Written by Rosalind Fournier
Photo by Chuck St. John
Anna M. Thompson has worked in the arts for more than 30 years, and it shows in the breadth and depth of her knowledge of the arts and arts administration, her enviable contacts throughout the art world, and the easy confidence she brings to her new role as executive director of the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center at UAB. But if you judged only by the fresh, contagious enthusiasm she exudes, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking this is Thompson’s first executive-director post for a major university performing arts center, although her impressive resume includes most recently serving eight years as executive director of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame. Her sky’s-the-limit attitude seems to make her the right choice for the right time, as this season marks the Alys Stephens Center’s (ASC) 20th anniversary.
Thompson says she loves the freedom that UAB provides to present programming that is diverse in every sense—the wide variety of arts featured, the size of the audiences (with four venues contained within the center, from grand to intimate), and a range of price points, including many events that are free to the public. The season also includes programming that celebrates artists and cultures from around the world to reflect an increasingly international student body and the diversity of the city itself. And that’s not even to mention the renowned Alabama Symphony Orchestra, which calls the ASC home and draws a fiercely loyal audience—including Thompson and her husband, Douglass, a professional percussion player—to every performance.
So when Thompson says, “There’s something for everybody,” it’s not just a catchphrase. Off the top of her head, she can rattle off the events of the 2016-17 season with uncanny detail, especially when you consider it includes about 475 events. Some were scheduled before she arrived, but with her staff, including programming director Eric Essix, she led the effort to fill out the majority of the season with a mix that ranges from MOMIX, a company of dancer-illusionists, to Vocalosity, an a cappella group whose music ranges from Gregorian chant to The Beatles in a single performance. The season also includes a performance by the U.S. Army Field Band & Soldiers’ Chorus (which excites Thompson, who started out her career as a band director); a performance by the UAB Gospel Choir featuring Alicia Olatuja; a handful of performances designed especially for young families; and two international festivals—Celebracion! and the return of IndiaFest.
“I think it’s absolutely the role of a university presenter such as ASC to bring things to the community that aren’t going to be seen anywhere else,” Thompson explains. Still other performers will include household names like Itzhak Perlman, who will return in May for the 2017 VIVA HEALTH Starlight Gala.
At the same time, Thompson has already started commissioning new works by major artists from around the world. Back at Notre Dame, she commissioned 43 new works for theatre, dance, music and film scoring on behalf of the university. She considers that another important role for university presenters—helping to finance the creation of new art that will be enjoyed for years to come while enhancing the reputation of the arts center that commissioned it.
Thompson adds that another opportunity about coming to UAB that appealed to her was the amount of community outreach that goes on here through the arts. “That immediately jumped out at me,” she explains, “from the Meet the Artist program, which provides free performances by premier artists on the ASC season for schoolchildren, all the way to the Aging Creatively program, which provides arts-oriented learning initiatives to residents in assisted living facilities.”
Along with incorporating arts into education, one of Thompson’s personal passions is dance. She served for six years on the board of trustees of Dance/USA, an organization committed to sustaining and advancing professional dance in all forms, and is well connected in the dance community. The Thompsons’ son also danced ballet for eight years, and Thompson herself—a self-described “onetime disco queen and polka princess”—has herself participated in competitive ballroom dancing (though these days, she says, she and Douglass are happy just to spend any spare evening they can find enjoying social dancing).
Thompson says if there’s one thing she wants to make sure people know about the Alys Stephens Center is that it is as much a part of UAB as the its world-class academics, medicine, and other resources that have made the university such an influential presence in the region and beyond. “We are a university presenter,” she says. “I think people sometimes forget that, even though it says it outside of the building, and we say it in everything we do. But we can’t lose sight of that because this amazing place is the university’s gift to the community.”