WILMINGTON – Growing up in rural Indiana as the son of a minister, Mark Fields moved around a lot. In fact, he attended eight different schools between kindergarten and graduating from high school.
[caption id="attachment_222042" align="alignright" width="500"]Executive Director Mark Fields | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GRAND OPERA HOUSE[/caption]
Despite never being able to put down roots for long, Fields always felt at home in his schools’ theaters. The stage didn’t change.“It was one of the things that kind of kept me grounded. I was always involved in theater,” he recalled. “I was fortunate to go to a number of high schools that had really strong theater programs.”Though he explored his passion for theater in high school, when he graduated, he wasn’t one to set off for New York or Hollywood. Fields attended DePauw University in western Indiana, set on earning a degree to become a high school theater teacher and spend time at the institution’s then-newly built performing arts center.“I never really thought about acting seriously as a career just because I knew how hard it was to be successful. In my college years, I started realizing that there was a way I could combine my interest in writing and my interest in the arts, which became the first 20 years of my career in arts marketing,” he said, noting he ultimately earned a communications degree.After graduating, Fields took his first job in marketing at the Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis. He would move six times in eight years to try to advance his career to larger theaters and roles, living in Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.That time working in marketing taught Fields a fundamental lesson about show business: It’s not just about the show.“It's not enough to have a great artist or production. If people don't know about it, if they don't understand what it is, if they don't understand why they should be there, then it's an incomplete experience. You can't have a live performance event if there isn't an audience,” he explained.Fields grew to enjoy the challenge of marketing productions and his career led him to southern New Jersey, where he worked at the South Jersey Performing Arts Center in Camden and the Glassboro Center for the Arts at Rowan University, eventually rising to the executive director position.“I never wanted to be an executive director. I inherited the job because the previous executive director left to take another job and I was the senior administrator. But it turned out that I actually kind of liked it, I was good at raising money and I was good at negotiating contracts,” he recalled.In 2006, he took time off to start a consulting business and moved to Wilmington with family. It was there that he ran into Steve Bailey, then the interim executive director of The Grand Opera House.Bailey didn’t want the top job full-time, but convinced Fields to join as managing director and he would stay on. Fields said their 16-year partnership “has been the most meaningful, collaborative, professional collaboration” of his career.They worked together for eight years and then switched titles in 2014, with Fields taking over the top seat at the historic nonprofit.“I've been in this business for 40 years, and I can tell you that the Grand is a special place. It’s this incredibly historic, rich, beautiful building, but it is also what happens here in this building and the people who make that happen,” he said, noting that artists frequently see it too, playing for much longer than they originally intended. “The country singer Kathy Mattea said it best, ‘When you sing in the Grand, the Grand sings with you.’”That relationship with the public was tested during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Grand had to close its doors for more than 600 days. It didn’t stop the organization from fulfilling its mission though, as it put on concerts by car, drive-in movies, a Christmas light show, live-streamed concerts and more.“The arts always find a way to survive, whether there's a pandemic or an economic downturn or a fiercely competitive market or a lack of resources, whatever,” he said.Now entering a post-pandemic normal, crowds are returning to the Grand and the Playhouse on Rodney Square, but the organization is offering only about half as many shows this year as it would have before the crisis. Fields said he hopes to build back to around 100 productions a year between concerts, theater and more in the next two years.“I think people increasingly want to get out and be a part of the world again. Not everyone is at that place yet, but that's human nature. We will get there,” he said.