Piper Pipes Up
This year after an extensive national search for a new Executive Director, On Site Opera was fortunate to find Piper Gunnarson. She is a seasoned nonprofit arts administrator with a background in theater administration for organizations spanning all genres of the art form including classical plays, new works, musicals and children’s theater. We loved the opportunity to learn about Piper’s journey to On Site Opera and her vision for our future.
(Piper relates to the Triceratops. Read more about it below!)
OSO: Have you performed before moving into administration? What were some of your favorite memories from acting in theater, and how do you apply that artistry to your current role of leadership?
PG: Oh no! You uncovered my secret past! Yes, I was an actor for awhile. I went to college at UCSD for theater and pursued it for a few years after that. One of my favorite roles was playing Carol in Oleanna. It’s such a delicate yet ferocious role with challenging dialogue, which is often the case with Mamet. My favorite part of theater (or any art form) has always been the surrounding conversation; I love table work and read-throughs and rehearsals even more than performances. Oleanna taps into some tricky themes and my favorite part of doing that play was running into audience members afterwards and falling into hour-long conversations about it. I think that love of the dramaturgical part of theater has translated really well into the administrative career path. Acting teaches you so much about human nature and communication, and it demands that you analyze situations from multiple perspectives. And, of course, the production process is full of logistical and artistic challenges that need to be solved quickly, efficiently, and with a good amount of creative thinking. All of that is necessary in arts administration.
OSO: What prompted you to make the transition from performer to administrator? Was that a difficult process for you?
PG: Shortly after college, I had a summer job working in the admin office for a classical theater company near Los Angeles. I was really struck by how much happens in the back offices and how much theater organizations really struggle to stay afloat and operate with efficiency. This particular company didn’t have any dedicated development staff at that time, so I offered (with no prior experience!) to take a stab at writing an NEA grant proposal – and we got it! it was the biggest grant the company had ever received, partly because I insisted that we ask for much more than they were used to requesting from funders. I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask! It was such a great feeling to know that I had made such a huge impact on this organization, so I started seeking out jobs in theater admin. I also didn’t limit myself to a specific department – I wanted to learn how it all worked: marketing, fundraising, board governance, artistic development, database management, educational programs, front-of-house operations — all of it. I have a tendency to look at things holistically, so I really wanted to understand how each of these functions of a company intersected. Eventually, I went back to grad school to strengthen my knowledge of arts administration. And, true to my nature, I suppose, I decided not to go to a traditional arts admin program; instead I went to NYU’s Gallatin School so that I could have the freedom to curate my own master’s program by studying performing arts administration along with visual arts administration and film producing and business management. I think it’s very important to seek guidance and inspiration from outside your own industry, and I wanted to my graduate studies to embody that concept.
OSO: On Site Opera was lucky to find you after an extensive national search for the position. But what made you choose us?
PG: The first thing that drew me in was the mission; I mean “site-specific opera” sounds so cool! I was really excited to learn that this mode of producing exists in the opera world. From there, it was a bit like a formal, old-fashioned courtship to determine if we were a good match. There are so many arts organizations with compelling missions, and I wanted to learn more about the culture and structure of On Site to determine if I could see myself here for the long-haul. I met with Eric and we had a fabulous conversation about the company’s history and goals and structure, and we shared general thoughts about what it means to be a nonprofit performing arts organization in the 21st century; before I knew it, two-and-a-half hours had flown by having the kinds of discussions that really energize me about arts admin. Then I met with the entire Board of Directors and I was truly impressed by the knowledge and commitment of the board members; that was probably the next detail that made me want to be part of this company. The Board is such a crucial part of an organization’s DNA and we have a great group of people who are enthusiastic champions for On Site’s unique approach to opera, artistically and also operationally. Before I accepted the position, Eric and Geoff invited me to see a workshop of an opera that was in development (Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt), so I had a chance to see the company’s work in action. Between the mission, the ensemble of dedicated, intelligent people, and the energy of the work, I knew I wanted to be part of On Site for a long time.
OSO: Your previous experience dealt with theater companies. How is an opera company like ours different from other jobs where you worked?
PG: This has come up a lot! I attended the Opera America Conference in May and several people asked me about this. Opera and theater are really two sides of the same coin, so a lot of it feels very similar. There are little differences that pop up here and there; contracts and union policies are a little different; the sitzprobe was a new process for me, particularly since I have mostly worked for theater companies that do plays rather than musicals. There are also little differences in lingo. In theater, we refer to “curtain” as the start time of a performance. As in “five minutes till curtain”. In opera, I’ve been hearing people use the term “downbeat” for that same purpose. There are a lot of tiny differences like that I find charming to learn. There are so many great things happening in opera right now, like the emphasis on developing new work, a bunch of small indie opera companies popping up, and important conversations about equity and diversity. All of these topics have been at the forefront of the theater industry for many years and I have gotten the impression that people in the opera world are eager to embrace those challenges with a renewed intention. Theater might be a few years ahead of opera in that regard, but that means we have some great models to lead the way. Again, it’s important to look for guidance and inspiration outside your own industry.
OSO: What do you think are some of OSO’s biggest strengths? How do you hope to see this burgeoning company strengthen and grow in the next several years?
PG: Strong leadership is probably the most essential element of a successful organization, and OSO’s got it in spades. Like I said, the Board is excellent; it’s full of people who have been on other nonprofit boards, so they understand what it takes to run an organization like ours, and they represent such a variety of professional perspectives, which is a great resource for a small organization like OSO. They are all united in their passion for opera, so there is no shortage of enthusiasm either. And Eric himself has such a driving commitment to creating an exceptional and rewarding experience for everyone involved, whether it’s the artists in rehearsal, the audience at a performance, or the staff and board in our offices. I think that this ethos trickles through the company so that everyone has a high standard for their work, and they also genuinely enjoy being here. So many singers and musicians have told me that they absolutely love working with On Site, which is such a point of pride for us. Our next step is to harness that momentum to produce and develop more operas, co-produce with more of our peer opera companies, and tour our shows beyond NYC. I’m also really excited for OSO to participate in opera industry conversations on the national level; several of our friends at larger opera houses around the country have been curious about how we do what we do, and how it can change the opera field, so I would like to find more opportunities to engage with and learn from each other.
OSO: We’re excited about our fantastic new opera Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, which features dinosaur fossils. If you could be any dinosaur, which one would it be?
PG: Triceratops. I’m short and, compared to some of the taller dinosaurs like the Apatasaurus or the T-rex, the Triceratops is on the shorter side. It’s a fairly gentle and laid-back dinosaur, which I am (I hope!), but it can also be pretty strong and determined when it needs to be. Also, the big “frill” on the back of the skull resembles my hair in the summer months.