Looking for a theatre manager? Fall into the Gap.
Human resources for the massive clothes retailer was the standout item on Melvin D. Gerald Jr.’s résumé in 2003 when Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theatre sought an associate managing director for a TCG New Generations grant. The resulting two-year stint helped catapult Gerald into his current position as managing director of the African Continuum Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
Of course, Gerald, now 35, had been involved in theatre—“that was before he basically said, ‘I’ve got to make a living somehow,’” says Signature managing director Sam Sweet, who served as Gerald’s mentor. Born and raised in the D.C. area, Gerald had earned a B.A. in theatre from Morehouse College, then hung around Atlanta getting his hands dirty, he says, “doing lots of grassroots arts work.” He helped put together spoken word performances, poetry workshops, worked for a theatre camp at Georgia Tech, even stage managed at the Jewish Theatre of the South. “I was definitely the only black person in the building,” he recalls.
But despite all the activity, Gerald felt he wasn’t getting anywhere and wasn’t even sure where he wanted to go. “I didn’t want to be an actor,” he says. “I was a very struggling playwright. But I had a lot of backstage experience.” He was already succeeding in the Gap culture, and when he contemplated how he might combine his retail skills with his affection for theatre, the answer led him back home and to the graduate arts management program at American University.
Gerald felt slightly adrift not only as the sole African American in the program, but also as one of the few students working full-time. (Someone would call a study group for 1:00, baffling him: “One in the afternoon? I’m at work. One at night? I’m asleep.”) Additionally, he was at odds with the prevailing goal among his fellow students, which was “to work for a theatre, a museum, a symphony.” He felt more aligned with international students—a Bosnian woman, for instance, “who wanted to go home and start her own company, help change her country through the arts.” He would eventually leave A.U. without graduating.
An early internship with African Continuum in 1998 proved short-lived: “Jennifer fired me,” he jokes. Jennifer Nelson, African Continuum’s founding artistic director, was concerned that grad school plus a full-time retail job didn’t leave him with enough time to be an effective intern. “She said, ‘This is obviously not your focus. But you’re the kind of person we need leading us in five or ten years.’”
Nelson’s words would prove to be prophetic. After Gerald lost out on jobs with several established theatre companies, a confluence of factors led to the TCG fellowship with Signature. Chief among them was the death of his mother. “She was my confidante,” he says. “She knew how much I hated retail.”
So when Sweet called, it seemed important to leap. It was an eventful period at Signature; the small company, renowned for its work with major musicals, was abandoning its longtime ex–auto garage home for custom-built digs a few blocks away. (Signature will make its belated debut in the two-theatre complex this month.) Immediately impressed by Gerald’s maturity, Sweet worked with him on board governance, and added steady exposure to board development, financial management, marketing—“everything except production,” Gerald says.
In the meantime, African Continuum needed a managing director, and Nelson called Gerald. He told a friend, “I’ve always wanted to run a black theatre company. She said, ‘Melvin, this is it.’”
Now he’s helping Nelson guide the long-itinerant company—for years Washington’s only professional African-American troupe—in its newly established residency at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on the re-emerging H Street NE corridor. African Continuum’s budget has risen over the past few seasons from about $300,000 to half a million, with space and talent driving much of the increase. The tasks Gerald faces are fundamental: Expand the board, reach out to corporate funders and hire dedicated arts management professionals.
He and Nelson have already experienced the perils of producing two new plays (in rep, no less) and of trying to market a title like I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda (a challenge, even with a riveting performance from frequent leading lady Deidre LaWan Starnes).
“There is no concrete information on how well we’re going to do here in the Atlas,” Gerald says pragmatically. “But we’ll make it shine.” And in any city interested in seeing arts flourish and neighborhoods rise, that shine “carries a certain amount of leverage.”
Nelson Pressley writes about theatre in Washington, D.C.