One last look at final details Planning: After eight years at helm of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, director's ready to fold up her tent.

June 15, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

As Lynne Nemeth stands in the shade cast by Clyde's restaurant and surveys the shoreline of Columbia's lake, she doesn't see a serene, green setting.

She sees a vast spectrum of details to be completed, problems to circumvent, things to be done.

The sight of a tree reminds her: Put out the recycling bins. A Canada goose in the water makes her wonder: Does the patio need hosing down?

A glimpse of petunias triggers the thought: Order flowers for the sponsors' tent.

It is 10 a.m. Friday morning and in a few hours, people will arrive for the opening of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, an event that is expected to draw 23,000 people before it ends June 23. Already, a large stage has been built, tents pitched, beer trucks parked. But the details of 10-day, $413,000 party are still unfolding. And Nemeth -- as managing director of the festival -- is in charge of it all.

Dressed in crisp, navy blue shorts, white sneakers and a T-shirt splashed with the festival logo, she appears unflappable. Though it is already 80 degrees and humid, her short, brown hair is neat. Her voice is low and controlled.

Then she says: "My stomach is killing me.

"It's like having a party and wondering if anyone is going to come. Of course, we know they are going to come: We have sold out a lot of performances. But still, it doesn't mean you don't panic."

Each year since 1989 -- when she was hired to direct Columbia's first festival -- Nemeth has had a stomach ache on opening night. Nonetheless, she and Donald Hicken, the artistic director, have transformed what began as a small, three-day affair into a 10-day extravaganza.

After eight busy years, however, Nemeth has decided it is time to move on. Next October -- after much of the organizing for next summer's festival is done -- she will resign.

But right now, there's a lot to do.

Armed with a beeper and a two-way radio, Nemeth makes what will undoubtedly be one of dozens of tours around the festival grounds: past the lake, a large stage, the arts-and-crafts tents, the beverage trucks and back to her nearby office.

Once there, she is deluged with phone calls, messages on small paper slips and questions from some of the 17 staff members and 275 volunteers. "The PartyTime rental truck is here with the tables and they can't leave without a check," says one.

"Can 'Speed & Thru' [a comedy juggling act] shoot confetti off down near the lake as part of their act?" says another.

"When you say 'shoot,' what exactly does that mean?" Nemeth counters.

A vocalist by training, Nemeth applies to the job an understanding of the arts combined with a penchant for organization. Before coming to Columbia, she was assistant director of the community concerts program at the University of Maryland at College Park, and had managed the Maryland Handel Festival.

"The festival sort of starts with [Hicken's] program ideas, then we go to the board for approval -- and I put together budgets

that make sense," she says.

In the next 10 days, there will be 50 performances by artists including jazz pianists, poets, actors, modern dancers, tap dancers, cellists and a capella singers. There will be outdoor art exhibits, storytelling and drama lessons. There will be food tents and Pepsi trucks, arts-and-crafts vendors and jugglers.

All in all, managing the festival has been a grand experience, Nemeth says. She is surrounded by art. She meets countless performers. She is paid to promote art.

"What could be better?" she asks.

"And you know, it still happens," she says gesturing at the swirl of activity in her office. "Even when I am in the midst of all this stuff that doesn't really have much to do with art, I will come upon a performance that moves me to tears."

Of course, there are less pleasurable moments.

There was the performer who demanded there always be an unopened bottle of Myers Rum in his hotel room.

Or the one who really needed fresh cut flowers.

Or still another who insisted upon organic carrot juice.

(Nemeth refuses to name names.)

And once, as stage hands wheeled a grand piano onto the stage just before a jazz performance, one of its legs crashed through the floor.

"I said to the production crew, 'I am going to go away and when I come back there will be a board over the hole and the piano will be back on stage,' " she says.

The strategy worked.

After all this excitement, what does Nemeth plan on doing after she leaves the Columbia Festival of the Arts for good?

Rest, she says.

After that, she plans to travel with Lanny Morrison, the man she married just nine months ago.

How could a woman this busy find time for romance?

She got to know her husband here, of course, at the festival, when he was a volunteer.

Pub Date: 6/15/96

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