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Space Is the Place

Modlin Center Director Deborah Sommers has a quest for the perfect local theater spaces.

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Beneath the surface of a smoothly running university arts program lies a tangle of complexities. There are budgets and business systems, staffing and schedules, the need to support the school's varied educational missions while attracting paying patrons.

Sure, money is essential for Deborah Sommers, who became director of the Modlin Center at the University of Richmond in recession-shadowed 2010. But in the performing arts the ultimate currency is physical space. And fer first goal is looking to uncover new, perhaps unconventional spaces for extended artistic residencies, for playwrights and choreographers to hone new performances, to open new creative vistas.

"I love spaces," Sommers says. "I am constantly on the lookout for space, all over the city... whether it is CenterStage or the Firehouse or a warehouse. Anywhere that people can do interesting work."

The Modlin Center, at 165,000 square feet, is located toward the southern end of the UR campus. It encompasses classrooms, a practice area and four performing areas. The main building, a jewel box of mahogany neo-gothic arches and columns, is host to an art gallery and a variety of performance spaces. The Parkinson Recital Hall (150 seats) and Cousins Studio Theater — a flexible, unadorned black-box performing space that seats as many as 120 patrons — are used for smaller-scale productions.

But the Alice Jepson Theater, with 570 seats, and Camp Concert Hall, at 585 seats — located at the adjacent Booker Hall of Music — are the prime venues for the 70 performances of the 2013-'14 season. This year's eclectic lineup includes new-grass mandolinist Sam Bush and dobro master Jerry Douglas, bluesman Taj Mahal and a classical piano performance from Peter Serkin.

"The program has been a good balance, Sommers says. "I can use [the 1,800-seat Carpenter Theatre in] CenterStage for bigger things — if I can get in. It is used by a lot of organizations." This year the transplanted events are the Delta-meets-South-Africa-meets-New-Zealand Taj Mahal blues mash-up, and the Contra-Tiempo Latin dance troupe.

The high-profile visiting artists are only part of the picture. There are also the practical and teaching needs of the university — performing arts students use those spaces as well, and various departments have ideas for course-related programming. It's a multidisciplinary jigsaw challenge, fitting so many different interests, schedules and logistical requirements into such a lovely but constrained space.

Sommers' unusual background seems purpose-built for the challenge. She holds graduate busines and law degrees and is a member of the bar in New York and Connecticut. She also studied music and dance for a time. She had a decade of experience running her own retail stores and wholesale corporations when she decided to combine her business acumen with her love of the arts. She spent four years learning the ropes at the State University of New York at Purchase, then became the director of programming for the newly established Quick Center for the Performing Arts at Fairfield University in Connecticut. After 19 quick years, she started looking for a new challenge. Meanwhile, the longtime Modlin director, Kathy Panoff, left to take over Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

"I heard about this job here," Sommers says. "I came down and had this magical feeling. It wasn't the only place I looked at but it was the right place. I loved the facility. But most of all I started to go around the city and I was surprised. As a small city, a changing city, I could see where if certain infrastructures were put into place where it could go. It was an opportunity for younger people and professionals to stay here because the cost of living made so much sense."

While spending most of the school year here, she still lives in New York. Her husband, one of the top piano technicians in the country, needs to stay within commuting distance of New York. His work poetically parallels hers.

"A piano has over 12,000 parts," Sommers says. "If someone does something wrong it can hurt your hands. It's magical when someone knows how to get out beautiful colors with just the right touch. The right piano just fills your soul."

The Modlin Center, and the city at large, have a lot of moving parts. With just the right touch, Sommers hopes, it all can be brought wonderfully in tune.

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