Do you love music and theater, and want to work in that world, but aren’t sure of your route? Luke Dennis started there and followed a winding path to his career at WYSO 91.3FM. I asked Luke how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.
In the beginning…
As Luke Dennis was growing up in Wilmington, Ohio, his parents adopted a hands-off approach, allowing him to set his own course. He liked music. Starting in 6th grade, he played euphonium in the band and bass guitar in the jazz band and various rock bands. Currently, he plays in a local band, Lord Kimbo, with his best friend from elementary school, Mike Bisig.
Luke was in charge of his college search and visits. He visited just one school, Kenyon College, liked it, and applied early decision. After Kenyon accepted him, they sent him his financial aid package. In Luke’s hotheaded eighteen-year-old opinion, it was insufficient. Without consulting his parents, he told Kenyon, “I’m going to withdraw unless you increase my financial aid. They said, “Just do it”. “I dropped out of Kenyon before I even started and I had nowhere to go to college”. A friend’s stepfather knew the Dean of Admissions at Wittenberg University and suggested Luke visit. Within eight days, Luke was enrolled and attending orientation for new students. “One of many happy accidents I’ve had”.
“Without any reflection,” Luke declared a double major in music and theatre at Wittenberg. He quickly found mentors in each department and “it ended up being a great fit. I could act and direct in the theatre program and I ended up doing a vocal performance emphasis in the music department, which has helped me at WYSO”.
What path did Luke take after Wittenberg?
After graduating from Wittenberg, “I thought I might like to direct plays at a college”. To pursue that goal, Luke enrolled at Tufts University in Boston in a dual M.A./ Ph.D. program in theater history, literature and theory. “I didn’t do any research or think about it”.
Luke had met his wife, Sally, in the Wittenberg Theatre program. Boston sounded good to her, too, so she moved with him and found a job teaching at Cambridge Montessori School.
While Luke studied at Tufts, he also worked three jobs, “so I wasn’t putting a lot of focus on my studies”. His jobs included:
- Box office at the American Repertory Theater
- Improv theater in Boston’s North End running the lighting and sound
- Reading Room at The Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library – a public facing position working with researchers who were “researching cool interesting stuff”
- Tufts graduate fellow – “I got paid to teach acting to undergraduates” which was “real validation of why I went to graduate school”
Although graduate school “felt like the right path for me… I couldn’t force myself to sit down and write”. “I liked going to class; I liked reading the plays a lot. But I certainly was not interested in publishing papers or going to conferences or writing a dissertation”.
Consequently, after three years at Tufts, Luke dropped out of the Ph.D. program and accepted a full-time position in the Reading Room at the Harvard Theatre Collection doing the same thing he’d been doing on a part-time basis. “I liked the ways that the past could inform the present”.
During that time, Luke and his wife also started a theater company, “actively producing about three shows a year at the Boston Center for the Arts with a focus on new plays. So I was in that world and that’s why the Theatre Collection interested me”.
Did Luke stay with the Harvard Theatre Collection?
After a year, Luke decided he needed more money. Knowing that he wanted to work with theater productions in Boston, he found a job as the Director of Education and Outreach for the Boston Lyric Opera. Opera had been Luke’s focus as graduate student, “so I just applied and basically talked my way into the job”.
The Boston Lyric Opera Company is a big company, with four main stage productions a year at the Schubert Theater, and a summer season of public performances on Boston Commons. “It was a fun job. I got to travel with their touring children’s opera”.
Three years later, Luke’s boss retired and the company wanted Luke to take on a much larger role. Luke and Sally had just had their first child, which changed things. “We felt very isolated having an infant – none of our friends had kids yet”. Luke and Sally decided, “We should raise our children around family”.
What did Luke and Sally do?
Three months after their daughter was born, Luke and Sally moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio. Luke took a job as Education and Outreach Director at the Victoria Theater Association in Dayton.
The job wasn’t a good fit for Luke, however, so he only lasted for one and a half years. It did serve as a “stepping stone to become the Director of Muse Machine”.
How did Luke like Muse Machine?
Started in 1982, Muse Machine is an arts education program that works with Dayton area schools to connect students and teachers to the performing and visual arts.
Due to education’s increased emphasis on testing, arts education had changed since the Muse Machine began. Schools no longer had room in their schedules for arts appreciation programming. “I was there as a real driver of change, not just an administrator, but a creative program person – moving toward more of a residency model where artists are in the school for a prolonged period doing in depth curriculum based stuff with students”.
The funding landscape for nonprofits in the Dayton area had also changed. Major corporate supporters like NCR and Mead Corporation had drastically decreased their support as they reduced their presence in the region. Consequently, Luke had to sell the new program approach to the schools at the same time that he was reinventing the organization’s funding model.
Luke stayed for four years with Muse Machine. “I enjoyed it, but it took a toll on my family life. I did not have a good work/life balance and was letting it bleed into my personal life”. Work pressures made him want to “go back to a time when things were different”.
What did Luke do to relieve the pressure?
Luke learned that the Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection had died suddenly. Remembering how much he had liked working there, he applied and persuaded his wife to move back to Boston. “I won’t have to work as much. I’ll make more money and our kids can grow up in the richness of the culture”.
“I thought it was going to be great, but it was terrible”.
Why was the job as Curator of The Harvard Theatre Collection terrible?
As the Curator, Luke was responsible for
- Building the collection
- Managing the funds and the purchases of materials
- Discovering auctions of rare items around the world
- Preparing materials on requested theater subjects for student use in the Reading Room
“The job was fun. I traveled a lot”. But Luke’s wife, Sally, was deeply unhappy. They had left “a very supportive network of close friends with kids the ages of our kids” and didn’t find anything similar in Boston. Consequently, Luke left Harvard after six months.
That sounds drastic! What happened next?
Luke called Neenah Ellis, General Manager of WYSO 91.3FM, and told her, “I’m desperate to move back. I need a job, so if you hear of any opening, will you let me know”.
In another happy accident, Neenah told him WYSO was searching for a Development Director. He applied for the job, interviewed, got the job, resigned from Harvard, and moved back to Yellow Springs – all within 40 days.
WYSO 93.1FM is a public radio station, based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which airs 24/7. Operated by Antioch College since 1958, WYSO is the only NPR News station in the Miami Valley. In addition to NPR programming, WYSO delivers:
- local and state news
- public affairs programming and news specials
- Public Radio International
- American Public Media
- BBC (British Broadcasting Service)
- the work of independent radio producers
Did Luke find happiness at WYSO?
“WYSO is a good fit”. Although his title is Development Director, he’s not just focused on dollars, because “programming drives fundraising”.
He said, “I get to be creatively involved” as long as it relates to the mission. “I’m really more of community, outreach, partnerships AND fundraising. I get to go to all the meetings. I get to meet with funders, meet with producers. I got to help launch the area youth program”.
“WYSO is such a nexus of so many interests and ideas; it’s like a place of ideas and collaboration. In a theater company or opera company, we were hitting… barriers to participation such as the high expense of a ticket. I love that WYSO is free”.
WYSO offers “so much programming: storytelling, news, journalism, programs that celebrate young people with youth radio. Those are some of the things that have made me want to go to work”. That’s obviously a big draw, because Luke is celebrating his five-year anniversary.
In describing the work culture at WYSO, Luke quoted Mother Theresa, “I can do things you cannot; you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things”. He has found that sort of collaboration at WYSO.
“Everybody works from their strength and does their part”.
- Keeping searching. “If you want to be part of making something in the arts, there’s a place for you”
- Find a positive environment and be positive yourself. “If you’re going to work in an industry where you work long hours and don’t get paid a lot, you should be surrounded by people who are just as dedicated as you are and glean just as much satisfaction”
- Decide: “What do you like? What drives you? What are you excited about?”
- Recognize your strengths. For a long time, Luke thought he didn’t have the right skill set, that he needed a project management background or MBA. Today his perspective is different. “What you’re good at is not a liability. It might be a liability in one setting, but it’s a gift and it’s a talent in another setting, so just get yourself in the right context, because everybody has their thing that they’re good at. Don’t just take the job because you can get it and then suffer with it, because it’s not actually utilizing your talents. Just find the thing that’s utilizing your talents”
- “I like to experiment to see what will happen – that’s the story of my career”.