‘A Really Good Role Model’: Lebanon Opera House Director Leaves Lasting Legacy

  • Heather Clow, executive director of the Lebanon Opera House and Mark Bradley, assistant director work in the box office on Nov. 21, 2016 in Lebanon, N.H. Clow is leaving as executive director (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Heather Clow, executive director of the Lebanon Opera House on stage at the opera house on Nov. 21, 2016 in Lebanon, N.H. Clow is leaving as executive director. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Heather Clow, executive director of the Lebanon Opera House prepares for a board meeting on Nov. 21, 2016 in Lebanon, N.H. Clow is leaving as executive director. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • The Lebanon Opera House on Nov. 23, 2016 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    Becca Valente, 17, puts on her makeup before North Country Community Theatre's dress rehearsal for "42nd Street" at the Lebanon Opera House on July 16, 2009. (Valley News - Jakob M. Berr) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jakob M. Berr—Valley News - Jakob M. Berr

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    Maddie Brown, of Grantham, N.H., performs as Alice in a rehearsal for City Center Ballet's "Alice in Wonderland" at Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on April 7, 2015. (Valley News - Sarah Shaw) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Sarah Shaw

  • Entertainer Cyndi Lauper speaks to reporters while serving as grand marshal of the New York City Pride March in New York on June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) Seth Wenig—AP

  • Lucinda Williams, right, performs at the Americana Music Association Honors & Awards Show Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski) Mark Zaleski—AP

  • Chris Isaak performs on opening night at Super Bowl City Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) David J. Phillip—AP

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    Emily Geller performs in Opera North's "The Tender Land" during a dress rehearsal at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 6, 2015. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/26/2016 10:51:07 PM
Modified: 11/29/2016 10:26:39 AM

Lebanon — The way some of us remember that moment we first walked into Fenway Park or Wrigley Field and gaped at the great swath of green and the stands full of people, Heather Clow doubts she’ll ever forget her introduction to the Lebanon Opera House.

“My mother brought me for my seventh birthday,” Clow recalled during a recent interview. “North Country Community Theatre was doing Oklahoma!. I really remember standing at the back of the theater, thinking it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

“That’s when I fell in love with theater.”

Nearly 40 years later, the last eight as executive director of the opera house, Clow will take the helm of the Marathon Center for the Performing Arts in Findlay, Ohio, at the start of 2017. Along with her native Upper Valley, she’s leaving behind the performing arts center where she started managing the box office in 2001. She went on to guide the venue through the 2008-2009 recession, with a focus on fitting concerts by high-profile rock, blues and Americana performers around a schedule devoted to community productions.

And now the many bookers of the 800-seat theater, community and commercial alike, are waiting to see whom the opera house board of directors will hire next, and how that person will allot the space and the time as the opera house approaches its 100th anniversary in 2024-2025.

“Heather’s done a really good job at striking the balance,” Norwich-based concert promoter Buddy Kirshner said recently. “The opera house is a pretty actively used and busy facility. Trying to get an available date isn’t as easy as you would think it would be. She’s more than just looking to bring talent to the community. She’s doing a lot of other things.”

The last of those other things that Clow will shepherd is City Center Ballet’s annual production of the Clara’s Dream passage of The Nutcracker over the first weekend of December.

“Heather has always appreciated the fact that we present something that requires an opera house this size, that we fit into her theater very, very well,” Linda Cobb, the dance troupe’s founder and artistic director, said recently. “We think of it as our home. She doesn’t treat us as a guest. She treats us as part of the theater.”

The ballet school, the North Country Community Theatre, Opera North, the Trumbull Hall Troupe, the Upper Valley Community Band, the North Country Chordsmen and other community users of the space needn’t worry about Clow’s successor tilting more toward entertainment from outside, the chairman of the opera house’s board of directors insisted last week.

“We’ll maintain the balance,” said Kevin Lane Keller, who teaches and conducts research on marketing at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “If anything, we’ll want to enrich the community participation. It’s part of what makes this area special.”

Clow first dipped her own toe into the Upper Valley arts scene in earnest at Hartford High School, singing in the high school chorus and working behind the scenes in technical roles for the musicals run by longtime music director Rob Gattie.

“I remember her being very efficient, very easy to get along with,” Gattie, who retired this past June, recalled recently. “When we did Fiddler on the Roof in 1988, in a little bio in the program, I thanked her for her patience, her persistence and her perseverance.”

After her first semester at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., Clow switched her major to theater from psychology, and channeled that persistence into the technical side of the school’s theater program.

“Lighting design was what I expected to do once I got done,” she said. “Arts administration wasn’t a career, wasn’t something they talked about then.”

They didn’t talk much about the arts, period, at Clow’s first workplace out of college: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm-service agency for Windsor and Orange counties. But during those seven years, she devoted much of her spare time to theater, particularly when Gattie asked her to stage-manage a musical for him at the Lebanon Opera House for North Country Community Theatre.

“It was Me and My Girl, I think,” Clow said. “No, wait: It was Anything Goes!”

Everything went well enough with the production that Gattie called on Clow for subsequent summer productions.

“They’re huge undertakings,” Gattie said. “It takes a different kind of effort, working with groups of mostly adults than working with students, and she had the right touch.”

Clow’s way with young and grown-up performers alike led her to join Windsor’s Covered Bridge Players troupe as artistic director, not long after the town’s then-new high school’s theater opened.

Then in 2001, the job in the opera house box office opened.

“I took a pay cut and a benefits cut, but decided I wanted to be involved in the performing arts,” she said.

Clow arrived the same year the nonprofit Lebanon Opera House Improvement Corp., which the Lebanon City Council had established a decade earlier, was completing a renovation that included an expansion of the backstage and artist-lounge areas, reupholstering of seats and refinishing of floors.

“For a while it was a fairly run-down facility, kind of a hurting theater,” Gattie recalled. “You kind of wondered, ‘Is this going to close?’ Watching it go from that, on the edge, to what it is now — a theater on the circuit, certain-size shows and acts from all around the country performing regularly — there was some nice work done.”

By 2004, as assistant executive director to Partridge “Buzz” Boswell, Clow was working on bolstering the opera house’s cast of volunteers, and soon took over the Youth Education Series that continues to this day.

Along the way, she oversaw the modernization of the ticketing system, to the point where “we’ve gone from 2 percent of people ordering online to well over 75 percent, depending on the show,” she said. “For (comedian) Daniel Tosh (who performed here in June of 2015), it was something like 95 percent.”

Clow also figured out that other area performing arts centers in the area had their strengths, and decided to avoid reinventing the wheel.

“The Hop (Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover) does artist residencies with the performers in the local schools really well,” Clow said. “We’re focused on what we do well. We don’t try to compete with the Hop, Pentangle (in Woodstock) or the Chandler (in Randolph).”

Clow added that the opera house works at staying in touch with those other venues to avoid, when possible, scheduling major acts on the same night, such as the Oct. 15 appearances by jazz wunderkind Esperanza Spalding at the opera house and Michael Doucet’s Cajun powerhouse BeauSoleil at the Chandler.

Some of the bigger acts to come through the opera house in recent years include Americana performers Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Joan Osborne and Chris Isaak, 1980s pop star Cyndi Lauper, folk-rock legend Richard Thompson and comedian Steven Wright.

The opera house also has showed it can draw audiences in their 20s and 30s. Tosh last year, and the band Lake Street Dive on Oct. 1 of this year, both sold out quickly, after Clow learned that their tours would be coming through northern New England and were looking to add a date.

“We stopped announcing seasons well in advance a while ago,” Clow said. “Our season has narrowed, but the names have gotten bigger.”

That flexibility in scheduling, in turn, allows the opera house to be “much more focused on the community aspect of what we do,” Clow continued. “We’ve gone to a model of promoting local productions as a partnership with the community groups, rather than the community groups just renting the space.

“The community groups responded very quickly.”

Among them was the Hanover-based Trumbull Hall Troupe, which draws teen and pre-teen actors from schools around the Upper Valley. They recently staged three performances at the opera house of Legally Blonde: The Musical, to raise money for the Upper Valley Haven and other charities.

“Heather has been an incredible asset in the production of our annual show,” Trumbull Hall producer Jean Alexander said last week. “She has allowed us the discount rate afforded to nonprofits, she has helped us find THT-friendly house managers, some of whom donate their time. She has always been available to answer questions and more. … Helping the flow of creative forces, in the Upper Valley and beyond, is an incredible benefit to all of us. We will miss her.”

As will City Center Ballet.

“They have trusted her to bring in some good acts from outside, to do the programming,” Linda Cobb said. “It’s a difficult job between that and working with the community organizations to make it affordable for us. There’s a lot of balls in the air. ... When we met with the board recently, I said, ‘I really hope you find that person who can do that, and keep it as exciting and vibrant as it is.’ ”

Keller said that the search committee is “close to moving forward, receiving applications.”

“Heather is just an ideal executive director,” Keller said. “She has so many skills. The new executive director will also have to have those skills, to really want to be totally on top of everything involved.

“Heather gave us a really good role model.”

Clow’s successor will be working with two other full-time staff members and two part-time employees, as well as monitoring the venue’s agreement with the unionized stage hands of IATSE Local 919. Clow said that the current operating budget is just shy of $1 million, compared with about $600,000 in 2001.

“We’re still pretty lean,” Clow said.

Things were beyond lean at the depth of the recession, which hit the Upper Valley just as the opera house was embarking on a “sustainability” campaign. Nevertheless, the effort ended up raising about $25,000 more than the goal of $500,000.

“That’s proof right there, in the Upper Valley, how fond people are of the arts,” Clow said. “I’m going to miss a lot of people, but it’s also exciting to explore a new place.”

In that place — the Marathon Center in Ohio — where Marathon Oil and Cooper Tire both maintain headquarters and the University of Findlay provides a youthful cultural atmosphere, Clow will oversee a theater that seats 960 and also has a visual-arts gallery.

“It’s like being handed this giant playground,” she said. “I get to have fun. The town’s got a really nice vibe. (The Marathon Center) could be what the Flynn is to Burlington.”

Clow also is looking forward to having twice the staff and twice the operating budget, with more flexibility to delegate logistical details that she’s juggled along with programming.

“I haven’t been all that visionary,” Clow said. “Now that we’ve got a lot of those details taken care of, thanks to the support of the community and the board and our staff, this is the perfect time to hand the opera house off to somebody with big ideas.”

Well, perfectly timed except for one show that Buddy Kirshner is bringing to the opera-house stage after Clow steps onto her new one: Americana icons Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt on Jan. 21, in a concert benefiting the Rusty Berrings Skate Park in West Lebanon.

“I’m bummed,” she said. “I’m not going to be here for that one.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or at 603-727-3304.

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