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Over the last many years, the Foellinger Theatre has been a busy and popular place during the summer months. Between a host of popular concerts, generally featuring retro bands from various decades, and the movies which bring families for a cheap date night every week, the Foellinger has provided a lot of great memories for people in the area. But in recent years the venue has taken it up a notch, and these days the Foellinger is arguably one of the hottest stages in town, pulling in huge acts, most of which sell out quickly. One of the people behind that push has been Mitch Sheppard, deputy director of Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation. A native of Ligonier and a graduate of Tri-State University, Sheppard earned degrees in English and communications, a perfect background for someone who has spent much of her professional life writing and working with media. While her jobs keep changing, however, her employers rarely do.
“This is only my third employer since college,” she says. “I came to Parks and Rec figuring I’d be here three to five years, but I’ve now been here for 20. I’ve never been in the same job for more than two years, though.”
When she assumed her current position early last year, the 2013 schedule of concerts had already been set at the Foellinger, making the 2014 list of concerts her first in the role. But she quickly made her mark, putting together one of the most extensive list of shows – including rock icons like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Los Lobos along with gospel, soul and civil rights legend Mavis Staples – the outdoor venue has ever seen. The schedule has also ended up being one of the deepest in terms of calendar dates, with the Los Lobos show falling well after the usual summer lineup featured at the Foellinger.
“I hadn’t originally planned to schedule a show in October, but I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to book Los Lobos. Sometimes you just have to be nimble enough to respond to an opportunity, and I just told people they may want to wear a coat to that concert.”
Although Sheppard has only had two previous employers – an ad agency and United Way – each has brought with it experience that paved the way for her to understand the unique balance of working for and serving the community while taking the kinds of risks that concert promoters juggle constantly. She credits the help of one of those promoters with helping to make the current Summer Concert Series so successful.
“Peter Kernan has been promoting concerts for years, and our partnership with him has been a big part of the growth this year. He has connections not only in Fort Wayne, but also South Bend, and Texas and California. He assists in producing the show and everybody wins.”
But even with that, Sheppard knows that there are no guarantees when putting together a concert lineup, and she credits staff changes with putting together a team that is willing to boldly move forward. She felt confident that the Foreigner concert would sell out, but she was less certain of some others.
“The changes in the last five years have given us leadership that is willing to take a risk, and there are a lot of risks involved. What if nobody comes? What if a performer does something before a performance that makes them a risk? We are working with a pool of non-public money thanks to strong partners – corporate sponsors and media sponsors – so we aren’t risking public money. We’ve had to come up with a strong marketing plan and make the ticket prices market-based but reasonable.”
Sheppard touts the offerings in Fort Wayne, particularly the musical interests which she sees as unusually strong for a city of this size. Although there are competitors for concert dollars, Sheppard maintains a good relationship with similar venues, particularly the Embassy Theatre which shares a lot in common with the Foellinger Theatre.
“The Foellinger is a historic and beautiful structure and has always had a history of bringing in big acts, everyone from Mitzi Gaynor to Ozzy Osborne. Maintenance has been very important, and in recent years we’ve been able to hang more technically complex shows, hang more lighting. It’s a special place because it’s in a park and it belongs to the city, so everyone who comes to a show can feel like they own a piece of that place. That may be old-fashioned, but that’s really special to me.”
Sheppard has also been instrumental in bringing music to the other venue she oversees, the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. Her office is nestled inside the conservatory, and she has the same feel-good attitude about her surroundings there.
“When a family comes walking down the hallway outside my office, and they see the exhibit and gasp, that’s when I get paid. It’s schmaltzy to say, but I’m a public service geek. I have a deep spiritual belief that it’s the right thing to do, that community service is the price you pay to be part of a free country.
“The conservatory is a very unique place,” she continues. “Often places like this are in the middle of acres of open space, but this is an unusual conservatory in that you walk 20 feet out the door and you hit pavement. So we have to know how to work within that space.”
Continuing to grow both the conservatory and the Foellinger Theatre requires diligence, and Sheppard specifically noted staff contributions, particularly those of Tim Byers who she says “produces a hell of a show.” Although already looking ahead to next season’s shows, she also keeps an eye on the future of the venue itself, knowing it’s the cornerstone of the whole plan.
“There are lots of things we hope to accomplish with the theatre, a lot of capital needs. We have to keep up with the technology because the minute you put in a system, there’s something better coming along. We need to meet any expansion needs and bring in more partners to help make that happen. We want to keep reaching out to the broader community so we don’t get pigeon-holed which is why we brought in acts like Mavis Staples and Los Lobos. We want to be a venue that serves the community as a whole not only in the city, but in the entire area.”