Stage & Dance

Rich Copley: New director of Lyric Theatre already a success at the job

Rasheedah El-Amin is the new executive director of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in Lexington, Ky. She was photographed Jan. 14, 2014, in the center. Photo by Rich Copley | staff.
Rasheedah El-Amin is the new executive director of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in Lexington, Ky. She was photographed Jan. 14, 2014, in the center. Photo by Rich Copley | staff. Lexington Herald-Leader

Rasheedah El-Amin thought Jan. 7 was going to be a typical day in the office. There was a news release going out to announce that she was being promoted from acting executive director of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center to the permanent post. But the change in her title didn't strike her as a momentous occasion.

But after the midday release, she started getting texts and emails of congratulations; reporters were calling, and stories were going up on Lexington news and business websites.

"I was stunned," El-Amin, 29, said of the reaction. "I didn't expect that at all."

The naming of a new director at a prominent arts venue is always newsworthy, but to many observers, El-Amin's appointment was a good news flash for a venue that, for the most part, had yet to live up to expectations.

The Lyric reopened in October 2010 after decades of legal and governmental wrangling. Hopes were that it would emerge as a Lexington hot spot like it was from the 1940s through early '60s, when the Lyric was an epicenter of black culture in Lexington.

But the theater opened without an executive director, a position that was left open for seven months. Even after Los Angeles producer and performer Yetta Young was hired in May 2011, the theater was dogged by complaints of dark nights, high rental fees and poor communication. Young's departure was announced in January 2013. El-Amin, the center's cultural arts coordinator, was handed the reins for what everyone, even El-Amin, assumed would be a short term.

"The conventional wisdom may have been for Rasheedah to work as interim, and then we would go through a national search for a new director," says Urban County Councilman Chris Ford, a member of the Lyric's board.

But things started happening under El-Amin's leadership. Bookings increased, particularly for the DeWeese Street Community Room, and there was more activity in the main 530-seat theater. One of the major new tenants was the internationally known WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, which moved from The Kentucky Theatre to the Lyric in a deal that Young struck but El-Amin executed.

"Rasheedah has been a wonderful manager and administrator. Everything is always so organized," WoodSongs founder and host Michael Johnathon wrote. "The arts need people who care. Rasheedah cares deeply about the Lyric, the history, the legacy and the future of it."

Growing up, El-Amin would not have seemed to be a prime candidate for an arts career. The Paul Laurence Dunbar High School graduate says she was not involved in the arts at school, although she says her father, Omar El-Amin, took her and her six siblings to a lot of performances, including jazz concerts and other shows at the University of Kentucky. The family also traveled frequently, exploring new cities and what they offered.

"He just exposed us to the arts," El-Amin says. "It's ironic that I ended up in the arts because my siblings are a lot more artistic, drawing- and painting-wise. I'm just an appreciator."

Part of the reason she ended up in the arts was advice from a manager when she was working at Fazoli's while in college.

"She said she was majoring in arts administration, and it was really interesting, so I thought I would try it," says El Amin, who got into the University of Kentucky's revered arts admin program. "I do have a fear of being bored, and the arts is not boring. There's always an exhibit or new group coming in, and the arts are so unique."

Her first job out of college was at the Headley-Whitney Museum, where she interned and then joined the staff as membership coordinator and manager of its shop. She says she took advantage of being part of a small staff there to learn everyone's jobs, including skills such as hanging exhibits.

Taking the cultural arts coordinator job at the Lyric quickly put her on the front lines in dealing with presenters and patrons.

"As soon as I started working at the Lyric, people knew my name, knew my face and wanted me to be out in the community more," El-Amin says. "At the Headley-Whitney, you did your job, made a nice presentation and hoped people came. This is more hands-on, interactive.

"Being out in the community more leads to different things, different exhibits, local artists, people knowing about the organization and wanting to come have their events here like fashion shows and everything."

El-Amin says a key change shortly before her interim tenure was a rental rate reduction for the center's DeWeese Street Community Room. The price had been a flat $350 for five hours, with the option to add more hours. The change decreased the cost to $75 an hour for private events and $25 for community events that are free and open to the public.

El-Amin says that has increased usage for events from birthday parties and wedding receptions to community meetings.

The centerpiece of the Lyric is its theater, but she says increasing use of the community room and attendance at exhibits in the theater galleries has been a key to driving interest in the venue as a whole.

El-Amin and Ford say an adjustment in the rental rates for the theater is in discussion.

Ford says the major thing he noticed as El-Amin's tenure progressed was a reduction in complaints about the Lyric.

"She's been able to build bridges, which we needed," he says.

Johnathon, who also has presented some shows in his Troubador Concert Series at the Lyric and has more on tap, says, "Rasheedah's staff is incredibly friendly and accommodating. The neighborhood welcomed us with open arms, and the audience has reacted in kind."

El-Amin says she plans to continue the course she has set, building the number of performances and other events that come through the theater and drawing a regional and community audience to the venue. Among her goals is an annual series of performances like those at area venues such as the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts in Richmond and Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.

She also wants to extend partnerships with area groups like Lexington Children's Theatre and the Japan-America Society of Kentucky.

"People want more, and we need to give that to them," El-Amin says.

"I'm almost certain my expectations for the Lyric don't exceed hers," Ford says. "She appears to be self-motivated and driven to make the Lyric a success."