5 Questions with Diane Eber

I was having coffee with Jim Gilbert, our fearless leader of Nippertown, at Motor Oil Coffee on Madison and picking his brain on NipperFest because I have a dream of creating a Capital Region Theater Festival and we were talking about possible venues that might host an all day or weekend festival with multiple performances and hopefully huge crowds that could accommodate plays, musicals, seminars, classes, vendors and so much more and we both (almost simultaneously) hit on The Egg. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. Perhaps because of the hundreds of shows I see a year The Egg rarely has a theater performance on the list.

Two weeks later an invitation shows up in my inbox asking me if I would like to interview Diane Eber, the new Executive Director of The Egg who is taking over from Peter Lesser who held the job for 22 years. I jumped at the chance. I kept what I thought was fascinating in this piece—all 2,000 words. I’m looking forward to great change and some new programming at The Egg. There have been two comedy shows announced this past week that are squeezed onto the schedule, so, who knows? This could get exciting quickly. Pick up your own Motor Oil coffee and meet the new boss.

PW: What’s your arts background? How did you get into arts programming?

DE: My background is… I guess I’m, at core, a music nerd. My parents were both musicians, so growing up, I had to practice my clarinet before I did my homework. So, I was a performer for a long time. Then, when I went to college, I went to Vassar. I’m originally from Rochester. I got to Vassar, and I was like, “Ohhh, I think I just want to hang out with musicians and book them. My first show I ever booked, and it’s so funny they just played Lark Hall, is The Motet, and they’re like a jam band from Colorado. First show I ever booked in college and it brought me such joy to know that I was the one who brought together the artists and the audiences. Right? Like that feeling that everybody’s dancing and having a great time, the band was so psyched; it was like the best gig ever, like whoa… I wanted to do this. Is this a job? Is this a thing I can do?

You have to find your own path. I got involved with this thing called ViCE Jam, which was a weekly jazz series on campus on Tuesday nights, and that was my first foray into the world. I met booking agents, I made connections, and my parents were music teachers but by no means connected to the music business. So, I had to figure it out. Look up your favorite bands. What is a booking agent?

My first job out of college, I worked for International Music Network, a big booking agent in Gloucester that we book a ton of shows with now. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but Gloucester does not screm music industry. I was like “Oh my God, what have I done?” I felt totally isolated there, like I was on another planet, so I moved to the city. I got my first job at Warner Music Group. My first job was corporate communications, which was kind of weird because I was a music nerd. But my boss was also a music person. My boss’s boss was a huge music head. So, my job was to throw fancy parties for the executives, BUT I was in New York, and I was feeding that part of my soul that was hungry for it. I was going to shows 4/5 times a week, like I couldn’t see enough, just take it all in. I stayed there for 3 ½ years and it was great and it was so hard to leave but I had to get closer to music. So, I left that job, took a huge pay cut and went to work for Celebrate Brooklyn! which is the Festival that I worked with for a long time.

PW: So, what is BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, and what did you do there?

DE: It was originally founded by the community access television station with the intention of making Prospect Park safe. Prospect Park was kind of sketchy and not the kind of place you’d want to hang out in after dark. They started these concerts there 45 years ago, which is great because The Egg is also 45 years old. I was Operations Manager then left and just did programming for four years. So, I was not at BRIC , I was at an organization that did programming for the festival but also Mass MoCA, also Natural History Museum, so we had a lot of different clients and worked with a lot of different artists and then I came back to Celebrate Brooklyn! as Executive Producer and then took on Executive Producer and Artistic Director, but my family moved upstate, and it was unsustainable to keep doing it.

PW: What was it about your stewardship of BRIC made you right for The Egg? What are you proudest of there?

DE: I think it came down to the art. What are you putting on that stage? How can it lead to community building? How can art sort of hit those people and open their minds, show them a new path, and create things that exist in the world? How can I make those connections for the audience and the artist to find each other?

So, my work at Celebrate Brooklyn! in my new role as Executive Director was coming up with the budget, managing a large staff and my role as Artistic Director was booking the whole season. It really prepared me to come into a role like this where it’s not only “Ok, I’m not only doing the programming, I’m also managing the budget, I’m also Managing the staff AND how can we help The Egg in shaping the next generation? Peter has done such an excellent job of building its legacy; it’s so big! We have a very dedicated audience. We have an engaged membership program. So many of the building blocks are there and then how do you reach out and reach new audiences? How do you look at it from a different lens?  How do you even approach The Egg? It’s hard. How do you find parking?  Do you enter from the Plaza? Do you enter from the Concourse? How can you think about all those things? The experience begins when you get out of your car. The night you’re going to have at The Egg starts right then.

So, the same thinking I did at Celebrate Brooklyn! where the experience begins when you get on line and I started this system of line managers. They were just these lovely people who held signs that said “You’re at the end of the line. You’re in the right place.” A billion questions because we had 10.000 people, you think about those things, the lines and just saying, “I am a human, yes. We’re so happy you’re here. And I started a position called the Community Care Manager. That person’s job was to keep the good vibes flowing which sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually a very important job, and sometimes it’s just “You look a little woozy, Don’t go anywhere, just sit. Don’t wait in line. Let me give you this free bottle of water. You look a little light headed, here’s a granola bar.” I do need your money, I’m a non-profit. Sure, sometimes it’s better for me to give you a free bottle of water or a free granola bar than wait for you to pass out and I’m calling 911. It’s about being proactive about festival producing and I think a lot of that thinking can apply here and when they went through the interview process.

From where I sit there’s only one Egg and it’s so special and it’s so unique, so being an artistically minded, creative person, that’s what you want! It’s so weird, it’s like a UFO ship. “What is happening?” So cool. And the spaces when you go inside there, you feel it.

When I talked to my artistic community, they were “Aw, such a weird place. So cool, the acoustics are awesome.” You know, nobody forgets their gig at The Egg.

The ability to come in and you look at the programming now and we do a little bit of everything but I want to define that curatorial voice. What is our place in the theater world? Has it been defined? I don’t really think so. A lot of people in the area are doing theater. What is The Egg going to do? What are people going to think of when they think of The Egg? We do a little bit of everything but defining that voice and using it as a giuide post for growing audiences, growing revenue…all the things that arts organizations need to be doing.

So, that’s what drew me here. I went to the board and said “I’m an ideas person. I’m going to do big things. Are you ready for that?” and they said Yes. So, I’m here!

PW: Which leads to my next question, theater. What theater do you love?

DE: To me, theater is how does it impact you, how do you get transported and get fully immersed in the performance whether it’s a musical or some super abstract whatever it is. If I can get to that place of transformation then I’m in, I’m all in. Alright, let’s do it again! How can we do more of this? If it’s something where I’m sitting there and going “Oh, you’re acting at me.” Ok, I understand, then it’s harder for me to understand just how to present that and have it make sense. Am I a theater person with tons of knowledge? No.

I need to do a full assessment of what is Proctors doing, what are the other places doing. They’re already doing well. They’re filling a niche. What aren’t they doing? On my first assessment, it feels a little more like the downtown, alternative scene I haven’t seen being done. Whos doing that in the Capital District and who’s doing it in a room our size? Or bigger? So, you can’t go so obscure only 75 people see it. We have a 445 and 1,000 seat room. It has to make sense for those spaces. We have a scene shop. We have all these rehearsal spaces. We have the infrastructure to support new work. That’s a huge lift if you’re going to get into producing but what I’d like to do is be like open my arms, my doors, my heart to the theater community and say “What do people need? You need rehearsal space? Do you need a space to perform your polished work? Do you need help navigating grants systems so that you can have other residency opportunities at MASS MoCA. I booked all the residencies there and the one thing we did is say “Yes” when artists came to us. “I have this weird project that involves dancers and projections, theater and I don’t even know what to call it.” We were like “Cool, come here. We’ll give you two weeks. We’ll give you housing for the whole group and like perform it in whatever stage it’s in.” We have EMPAC. We have a lot of spaces already here so, I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is. I know we are set up to do really high quality theater. It should just be a question of how, in what way and what’s the niche we can fill?

PW: I usually interview theater people and my final question is “What is the play that changed your life” but what’s an art event or concert that changed your life and how?

DE: Honestly? It was theater. It was third grade and I was the Mayor of Munchkin City in “The Wizard of Oz” and I was the only third grader who had a singing and speaking role and my God! I was proud of that! I drew circles on my cheeks and my brother was the lion in “The Wizard of Oz” and that changed my life, it really did.

My first show here, first days on the job was Squeeze & The Psychedelic Furs. It’s a new place, I’m out of my comfort zone and I went backstage and I went “Oh, yes, I know this.” A theater, any theater, anywhere feels like home. It starts with that little third grader who’s like “Oh yes, I think I like this.” That feeling. I no longer have the desire to be onstage performing. I have the fun of I curated this artist or I found this new audience.

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