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Against the Tide: Brett Elliott

Brett Elliott makes theater happen. He parlayed a gig managing his high school’s new auditorium at 18 into a theater degree from Michigan’s Saginaw Valley State University. Then he landed one of only two coveted spots with the DePaul University/Chicago Shakespeare Theater MFA program. As part of that, Elliott was involved in a unique event called “Since I Suppose,” employing mobile devices to steer people through an urban Shakespeare encounter. That began in Chicago and eventually took him to Melbourne, Australia. His success at an American College Theater competition sponsored by The Kennedy Center snagged him a fellowship at Waterford’s Eugene O’Neill Theater. That, in turn, introduced him to The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, and former executive director Chuck Still. Elliott was in Australia when Still tapped him as his successor. We recently caught up with Elliott to chat about how he’ll keep The Kate great, and what he loves about the shoreline.

It’s a very great feel in our house. As an audience member you feel really close to the act. Ninety-five percent of our acts are out in the lobby after the show having casual conversations. We recently had The Kingston Trio for two nights. They did several shows coming down from Boston. One of them said that every time someone mentioned The Kate to them they heard, “Oh you’re going to love it there.” The fact that other venues are well aware of what we’ve accomplished in six years speaks volumes about this place. I credit much of that to Chuck Still, and to our staff.

I’m trying to make really good decisions based on what I know about my audience and what they want to see. We sit strategically between New York and Boston, which is amazing for routing opportunities. There are quite a few regional theaters here between the O’Neil, the Goodspeed, Hartford Stage, The Long Wharf and others. The fact that a state this size can sustain all of the great arts and culture it does is pretty amazing. Everybody’s trying to keep things moving, make a name for themselves and remain relevant, as so many things are changing. The Kate has created our own brand, and that serves us.

Something we’re focused on is how to get my generation, the 18- to 35-year-olds, in the door. I don’t see nearly as many of them here at The Kate, and we’re trying to be relevant across the board. Sometimes that will mean bringing in acts that people who attend The Met may not appreciate as much. Not everything is going to appeal to everyone. But we need to be a cultural center for everyone.

When I think about the celebrity aspect of what we do I think of really big names. The Kate’s probably not going to bring in a lot of those. We still only have 250 seats. But last year alone 26,000 people came to shows here. They all saw really good shows, and they know that we’re bringing in quality acts, whether it’s a huge name or not. Star power is important, but I don’t think it’s the only thing to base decisions on by any means. There’s a lot more to what we’re doing than that.

I love this location, the feeling it gives me – and the shoreline food culture is kind of amazing. Back to the Midwest it gets real chainy real fast. But sitting on the back deck at Paul’s Pasta [in Groton] overlooking the Thames River on a Sunday evening for dinner is awesome. You just don’t find that in Michigan or Chicago.

The fact that a state this size can sustain all of the great arts and culture it does is pretty amazing.”

Image Credits: Susie Cushner

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