The role of the Raleigh-based North Carolina Theatre Conference (NCTC), simply put, is to keep the state’s new and established theater artists in touch with one another. As executive director of the NCTC, David zum Brunnen likens his job to that of “a cab company dispatcher.” He humbly calls himself a “conduit, an ombudsman in the theater field.” But during his four-year stint with the umbrella organization, zum Brunnen has been much more than that, presiding over unprecedented growth in the state’s theater arts community.
He also almost single-handedly led lobbying efforts that resulted in an added $2 million for the state’s arts budgets in both 1999 and 2000. If the state legislature decides to keep the increase this year, that amount will become a permanent fixture in the budget.
Zum Brunnen is quick to divvy up the accolades for such success, however. “These kinds of things don’t happen alone,” he says. He will take credit only for a “re-positioning of the theater field to play a larger role in determining the state’s arts agenda.”
In the past four years, the theater communities of Raleigh, Wilmington, Charlotte, Greensboro, Asheville and all points in between have begun to connect and collaborate in ways not thought of prior to zum Brunnen’s appointment with NCTC. Perhaps more than a “cab dispatcher,” he has been like a father figure, gently guiding the many new theater artists who continue to flood into North Carolina.
Zum Brunnen’s professional resume includes a degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in Theatre and Broadcast Journalism, and a yearlong stint with the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut. In Connecticut, he was tutored by the great African-American director, Lloyd Richards, and studied with Morris Carnovsky–an original member of the groundbreaking Group Theatre and a stalwart of the Yiddish Theatre that flourished in New York City in the early part of the 20th century.
In 1990, zum Brunnen was invited to work with the Hedgerow Theatre, located about 10 miles north of Philadelphia in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country. Despite its locale, the theater does challenging, socially conscious works like Unholy Trinity, a series of plays by radical agitprop essayist, New York Times theater critic and sometime-playwright Eric Bentley.
Zum Brunnen appeared in that work and others while apprenticing at Hedgerow. He then took over as general manager of the theater in 1991–a position he held for three years. As manager, he presided over a $15 million capital campaign to reopen the Hedgerow in a gristmill that had been gutted by fire. Among the Hedgerow’s resident company of actors was a young Raleigh native named Serena Ebhardt, who is now zum Brunnen’s wife.
After leaving the Hedgerow, zum Brunnen spent two years assisting the artistic director at the Philadelphia Repertory Theatre. He then began looking for work back in his home state of North Carolina. Jim Thomas at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill hired him for a short stint as an actor. Then, in 1993, PlayMakers in Chapel Hill offered zum Brunnen a position as general manager–his first with a League of Resident Theatres company.
In Chapel Hill, zum Brunnen built a reputation for his respectful, even-tempered treatment of other artists. He served as general manager at PlayMakers until 1996, when he left to pursue an acting career. But it wasn’t long before he was pulled back to the administrative side of theater arts. His friend and mentor, George Parides, NCTC’s longtime director, had died. Martha Keravuori, a theater activist in Raleigh, was holding NCTC together, but she was ready to retire. Would the only organization devoted exclusively to furthering theater arts in the state cease to exist? Like George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, zum Brunnen set aside his own ambitions, and for the greater good, became NCTC’s executive director in January 1997.
That pattern of selflessness has repeated itself. Last year, zum Brunnen’s adoptive father passed away. Although he was distraught, he didn’t show it. His activities with NCTC were reaching critical mass and his presence was needed in lobbying the General Assembly, where things happen fast. Without someone there to look out for the interests of the many small theaters throughout the state who have no legislative clout, funding can be cut suddenly. So zum Brunnen held on and he held up. He got through that difficult time and thanks to his efforts, the legislature ultimately adopted a resolution to increase state arts council funding by $2 million.
That’s not to say that zum Brunnen is so absorbed in his work that his personal life has suffered. In fact, his marriage to that young Hedgerow actress, Serena Ebhardt, is stronger than ever. “We are in our ninth year and still going strong,” zum Brunnen says. Together they make up one of a handful of husband and wife teams in the state who are able to generate their income from working in the theater–no mean feat for a pair living in North Carolina.
Although not completely satisfied with his four-year term at NCTC, zum Brunnen believes much has been accomplished. In the last year, he has seen the addition of four African-American theater artists to NCTC’s board of directors. Given the expansion of African-American theater in the state–including the internationally renowned National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem–such an addition is none too soon in coming.
Legislators know him now by sight–and know the issues the theater community views as most pressing. And after talking with him, some lawmakers, such as influential state representative Phil Baddour, have become as impassioned about theater as zum Brunnen.
But he’s never satisfied with the status quo. He has broad plans for the future of the arts here, and for NCTC. Zum Brunnen would like to see more student representation on the board of NCTC, and he’d like to see the organization connect with the many, often-harried theater educators who sow the seeds for future generations of practitioners and audiences. Other goals include engaging more of the state’s burgeoning youth theater practitioners, whose work he feels is vital to the well-being of theater arts in the state.
It is a tribute to zum Brunnen, who has worked with many well-positioned professional theater companies, that he continues to focus on the often neglected educators and children, who most need representation and who all too often are least thought of when budgetary concerns arise. Though orphaned at birth and having recently lost his adoptive father, zum Brunnen remains a father figure to the state’s burgeoning theater community. He is the voice of his “children” in that community, making their world easier to live in, more productive to work in, and more likely to be supported by the powerful legislators in whose world zum Brunnen keeps one foot firmly planted.
But the other foot is still rooted in theater. He still wants to act, still wants to direct. He hasn’t lost sight of that dream. In the meantime, he has found a way to make his dream work, and in doing so, he’s raised theater in North Carolina to a level of maturity that was thought impossible not so long ago.
A few weeks after his father’s death, zum Brunnen and his wife were offered free tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert in Raleigh. Although not a fan, and lacking time for any such personal excursion, he accepted the tickets on a whim. Zum Brunnen later admitted that mid-way through the first song he began to cry, overwhelmed by all that he had accomplished, and all that he had lost, over the last year. The song was Springsteen’s “The Ties That Bind,” about our inability to walk away from our families and our commitments–no matter how strongly we may sometimes wish to. It could have been written for George Bailey, zum Brunnen or any number of fathers steadily and quietly going about the day-to-day activities necessary to create for their family a better future.