Hannah Grannemann would give you permission to sum up her 36 years on Earth in nine letters:
They hang on the wall of her office at ImaginOn, green writing on a pink background in a painting by Chapel Hill artist Mary Carter Taub. They symbolize the passions that have guided her all her adult life: a love of theater, a love of the business that lets people make theater and a love of son Elliot, who’ll head off to kindergarten in the fall.
If you want to be more descriptive, call her the only person under 45 running a major performing arts organization in Mecklenburg County.
Identify her as the still-new boss of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, nine months into her tenure as executive director of the region’s largest and busiest theater company. Under her hand, 85 full- and part-time salaried staff do a dozen mainstage and touring productions and seven education program shows on a $4.1 million budget.
Or call her an advocate for change. But don’t ask what kind just yet.
“We’re in the middle of strategic planning right now, thinking about theater as community-building,” she says. “How can we be of service? How do we reach not only ticket-buyers or library patrons, but people outside the walls? As we figure that out, we’ll talk about programming and other possible changes. The crucial thing will be outreach.”
She’s not long past the honeymoon period, when “I spent three months having breakfasts and lunches up and down Tryon Street” with other arts leaders. Yet in her first season, CTC has already turned around a 12 percent decline in public sales that had begun with the start of the recession.
“Schools always stayed steady, and the education program increased,” she says. “But we have already sold as many public tickets this year as last, and we still have a couple thousand left for ‘The Cat in the Hat’” (which opens Friday).
She has also made the crucial decision to split marketing and fundraising, which had been merged into a single (and overwhelming) job until now. Linda Reynolds, who held it, will stick with fundraising; a new hire coming in the new fiscal year will market the region’s only theater that targets children.
Her strengths as a leader
Grannemann arrived in July from PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, where she’d been managing director for six years. Jeffrey Meanza, PlayMakers’ associate artistic director, remembers “her incredible strategic mind: One of her great strengths is to cull a bunch of information and take a bird’s-eye view of it. One of my great pleasures was riffing on ‘what-ifs’ for the organization with her.
“She’s business-minded through and through, but she’s also interested in supporting the artistic vision. There are organizations where … you are charged with selling X number of seats annually, and that leads the programming. She has her eye on how to accomplish the (artistic) mission while selling seats.”
Maybe that’s because Grannemann began as a performer. Her first happy memory of being onstage in her native Pittsburgh came in fifth grade, when she played a doctor helping the days of the week get better – in German. (“A parent who was not mine told me I had done a good job. That was my first positive review.”)
Yet at college, she realized she was reading a play not from one character’s point of view but from all of them, as a producer might. Gradually, somewhat inadvertently, she began to do exactly the things that prepared her for the job she has now.
Her acting training helped her with public speaking, “being a physical presence in a room.” Teaching jobs at summer camps taught her how to put lesson plans together and relate to children of all ages.
Working for a casting director post-New York University reinforced her decision not to perform – “An actor’s career is never in her control” – and taught her mechanics of production, which she put into practice as a freelance producer. Yale capped her theatrical education, as she learned all aspects of backstage work and financial management.
Smart, tough and receptive
Jennifer Bielstein, managing director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, knows her through their work with the League of Resident Theatres. They organized a diversity initiative, the first time members worked together on an issue besides collective bargaining. The result will increase gender, racial and ethnic diversity in hiring and mentorship.
“In bringing theaters together on an issue that’s challenging to tackle – even to talk about – I’ve found her incredibly intelligent, a respectful listener and tenacious in pursuit of what she believes is the right thing to do,” says Bielstein.
“In a group dynamic, it’s easy to back down when someone is holding a position, and she was very smart in how she pushed back and questioned. Everybody wanted this as a goal, but getting 70-plus theaters to align around a path was difficult. Yet she doesn’t have a huge ego: She doesn’t have to be the center of attention.”
What you don’t hear about are surprising elements to this soft-spoken dynamo. Meanza remembers a fondness for giant muffins and “a wicked sense of humor that doesn’t emerge right away.” Says Bielstein, “She puts it all out there.”
Grannemann herself confirms that people who don’t know her well may not see her funny side right off. Besides that? “Well … I watch too much Netflix. I’ve burned through ‘House of Cards’ and ‘The Wire.’ When I do, I ask myself, ‘Where did I find the time? Shouldn’t I be spending more time with Proust?’”
Life outside the theater
She and husband Joe Florence are still integrating themselves into the community. They have joined Myers Park Baptist Church, and she’d like to resume teaching adult literacy, as she did in Chapel Hill.
“As a child, I thought everyone could read a book. I have a strong memory of my father saying, ‘No, they can’t. Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t,’” she says. “I was teaching people in Orange County who just wanted to write a grocery list or learn how to read to their son.”
She does that herself, of course. Perhaps, among all her qualifications, her understanding of family dynamics will serve her best.
“I was talking to a parent about Children’s Theatre and asked, ‘What can we do for you?’ She said, ‘Help my children navigate a complex world.’ That encapsulates what we do here.
“It may be a show about desegregating schools or questioning authority – that’s ‘Cat in the Hat’ – or a light piece like ‘Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,’ which is about getting used to a new sibling. Or maybe it’s just a silly show that provides quality time together for a family, because we cover the whole spectrum. That isn’t going to change.”
Family: Husband Joe Florence leads the local marketing effort for Truliant Federal Credit Union. Son Elliot is 4 1/2.
Education: BFA in theater from Tisch School of the Arts, 1999. MFA in theater management from Yale University School of Drama and MBA in management from Yale University, 2008.
Came here from: Chapel Hill and PlayMakers Repertory Company, where she started in 2008 as managing director. Became a lecturer with UNC’s Department of Dramatic Art in 2012.
Formative experience: “I saw ‘Annie’ on a national tour when I was about 8. I loved it, but I remember that the microphone of the girl playing Annie had a lot of feedback. So you see, I was already tuned in to the technical side of theater.”
Other jobs she considered: None. “I was laser-focused on theater from the time I was 10.”
‘The Cat in the Hat’
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte performs Dr. Seuss’ tale of the frisky, red-hatted feline who leads two kids astray against the advice of a fish.
WHEN: Through May 3 at various times Friday through Sunday.
WHERE: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.
DETAILS: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.