Lisa Wagner, Executive Director, Levitt Pavilion Dayton

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In the beginning…

Lisa Wagner enjoyed her childhood with her extended family in Allentown, Pa. “I spent my leisure time with my cousins and they were like siblings”. She had freedom to play and roam the city, but “there was a lot of accountability. I couldn’t get away with anything”.

Everything changed at the end of 7th grade when Lisa’s nuclear family moved away to Dayton so her father could take a job with NCR. Lisa played volleyball, basketball and softball in 8th grade, but when she started high school, “I became intimidated about not fitting in”. Nonetheless, “I seemed to be able to fluidly move between all these sub classes of The Breakfast Club”.

What did Lisa do after high school?

Lisa wanted to go to Ohio Northern University to study law, but her father insisted she attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio to major in business. Lisa had other ideas. “I hated business and wanted to teach secondary math and went into the education department”.

When Lisa’s parents subsequently divorced, Lisa needed financing for her education. At that time, she had a summer job with Key Bank and they offered her a full-time job in loan operations. The offer included tuition reimbursement, enabling Lisa to continue part-time education classes at Wright State University. Time, however, became an obstacle. “I kept getting promoted and taking on more responsibility at the bank and I didn’t know how to do both”.

Did Lisa stay in banking?

In 1989 Key Bank moved its loan operations to Cleveland. They offered to move her, too, but Lisa declined, because she and her husband decided to stay in Dayton to raise their children.

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Christopher’s Restaurant & Catering, Kettering, Ohio

While Lisa was at home with her two children, a church friend opened Christopher’s Restaurant & Catering. As the catering portion expanded, he asked Lisa to join him. Since extra money was attractive, Lisa agreed help with that portion of the business.

In order to ensure she could fulfill her arrangements with catering customers, Lisa enrolled in the culinary arts program at Sinclair Community College. “I would sell it and then I would cook it. I’d load it up in the car; I’d go out and we’d serve it and then bring it all back and we’d clean it up”.

Eventually, Christopher’s catering got so busy, Lisa didn’t have time for school. “Christopher’s was nights and weekends and that’s when the classes were”.

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Lisa learned the catering business requires a proactive mindset. “You always have to be anticipating worst case scenarios” in order to provide solutions on the spot. “I always had to know where the nearest grocery store was in case I forgot something”.

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Did Lisa stay in catering?

After ten years of catering, “my body really started to break down, so I took a break”. In 2002, however, “the economy caught up to our family in a real way”. It was time to go back to work.

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Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, Dayton, Ohio

In 2003 the Schuster Performing Arts Center was under construction. Lisa saw a posting for a job there in event operations. She applied, and due to her catering experience, was hired by the Victoria Theater Association (VTA), which owns and operates the Schuster Center.

How did Lisa’s life change as she settled in with VTA?

In addition to its theaters, the Schuster includes a full service restaurant and bar, Citilites. Prior to the 2003 opening, “I was very involved in hiring all the service staff – Citilites and the catering staff”.

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Citilites Restaurant at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, Dayton, Ohio

Once the Schuster Center opened, Lisa became “the execution element”, managing all the details for events held onsite, including the flow, layout and setup, decoration, service style, etc. “I went from kind of working very part-time to working almost 70 hours a week. And we did not have a kitchen in that building until September of 2003 and we probably did close to $1,000,000 worth of catering prior to that”.

How did Lisa move from event operations to ticketing?

VTA surprised Lisa when they asked her to become the Director of their ticketing operation, Ticket Center Stage, and address the issues between Ticket Center Stage and its licensees, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Opera, Dayton Ballet, and Human Race Theatre Company.

Lisa’s reaction was, “What? I’ve never sold a ticket in my life!” The VTA assured her, “you’re really good with customers and you manage people really well”.

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Schuster Performing Arts Center Box Office

Nonetheless, she had a steep learning curve. “I spent probably the first month shadowing ticket agents. I sat in the box offices and listened and then I got on the phone and learned how to sell tickets over the phone”.

Lisa observed that the culture within the department did not promote collaboration and needed to change. In order to do that, “I spent a lot of time working on team building; I spent a lot of time asking for input. No matter what level you were within this little organization, I valued what they had to say. I spent a lot of time in the trenches with them”.

As Lisa worked to purge the negative dynamic, she also quickly identified two superstars. These two young woman “were very out of the box thinkers”, willing to approach problems from fresh angles. Working with them led to some of Lisa’s favorite moments: “seeing people that I have developed blossom and really enjoy their success”.

How did Lisa’s responsibilities grow?

In 2009 the CEO and President of the VTA, Dione Kennedy left to head another organization. During the subsequent management reorganization, the interim CEO and the new CEO and President of the VTA, Ken Neufeld, decided it made sense to have a person with culinary experience oversee the food and beverage team. Consequently, VTA created the Vice President of Ticketing and Hospitality position, and asked Lisa to fill it. There is no equivalent position across the country, because in other preforming arts centers “the food and beverage team is not an internal team”.

Lisa and VTA leadership believed the food and beverage operation was a brand connection, making quality control imperative. Regardless of whether catering is provided internally or by outsiders, if it is botched up, “people see it as a reflection of your venue”.

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Schuster Performing Arts Center

Periodically, Lisa asked her boss, Ken Neufeld, President and CEO, for additional challenges. As a result, he eventually added the audience services experience team to her portfolio. Managing that team fit into her hospitality focus, since the team manages the lobbies during a show, supervises the volunteer ushers, and solves any customer problems which arise before a show begins. Lisa led the team to give “the very best experience to the patron from the moment they walked in the door. And that was fun”.

How did Lisa grow into her career?

Lisa met with Ken Neufeld on a regular basis for wide-ranging conversations. “I was allowed to ask anything about the organization, the Board, anything”. Additionally, Ken encouraged her to consider further education. First, Lisa enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania – Executive Program for Arts and Culture Strategy, which featured virtual programs on strategic leadership, finance, fundraising, governance, and marketing.

In 2015, Lisa participated in the National Arts Strategies Senior Management Institute.  One of the Institute sessions was a thought-provoking career visioning process, which explored, “This is what I do now. Is this what I’m passionate about? What would I want to do?”

Lisa realized that “being connected to impact was really important to me”, but that much of what she was currently doing was more operational and “one off from the impact”.

Why did Lisa leave the Victoria Theatre Association for the Levitt Pavilion Dayton?

Lisa loved working with the VTA, but when she attended a community meeting about the Levitt Pavilion project, it intrigued her. “It ignited something inside of me”.

Members of the Dayton community organized the Friends of the Levitt Pavilion to develop neglected green space in downtown Dayton into a community-gathering place with access to the performing arts for all. In 2017 the Friends of the Levitt Pavilion was awarded a grant from the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation to develop the Levitt Pavilion Dayton.

Lisa recognized that she had influenced VTA, but the concepts of impact and legacy sparked her. “I felt like this was a really great opportunity to be on the ground floor of this amazing community asset”.

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Artist rendering of the Levitt Pavilion Dayton

Consequently, she applied to be the new organization’s first Executive Director. “I was terrified of leaving a well-oiled machine, a $16 million organization to a start-up, but there was something really exciting about being part of the Levitt legacy”.

The Friends of the Levitt Pavilion, now serving as the Board of the new nonprofit organization, Levitt Pavilion Dayton, selected Lisa to become the first Executive Director.

The Levitt Pavilions’ premise is that free, high quality outdoor concerts will increase participation with the arts. “I know for a fact there are people that think they can’t afford an arts experience. If we give you a free concert, we’ve taken away that obstacle”. Beginning in the summer of 2018, Levitt Pavilion Dayton will present free concerts on the Pavilion’s lawn featuring high caliber and diverse local, national and international musicians.

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Artist rendering of the Levitt Pavilion Dayton stage

By increasing participation with the arts, the Levitt Pavilion Dayton will provide a place for residents “to come and connect. Not only connect to music, which I feel is one of the most beautiful universal languages in the world, but then also” to each other as they listen on the lawn. Lisa envisions “diverse socioeconomic generational people all sitting on the same lawn, experiencing a common experience” and sharing conversation. “’Hey, I forgot my mustard, would you pass me the mustard?’ All of a sudden I don’t care where you live, I don’t care what you do, you’re my neighbor now”.

How has Lisa’s work changed now that she’s leading the Levitt Pavilion Dayton?

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Levitt Pavilion Dayton job site; photo by Andy Snow

As the Executive Director, “I’m coming into a universe where now I have to be challenged in areas that I may not be as familiar with, such as a construction project or other nuances of a start up.

In order to open the Levitt Pavilion Dayton in time for the 2018 summer season, Lisa is working with the Board to build the new organization. Together they are engaging in big picture activities like strategic planning, mapping the organizational structure, hiring new staff members, programming and defining the customer experience, to ensure that everyone is invited, everyone feels welcomed and when the lawn is activated that audience members feel connected.

Lisa’s observations:

  • Be true to what feeds you
  • Be open to new experiences
  • Be open to new skill sets. “Don’t fear what you don’t know. Embrace it”
  • Recognize that “you’re not the smartest person in the room, that everyone around you offers you something that can either be put in your tool box for later or that can help develop you”
  • Network, network, network. “Make meaningful relationships, be honest, be humble, be authentic, be accountable”
  • Ask a lot of questions or for help. It’s better to admit you don’t know and do some research

Lisa believes her journey has prepared her for this new phase of her life. “Now I have the skill sets and I have the fundamental pieces of where I can do something, but it was the impact and the legacy piece and the passion of wanting to be part of a different conversation – it just felt like the timing was kind of all falling into place”.

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Levitt Pavilion Dayton, August 17, 2018 Band: Kyle Dillingham & Horseshoe Road

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