GenX’er who is openly gay and carries with him a distinct cool factor, this is one of the most inclusive organizations the entertainment industry has to offer.

I sit on the board of directors with previous NYC ballet dancers, opera singers and yes – even Chuckles the Clown. All are now running or working in historic theatres across the country.

Yet this is still a conference where the younger set is pushing 50.

This year I met an unusually high number of Millennials (age 18-35). After spending time with them—asking them questions about why they were there, what made them tick, and how they think the League can better meet their needs—I came away, quite simply, inspired and with hope for the future of our theatres.

Millennials have that affect. While some GenX’ers and Baby Boomers see this generation as needy and entitled (and some are), as a parent and employer, I’m fascinated by the new energy and untethered approach they bring to life. They do not see obstacles—only opportunities.

Consider what they bring to an organization—full of mostly older, mostly white members who love old and crumbling buildings—that makes them a perfect match for both restoring and running historic theatres and impacting the organization that serves both. In classic Millennial form, they insist on connection and involvement, and will be ambassadors of the causes they care about.

While a few days isn’t long enough to know anyone well, it is long enough to see that something is brewing.

Vincent Innocente, at 24 years old, holds an MBA and directs programming at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island where he grew up. His love for the theatre is infectious – as he tells me about the four months they ran a cabaret show in their lobby while the theatre inside had renovations, so that they could keep bringing people into their doors and test what worked. Genius.

Photo of Vincent with Carol Burnett

Vincent Innocente with Carol Burnett in May

Donald Mason is 34, and a self-proclaimed anomaly—he’s bi-racial and serving as the acting manager at the Lyric Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky. He tells the story of his theatre being built for blacks only, and asked about the Apollo (NYC) and other black theatres being a part of the League. He’s a talented singer in a band, and well-spoken, articulate, and passionate about both theatre and finding ways to connect with the black theatres. “How about an Ambassador program to reach more theatres in each state?” he wonders, as we walk to dinner one night.

Donald Mason performing at the LHAT conference

Donald Mason hamming it up at the Ryman Auditorium during the LHAT Tour

Jeremy Phelps is always plugged in, wears skinny jeans and a fedora—he’s a tech and media director at the Cocoa Village Playhouse outside Orlando, Florida. I met Jeremy at a previous conference because we were the only ones tweeting—we’ve stayed connected since, now also on Instagram and Facebook. He loves the League and continues to return to the conference (in spite of our lack of social media engagement!) 

Andrew Lipian is 26 (married and a dad!) and program director at the Lorain Palace Theatre near Cleveland. That’s amazing enough—but he’s also a talented musical theatre guy and sings opera.

What will happen when you bring in the generation that sees no boundaries, has high ambitions, and then finds a passion for . . . old buildings? They will happily pick up the baton from those who are exhausted—and have done the hard work of restoring so many theatres across the nation—and keep the preservation not only going, but thriving. They will bring innovative programming. They will not only keep the doors open, but will make the theatres they love places like no other to experience life and community.

Donald Mason, Vincent Innocente, Andrew Lipian, Lynne, and Bill Register at the Belcourt during the conference

Donald Mason, Vincent Innocente, Andrew Lipian, Lynne, and Bill Register at the Belcourt during the conference

P.S. Read carefully above and it’s no surprise that this is the group that decided an LHAT Cabaret Performance would be in order at the 2016 Conference in Chicago. I hereby nominate them as the planning committee for this event….

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