By Monica Westin
Links Hall’s new director, Roell Schmidt, is as diverse as the programming at Links; a playwright, producer and successful head of development and marketing at Lookingglass Theatre and the Chicago Chamber Musicians. We spoke with Schmidt, who started at Links in July, to get a sense of her plans.
Given your background in development, it seems that one of your focuses is going to be bringing in audiences?
That’s absolutely one of my most important missions. Performers don’t perform for themselves. I feel strongly that one of my major efforts has to be to ensure that the audience attendance is first at the scene, the way it was for Poonie’s this fall. We’ve been able to hit capacity a few times, and that’s our continued goal…. One method I found effective at other places has been the mighty power of the creative college student. There’s a great granting program that allows us to hire undergraduates to come and work on staff, and they’re tapping into all of their social-networking knowledge and creativity, thinking about who would be the right groups or individuals to know about an event, and how to get them that information.
You’re also a playwright and a producer. Do you see those translating to the director position?
The interesting thing about the role of director is that it’s a combination. Executive director tends to be synonymous with fund raiser, but they deliberately changed the title when doing the search to director, the main reason being that there’s a huge amount of both artistic and administrative directing that needs to happen with this position. I’ve had a great experience working with artistic associates. It’s usually their first time curating a series, so I help to make sure that the nuts and bolts are in place so the art can live. At the end of the day that’s my goal: that the artistic experience at Links is the highest it can possibly be.
And at the end of the day, why Links Hall for you?
I felt that Links would be the opportunity to marry my divided self. I’ve been a writer for a long time, and I’ve fit it in the nooks and crannies, as anyone who makes art has to do. What I was hoping to do at Links, what’s possible here, is to not be so schizophrenic. It’s really challenging to be an independent artist anywhere, and to try to make it all balance with what you need to pay rent and mortage and not stifle artistic yearning is difficult. When I found out about the position from a member of the board, I realized how perfect it could be. The other reason I find Links to be so fantastic and personally inspiring is it is so personal, such an intimate space. Everything is a risk, there isn’t anything to hide behind at Links. Every time I attend a performance, I’m completely replenished. That makes it easy to put all hours in.
So the big question: what kinds of changes can we expect at Links in the future?
That is the big question. At first I really wanted to submerge myself so I could understand it from inside, which I’m still doing. One thing coming up is our weekend of toy theater in late February. All the playwrights—Blair Thomas, Michael Montenegro, Chantal Calato, Meredith Miller—are premiering brand-new work. It was Seth [Bockley] who came to me early when I started to say he really wanted to do toy theater at Links. Given the economy and all the “no”s that everyone is getting, I immediately thought “this has to be a yes.” Someone has to come in and be vibrant and bring in artists, and if Links isn’t doing it we’re not doing our mission. What I want to do is make sure we’re doing everything possible to keep independent artists making risks and being inspired. That said, our programming meeting is next week…