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A returning act for theater

Christopher Mannelli began his career in theater on stage at Geva Theatre Center Inc. Now, after nearly 20 years of touring the world and moving into administration, he returns to Rochester to help lead the theater that gave him his professional start.

“My first professional role as an actor was at Geva. I knew quite a bit about the theater and the community. It was a fun and amazing coincidence when the search firm called me,” Mannelli says.

He is beginning to get a sense of his new role as executive director and co-CEO of the Geva Theatre Center now that he has been in the position for four weeks.

“I call this my listening tour. It’s important for me to get out in the community to get a sense of what Geva means to our stakeholders,” says Mannelli, adding he comes to Rochester at an exciting time.

“Front & Center: The Campaign for Geva” is to conclude shortly with a total of $10 million raised for major renovations of the center’s historic 18th century arsenal building. With the opening of the 2016-17 season, Geva will unveil its renovated lobby and café areas, which include nearly 2,000 square feet of entertaining suites and wheelchair access to the balcony. The entire project has taken over four years to complete, beginning with roof replacement and masonry work in 2012; the installation of a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system in 2013 and 2014; and renovation of rehearsal, education and conference center space, dressing rooms and administrative offices in 2015.

“We’re going to have a great many opportunities,” Mannelli says. “The new donor lounge and café—they will really enhance the patrons’ experience.”

Though the capital campaign has nearly ended, fundraising continues to be a top priority for Mannelli. The renovations could play a key role in that.

“We want to find ways to utilize the new space to its greatest capability,” Mannelli says. “We will be able to use it for meetings, parties and other events. In fundraising it’s important to look at ways to engage with donors and find new ways to introduce new people to theater.”

Mannelli oversees an operating budget of $7.3 million and a staff of 47 full-time and 25 part-time employees. There are also hundreds of artists employed throughout the season.

Funding key
Mannelli notes ticket sales rarely fully fund the cost of a program. They typically cover some 60 percent of the cost of a show, which makes fundraising critical to the theater’s success.

Programming is important to drawing an audience, and Geva is marking the success of its production of the classic tale, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The play broke box office records as the highest selling non-musical production in Geva’s 43-year history. Artistic director and Geva co-CEO Mark Cuddy directed the production, based on Harper Lee’s novel, which deals with racial issues in the American South during the 1950s.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was part of the 2015-16 lineup selected before Mannelli joined Geva, though he points out it is not his role to determine program selections. He and Cuddy are partners in leadership of the theater; Cuddy oversees the artistic direction and Mannelli is the administrator.

“It’s easy to say I do the administration and he does the artistic stuff but as a team the lines blur. That’s a pretty common model for not-for-profits,” Mannelli says. “The most important thing is we create art. My job is to raise the funds so Mark can execute in the greatest way possible.”

Mannelli sees great opportunity to build on the recent success with the announcement of the 2016-17 season. It includes 12 productions featuring what Mannelli describes as “something for everyone.”

There are the time-honored favorites such as “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, as well as two musicals, something Mannelli says is unusual.

Geva also will produce a stage rendition of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The 1967 film produced and directed by Stanley Kramer portrays the controversial subject of interracial marriage that was illegal in many states.

“It’s an important thing theater can do,” Mannelli says. “It leads into discussion and there’s a need to talk about it. With ‘Mockingbird’ we added extra discussions following the performances. It was incredibly powerful.”

Coming from Chicago
Social issues played a major role in Mannelli’s previous involvement with the art community in Chicago, where he served as managing director of Victory Gardens Theater. In his position there he was responsible for strategic planning, fundraising and audience development initiatives.

He also was committed to community service and engaged his passion for social justice by becoming a founding member in 2014 of Enrich Chicago, a group of 12 organizations in the arts dedicated to racial equity. David Schmitz, managing director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company was a member of the group and became Mannelli’s friend.

“Chris is committed to equity, diversity and inclusion. It is a big passion of his,” Schmitz says. “We worked to create a culture that focuses on attracting and retaining people of color to the arts and raising arts funding to support that culture. It’s really jumped off and it’s one of the reasons Chris was sad to leave Chicago.”

Schmitz recruited Mannelli to join the board of the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce in 2013, the second-largest chamber of commerce in Illinois. Mannelli took on major projects almost immediately.

“Chris was instrumental in helping our chamber transform into a new organization,” says Kimberly Schilf, president and CEO. “He actively participated on a branding committee that developed a new strategic plan and helped devise tactics to execute that plan.”

As part of the rebranding campaign, Mannelli helped the chamber develop a new logo, involve business leaders as community partners and construct a new website.

He also served as chairman of the governance committee, which is charged with board oversight and nomination of new board members.

“One of the attributes that made Chris a great leader was his community involvement,” Schilf says. “He hosted Neighborhood Nights with local residents, had a theater presence at local festivals, worked closely with our legislative officials and volunteered his time as a chamber board member.”

Mannelli plans to continue his volunteer work in Rochester.

“It is important to me. It’s an opportunity to connect with the broader community,” Mannelli says.

He feels it may be easier to make connections in Rochester because of the smaller size of the arts community. That could help in his critical role as a fundraiser.

“In Chicago there are 250 theaters of various sizes. Here in Rochester you have more chances to connect so people can invest. It’s not that Rochester is lacking in arts and culture. People are able to focus their investment. There are not so many organizations to draw away their focus,” he explains.

Mannelli has experienced life and work in large metropolitan cities and welcomes this chance to return to the Rochester region.

Prior to his work at Victory Gardens, he served as deputy director at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, one of the largest non-profit theaters in Chicago.

Before moving to Chicago, Mannelli was managing director for HotCity Theatre in St. Louis and that is where he met his wife, Rita. The couple moved to Chicago in 2007 when she was offered a job as director of marketing at DePaul University. Mannelli earned his master’s degree in fine arts there.

Earlier, he received his bachelor’s degree in opera performance at SUNY College at Geneseo’s School of Performing Arts. While at Geneseo, Mannelli became acquainted  with Rochester and that led him to auditions at Geva.

Off the job
Rita Mannelli is still in Chicago with the couple’s two young children. They plan to join Mannelli in Rochester once the family finds a house here.

“My son is especially excited. It will be a change from living in Chicago—to have a backyard,” Mannelli says.

Mannelli grew up on Long Island in the town of Northport with one sister, Carrie. His father, Vincent, retired after years of owning an upholstery and mattress shop and his mother, Joanne, was a hairdresser.

Christopher Mannelli is a trained musician and opera vocalist. He has performed on trumpet, guitar, string bass and percussion, although he says he is strictly an administrator now.

“I haven’t performed on stage in quite a while, but the training I had is still quite useful,” Mannelli says. “It’s still applicable to having to do public speaking, especially in Rochester. The position has a significant public role.”

Of course, he still plays for enjoyment, though he acknowledges that with a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old in the house, their hobbies tend to be his hobbies.

As he learns more about his new position here and the community he is making his home, he knows he made the right decision to leave Chicago.

“Rochester is a great place for theater. There is such a sense of pride. Everyone I talk to is thrilled about the work going on here,” he says.

“It’s great to be back!”

Christopher Mannelli
Position: Executive director, Geva Theatre Center Inc.
Age: 42
Family: Wife Rita; son, 5; daughter, 2
Education: B.A. in opera performance, SUNY Geneseo School of Performing Arts, 1995; MFA in arts leadership, DePaul University, Chicago, 2009
Home: Rochester
Activities: Playing music, being outdoors, swimming, having fun with his children
Quote: “The heart of what we do in an arts institution is collaboration. We need a strong team to accomplish great things.”

4/8/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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