Cover Woman: Patricia Lynch, Executive Director of The Music Hall
The Music Hall is Shining Bright with Patricia Lynch at Center Stage
It is a typical day at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH. A percussion act is running through a rehearsal and their dynamic rhythms echo through the Historic Theatre. The box office phone is ringing and people are stopping by to purchase tickets and ask about shows. Outside, a construction crew is hard at work on the Hall’s exciting new streetscape, which will provide a stunning entrance to the venue and make it easier to locate. Into this bustling scene strides Patricia Lynch, executive director of The Music Hall. A cap is perched jauntily on her red hair and even though it’s late afternoon, she exudes as much energy as if the day were starting rather than ending.
Prior to Lynch’s arrival, The Music Hall was much different than it is today. Instead of being a dynamic arts center that is the crown jewel not only of Portsmouth, but also the region, it was a building that had clearly seen better days. Instead of being an economic engine that pumps millions of dollars into the local economy, it was a nineteenth century relic with an uncertain future. Lynch has been executive director for 14 years now. While she is the first to note that she has worked with a dedicated team of staff, directors, donors and supporters in achieving The Music Hall’s transformation, there is no question that it was Lynch’s vision and leadership that has made the Hall what it is today.
When Lynch arrived, The Music Hall was in such disrepair that it was hard to imagine the building as the show-stopper it is now. “Calling it a diamond in the rough would be kind,” she says. “The roof leaked and it was literally raining inside the building every time we had a storm. There were buckets everywhere. The plaster was crumbling and everything was painted a kind of 1970s beige. The lobby had this ugly green and white tile that couldn’t be cleaned it was so stained. The building was drafty and very cold. The lobby doors opened directly to the outside with no buffer so people standing in line froze if someone came in or went out. I was particularly struck by the fact that the theatre ceiling had, not a chandelier, but a garbage can lid behind a bulb as its lighting centerpiece. Staff offices were upstairs with people tucked into nooks and crannies and the technology was woefully out of date–this included both the computers and the equipment needed for shows. There was clearly a lot to be done.”
Nonetheless, Lynch, who was coming from a highly successful theatre career in the Midwest, felt drawn to The Music Hall. “My husband and I both have family on the East Coast and were looking to come back this way,” she explains. “When I was contacted about this position, I saw The Music Hall’s potential. I immediately liked the people I met with and knew I could work with them. I could see that Portsmouth was an up-and-coming city and that the restaurant and arts scene was going to explode. One of my strengths has always been building partnerships, and everywhere I looked I could see many potential partnerships. I also felt that the Hall itself had more to it than met the eye.”
Lynch knew that if she could quickly engage people in the Hall’s future, she could build support and start the venue’s transformation. She reached out to New Hampshire Public Radio and formed a partnership to bring “Writers on a New England Stage” to the Hall. The program was and is a huge hit and has brought major authors from a wide range of genres to the Seacoast. Next, she launched Intimately Yours, a performance series which features diverse artists not usually seen outside of Boston.“I wanted to establish The Music Hall as a premier arts venue and that series helped build that reputation,” she says.
With the success of these early programs, Lynch then tackled bringing the physical structure back to life. “The first goal was to button up the building,” she says. “So, a new roof and lots of repairs. I then wanted to restore the proscenium arch. I knew that once that was done, people would realize what this place could be like. They didn’t know what a gem was underneath all that beige paint. I’ve always believed in working with the best so I reached out to EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York who are experts at period restoration work. Little did we know what a surprise was in store as we got started.”
The Music Hall was renovated by Frank Jones, leading Portsmouth brewer, developer and cultural icon, in 1903. Vaudeville was big at the time that Jones refurbished the Hall, and he wanted his Portsmouth establishment to rival that of those found elsewhere in terms of beauty and design. He spared no expense in designing the theatre, which included elaborate carvings, murals, and gilded accents. People coming in from the countryside to see a show were awestruck by the glorious luxury of the Hall which gave the evening an added spark. However, after Vaudeville faded, and Jones died, the Hall fell on hard times. It’s fabulous decor disappeared under paint, dirty plaster and dust.
“Jeff Greene, president of EverGreene, was convinced that there was a mural above the proscenium,” recalls Lynch. “He knew that historically, a mural would have been put there. However, his artists said they had found no trace, and we had found no photos that answered that question. But Jeff had that gut feeling. He climbed up on the ladders high above the arch and laid down on his back like Michelangelo doing the Sistine Chapel. Using a special
solvent, he started removing paint. Sure enough, he found a cherub’s foot! It was an electric moment. Everyone came running from all over the building to see. And to think that this wonderful art might never have been uncovered!”
Bit by bit, Lynch and her team pushed forward with renovating the Hall. They peeled back the layers of neglect and revealed a stunning ceiling in the theatre, then refurbished the lobbies and bathrooms. The downstairs lobby has won national acclaim as it transports visitors into a magical space that is part enchanted forest, part nostalgic journey, and part French alleyway. “Frank Jones knew that the show should start the minute the guests walk in the door,” says Lynch. “He wanted people to feel like they had an experience, and we believe in that as well.” Fittingly, the last item to go was the garbage can “chandelier,” which was replaced with a stunning crystal model, evocative of the one that hung there in Jones’ day.
With the Historic Theatre restored, Lynch next created The Loft, a more intimate performance space which is located in a building across the street. The Loft brings art films, edgier comedy and unique musical performance to the Seacoast, thus expanding The Music Hall’s overall offerings.
Lynch was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and grew up in Decatur, Illinois. Given her love of theatre and performance, many assume that Lynch must come from acting roots, but in fact her passion is writing. An accomplished poet, she wound up writing her first play almost by accident. She was still a college student when friends suggested she try her hand at this medium. To her surprise, the play was produced and Lynch was hooked. “Seeing my work performed was incredibly powerful,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do more.”
She moved to the Twin Cities, which was then a hub of regional theatre, and got involved with the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis, which nurtures burgeoning talent. After taking advantage of all the opportunities the area had to offer, Lynch boldly decided to open her own theatre, the Brass Tacks Theatre. “I knew nothing!” she laughs, “but I had moxie and I met a lot of people who were nice to me!” By then, Lynch had made a number of New York City connections and used those to help build her theatre’s reputation. Before long, Brass Tacks was getting critical acclaim and Lynch was invited to join the prestigious Theatre Communications Group. It was there that she first came up against a startling and disturbing fact: Women in theatre production and playwriting were scarce.
“I went to my first TCG conference and I was the only woman there,” she says. “It was all men, and they were all from bigger theatres with bigger budgets. They started talking about inclusion, the projects they were doing, and how to make those more inclusive. I listened, then finally spoke up. ‘I have to point out that no one has talked about women directors or playwrights,’ I said. ‘What about their roles?’ Well, you would have thought I’d jumped up and pulled my dress over my head! There was this shocked silence. Prior to this, they had all been nice to me, but afterwards, I got the cold shoulder. It was very intimidating–I was young, a woman, and it was my first meeting. I felt I’d made a major blunder.
“I went into the ladies room,” she continues, “and these two women of color came in. They represented major funding organizations and everyone had been trying to woo them. They came up to me and said ‘Never apologize for speaking truth to power.’ They were very supportive and I learned a good lesson.”
Lynch emphasizes that she has benefited from many wonderful male mentors who supported and encouraged her, but like women in other careers, she has also felt the sting of prejudice. “I’ve run into condescension and had my personality overly scrutinized,” she says. “I’ve been called ‘brash’ and ‘too bold.’ In a man, being bold is good, but in a woman it is somehow considered a negative. A brash man is aggressive, a positive male trait, but the same is not true for females. I’ve learned to stay true to myself regardless.”
Lynch points out that in 1921, 3 percent of Broadway playwrights were women and 4 percent were directors–a statistic that has remained relatively unchanged. “There are a lot of women in theatre working at the lower levels, but when you move up into the world of bigger budgets, to the arenas where real money is made, that domain is almost exclusively male,” she says. “The owners and CEOs of theatres are men. They still control the vast majority of the real moneymaking ventures, which makes it hard for women to advance and for women’s works to be seen.”
Nonetheless, through hard work and persistence, Lynch has carved out a solid reputation for herself. Prior to coming to The Music Hall, she rejuvenated the College of St. Catherine’s theatre. One of her first moves was creating a “Women of Substance” music and lecture series which featured notables such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, author Doris Kearns Goodwin, and poet Maya Angelou. Words from Angelou have become a mantra for Lynch. “Just before she went on stage, she took my arm and in that wonderful voice of hers said, ‘You. You. You–persist!’,” says Lynch. “And I have.”
Because of her success, Lynch sees giving back to the community as one of The Music Hall’s key platforms. The Music Hall offers special programs and clubs such as the film club, opera club and others that enrich the performance experience and bring people together. They also provide workshops with leading playwrights, authors, musicians and other performers so that knowledge is shared and new talent can benefit. Various discussion groups allow people to engage with experts as well as their peers and, like the other programs, help form personal bonds with The Music Hall.
The Hall also aids the community in tangible ways. Each year, they partner with the local nonprofit, Gather, to fill the hall with groceries which go to those who are food insecure, especially children. More than 11 tons of food have been collected. The Hall also offers scholarships to students from Title 1 schools so they can enjoy performances they might not otherwise see. Tickets, transportation and lunch are all provided so that students can experience a marvelous day of theatre. In addition, The Music Hall gives the “gift of magic” as Lynch puts it, by partnering with Families First and Cross Roads House, to provide free tickets to the annual holiday show which is co-produced with the Ogunquit Playhouse. Without these tickets, these families could never dream of seeing such an extravaganza.
Despite The Music Hall’s success and continued growth, Lynch is always looking ahead. “I consider myself a trend spotter,” she says. “I think I have good strategic vision. It comes from listening, observing and always looking for ways to make good partnerships. I pay attention to what trends are emerging and try to see how we might capitalize on those. That’s what keeps a venue vital and current.”
Fortunately, live performance is one trend that only seems to be growing. Lynch notes that with the breakup of big record labels and media groups, musicians are touring more, and despite people’s desire for sophisticated home entertainment, when it comes to music, theatre and shows, they are eager to go out. “Seeing something live is an analog experience in a digital world,” she says. “But people love it. You meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. It’s a live show so you don’t know what might happen. There is that element of surprise, an excitement that you don’t get at home. Live entertainment is a powerful draw.”
While her role at The Music Hall keeps her busy, Lynch still finds time to write and has recently completed her first work of fiction–a story about the Molly Maguires, a group of Irish Americans who were coal mining vigilantes in the late 1800s. “This was a time when immigration, Vaudeville, the Gilded Age and labor activism were all coming together in a rich stew,” notes Lynch, who counts a Molly Maguire among her ancestors.
“You find time for the things you want to do,” she adds. “I think today, more people are doing lots of different things. We no longer identify ourselves as being just this or just that. I feel more integrated than I ever have, with all my different interests coming together in a wonderful synergy. I feel like I am becoming who I’m meant to be. I plan to keep on growing and changing until I become dust.”