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Storyteller leads new chapter

Danny Hoskins adds fresh take to city’s Blackfriars Theatre

Although it was more than 25 years ago, Danny Hoskins still remembers walking slowly across the gymnasium floor to inform his basketball coach he was leaving the team.

“I was in full makeup and I remember hearing my shoes clicking on the court, and it felt like everyone was watching me,” says Hoskins, then a high school freshman who found himself choosing between the stage and the hardwoods while auditioning for a musical.

“Rehearsals were conflicting with practice,” he says, “and I had to make a choice.”

It appears Hoskins, 41, made a wise decision those many years ago. Named the artistic and managing director of Blackfriars Theatre in 2015, he now leads an enthusiastic effort to breathe new life into one of Rochester’s oldest performing groups.

Hoskins’ efforts appear to be paying dividends. During his first year, annual subscription ticket sales increased by nearly 47 percent. After two years, that number had grown by almost 80 percent, marking a dramatic improvement in regular attendance.

In 2014-2015, the year before he took the job, the organization’s annual budget was roughly $160,000. During 2015-2016, his first year, the budget was increased to $267,000, and it increased again this year to $317,000.

Including in-season shows, summer programming, the Rochester Fringe Festival, its comedy series and special events, Blackfriars Theatre entertains upwards of 10,000 patrons each year.

Mary Tiballi Hoffman met Hoskins in 2009 when they were cast opposite each other in a children’s theatre production of “Beauty and the Beast” and quickly became friends.

“He was the candlestick, I was the feather duster,” she says.

Hoffman, development manager at Blackfriars Theatre, cites Hoskins’ vision as a reason for his success.

“This guy gets it,” she says. “A trained and experienced performer, teacher and director, he understands how to take a script and transform it into a powerful piece of art that resonates with audiences and artists alike. He’s a master storyteller.”

That vision extends beyond the stage and applies to theater operations, as well. With Hoskins at the helm, Hoffman says, the theater has made tremendous strides in areas such as artistry, education, finance and community outreach.

“He’s an absolute machine when it comes to churning out creative ideas that will help us to move this theater forward,” she says. “As a leader onstage and off, he establishes and communicates a strong vision, sets a fast pace, and works harder than anybody in support of achieving that vision.”

Going away

Like many new high school graduates, Hoskins, a native of East Rochester who now lives in Irondequoit, was eager to leave home and spread his wings. After graduating from Elmira College with a degree in theater in 1997, he moved with a few friends to New York City.

“We were going to go to the big city and give it a whirl,” he recalls.

Despite the thrill of three years of city living, Hoskins developed a love-hate relationship with his new home.

“I loved the freedom in New York,” he says. “I was in my early twenties and freedom to do everything—culturally, artistically, socially—was at my fingertips. It just felt like a huge playground.”

However, Hoskins also had to cope with the realities associated with being independent and self-reliant. A self-described struggling actor, he regularly searched for ways to make ends meet, but the jobs he wanted most often eluded him. A number of trusted friends suggested he needed to pursue a final bit of training.

With that advice in mind, Hoskins packed up and moved further from home, settling in South Carolina. It was there, at the University of South Carolina, that he received his master’s degree in acting. It was the right move for him and his love of storytelling.

“Growing up, it was all about the storytelling, about imagination,” Hoskins says. “It was before the internet. We played outside. We played superheroes and we played cowboys and Indians. We developed storylines. What excites me about theater is that passion, that energy, that connection you have with people. As an actor or director, you are responsible for taking the audience on this journey with you.”

After graduating with his master’s degree in 2003, Hoskins moved to Atlanta where he continued to act. He worked in several capacities at one of the nation’s largest regional theaters, the Alliance, including as a teaching artist and actor. He also spent time studying the regional theater scene, taking careful notes.

Returning home

In his early thirties, Hoskins realized he had no permanent home and “was tired of sleeping on couches.” He returned home to East Rochester, not intending to stay long.

“I figured I’d be here a year and get a job and get some money underneath me to figure out what the next step would be career-wise,” he says. “Within two weeks of getting back, I connected with Blackfriars Theatre. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.”

In addition to acting, he has spent the past decade teaching at Nazareth College, SUNY College at Brockport and the University of Rochester.

After the retirement of longtime artistic director, John Haldoupis, in 2015, Hoskins took on the role of leading man at Blackfriars Theatre. He quickly determined the organization had become “too artistic-centric,” meaning there was too much focus on the experience of the actors at the expense of the audience experience.

“The focus was very much on the art and the artist, as opposed to the patron,” he says. “The company sort of became a little insular. We have worked to change that.”

Now preparing for its 68th year, the theater, located at 795 E. Main St., is ready to present another six-show season. This year’s offerings include “Grease,” “Twelfth Night,” “Little Women, The Musical” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Hoskins revels in the atmosphere there, which he says distinguishes it from other theaters.

“We’re the most intimate theater in Rochester,” he says. “We have 126 seats, only four rows deep. It’s almost like a thrust stage, which means the audience sits on three sides of the stage. The furthest you are is 20 feet from the actors. It’s powerful. In the first row, you could reach out and touch the actors. It’s really wonderful to be in an intimate and personal environment, because you can really feel what the actors feel. If there’s another place outside of your living room to see a show, this is the place to come.”

This month, Brian Coughlin directs a production of “Death of a Salesman” at Blackfriars, and he is delighted Hoskins is playing the role of Biff.

Danny is a terrific actor,” Coughlin says. “He’s just brilliant. I sit back and watch him work his magic on the stage. He also is as devoted and as caring of a person as I have ever come across. His disposition is just what you would hope you would find in someone who has those responsibilities. He’s a pretty remarkable guy.”

Coughlin is not alone in his assessment, especially among those involved in this show.

“His passion for theater is pure and always on display,” says Patti Lewis. “Right now, playing opposite his Biff in ‘Death of a Salesman’ is a real gift. He is always present and in the moment and connected to everyone and everything around him. I think that it is this, more than anything else, that makes him so successful no matter what hat he is wearing at any given moment.”

Hoskins enjoys working with other talented actors and artists from throughout the region, and the feeling is mutual. They are all serious students of acting. Many of them left town just like Hoskins did, only to perfect their craft and return home.

“Artists want to work with him because he challenges them to do their best work always, and they trust that he knows how to get it from them in a way that is safe and supportive,” Hoffman says. “He is not a director who barks out instructions from the comfort of a seat in the theater.

“He is on his feet alongside you, moving through the moment with you. He inspires trust, and his enthusiasm and passion are infectious. This is one of Danny’s most astounding qualities … and it extends to every area of work.”

Travis Anderson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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