I'm Adrienne Willis, Executive And Artistic Director Of Lumberyard, And This Is How I Work

Photo: Liz Lynch

The Lumberyard performing arts center lives a double life. Between seasons of live theatrical programming, this Hudson Valley venue rents out space for film shoots, weddings, and conferences. With all the rental profits and performance tickets funding local art and community projects.

Adrienne Willis runs both sides of this non-profit venue as Executive and Artistic Director. We talked to her about moving the organisation up from Washington, D.C., working with performers, sponsors, and TV and film studios, and how her teammates mark urgent emails.


Location: Catskill, NY Current Gig: Executive and Artistic Director of LUMBERYARD Current mobile device: iPhone X Current computer: MacBook, 13" One word that best describes how you work: Fast

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

My professional background includes multi-faceted positions in theatre, strategy, and communications. I had a ten-year career as a New York City-based director, producer, and designer for such pioneering theatre companies as Ensemble Studio Theatre, the Zipper, and Collective Unconscious, and my experience in theatre management also brought me to Mass MOCA, Lucille Lortel, and the Westport County Playhouse.

After my master’s degree, in 2006 I moved to DC, where I was Director of Strategy and Communications for the veterans advocacy organisation VFA/VVAF. In 2009, I launched Willis Strategies, LLC, a firm that specialised in branding, messaging, and media coverage for corporate and non-profit clients.

Ultimately, my expertise came to the attention of American Dance Institute, then based in suburban Maryland, and now known as LUMBERYARD. After an overview of the performing art sector’s needs, it was evident that to have national impact and provide artists with the resources they really and truly need to make new and compelling audience-ready work (such as time, space and presenting opportunities), we needed to move the organisation to New York, with a presence in both NYC and the Hudson Valley.

We bought a four-building complex in Catskill, NY in 2015, and we opened our center for film and performing arts on September 1, 2018. This fall/winter, we are hosting residencies for five artists.

Much of our work is also focused on the intersection of arts with community programming and social justice in the Hudson Valley. Our signature youth-facing program is Fresh Start: An arts and self-expression intervention program for incarcerated teenagers at Hudson Correctional Facility in Columbia County. Believe me when I say that there are dozens of other facilities that want this program, but we need more funding to roll it out more widely.

Adrienne Willis on the Lumberyard site, pre-renovation. (Photo: Jennifer Morse)

Take us through a recent workday.

I’ve been spending most of my time in the Hudson Valley since May, as we just finished our inaugural summer season and are now in the middle of first Fall/Winter upstate season.

This past Tuesday, my day looked like this:

  • 6:30 a.m.: Scan emails, reply to time-sensitive emails, have coffee

  • 8 a.m.: Pilates in Red Hook at Body Be Well

  • 10:30 a.m.: Tour sound stage and film facility with a production company

  • 12 p.m.: Review ticket sales for the December 7–8 performance and event with Maya Beiser and Wendy Whelan, choreographed by Lucinda Childs

  • 12:30 p.m.: Tour facility with a prospective corporate sponsor. We brought in 1,000 people to Greene County over Labour Day weekend and are having a great fall as well, so we’re suddenly on the map for corporate sponsorship.

  • 2:45 p.m.: Review budget with COO

  • 4–6 p.m.: Catch up on email

  • 7 p.m.: Dinner with a donor interested in our Fresh Start program, which focuses on 16–17-year-old incarcerated teenagers who have been taken out of adult correctional facilities as part of Governor Cuomo’s Raise the Age initiative. We provide arts and self-expression instruction in hopes that young offenders can find new paths through the arts.

Besides your phone, what apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?

The two apps that make life doable for this working mother are Doctor on Demand and Instacart. For relaxation purposes, I love my Kindle and my summer hack was to put it in a Ziploc bag and read it in the pool.

What’s your workspace setup like?

I have a big desk and a sofa for all the meetings I take in my office. I have two enormous 3 inch by 5 inch year-at-a-glance calendars that take me all the way through the end of 2019, so that I can see all scheduled residencies, performances, and travel plans, as well as all the rental bookings for film/TV productions, weddings and conferences in our new facility.

Working in the arts I need inspiration so I have a work by my favourite artist — my son — always close by.

What’s your best shortcut or life hack?

Hello?! A Kindle in a Ziploc bag!

Everyone on my team knows that if they need something looked at by me urgently, the email subject line should read either INPUT REQUIRED! or HOT!

Also: I never buy fancy sunglasses. I just buy pairs and pairs of cheapies and when they get lost (as they inevitably do), there’s zero heartbreak.

Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.

It sounds basic, but with a team in multiple locations, it helps to conclude important emails with “Please acknowledge receipt of this email.” This way, everyone is accountable.

Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?

I have a wonderful executive assistant, Kathy Ordonez, who keeps the trains leaving the station on time. My management team all have different fortes and perspectives, which I value. Uniquely I think for an arts non-profit, a lot of the staff don’t come from the non-profit world; they’ve come from the corporate and government worlds and are applying that experience to delivering on our mission.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

I live and die by my Outlook calendar.

Adrienne Willis on stage with Craig Harris and Tailgaters Tales (Photo: Rob Shannon)

How do you recharge or take a break?

While building a studio, we decided it was a great time to remodel a house in Hudson. One of the best things we did was create a little space right off the kitchen with a fantastic wine fridge and a comfortable chair. I can find 5 minutes of quiet there.

I love the beach, swimming, cooking and drinking wine with family and friends, and spending time with my husband and son. Reading, too. Nothing especially original but it is certainly restorative.

What’s your favourite side project?

In a pro bono capacity, I direct the communications strategy for Grapes for Humanity, which leverages the wine industry to fundraise for humanitarian causes, including rehabilitation for landmine victims and support for those affected by climate change-induced natural disasters.

What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?

On my bedside table currently are Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth as well as The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed by Adam Bryant.

On the aforementioned Kindle, you’ll find a selection utterly readable page-turners I discover by following @reesesbookclubxhellosunshine on Instagram.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Professionally, I want to know how production executives think because they are our primary target tenants for off-season rentals. So, I’d love to see this answered by Shonda Rhimes, Dick Wolf or JJ Abrams. Oh, and Barry Diller.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel and would love to find a way for them to shoot at Lumberyard.

Lumberyard staff on stage at the Grand Opening (Photo: Alon Koppel)

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Bobby Muller (veterans’ rights and peace activist, whose organisation, Vietnam Veterans for America, co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won a 1997 Nobel Peace Prize) told me: “The moment you stop questioning your own assumptions, you become irrelevant. And non-profits die when their dedication to mission doesn’t take into account their relevance.” He said leaders need to do the same constantly or they will lose the courage of their own convictions.

What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?

Funding the arts is hard to do. We’re trying to solve this by creating a new model for the performing arts: On-season artistic programming supported by off-season rental income. Everything we do is based on that.

I also think that the arts can revitalize communities. We’re proving that every day with the economic impact we’re having, and I’d like to see that movement grow.

Answers have been edited and some links have been added.


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