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First woman picked to lead Goodspeed Musicals; new managing director named

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East Haddam — Goodspeed Musicals has named Goodspeed veteran Donna Lynn Hilton as its new artistic director, and David B. Byrd as its managing director.

Hilton becomes the first woman to lead the theater. She started at Goodspeed in 1988 and had worked her way up from assistant stage manager to producer.

Byrd comes to Goodspeed from his run as managing director of Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk, Va.

Hilton and Byrd replace Michael Gennaro, who announced in February that he was going to retire at the end of 2020 after six seasons as the theater’s executive director.

With Gennaro retiring, the members of the Goodspeed board of trustees decided to split the responsibilities of executive director into two jobs; that’s how most regional theaters organize their leadership. They conducted a national search to fill the positions.

Hilton will lead the creative aspects of the organization. Byrd will handle the administrative and financial management. They will share fundraising duties.

“I’ve spent almost my entire career at Goodspeed — it has been my creative home since 1988,” Hilton said. “To be entrusted with it, particularly at a time like this, is just an honor. ... I’m excited. I really do believe that once we get through this pandemic, the sky’s the limit.”

Byrd said he is excited about joining Goodspeed and has long known of the “impressive, important work” being done there. He mentioned, too, the place that Goodspeed holds not just in the greater Connecticut arts world but also nationally and internationally. He said he’s excited to work with Hilton, “who’s not only a champion of new work and all things Goodspeed but is just a great person.”

Hila Rosen, president of the Goodspeed board of trustees, said, “I am so happy and proud that we are taking a major step forward by appointing Donna Lynn as our first female executive, and I relish the significance of selecting David to bring a new perspective to our beloved institution. At a time when all theaters have been shocked to their core and are fighting to survive, they bring an exciting new vision for Goodspeed that will undoubtedly secure an even brighter future for our historic theater.”

From prop shop to producer

Before Hilton, a North Carolina native, was on staff at Goodspeed, she had a temporary job in the theater’s prop shop. Her first task, she recalled, was gluing pom-poms for the production of “Leave It to Jane.”

“To have come to this point and to really now have the keys to the car, it’s just really thrilling. It’s just a little bit of — can I get hokey and say we can still have the American dream, we can still go all the way within a company,” she said.

In the past 13 years when she has been a producer, she has guided productions and musical development at both of Goodspeed’s venues — the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam and The Terris Theatre in Chester. For instance, she produced the 2014 world premiere of “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn,” which was developed with Universal Theatrical Group and which, after its run at Goodspeed, was on Broadway. She steered the creation of Goodspeed’s “Show Boat” in 2012 and brought in such new musicals as “Because of Winn Dixie” and “Amazing Grace.”

Hilton also led the expansion of Goodspeed’s Festival of New Musicals and the establishment of the John Mercer Foundation Writers Grove, where musical theater creators develop new work.

She said that she thinks Goodspeed’s biggest assets are its staff and its audience members and donors.

“We really do have a great group of people inside Goodspeed and attending our shows who care really deeply about what we do ... and our place in the community,” she said.

Hilton, 59, and her husband, Goodspeed sound designer Jay Hilton, live in Hadlyme.

Yale Drama School alum

Over the past two decades, Byrd has worked at various regional theaters. Before joining Virginia Stage Company in 2017, he was managing director of the Clarence Brown Theatre at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He also served as adjunct professor in the UT-Knoxville Department of Theatre and on the Chancellor’s Commission for LGBT People.

In his work at Virginia Stage Company, he shepherded fundraising, marketing and operations functions, and he guided the use and care of the venue itself.

Byrd, now 41, has worked in Connecticut before, including as associate managing director at Yale Repertory Theatre and director of marketing at the Westport Country Playhouse. He earned his Master of Fine Art degree in theater management from Yale School of Drama.

Byrd is married to Jeff Stanley, an interior designer.

Goodspeed during the pandemic

Because of the pandemic, Goodspeed has had to postpone or cancel all of its indoor productions since March 2020. The organization has lost at least $5 million in ticket revenue. Usually, the theater would have 104 full-time staff members, whether year-round or seasonal positions; right now, it has 20, and none of them is working full time.

Goodspeed recently got a $532,100 grant through the state’s COVID Relief Fund for the Arts. And Hilton noted that the federal Save Our Stages Act should provide some financial help. But the situation remains challenging at best.

“The recovery from the pandemic is going to be really complicated, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Hilton said. “We have a lot of work to do, but I really do think that, with David Byrd as the managing director — I like him a lot— and I think with my knowledge of our challenges and my knowledge of our audience, we can together really guide Goodspeed through what remains of this pandemic and be really well-situated to soar when we get to the other side of this.”

Goodspeed currently has two shows scheduled for this year, both at the Opera House: “South Pacific,” June 11-Aug. 22, and “Anne of Green Gables,” Sept. 10-Nov. 14. Whether those can happen, of course, depends on how the pandemic progresses and what changes there are in government restrictions.

Last summer and fall, Goodspeed came up with an alternative and held outdoor concerts on the lawn next to its Opera House, where audience members were socially distanced.

“I know we will be doing something (this year), whether it’s in the Opera House or whether it’s on the lawn, whether it’s a show or a concert or a development of something new. I think everything’s possible right now,” Hilton said. “We’re just going to have to keep a lot of ideas on the table and do as much as the pandemic will allow us to do.”

Prioritizing diversity

Rosen said that Hilton, Byrd and the board of trustees are dedicated to “prioritizing equity, diversity, inclusion and racial justice for Goodspeed’s staff, creative teams and on our stages.”

A committee that included Goodspeed trustees, with help from Thomas Hal of Albert Hall & Associates, conducted the search for the new directors.

k.dorsey@theday.com 

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