A Conversation: Christopher Mannelli Joins THE HUNTINGTON As New Executive Director
It was never going to be an easy task to appoint a new executive director for The Huntington Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts after founding managing director Michael Maso decided to step down earlier this year. After 41 years at the theatre, a new executive director will join The Huntington this November: Chris Mannelli. He joins Artistic Director Loretta Greco, who I interviewed last year when she assumed her new role, and the two will shepherd in a new era for Boston theatre.
I recently spoke to Mannelli from his office at Geva to discuss the big move to Boston, the change he wants to bring, and the state of crisis the American theatre is currently in. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Theatrely: To start, tell me about your connection to Boston.
Mannelli: I'm going to be pretty new to the city. I've visited a few times, and I have a few friends and cousins there, but I haven't spent a ton of time up there. It's actually one of the things that I'm really excited about — I've moved to new cities a lot over the course of my career and I always enjoy that first period of time where you're getting to know stuff and learn about the people and all the history.
I’m curious, what type of theatre do you enjoy the most?
So I love musical theatre. You know, it's the thing that I love the most. I mean, I love all theatre: plays, new works, it's all so fantastic. But when I think of the things that really get the hairs on the back of my neck standing on edge, it's musical theatre. I am a huge Sondheim fan. I'm thrilled The Band's Visit is going to be in the season next year, it's such a gorgeous show.
It’s no secret the American regional theatre scene is not doing well right now. Everyday we have a new institution announcing layoffs, fewer productions, or even shutting their doors completely. I’m curious as you step into this new role, where do you begin?
There is a huge challenge right now, not that things were ever easy in regional theatre, but there are areas of revenue right now that just have not recovered in the way that we need them to in order to sustain the cost of producing theatre. The answer to that is actually trying to create some longer term plans and then being able to talk about the story of what the need is to get the resource that is necessary for the next several years. One thing that was very clear to me when I started my conversations with the Huntington is that the board of trustees there is fully behind Loretta's vision and understands that they will also need to help support that vision as we continue to recover from the pandemic and rebuild an audience.
We have seen the data that subscription based houses are in trouble. I wonder how you view the subscriber model and the challenges that theatres have attracting them.
Contrary to some opinions, I actually don't think subscription is dead, but I do not think it's a big growth category for our organizations. I think there is a group of folks that like to interact with the theatre in that way, and they will remain doing so for a long time. What I do know is that we need to find different ways that we're engaging with folks and finding ways to meet individuals on how they want to participate. I think there's going to be some new models, and with that, some trial and error that comes in the next few years. I believe we need to invest as much time and energy in building those new relationships as possible, and I think that's the thing that will bridge the audience gap that we have now.
I believe collaboration and communication are the most important things between an executive director and an artistic director. Tell me about your interactions with Loretta and how you envision your working relationship together.
Towards the beginning of the interview process, I got to Zoom with Loretta, and within the first five minutes of the call, I was like: oh, this person gets me. I think she is such an incredible artist, but also a very smart producer. I think we have lots of alignment on what we want to do, where we want to take things. And also we have lots of overlap in our skills, which is great because I think it lends to really active dialogue, a real understanding, and a way of thinking. Every time we talk, I just get more excited about working with her come November.
The regional market is such an important tool to help develop commercial productions before bringing them to Broadway. The American Repertory Theater has found such great success across the river with almost a show a season heading down to New York, I am curious your thoughts on this pipeline and if that is something you hope to do more with at The Huntington in your tenure.
It depends on the work. It's always going to be about the play itself, and not trying to force a thing to happen. Here at Geva we recently produced Russian Troll Farm which has some future aspirations. We didn't pick it because it was an enhanced production, we chose it because we believe in it and we thought it was an important story to tell. Look, I think enhancement is always great if it's for the right project, but at the end of the day we need to pick work that speaks to our community, that's why we are a regional theatre serving a specific group of folks. It might happen that a production might go on to a different group of folks and that is terrific, but it always starts with the work.
What did your time at Geva teach you over these past seven years that you're hoping to bring to The Huntington?
You know, it taught me a lot about how to collaborate with a partner. I've had good partners here at Geva. It's taught me how to work through really, really challenging conditions during the pandemic, certainly nothing any of us wants to experience again. But also, I thought I was a pretty flexible leader before, and the pandemic showed me just how much I can actually flex. I've learned here that I don't need to be perfect. Mistakes are fine. I think in my earlier years I was always trying to be perfect, and I know that is just not the case.
It’s a big role to take over the position of someone who has been at it for 40+ years. I wonder your mindset with stepping into the role of executive director after Maso: do you try to hold on to as much of his legacy as possible, or are you hopeful to really carve your own path?
The [Huntington] Theatre has a strong foundation that has been laid over these years. And I think it's really important to honor that. And I also think that everything evolves, everything changes. I think that path is developed by the people that are there, it's important to come in and listen to everyone. See what the staff, the board, the community really needs as we start to look at the next five, ten years. All that being said, the thing that I am most thrilled about is that I know Michael. When they asked me to join the organization, he gave me a call right away and said anything you need, let me know. He has such great knowledge that I need to take on, and deep relationships with folks that I think is important for him to be able to hand those off to me so I can steward those folks in the way that I need to going forward.
What's one thing you want to tell the city of Boston as you shepherd The Huntington into this new era?
I want to find a way to as clearly as possible tell folks that they're welcome. I want to find a way to as clearly as possible tell folks that they are welcome at the theatre. And that's not to say that the theatre hasn't done that, but theatre in general has some barriers to it. I really want to dig deeply into finding ways to connect and engage and build authentic relationships with everyone in the space.
Are you and the family already looking up all the restaurants you want to try?
I am going to start digging into that in detail very soon! I am going to start full time in November and my family will join me a little later so we do have a little time to figure stuff out, but I am very much looking forward to all the amazing restaurants and finding what Boston has to offer!