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A conversation with Jennifer Wright

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, at 11:22 p.m.

The last couple of years have been a bit of a whirlwind for Jennifer Wright.

She finished her communications degree at Wichita State University in 2010, became marketing director for the Orpheum Theatre, and then was named interim president before landing the job on a permanent basis.

It’s quite a switch for the Fort Worth native, who had another career as a paralegal for a dozen years.

“I started out my education path as a political science major,” Wright said. “I had intended to go to law school at one point.”

She has a minor in political science but decided that being a lawyer “just wasn’t my thing.”

In addition to overseeing the nonprofit’s operations, Wright helps oversee the ongoing restoration of the 1922 theater. There’s been a quiet capital campaign for two years to raise money for the next phase of work in the theater’s auditorium.

Wright said 70 percent of the theater’s operating budget comes from ticket sales, but the rest is dependent on donors – just like the theater’s restoration.

“We depend on the generosity of the community.”

What did you plan to do with your communications degree?

“Honestly, I didn’t know. I knew it had to be something creative and fulfilling.”

What did you think of the Orpheum when you first saw it?

“I was just blown away. … It was love at first sight.”

Why?

“I don’t know. Something about it just spoke to me. I felt that it was a very special place that I was in. I had to know more about it, and I had to get involved.”

Was it a big leap to jump from marketing director to president?

“Well, it was, but for some reason it just feels very natural.

“It’s definitely a … challenging position, but I love the theater very much. I love what it represents. It’s so meaningful on so many levels.”

What does it represent?

“It represents the essence of our cultural heritage in the community. … Many people in the community have deep sentimental attachments to the theater. I think it also represents the evolution of American entertainment from vaudeville to movies.”

Wichita almost lost the theater, though, right?

“The Orpheum has an amazing story of success and triumph over all odds.

“It was about 1984 … it was scheduled to be razed, and a local attorney (Stan Wisdom) bought it literally within hours of it being torn down, and thank goodness for that because it would have been a tremendous loss for the city. It’s a miracle that it’s still here, and it’s a miracle it’s still operating and doing as well as we are.”

You won’t talk specific numbers, but can you say how the theater is doing financially?

“The theater has experienced dramatic year-over-year growth in attendance and ticket revenue. … This year we are on target to beat last year’s numbers.”

What’s been your favorite show since you’ve been at the theater?

“That’s really tough. There’s been so many of them. … Bernadette Peters was amazing. Jonny Lang was incredible.”

What would your dream act be?

“Eric Clapton. … Paul McCartney, maybe.”

Have you made any substantial changes in how the theater operates?

“When I took over as president, we made a big change. We actually made an effort to begin presenting more of our own performances. … We’re putting up the money to bring in these great acts, which is putting up more financial risk, but for the most part we’ve been successful.”

And you intend to do more of that?

“More and more shows gradually. Of course, we don’t want to grow too fast.”

How is this different from how the theater used to operate?

“In years past, the Orpheum had been, I would say, for the most part, a rental facility or a place where promoters could come and put on a show. We did present a few of our own performances, but they weren’t that often.”

Why do it?

“I believe it’s the right thing to do. … It also demonstrates our worth to the community. … That we are a viable business in terms of the restoration. That’s important to demonstrate.”

Anything keep you up at night?

“Oh, yes. You know, I think just the theater in general. I care deeply about the theater’s success and its restoration. It must be both. It must be successful and it must be restored. Those two things are not options.”

What are your career goals?

“I want to see this theater done, and I can’t imagine changing or doing anything different until that happens.”

What’s something few people know about you?

“I’m half French. I love vintage British sports cars. I’ve owned two MGBs in my life. I’m a member of the British Car Club of Wichita.”

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or crengers@wichitaeagle.com.

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