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Barbara Wells: The Transformative Power of Theater

Women in the Arts


Next to her parents and family, Barbara Wells, managing director of TheatreVirginia, credits Katherine Baugher, her Midlothian High School drama teacher, with having the greatest influence on her life.

"I had been a very shy child ... and working in the theater brought out a personality I didn't even know I had," Wells says. "It changed my life forever in so many positive ways."

One of those ways was giving Wells the confidence she needed to someday manage a professional theater company. When the opportunity came along for Wells to join TheatreVirginia as development director almost eight years ago, she felt her life had come full circle. "I saw it as an opportunity to do something really meaningful," she says.

While some people assume she works only part-time, during the theater's production season, Wells says this most assuredly is not true. She's busy 52 weeks a year and finds it difficult to escape work, even when on vacation. "I have a tendency toward workaholism," she admits. One thing that has helped her avoid work overload is her 4ΓΈ-year-old-son. "It's been a good thing for me," the 42-year-old mother says. "I probably needed it. I've really had to make a lot of adjustments."

Wells, who graduated from the University of Richmond with a sociology degree, has always worked in the nonprofit arena. She spent nearly 10 years at the Richmond chapter of the American Lung Association in various positions before joining the Richmond Ballet as development director. It was here that she really experienced the transformative power of the arts.

"At the ballet, I was ill-prepared for the power and the emotion of the art form," Wells says. "The first performance I went to ... I was just blown away."

It was also at the Richmond Ballet that Wells first encountered the gritty realities of working for a nonprofit arts organization. "Working in a national volunteer health agency was very different from working at a small arts organization," she says. "With the American Lung Association, I did a lot of traveling around the country and had access to a lot of people and resources, none of which were available at the ballet. At the ballet and TheatreVirginia and with all the arts, it's all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps every day, and getting the job done with a minimum of resources."

Although this is certainly a challenge, Wells says that the experience has made her much more creative. As has the experience of working with artists every day. "... Those of us who are not actually doing art find ways to rub up against art," she says. "I think a lot of us working in the arts are that way. We don't quite have the skills or the wherewithal to actually pursue the artistry ... but by being here we get to experience it."

As managing director of TheatreVirginia, Wells is responsible for the administrative aspects of the organization. She manages a staff of about 16 employees, manages the budget, and works closely with the marketing and sales staff. Artistic Director George Black takes care of selecting, casting and directing the plays, overseeing the technical side of the operation and administering the company's many educational programs.

Some days for Wells are filled with nothing but meetings. But on days when her administrative duties get to be too much, relief is only a few steps away. "When I've had a difficult day I find that all I need to do is walk into the theater, sit down, and take a deep breath and smell it — the theater just has this smell. I instantly know that this is why I'm doing this, this is what it is all about. For me, it's an overwhelmingly powerful statement about what the arts does to me

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