IOWA Magazine | 09-13-2022

At 50 Years, Iowa's Hancher Auditorium Raises Curtain on Next Act

10 minute read

Longtime leader Chuck Swanson passes the baton to Andre Perry as the performing arts center celebrates its milestone year of creative collaboration.

Chuck Swanson (75BBA, 76MBA) will never forget the night. Under clear skies, thousands gathered on a pleasant fall evening for a free concert on the Hancher Auditorium lawn.

Chuck Swanson PHOTO: TIM SCHOON/UI OFFICE OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION In one of his favorite Hancher memories from 2017, Chuck Swanson addresses a crowd before Leslie Odom Jr.’s free outdoor performance.

The audience eagerly awaited Leslie Odom Jr., star of the Broadway smash Hamilton, to take the stage. But before the Tony Award winner opened with “Wait for It,” more than 200 students from four local high school choirs sang a stirring rendition of “Be the Change.” Swanson sat among a crowd of proud family members and friends, relishing one of many unifying moments that sticks with him at the end of a 37-year career with Hancher. “I don’t think anyone had a dry eye,” says Swanson, Hancher’s recently retired executive director, of the 2017 performance. “In my eyes and my heart, it felt like it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Moments like this illuminate Swanson’s passion for people: Bringing them together. Providing unforgettable experiences. Forging lasting relationships. He embodies the Hancher value of people first, and it’s embedded throughout his final act—Hancher’s current 50th anniversary season. Though Swanson has handed the reins to former Englert Theatre executive director Andre Perry (08MFA) to lead this next chapter for the University of Iowa’s performing arts center, Swanson’s personal touches in planning this season are evident in the array of performers returning to the Hancher stage, including Odom, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.

As the curtain rises this fall on a season of celebration and growth for Hancher, its power to create community through the arts remains. “Hancher has this magic that attracts people and makes them feel connected,” says Swanson. “Everybody wants to feel connected to something.”

Leslie Odom Jr. performing PHOTO: TIM SCHOON/UI OFFICE OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION Singer and actor Leslie Odom Jr. (pictured in front of Hancher in 2017) returns to the auditorium this month.

A New Leader

Perry remembers feeling a sense of connection when he attended his first Hancher performance. He moved to Iowa City from San Francisco in August 2005 to pursue a graduate degree in the UI’s Nonfiction Writing Program. One month later, he was immersed in the sounds of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony performed by the UI Symphony Orchestra. “You feel like you’ve been welcomed into a space,” says Perry. “That served as a catalyst to help me make this a home.”

More than 17 years after his first Hancher experience, Perry is striving to help others find a sense of belonging at the UI through developing a more unified performing arts campus. This vision is central to Perry’s roles as executive director of Hancher and the new UI Office of Performing Arts and Engagement, which strengthens Hancher’s support of the university’s academic mission and student experience. Whether it’s building community for current residents or supporting performers visiting from around the world, Perry’s aim is to develop Iowa into a national destination for the performing arts and a space where all feel welcome to pursue their work.

A range of past leadership experiences in the arts helps inform Perry’s work at Hancher. Perry is co-founder of the Mission Creek Festival, a multiday event that celebrates music and literature at venues around Iowa City. At the Englert, Perry further elevated the theater’s national profile by co-founding the Witching Hour Festival and helping launch the Strengthen Grow Evolve campaign, a fundraising partnership with FilmScene. He also spent time as the UI’s director of arts, engagement, and inclusion and senior adviser to the associate vice president and executive officer of diversity, equity, and inclusion, with each experience giving him a sense of what a connected performing arts community could achieve.

Now, in his first year as Hancher’s newly named Chuck Swanson Executive Director, Perry is listening. He’s heeding advice from current and former Hancher staff, including Swanson and previous executive director Wally Chappell. He’s meeting with donors, students, faculty, staff, and community members to learn how he can help Hancher and the university build upon a rich history in the performing arts. He’s also learning from peers through serving on several boards, including the National Independent Venue Association, Arts Midwest, and Iowa Arts Council.

“My hope is to help bring people to the table and design the conversation so that everyone’s voice is heard,” says Perry. “I see myself as a facilitator and strategic planner who can help us get to the next chapter. But it’s all based on the excellence and intelligence of other people … where we get to will be a collective outcome.”

Pivotal Partnerships

That collective spirit was essential in Hancher’s eight seasons between the 2008 floods and its rebuilding through 2016—the most fraught period in the organization’s history. As executive director of the Englert during that time, Perry opened its doors to Hancher for numerous performances, providing opportunities for him to establish deeper relationships with the Hancher staff. Hancher’s collaboration with the Englert and other community partners helped it continue to provide world-class performances without a home and strengthened its local connections. “When it came time for us to have a need, it wasn’t a difficult situation,” says Swanson. “The trust and the relationships were there. Andre and his staff provided amazing support.”

Whether it was the Kronos Quartet at the Englert, jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón at The Mill, or the Joffrey Ballet at the UI’s Space Place Theater, Perry says those post-flood performances demonstrated how the right venue can create an optimal experience for both the artist and audience. They also provided a blueprint for how Hancher, the UI, and the Iowa City community could excel as a more unified destination for the performing arts. “That was a really fertile period for artistic collaboration within the UI and Iowa City community,” says Perry. “It was a time when many leaders came together to envision a more connected arts community. … Chuck’s persistent positivity and strategic attitude through the whole thing helped me understand the dedication that it takes to do this kind of work right.”

How can different performing arts groups such as the Department of Dance, School of Music, and Department of Theatre Arts remain distinct while also working closer together toward a greater cause? That’s a question Perry is asking in conversations with faculty and staff at the UI Division of Performing Arts.

He’s also exploring an expansion of Hancher’s educational programming for UI students interested in performing arts careers. Currently, Hancher’s visiting artists engage with students through workshops and lectures, though Perry would like to see Hancher and the UI Performing Arts Production Unit staff continue that workshop development year-round. Through progressions like those, he wants people to see Hancher not only as a place to see a show but also as a space to engage with the arts community throughout the year. Perry says Hancher Presents—the newly named presenting arm of the university—is a continued evolution of what Hancher’s already doing. That includes performances outside its auditorium and commissions of new works.

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Golden Season

View the full schedule for Hancher’s 50th anniversary season, including Annie, STOMP, Leslie Odom Jr., and Patti LaBelle.

50 Years of Thrills

Former Hancher executive director Chuck Swanson, who retired this past summer, shares some of his favorite memories from the performing arts center’s history.

PHOTO: JUSTIN TORNER/UI OFFICE OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION Hancher executive director Andre Perry chats with predecessor Chuck Swanson about the future of the performing arts center in its Stanley Café.

A Bridge Between Buildings

Since 1984, Hancher has commissioned more than 100 works, fostering trust and creativity with artists that allows for transformative performances. One of Swanson’s favorites—a site ceremony in June 2013—offered a memorable transition between Hancher’s former and new home featuring two returning artists.

With the foundation of Hancher’s new site behind him, commissioned artist Rinde Eckert (73BM) recalls peering across the lawn toward the former auditorium. In between, hundreds gathered for a ceremonial performance that bridged Hancher’s past, present, and future. Eckert recited words of loss, rebirth, and redemption as he joined Asian American drum troupe San Jose Taiko on stage to bless the ground of Hancher’s new site. Together, they symbolically transferred memories and energy from the original building and honored the three workers who died in a scaffolding accident in 1970 during its construction.

The site ceremony offered an opportunity for people to gather to remember the past and celebrate the future. “I felt like I was at the vortex of this calling,” says Eckert, an Iowa City native. “You’re calling into being the new building, the new possibility. I was thrilled to be at that center.”

The occasion also symbolized the resilience of Hancher and its supporters since the original auditorium flooded. When a steady rain began to fall during the event, nearly everyone remained seated and pulled out umbrellas as San Jose Taiko continued drumming. Before long, the rain stopped, and the sun emerged. Upon the final beat of the drums, Eckert returned to the stage and embraced a few members of San Jose Taiko before sharing a final bow toward a standing ovation.

It was another moment where Hancher created an experience for audiences and artists to be part of something unique. That’s something devoted Hancher attendees Tom Rocklin and Barbara McFadden have appreciated over the years under Swanson’s guidance and anticipate more of in the future with Perry’s leadership. “Expect the delightful, the unexpected, and the challenging,” says McFadden. “That’s part of the role of a leader in the arts.”

Taiko performing PHOTO: WHITNEY WRIGHT Drumming and rhythm group San Jose Taiko helps bless the ground in a 2013 ceremony at the site of the new Hancher Auditorium.

Artistic Vision

Leaders also foster the growth of their artists. Hancher greatly influenced Eckert’s path to becoming an acclaimed writer, musician, and performer. As a child, he regularly attended Hancher performances with his father, Robert (51MFA), who was a professor in the UI School of Music. Eckert later worked as a stagehand while he was a UI student and has performed numerous times on the Hancher stage. Seeing it from every angle made him feel part of something larger. And the opportunity to experience virtuosos like pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1972) and ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1973) then take the same stage made him more confident when he performed at some of the world’s grandest venues in New York, Paris, and London. “When you bring elements of all those incredible cultural meccas into Hancher, suddenly you share something in common with great performers,” says Eckert. “I’ve stood in the shadow of greatness, so I know what it feels like. When you finally get to those big stages, you don’t feel lost. You feel like you’re home in a way.”

The Small Things

Tony Bennett drew a picture for Hancher guest book PHOTO COURTESY HANCHER Tony Bennett, who performed in 2002 as part of Hancher’s 30th anniversary, drew a picture and signed Hancher’s guest book.

Hancher has created a home for many voices and perspectives since it opened. On a sunny afternoon this past spring, Swanson sifted through a tall stack of promotional posters and programs from a range of Hancher performances on a table in his office. Only a few months remained in his storied career, and he began packing the mementos of a 37-year passion project. As he paged through the stack, nearly every piece of memorabilia brought a story to life. One he couldn’t help but tell.

Swanson’s Hancher story began in fall 1972 as a sophomore business major at Iowa. During Hancher’s debut season, the Spencer, Iowa, native was instantly captivated by the Broadway musical Music Man and returned the following spring for a performance by Nureyev. In 1985, nearly a decade into his banking career, Swanson jumped at the chance to return to Hancher as its business manager. Throughout his time there, including the last 20 years as executive director, he’s worked to create inspiring experiences for artists and audiences alike. Ones that compel them to return as well.

Nearing the end of a great journey, Swanson reflected on what he learned. “Hancher has taught me to be even kinder and gentler and to value the smaller things,” he said. “Joy. Togetherness. Opportunities to connect people.”

Swanson beamed from his office chair, and it’s clear he realizes these fruits of his time at Hancher will continue well beyond his tenure. He savors the chance to pause and reflect on the people he’s met, the performances he’s experienced, and the moments that have helped Hancher thrive at 50 years.

Golden Season

View the full schedule for Hancher’s 50th anniversary season, including Annie, STOMP, Leslie Odom Jr., and Patti LaBelle.

50 Years of Thrills

Former Hancher executive director Chuck Swanson, who retired this past summer, shares some of his favorite memories from the performing arts center’s history.

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Get the latest news and information for alumni, fans, and friends of the University of Iowa.
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