As part of his first official visit to the Hennepin Theatre District as incoming president and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, we had the chance to sit down with Todd Duesing and get to know him a little bit as he takes the reins at the Trust.
Todd, as upcoming President and CEO of the Trust, can you give me a bit of background on yourself? What is your artistic origin story?
When I was a kid, growing up in Northern Kentucky, I lived in a typical middle-class neighborhood and I had a great group of friends that used to throw carnivals in my backyard. We would set up carnival booths and invite all the kids from the surrounding neighborhoods to play games we made so we could raise money to throw ourselves a little pizza party. These games transformed our backyard into this festival of fun that brought kids together, and we would make enough to enjoy some Little Caesar’s and plan the next carnival from there. My mom was first to notice and encourage not only my entrepreneurial spirit, but also my love for bringing people together for shared experiences. I think that’s what started it all.
You’re coming to the Trust from the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts in Cincinnati, how did you go from backyard carnivals to Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Aronoff?
My passion for bringing people together followed me to my college career. Originally, I intended to be a political communications operative and involved with politics, but an opportunity arose summer before my senior year where I did an internship at Riverbend Music Center, an outdoor amphitheater in Cincinnati. I spent the summer working in marketing and public relations and I fell in love with the performing arts. I got to walk the press up for big shows at the amphitheater, like N’SYNC and some of the biggest bands of that era. The general manager noticed how well I was working with the crew, and at the time they were looking to move my predecessor to a new role as production manager. When they did, they offered me her old position. I took it and stepped in as the new operations manager. I continued to work through the summer months at the amphitheater and in the winter months, we would move to the Taft Theatre. We would do rock and pop shows there, some plays, nothing Broadway, and then move back to the amphitheater in the summer.
Eventually, as you work those many long hours for rock ‘n’ roll shows where you’re loading in early in the morning and going home the next day, it starts to become routine. It’s a wonderful career, but when an opportunity to make a greater impact at a larger performing arts organization comes up, you revisit that routine and wonder what a different kind of work-life balance is like. When that opportunity arose for me, I took it and moved to the General Manager position at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in downtown Cincinnati, and I loved it there.
What was your greatest achievement at the Aronoff Center?
Oh, that’s a hard question. After a couple years of growth at the Center, we were poised for incredible success; we did some great things together. One of those in particular was the World Choir Games. Our performing arts center often didn’t have a lot of activity during the summertime. Looking for a way to fill this space, I found this opportunity to hold choir competitions, which sounded great because you could bring all these groups of choirs in and with that come friends, families and supporters. I stumbled upon a request for proposal to host the World Choir Games, so I put a bid packet together, did the initial round of interviews and showed our interest. They decided that they wanted us to come in full bid and later present our bid at the congress of choirs, where they decide where the Games would go next. I partnered with a colleague at the convention and visitor bureau, put together a full bid packet and delivered it, typical to any Olympic bid program, in Gratz, Austria. We were successfully chosen, beating out some major cities like LA, Reno and European major cities as well. It was the first and only time the Games were held in the western hemisphere, and it brought in over 250,000 international visitors across 14 days in July of 2012. It had a $72.5 million economic impact on the region. It was certainly a career highlight moment. It backs up the talk when you’ve got data like that.
It was amazing for the city; it created a rebirth for downtown. Everyone was so excited and pitching in across the metro to make storefronts look great. Lampposts got painted, sidewalks were cleaned up. We were going to be on the international stage and the sense of community pride just burst. Everyone was working for a month working around the clock to make the city look great before we welcomed visitors to our home. That is the part that was probably the most rewarding of all this, to see the city get behind it. Everywhere was filled by this high-level choral competition; every church and theater were used; we were even doing free concerts in parks. Anywhere we could put competition, we did, and it was invigorating for the entire city.
How did you decide it was time for change and that Minneapolis was the right place for it?
There comes a time when you examine your story and find it’s time for the next chapter. When I saw that this the opportunity for this position and spoke to the search consultant, everything felt like it was falling into place. The things that the committee was looking for in the next leader were all things that I was most interested in pursuing in my career. I wanted to take on the challenge of bringing people downtown, further establishing the Theatre District and expanding the awareness of our Broadway series.
Candidly, I could have just stayed in Cincinnati and waited until the time was right to potentially step into the CEO role. I was a clear candidate, and my boss has his retirement intentions out there. But there was a point in Cincinnati where I was sitting across the street in a restaurant after a show, and I was looking over at the performing arts center and I had this wave come over me. I had the strong sense that it’s time for a new chapter. The general managers who are behind me need to run, and they couldn’t do that from behind me. I wanted to make room for new leadership because they needed their turn to shine. Then, as I was sitting in the restaurant looking at the performing arts center, Prince came on. That was all the sign I needed. Now I look forward to writing my next chapter and the next chapter for the Trust.
What are you most excited about as you join us in Minneapolis? Not just in your new role, but in coming to Minnesota from Ohio.
I’ll tell you, work wise, something I’m excited about is that when it snows the show will go on. In Ohio, we get a dusting of snow, and everyone is running for bread and milk, getting ready to hunker down and everything is cancelled. Here, you have the infrastructure to handle it, it takes upwards of ten inches to get you to worry. I look forward to operating consistently smooth business, snow or shine. My husband is excited about the snow. He loves the seasons with snow, and what I gather from folks in Minneapolis, it is a guaranteed thing.
From what I’ve seen so far, I’m loving summer, too. I’m interested in exploring the lakes, everything has a really lush, beautiful green feel to it. The things I like to do are the things we work on, too: I love to see festivals downtown that bring people to the streets and have a good time together. I’ve been to a Twins game, that has been a highlight of my visits here. We didn’t have NBA in Cincinnati, so I’m looking forward to catching some Timberwolves games. I’m a huge Major League Soccer fan, so it’ll be a big deal for me to regularly go to MLS games.
I definitely want to explore the entire art scene, I’m interested in seeing what our friends at the Guthrie and Ordway do, and also really getting into the music scene. I’ve always been involved in the music scene, but it’s way stronger here in Minneapolis than in Cincinnati, so I’m looking forward to hitting First Avenue and checking out a few bands. That’s the sort of thing I would love to do on a regular basis.
What is your vision for the Trust? Looking into your crystal ball, what does the future Hennepin Theatre District look like?
It’s a Hennepin Avenue and Theatre District that has been transformed into more of a boulevard, with not as much traffic by car, but more of a pedestrian presence. It’s bright, it’s got lights (but not a tacky amount), with an electrifying ability to bring people together. There are people coming in and out of restaurants, piano bars and galleries on their way to the theatre. It’s where the top chefs in Minneapolis have a landmark restaurant because they know they have theatre attendees coming their way, but it’s also a place where people just go to have dinner and see a gallery or grab a cocktail and enjoy a jazz show. It’s also a place you drive by and see there’s a lounge with drag performers doing a show. All of those elements are part of the fabric that make up the tapestry that is Hennepin Avenue.
I think our gallery is a way to raise Black voices and artists up. We can make it a space where we take the images of their experience and give it a place where people can walk in and learn and observe and understand different viewpoints from what they normally see. Maybe question themselves or be challenged, maybe walk away experiencing new emotions or different ideas. I see it being a place where the arts we have are thriving even more than they already are in a way that attracts regional attention and encourages artists to be more experimental and try things, and we will be able to provide those spaces for them.
I also see it as a place where those restaurants and bars are the same ones that people stop at before a Twins game. They visit a new, unique fusion taco restaurant on the avenue before seeing a show over on First Avenue. It’s a central hub of activity.
And I’m confident that we can do it. There’s a hunger for it, I can sense it every time I visit, there is a hunger for a centralized core district, and I think that is what the Hennepin Theatre District can be.
Now, to end on a lighter note, what’s your favorite Broadway show?
So, I can’t name just one, but I can name my least favorite quickly and easily, I’m not a fan of Cats, it doesn’t make sense to me. In terms of the shows where I had the most feelings, I remember when I saw Hamilton for the first time. At intermission, I could recognize that it was something kind of special, but by the end of the show, I was stunned in my seat by this brilliant piece of art. It does so many things so well. I know there is a lot of hype around Hamilton, but it deserves the hype, and it is one of my top shows for sure. Rapid fire, I loved Spring Awakening for the groundbreaking and difficult conversations it opened up. Moulin Rouge is one of my favorites. To Kill a Mockingbird, while I’m not much of a play person, moved me and reenergized me to self-evaluate and reconsider the world around me and the rights and wrongs of that world. I couldn’t name just one, so those are my favorite Broadway shows.
Todd Duesing will be taking over for Mark Nerenhausen as President and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust in July of 2023.