Published June 21, 2021 at 11:38am.
Interview by Mary Martin. Photos by Josie Gammett.
Alex Hargis, who joined the new Coppell Arts Center as Managing Director in January 2019, was gearing up for a grand opening in May 2020. But as COVID-19 shifted plans for performing arts around the world, the Coppell Arts Center team got creative, connecting neighbors through outdoor cultural events. Now the state-of-the-art facility is ready to bring its A-game with nationally recognized music, dance, theater, and visual arts to North Texas. Summer shows are in full swing, and the official opening weekend celebration, September 9-12, is called Takeoff: Arts and Music Festival, and includes Tony Award-winner Kristin Chenoweth as the headliner. Read our interview with Alex to go behind the scenes on the past year.
The grand opening of the Coppell Arts Center was scheduled for May 14, 2020 but then disrupted by the emergence of COVID-19 and the closure of all gathering spaces. Tell us about the moment you had to tell your team that the opening plans were cancelled.
I got the final call from leadership that all non-essential departments would be ordered to quarantine from home starting March 20, 2020 until further notice. I called a special meeting with the team, walked into our war room, and told them the grand opening was cancelled. We all sat there for a couple minutes with not a lot to say. We looked around the office seeing the remnants of our controlled chaos in preparation for a grand opening that was six weeks away. A box of “All Access” credentials there. A tear out of the Dallas Morning News’ full page coverage of our opening taped to a dry erase board. A charging bank full of radios with everyone’s name taped on them. Rolls of blueprints laid out across the worktable. It was surreal to suddenly stop a merry-go-round that was rotating at supersonic speed. After that quiet moment, we moved on to the next step. We set up studio lights, a camera, and recorded our cancellation message that would go out on social media. Then, the last thing we did was sit around the idea board and begin spit-balling ways that we could be useful to our community in the next three months. If the pandemic kept going after that, what could we do over the next six months? If the pandemic went six months or longer (but that was never going to happen, we told ourselves), what would we do then? We took a photo of the idea board and then left after turning out the lights.
Drive-in movies and outdoor performances at the Coppell Arts Center kept the community connected last summer. What was the best unexpected gift of those re-imagined events?
The best event concepts from our idea board went straight into production. The best gift from those events was the community connection. We saw families able to sit in their hatchbacks at the drive-in movies with their masks off, smiling, and enjoying the company of neighbors they hadn’t seen in months. And our team got to connect. Most of our team started on the project in January of 2020. One of them even moved from Florida to work here. We got to gel for two months before we were all sent to work from home. Those earlier events were tough because we were new to working together and we were working in very unsteady conditions. Drive-in movies? Who does that regularly? And wear masks outside during the Texas summer while you’re at it. And do all of it with a building still under construction where you don’t know what breaks kills what. It was certainly a time we’ll never forget.
In conversations with your local performing arts partners, what are you hearing about the impact of this past year? What are local performers hopeful about for the 2021-2022 season?
COVID has had numerous operational and emotional impacts on this industry. For some, it defeated them. Huge talent-booking agencies that were stalwarts closed up shop for good. Entertainment professionals hung it up so they could go into sales. Organizations began to question their solvency and ask themselves how to operate leaner or develop stronger cash reserves. Some venues who are funded largely out of hotel tax feel like they have to completely reboot their business and start back at square one. But what COVID also did was force us to band together stronger, get wise real quick, and develop hard walls of resolve. Those experiences have also led us to double down on hope and that is 100% the anthem for the 2021-2022 season. It’s the season of hope that the best of humanity will return.
Coppell Arts Center just announced its fall line-up and it is stacked with country singers, broadway performances, and even a cirque-style holiday show. How is your team preparing for a full audience and guests from across North Texas?
Our hearts are already there. We’re ready for full houses and roaring applauses. Operationally, we still have a couple of things left like launching our concession program and working out the last few A/V gremlins.
Creative problem solving has become the hallmark of the past 15 months. How do you think the delay and staggered opening of the Arts Center made the Coppell community as a whole more creative?
I think the pandemic allowed us the opportunity to share our creative talents with the community in unprecedented ways. We never, ever would have done a drive-in movie…ever. We got to lend our event management talents to help organize our venue as a polling location for the historic 2020 election. The local art groups that make up our resident companies went fully digital and live streamed their performances throughout the year. At one point, we even offered outdoor yoga to Beatles songs. But that creative adaptability isn’t a stranger to the arts, is it? It’s in our DNA. COVID just channeled it in a way we never thought possible.
What show are you most excited about in the next few months? Will you be watching from the audience or backstage?
I have different shows for different moments. I can’t wait for Theatre Coppell to do their first show ever in this space, which will be Cinderella in late July. Kristin Chenoweth will rip the paint off the walls with her voice in our 442-seat house. You will never experience her legendary talent in such an intimate setting again.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story will be our first Broadway show ever. Whoever thought Broadway would come to Coppell of all places? Our Front & Center speaker series that will cover soul-searching topics like racial inequity and social injustice with Lisa Ling, American chef and TV personality Carla Hall, and Coppell-native NFL player Solomon Thomas on the potential to change someone’s life for the better. And if that wasn’t enough, a puppet show parody of The Golden Girls will leave you in stitches. I’ll be watching each of those shows from my little corner in the audience. There’s a wall cut-in on house right where I lean in and watch. That’s where you’ll find me.