Jenna Tamisiea is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Glow Lyric Theatre in Greenville, South Carolina, a company devoted to placing opera and musical theatre at the center of difficult social and political conversations. In today’s article, she reflects on the experience of starting an opera company — particularly one that is politically vocal in a region that holds largely opposing viewpoints — and what she learned when she went against conventional wisdom and followed her convictions.
When my husband makes chili each fall, I tell him to make it mild. I will only cross the street when given a walk signal, even if there is no car in sight. I was Valedictorian of my high school. I crossed every “t,” dotted every “i,” and wouldn’t dare challenge a rule. If I didn’t have an affinity for musical theatre, I would have excelled in some middle management position. One thing I knew for certain: I was not a risk taker. It’s not that I wasn’t able to take risks, I just thought perhaps I didn’t need to. I had always found success (or success as described to me), following the rules. However, as time went on, my artistic path was littered with complex situations where the established rules directly conflicted with my heart. For instance, every bone in my body screamed at me: Don’t start an opera company in the middle of a recession.
In the fall of 2009, my husband and I took $700 out of our savings account. Drawing a big breath, we sent a check and paperwork off to the IRS to incorporate our brand new vocal arts company, Glow Lyric Theatre, as a non-profit. He and I had been living in Greenville, South Carolina for a little less than a year at that point and were surprised when we discovered there were no opera companies in the entire state. With my background as a musical theatre actress, I knew absolutely nothing about producing shows or running a company, but something compelled me to plant this seed of an idea. Nervous to make all the right decisions, I dutifully asked my network what the rules were to start and operate a non-profit theatre. Along with many words of wisdom, I was also given a good deal of cautionary advice. Below are some of the recommendations I received in my first year as Artistic Director of Glow. What I actually discovered was that my rejection of these recommendations pushed me to find artistic courage.
Myth 1: Find a mission statement and stick to it. It started in 2013 when I watched a MET HD broadcast of La Bohème at my local movie theatre. It had already been a week since the Office of AIDS Research published troubling statistics. It was released that the three cities with the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS were in South Carolina. Two of the cities listed were less than fifteen miles from my house. Unsettled, I went to La Bohème to ignore [distract myself from] the intense pull I felt to respond to these awful revelations. Instead of relieving my worry, Puccini’s masterpiece confronted me with poverty and disease, and the struggle of an artistic community to respond to the harsh world around them. As I watched, I recalled Jonathan Larson’s Rent, the rock musical that so deftly transferred Puccini’s storyline to the 1990’s. It followed a group of young artists living under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City. Inspired, I threw out the season originally planned for Glow that year. I decided instead to produce La Bohème and Rent in repertory, with an aim to break down the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in South Carolina. We partnered with our local AIDS organization and hosted talk balks between community leaders and audience members. It was an amazing artistic achievement. I witnessed my directing work leading to discussions that inspired others to action. This was the exact moment Glow Lyric Theatre transformed from a dream of mine to a passionate, professional grassroots opera company capable of vital, positive change in my community. Despite all the advice to the contrary, I completely changed the mission statement of the company less than three years after its founding. With a mission to produce works of opera, operetta and musical theatre in direct response to the social and political climate of South Carolina, many called our work “art with a heart.” Each summer, Glow produces an opera, an operetta, and a work of musical theatre. All three productions are tied together with a common theme reflecting current issues within South Carolina. Was I worried that changing our mission statement would confuse patrons and steer my company into uncharted territories? Absolutely. Did I believe that impacting my community was more important than my fears? Absolutely. From that point on, when I felt at a loss for how to help people suffering in my state, I turned to my artistic work.
Myth 2: Be careful of producing “ethnic” shows. They appeal to too narrow an audience, and you are liable to lose donors. In June of 2015, white supremacist Dylan Roof attended a prayer meeting at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Then he shot and killed nine members of the congregation. Five months earlier, in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Walter Scott, I started brainstorming. I wanted to produce shows that could join the conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt that it was more necessary than ever to use my medium to address the racial violence within my state. We decided on The Wiz and Hot Mikado. Both are works of black theatre that celebrate cultural diversity by re-imagining traditionally white narratives.
That season, some of Glow’s lucrative financial supporters did not renew their donations citing disinterest in the programming. I knew exactly what they were implying. Little did these patrons know, they unearthed the rebel within me. In defiance, we increased our outreach initiatives by creating a program that gifted 400 free tickets to at-risk families and youth. We started family matinees at a reduced ticket price, and Pay-What-You-Can performances each weekend. The result? We had a record number of audience members. What we lost in private donations, we overwhelmingly made up in ticket sales and sponsorships. Instead of collapsing under the pressure of financial strain, we let the hardships of that season form the cornerstone of our scrappy financial model. Only fifty percent of Glow’s annual income comes from private donations or grants, while ticket sales make up the rest. We borrow and trade with the other performing arts companies in our area and seek in-kind donation opportunities with local businesses. Our goal each year is not only to increase audience participation but also to improve their experience.
Myth 3: Remember, audiences just want to be entertained. Producing lyric theatre with a strong social justice message in the deep South comes with obstacles. I categorize Glow’s work as challenging, thought-provoking and in some cases, confrontational. Like most opera companies, Glow is concerned with the accessibility and longevity of the art form. While updating production aesthetics and presenting new works are common tactics in the opera business, Glow instead examines the original intention of the piece to find connections with today’s current issues. Opera has historically reflected the feelings and events of its time. From Nabucco to The Marriage of Figaro, opera’s composers have often told stories of the fight for social justice and equality. Highlights of Glow’s last few seasons included a conceptualized production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette that examined a feud between immigrants seeking asylum in America and those who would stop them from entering the country. Thrust into the political debate on immigration, this production exposed the hardships refugees and immigrants face in our state. We produced Gounod’s masterpiece on the same set as we did West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s famous reboot of Romeo and Juliet — another work dealing with the racial and cultural tensions that we saw at the forefront of the American conversation.
In July 2017, we produced Robert Ward’s operatic adaptation of The Crucible, the hippie protest musical HAIR and a politically charged presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. Under the theme “Question Authority,” these shows responded to the growing resistance movements across the United States. During tumultuous social and political times, utilizing live performance to join the conversation increased our audiences and our financial support. As an organization, Glow’s belief is that the purpose of performance art is to create high-quality entertainment and encourage the kind of dialogue that leads to inclusivity and empathy.
It’s now been almost eight years since I co-founded Glow Lyric Theatre, and I still remember the dread and fear I felt when confronted with the above pieces of advice. When I think about the imprint I want to leave on the world of opera, I often wonder if I’m doing any good. The hardest lesson I’ve learned as an arts leader is that maintaining Glow’s values of relevancy, diversity, and innovation is often met with criticism. Amidst crippling self-doubt, I created the rules I wanted to follow and stuck to them.
What my experience as an Artistic Director has revealed to me is this: It’s useful to take advice and follow set rules, but not if it means silencing my inner voice. Listening to that voice and allowing for the emergence of my inner rebel unequivocally led me to success. It took an extreme amount of courage to willingly swim against the stream of other successful non-profit models, but I knew that if I did not, I risked abandoning my responsibility as a progressive Artistic Director in the South. Sure, I’ll always struggle with breaking the rules. I still adhere faithfully to every traffic sign and I never skip brushing my teeth, but it’s not that simple when it comes to my art. If I’m able to leave a shred of healing, connection or understanding in my wake, then screw the rules — the reward of making a difference, however small, is worth all the risk.