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VOL. 132 | NO. 141 | Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Brett Batterson Lands Talented Jennifer McGrath to Sculpt Halloran Education

By Don Wade

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Brett Batterson, CEO of the Orpheum Theatre Group, says only imagination limits the education that can emanate from the Halloran Centre and he’s found the right leader, Jennifer McGrath. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. So Frank Sinatra famously sang of New York City.

Jennifer McGrath made it there. She worked in production at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and then became stage manager at the American Ballet Theatre.

But that’s changing.

Brett Batterson, president and CEO of the Orpheum Theatre Group, dared to swing for a big hire and reached out to McGrath, who had come through Memphis in her previous positions.

“He said to me, ‘I want someone who wants to change the world,’” McGrath told The Daily News in a recent telephone interview from New York.

This fall, McGrath starts her new position as the Orpheum’s vice president of education. Batterson says he received more than 80 applications for the job. He has no doubt that many of those people were qualified.

Jennifer McGrath said one of the draws to her working in Memphis was the “blank page” that Halloran Centre provides for her to create education programming that can change the community. (Submitted)

But as McGrath recounted, he wasn’t looking merely for qualified. The new Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education has proven a game-changer. Yes, as McGrath described it, it is architecturally “gorgeous.” But it also has opened up education opportunities that didn’t previously exist.

“We’re only limited by our imagination,” Batterson said. “We have a number of spaces. When we’re doing classes, we can do eight a day.”

The real imagination comes when considering where the arts, education, imagination and community problems all might intersect.

“An incredible vehicle for education,” McGrath said. “Absolutely, that appealed to me. I’m not going to lie, that’s a big part of the opportunity. The Halloran Theatre is a blank page to jump off from and that’s a massive draw.”

How much of a blank page? Well, to listen to Batterson and McGrath speak about what’s possible is to hear perfectly in-sync echoes.

Which is to say, they believe almost anything is possible and worth attempting. Arts education has worked with children on topics such as divorce or death of a parent, but the subject matter is almost limitless.

“What is a problem, what is a societal ill, and can it be addressed?” Batterson asked. “I look at gang violence; I don’t know if we can address that. But let’s at least look at it and try.

“If our dreams aren’t scary,” he continued, “then they’re not big enough – somebody said that.”

McGrath earned a bachelor of fine arts in drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Among her professional accomplishments: directing “OBAMATRY: A Spoken Word Remix on the 44th President of the United States”; stage managing the United Nations 2015 Sustainable Goals Summit and historic visit of the Pope to the General Assembly; and doing guest work at NYU’s Playwrights Horizons Theater School and the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.

In addition, McGrath directed NYU’S 2011 Summer High School Drama Program, working with students from across the country in three different training methodologies at the Tisch School of the Arts, and has been a long-tenured volunteer with the New York based organization, SAY, a nonprofit that uses the arts to improve confidence and communication skills in children who stutter.

“For anyone who knows me, passion for the arts as a means of change is important,” she said, adding that her career decision did not stun colleagues. “The reaction was, ‘Wow, of course you’ve got to do that.’ And they’re all looking forward to visiting Memphis.”

Although McGrath was not unfamiliar with Memphis, Batterson wanted to make sure she knew the city as it is now.

“I gave her a driving tour, showed her what a great town it is,” he said. “All the great arts organizations, the rich culture and opportunities in arts education.”

Although she was not actively seeking a new position, she had been thinking about new opportunities. Batterson’s call came at the right time.

“What’s the next step? How can I keep going? Sometimes when you work in production you’re seen only as a production person,” McGrath said. “I’m wanting to work with management, fundraising, the board ...”

She’ll get to do all of that here.

As for where she will be down the road – Memphis, back in New York, somewhere else?

“I will have to see what happens in Memphis,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to use the arts to educate, inspire and promote change and teach tolerance and enrich lives. That’s my long-term goal and there are a variety of ways I could do that.”

Batterson admits that without the Halloran, he might never even have dialed McGrath’s number.

“I don’t think I would have looked so hard for someone with her special talent, if we didn’t have the Halloran. I don’t think I would have needed to go to that level.”

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