Rising to the Occasion--Hancher director sees opportunity in flooded auditorium

When Chuck Swanson (BBA ’75, MBA ’76) trudged home from business classes past the site where Hancher Auditorium now sits, he couldn’t have imagined that the then–brand new performing arts center would eventually become the focal point of his career.

The Spencer, Iowa, native, planned to pursue a career in banking, but when the position of business manager opened up at Hancher in 1985, he seized the opportunity: “I’ve always had a love for the performing arts, and I thought, ‘Wow. This is a great way to combine my financial background with something I have a real passion for.’ I feel very lucky.”

Swanson now serves as executive director of Hancher. Despite the 2008 floodwaters that nearly swallowed Hancher’s stage and ultimately closed the auditorium for good, he and his staff have continued to bring performances to the Iowa City area. The University has plans to rebuild the facility in an adjacent—and higher—spot and demolish the existing building.

Swanson recently chatted with Spectator about the rebuilding project, his favorite memories from the auditorium, and the official “Farewell to Hancher” event with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago on Sept. 4.

First of all, tell us about the celebration planned for Labor Day weekend.

Although we don’t know when the demolition’s going to happen—there are still a lot of things to be worked out with FEMA—we decided to go ahead and do this farewell event, because the staff felt it was time to say good-bye. Plus, it’s going to take a long time for that building to come down. From what I understand, they’re going to be very environmentally conscious about recycling everything. It’s not going to come down in a short period of time, so I don’t think any of us are going to escape it. Part of the reason we wanted to do this event now is to prepare everybody.

That said, the farewell event is going to be a free, outdoor performance by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago at 7 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 4, on the Hancher Green. We hope to get several thousand people there and that they come early with picnics. Hubbard Street is so excited that they were asked to do this. I don’t think they’ve ever done an outdoor performance, so this will be a first. Hancher does a lot of “firsts.”

Hancher has been soliciting favorite memories in advance of the event. What are some of your highlights from the past four decades?

There are so many, but most of mine revolve around dance—I do love dance. One of my favorites was the “River to River” anniversary tour we did outdoors with the Joffrey Ballet in 2007—it was over-the-top amazing and so much more than I ever imagined it would be. Other favorites include The Nutcracker in 1987, Billboards in 1993, Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” and the Frankfurt Ballet. Two of our three daughters danced in productions of The Nutcracker, so those were special, too.

When I was a student, I saw the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the National Ballet of Canada with Rudolf Nureyev, and The Music Man the year Hancher opened. Meredith Willson was even here, and I remember the euphoria and excitement in this community—it was a big deal. It kind of changed the world here.

So, without a venue, what does Hancher have to offer?

One thing I’ll always remember is how the Hancher staff came out, almost immediately after the flood, with a very positive response: “Can’t Contain Us.” Although we were sad, it didn’t take us long to revise that first season, and now we’re on the fourth season of “Can’t Contain Us.” Without a facility we’ve developed new partnerships in the community in order to make these magical things happen in other venues. We’ve also stepped up our efforts to partner with communities across the state, and that’s important because Hancher’s vision is to enrich the life of every Iowan through transformative artistic experiences.

On campus, we are working to enhance Hancher’s role in the academic experience and help foster collaborative partnerships across the UI community. For example, last spring we cosponsored with the UI Center for Teaching a three-day Creative Campus Institute. Twelve faculty members from across campus explored ways of incorporating Hancher into their curricula. One collaboration that developed as a result of the institute is with Lena Hill, an assistant professor of English and African American studies. She has done research on the visual elements of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. A playwright who is producing in Chicago the first stage adaption of the work came across Lena’s research and asked if he could come to campus this fall to work with her and her students. She teamed up with us to develop the most amazing weeklong residency that will involve Hancher, the provost’s office, UI Libraries, the Obermann Center, the Chief Diversity Office, the Center for Teaching, the English department, International Programs, the African American Museum of Iowa, and others. Hancher is taking the lead on this residency, which we have titled Iowa & Invisible Man—Making Blackness Visible. We’re so excited about this project.

What is the status of the building replacement project?

We’re done with the programming and concept stage—a time for the design team, including University people, to interview everybody that uses Hancher, so we can decide on the spaces. Now we’re in the schematic phase, where the team defines these spaces with more detail. It’s getting more fun all the time. Eventually, a schematic design will be presented along with a budget to the Board of Regents. My hope is that we can have a groundbreaking a year from this fall and maybe a new Hancher by 2015.

I have so much faith in the design team we have put together—they are visionary in their approach, and I’m excited to see what they come up with.

Anything specific can you tell us about the new building?

I think it will have more of a creative feel to it. It’s going to be smaller capacity-wise with great acoustics. We want people to be able to feel part of the experience and to enjoy that experience. We’d like the lobby to be a place where things can happen—maybe we will have performance opportunities there. We want the hall to have a real lively, engaging feel to it, along with an iconic nature.

We also want great flexibility—onstage, in the lobby, and even in the rehearsal space—so that we can bring a variety of shows to the University, from the larger, touring Broadway shows to some of the more intimate, experimental, and smaller types of shows. When Hancher was built, there were one- or two-truck shows; now, there are 12- to 15-truck shows, and we have the opportunity to make sure the loading dock—the heart and blood of the theatre—is well designed.

Without changing what Hancher does, we’ll do a much better job of bringing world-class artists to The University of Iowa, to the communities, and to the state. Maybe there were things we couldn’t do before because of the technical capacity of Hancher, and I look ahead now and think, “Boy, we’re going to have really the best hall anybody could ask for. What an exciting time ahead!”

Sounds like you’ve maintained a very positive attitude.

You have to. I think if there weren’t a light at the end of the tunnel, it would be hard. We’re going to have this great new arts campus that is going to change the landscape, it’s going to be so different. And we might not have had this opportunity if it weren’t for that crazy flood.

Sara Epstein Moninger
photo by Tom Jorgensen

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© The University of Iowa 2009