February 2012 cover SCAN ;St. Catherine University St. Catherine University
February 2012
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O’Shaughnessy Shepherd

With artistic and academic experience in spades, Kathleen Spehar brings new energy to the O’Shaughnessy at St. Kate’s.

by Cathy Madison

When she heard that the O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University was looking for a director, Kathleen Spehar reviewed her credentials: programming, check; operations, check; academic experience, check. And one more: She’d played piccolo in the pit.

Petite, upbeat and exuding energy, Spehar — named as director of the venerable O’Shaughnessy in August — stands center stage, taking in her job’s enormity with a sweeping gesture. She sees seats to fill — 1,815 of them on the best nights. She sees eclectic audiences to attract to a standard season’s 130 to 150 events. She sees the challenges inherent in a spacious hall that’s both wonderfully flexible — thrust or proscenium stage, balcony or not — and a bit dated, at more than 40 years old.

HISTORIC ACTS The Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra were early tenants when The O’Shaughnessy opened in 1970. Other famous names that have graced the stage: Madeleine Albright, Joan Baez, Brandi Carlile, Elvis Costello, Joel Gray, Emmylou Harris, Jay Leno, Steve Martin, Natalie Merchant, Toni Morrison, Lily Tomlin and Ben Vereen.

But mostly she sees pieces of a puzzle falling into place, for herself and for The O’Shaughnessy, which artfully blends nationally acclaimed and local artists. “This hall is a real jewel, an amazing asset with a rich history,” Spehar says. “Artists and academics can come together on this stage, which opens up many possibilities for programming.”

Spehar holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Western Michigan University and a Master of Liberal Studies from the University of Minnesota. She has taught high school arts classes and was an assistant professor at the College of Visual Arts, Dance and Theatre at Florida State University and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Theatre Arts and Dance. Most recently she managed the History Theatre in St. Paul, and she serves on the board of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. In December she was accepted into the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute, a program for mid-career professionals administered by the Wilder Foundation.

Spehar aims to increase the engagement between the programming onstage and the curriculum in the classroom. “I want to help convene that conversation,” she says. “The O’Shaughnessy is a great public face of the University, a driving force that brings together audiences and brings individuals and families to campus in a richer way. I want to dive into what that means to the student body.”

She hopes to add master classes and discussions that allow students a peek at the person behind the performance. “I’d like to reach deeper into how those artists interact with the academic community,” Spehar explains.

She is working with the St. Kate’s Activities Team (SKAT) on programming and wants to involve students in focus groups, marketing initiatives and social media.

“St. Kate’s has a strong commitment to social justice issues, which may mean that some performers fit better here than elsewhere,” Spehar says. Her dream program: “I’d love to bring the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman] to this stage.”

Spehar acknowledges the challenge of running a theater during recessionary times. Lighting and other enhancements to the building might need to wait, and programming will require careful consideration. “Brilliant work doesn’t necessarily make money,” she says. “We still have to stay true to the bottom line.”

Although she pursues outside interests — running, gardening, photography, playing flute in the Mississippi Valley Orchestra — nothing makes her happier than working in the theater.

“I am passionate about the arts, and I have an academic sensibility,” Spehar says. “This is a great job. I’m very blessed.”

Cathy Madison is a Twin Cities-based writer.

She, woodcut, 23"x31"

Kathleen Spehar, new director of The O'Shaughnessy