After an exhaustive search, the Smyrna Opera House hired a new executive director this month. Bernadette Sohm only just started her new position here but her career and interest in the arts began years ago.
The first day of a new job is always busy. There's so much to do, from setting up email preferences and recording your new voicemail greeting to reviewing files, sitting in on meetings and learning the layout of the office.
Where's the bathroom, again?
As the Smyrna Opera House's new executive director, Bernadette Sahm welcomes the chaos. She said she was so anxious to start that she dropped by a week early just to get her feet wet. By her first day (last Monday), she had even finished up a grant for new programming possibilities.
It wasn't even noon yet.
She said that she has a lot she needs and wants to learn before SOH formally introduces her to the public but she also understands the community's need for knowledge as well. Here's what she shared:
On what attracted her to the position When I first saw this position, I thought it was an opportunity for creativity. But, what attracted me to it the most was the arts. I was really thrilled with the diversity of the programs and just knew I would love it. Then, when you see it, you see the potential. I feel like there's so much that can be done here and I love venue. I mean, it a small town, what a beautiful venue. What a gem.
On her background I started non-profit work 15 years ago in a special needs school. After that, I went and worked for the Archdiocese of Baltimore where I started as a development director and ended up as a chief operating officer. I've done a lot of heavy causes—religion, abused children, special needs children and the thought of raising up the arts—all of the arts—is just thrilling to me.
On her non-profit philosophy I'm a really good fundraiser but I'm also a business person. So, no matter how good your mission is, I see everything through my philosophy, which is "if you're out of money, you're out of business." So, I do look at everything through the prism of 'how can we afford to stay in business or be operational.'
On her Delaware roots We lived in Baltimore, where my husband just recently retired after 35 years with the City of Baltimore. But, we've always had a second residence in Sussex County that we would go to. Finally, in June, we moved there full-time. We're both only 54 years old, though, so his retirement only lasted about two months before he started itching to get back to work. Then, we both started looking. I love the work I do and I'm looking forward to this time in my life.
On the interview process What really impressed me, no kidding, is that when I had my first interview, which was on Skype, even in that kind-of linear context, the five board members came across as so enthusiastic. I thought, "these people could be my friends." They were just so excited about the mission here and what they did. I was thrilled when I was called in for an interview and they had me do a mock press release, which is standard, everyone wants that but they also wanted a 30, 60 and 90-day action plan. I was thrilled! I couldn't stop. I just got on my computer and I was like I would do this and I would do this and this and this and this. And, I literally started researching grants and had to stop myself.
On the grant she already wrote It's called "Staging for Success." One of the board members, Shari Hudson, is going to chair that with me. It's going to be using the basic theater skills to take women who are maybe at-home moms trying to get back into the workplace and bring them in and have them do a little bit of public speaking, what it takes to write a resume and even dressing them. We could even do before and after shots. But, using all the basic principles of theater and stage: look the part, dress the part, act the part, get the part. It went to the Fund for Women and we'll find out in April how well we do with that.
On what she'd like to bring to SOH For one thing, I want to bring a Christmas bazaar here and open it up to the public where you would have some of the area colleges come in and would also be caroling through the building. Different vendors would come in to sell. We could have a tree person in the parking lot selling trees. I also intend to bring more literary arts here, more writing programs. I can see us doing more stage writing, more poetry slams, bringing more young people in. I'd love to see more interns coming in from the area colleges. And, I think more concerts series for younger people. I'd like to find out what they're listening to. I just want to get some excitement in here. I think when people hear 'opera house,' they think it excludes them. Even my friends, when I told them about my job here, they said, 'I didn't know you were into opera.' People need to know that it's more than that.