20 years of children's shows at Center for Arts 

10/08/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

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By NANCYE TUTTLE, Sun Staff
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- Chris Brown's hot pink high top sneakers are a bit worn around the edges. And well they should be.

Brown, director of the Center for the Arts at UMass Lowell and amiable overseer of its two successful series -- the weekend Discovery Series for families and school Student & Teacher Arts (STARTS) for kindergartners through middle schoolers -- has tied them on for nearly every colorful curtain speech she's made through the years.

And that amounts to 350 different shows in 925 performances at 900-seat Durgin Hall, where the Center for the Arts is located.

But Brown will keep tying them on as long as they hold up, she says. It's part of the welcome she and her staff share with fans of the Center for the Arts, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this season.

"I got the sneakers 18 years ago to wear for curtain speeches. I love it when kids come up to me in the store and say 'are you the lady in the pink sneakers?' It's important for the people on stage to connect with the audience, and I try to help bridge that gulf in my speech," says Brown, who occasionally sports lime green high-tops.

That's a prime example of why the Center, under Brown's leadership, is recognized locally and nationally as a premier showplace for family and student performances, says Ken Arthur, managing director of Theatreworks USA, a major national producer of family and school shows.

"Chris is a leader in the field, a major presenter in the area and, indeed, in the United States. She brings in the best, not only from the United States, but also from around the world. She's committed to exposing kids to many things. She's an opinion leader, and people across the country respect her. She's providing a major service since the arts are being cut in the schools," said Arthur, who brings six shows here this season.

Brown arrived at UMass Lowell in December, 1986, accepting a job that was created after a commission of university and community leaders established the Center for the Arts.

"My mission was to bring the resources of the university and the performing arts into the community," said Brown.

She started small, with only four shows in the Discovery Series the first year. This year, there are six shows, plus a special celebratory fundraising concert on Jan. 7, starring audience favorite Tom Chapin and his band.

The school series grew tremendously from its start with three shows and seven performances. Last year, STARTS welcomed 175 schools from 50 towns to 52 performances of 23 different shows.

That school connection resulted in a partnership with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. in 1991.

"We were invited to go there for four days of training in professional development for teachers in using the performing arts in their curriculums," said Brown, who first partnered with the Billerica schools and now partners with the Shaughnessy School in Lowell.

The on-going partnership led to a White House invitation in 1993 to an arts award ceremony and a chance to mingle with celebrities like Carly Simon.

Brown recalls many high points through the years, plus a few unexpected lows. The lowest arrived when her beloved assistant Florence Marion died in February, 2000.

"We called ourselves the 'dynamic duo of the arts.' She was always positive and upbeat," said Brown.

But Brown and her staff today are positive for the future -- and hopeful those bright sneakers hold up for many years and hundreds of shows to come.