He can tune a piano, but can he fine-tune a nonprofit?


Marcy-Holmes’ Craig Harris joins the Playwrights’ Center in Seward

A month into his new position as managing director of The Playwrights’ Center, Marcy-Holmes resident Craig Harris is still working out the kinks of being the new guy, which these days includes battling with the unwieldy number of keys. He is still figuring out which keys open which doors in the center’s theater and other spaces.

In his first weeks on the job, Harris said he has been doing everything from the nitty-gritty of “figuring out how the alarm system works” to long-term planning such as “discussing the new strategic plan” and getting to know the staff and theater fellows he now oversees in his new capacity.

Harris joked reassuringly that, although he may still be having difficulties with the keys, he has a much better handle on well, more important things, such as the organization’s finances

As Harris, 54, tackles the job of catapulting The Playwrights’ Center into a new phase of growth, he is also in the midst of what he considers a transformation in his own life, which is perhaps why the center and Harris were such an appropriate pairing.

“It just seemed like the right move at the right time for both of us,” Harris said. “Even though it’s a very busy and active organization, [the center] will give me time to work on my own projects.”
Harris has a Ph.D. in music composition, and he has already begun working on a commissioned multimedia oratorio to be performed at Sabes Jewish Community Center in Minneapolis in March of 2008. The piece, titled The Five Books — First Series, is a reflection on the five books of Moses.

The Playwrights’ Center, 2301 Franklin Ave. E, is a non-profit research and development institution for playwrights and is not typically involved in producing plays outside of PlayLabs, an annual two-week festival that occurs each July. (This year’s PlayLabs begins Friday, July 13. See our featured event notice) More than 650 individuals and institutional members worldwide utilize The Playwrights’ Center’s services, a number that is rapidly growing, according to Harris.

Harris was hired in May to fill a newly created on-site leadership role at The Playwrights’ Center. In the months leading up to Harris’s arrival, the center’s producing artistic director Polly Carl was busy networking for the organization abroad and traveling on its behalf, said Dik Bolger, president of The Playwrights’ Center’s board. It became increasingly clear that another position needed to be created to supplement Carl’s role, said Bolger, who first recruited Harris for the managing director position.

“I really didn’t think he would do it,” Bolger said about the day he first talked to Harris about coming to The Playwright Center. “He basically told me that.” But after a meeting with both Carl and Harris, Bolger said he could tell that “the chemistry was going to be right.”

Bolger knew Harris through Marcy Open School, the school both their kids attended, but he said it was Harris’s work with local dance-theater company Ballet of the Dolls that really attracted his attention.

“When you look at what he accomplished [during his tenure with the Dolls] you go, ‘Wow, this guy’s got some strength behind him,’” Bolger said.

In 1999, Harris became executive director Ballet of the Dolls and spearheaded the renovation of the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis, now the permanent home for the company. Harris said the project he initially thought would take three to four years actually took closer to eight.

Given his success with the widely acclaimed Ritz Theater project, it might surprise people to know that Harris left the Dolls only eight months into company’s inaugural season at the newly refurbished theater, but Harris dismissed any claims that the timing of his departure was odd.

Harris said it wasn’t uncommon for someone hired for an extensive “turnaround” project to leave shortly after its completion. He called his job at the Ritz “all-encompassing.

“Once the [new theater] was really well established, it was my intent to move on and get back to some of my own work,” he said.

It seems the time Harris channeled into his work with the Dolls left him little time to pursue one of his greatest passions, composing musical and theatrical works. In his eight years with Ballet of the Dolls, Harris had a creative hand in two of the original shows performed by the company.

“If that were my role, writing shows there, I wouldn’t have left,” Harris said.

After leaving the Dolls and The Ritz Theater Foundation, Harris said he “systematically” removed himself from every consulting project or board position, including his seat on the board of Great River School, which oversees a public charter Montessori school in St. Paul.

So was he worried about not having anything lined up after leaving the Dolls?

“I’m a survivor,” Harris said. In a “worst-case scenario” Harris said he might have taken up tuning pianos, something he did in the old days. But the six or seven weeks Harris was unemployed this year was spent “find[ing] a way to be engaged in things that really matter to me.

“I was busy,” Harris said of the time he spent playing piano, researching his latest theater project and vacationing with his family.

In addition to his own creative projects, Harris appeared most excited about the program development aspect of his new role with The Playwrights’ Center, which he said would include a lot of work with new media.

Harris said while helping to define the Center’s course for the next five to ten years he will also be looking to add and strengthen partnerships with other organizations. The center’s local partners include such institutions as the Guthrie Theater, the Minnesota History Center and the Walker Art Center.

The Playwright Center is seeking to expand not necessarily in terms of size, but in its presence and level of activity locally and on a national and international scale, Harris said.

While he might be new to The Playwrights’ Center, the Marcy-Holmes resident of more than a decade is certainly no stranger to what he calls the area’s “vibrant, close-knit arts community” of which both he and his wife are a part.

“Of all the places I’ve lived and worked, this is one of the most supportive environments I’ve seen for the arts,” he said.