Hope Quackenbush is stepping down and looking ahead

June 27, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Hope Quackenbush is sitting at her desk drawing a picture of the growth rings of a tree. It's an illustration of a comment she made to subscribers in her last letter as managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts.

"If the theater audience can be compared to the cross section of a tree trunk, you are at the very center -- the core -- of the BCPA tree," the retiring managing director wrote. Wednesday will be her last official day in the post she has held for 15 years.

"It isn't only financial, it's a commitment to seeing everything and taking risks. That's really what we're talking about," she says of the BCPA's subscribers, to whom she has delivered serious dramas and Broadway tryouts as well as the standard musicals. In recent seasons, those subscribers have consistently numbered more than 20,000 -- a record nationally for a theater presenting four-week engagements.

The size of the subscription is but one of many achievements of the Quackenbush years, which began in 1976 when she was hired as promotion director of what was then called "the new Mechanic." In that first season, under the auspices of the BCPA (the non-profit corporation set up by the city), the theater had 14,000 subscribers and gross sales of $557,639 for 20 weeks of theater. Today the theater brings in more than $9 million for a 35-week season, with another $1 million from 18 weeks of concerts at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion.

Furthermore, the length of the Mechanic's season places it in the top 10 of the nation's road houses, according to George Wachtel, director of research for the League of American Theatres and Producers. "She's in a league with the really major markets. Considering the size of the market, she's really done an outstanding job," he says. "She's really put [the Mechanic] on the map."

In addition, Wachtel points out that Quackenbush was one of the first women managing directors of a commercial road house in the country. It's an impressive distinction, but one Quackenbush would never mention; she is extremely self-effacing when it comes to personal accomplishments.

Instead, her good friend, Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann, puts Quackenbush's role in perspective. "Women in a managerial position in the commercial world of theater are very rare and continue to be rare," McCann says. "I don't think Hope probably thinks of herself as a feminist or a ground-breaker. I just think it was something she wanted to do, and she did it."

In recognition of her achievements, 300 people gathered at a luncheon in her honor at the Omni Hotel last Monday. Representatives of the theater communities in New York and Washington as well as Baltimore paid tribute to the outgoing managing director, who was described by BCPA board president Sandra S. Hillman as a "one-of-a-kind lady whose contributions to theater and to Baltimore are really beyond measure."

Just a few changes

But as Quackenbush departs -- and she's not going far since she will remain on the board -- there are still areas in which she would like to see change. Her continuing concern about the future might seem unusual for someone about to retire. It doesn't surprise McCann.

"That's because Hope Quackenbush is a person who plants fruit trees," McCann explains metaphorically. "I once found a story about Sir Walter Scott -- that when he was near the end of his life, he went out and looked at the garden and said, 'I'd like to plant some more fruit trees.' And the gardener said, 'But those trees won't bear fruit for 20 more years.' And Walter Scott said, 'But they will bear fruit.' . . . There are people in their lives who've said, 'I got a lot of pleasure out of what I did, and I want it to be strong for the next generation.' That requires a uniqueness that Hope possesses."

So what changes would Quackenbush like for the next generation? Looking at the broad picture, she's very concerned about the state of the road -- particularly the dearth of the challenging dramas she has been committed to throughout her tenure.

Norman Zagier, a vice president of Live Entertainment of Canada and, before that, press representative at the Mechanic for eight seasons, explains, "There have been some remarkable performances there. Given the choice of another bus-and-truck revival of 'The Sound of Music' or a pre-Broadway tryout of 'To Grandmother's House We Go' with Eva LeGallienne, or 'Amadeus' with John Wood, which only toured five cities, I think the results are emblematic of Hope's programming choices. One of Hope's legacies is that she has brought her sensibility, which is one of unerring taste and intelligence, to bear on the season,

and audiences grow with that."

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