If my team and I have learned one thing over the past several years together, it's that women in the arts are a force for good in our community. It is our shared goal for this series to shed light on the many different ways these local women are working behind-the-scenes to advance the arts every day - and to highlight the many different paths they've taken to achieve their goals.
The next installment of our Women in the Arts series introduces Carrie Corbett, Director of Marketing for RiverCenter for the Performing Arts. Corbett's very unique background in the arts provided a fascinating route to her current role – a path we're certain has resulted in the strengthening of Columbus, Georgia's arts organizations since her arrival here. Read on to discover how her background, work, and influence are making an impact every day.
Q: What can you tell me about your background in the arts?
A: I've always been in love with the arts as long as I can remember. My parents were fans of music. There was always music playing in our house, whether it was symphony or something from Broadway. My dad was famous for playing these lovely games with my mom in which he would find unusual or odd or strange music, and instead of telling her, He'd bring the album home and put it on the stereo while she was off doing something else and wait for her to react to it. All of a sudden, Slim Whitman is echoing through our home, or Hawaiian music, or whatever else he'd found and it'd play until she'd say "Jim, what in the world is this?!" I remember thinking this game was very fun as a child.
Because of this, if you look at my playlists today I've got everything from classical music to zydeco. I just learned from a very early age to love all types of music.
Q: Did you study music as a child, too?
A: Oh, yes. I got involved with piano lessons and dance lessons and all of the things. There's always been some element of arts in my life. I was born in Laurel, Mississippi but grew up in Jackson. When I was in about the third grade, a string quartet that came to play for one of our school assemblies. I remember listening to it, and enjoying it very much. But then, at the end of the program, they asked each of the instruments to play something solo. As soon as I heard the cello, I remember literally coming up out of my seat and being like, what is that? I was enamored from the first moment I heard the instrument.
So, that's how I started playing, and I absolutely loved it. There was a group of us that started in elementary school and by high school, they decided we were not being challenged enough. So, they started a student program in the symphony and when I was 15 years old, I started playing with professionals. It was wonderful, and we got to play with some really incredible musicians. Doc Severinson, Roberta Peters, Big Bird, and my favorite, Ella Fitzgerald.
Q: You played with Ella?
A: I played with Ella. I have an Ella story, too. I was sitting there and working through all of these all jazz charts that we were playing on her concert. It was completely different from anything I'd ever played. The syncopation, the rhythm, the riffs, the fact that it was so much over the strings... it was really challenging for me. There was this one complicated little jazz rip that the cellos had, and I had practiced it and practiced it, and I could not get it. Every time I would get it in the practice room and we'd go to play it in rehearsal, and I would blow it.
Well, I was sitting there in one of the rehearsals, and they brought Ella in and she was just magnificent. And there I was with this cello riff I still couldn't get. So on the next break, I was just woodshedding it to pieces when all of a sudden I became conscious there was somebody over my shoulder. I kind of looked up and it was Ella Fitzerald standing there listening to me woodshed my riff that I couldn't play.
She said "What are you doing, darlin?" And I said, "Well, I'm practicing this riff, because every time I get to it my fingers just get caught up in each other and I can't play it." She says, "You know what's wrong with that? You're working too hard at it, darling. You just gotta let it flow. Ok? Now, you put it down and you go away from it, and then when you get back it'll flow." And darn if that thing didn't just rip right off my fingers! To this day, if something I'm working on is really difficult and not coming together like I want it to, I find myself suddenly stopping and thinking of Ella and saying to myself, "I gotta let it flow." It works every time.
Q: What an incredible experience and life lesson! Where did you go after playing with the Jackson Symphony?
A: Well, I continued playing with the orchestra for two years in high school, and then my dad had a change of job and we ended up moving to rural Missouri. I was almost 17 and it was a complete culture shock. Not only was there not an orchestra in my school, I had to drive two hours for private lessons. It was just a lot to do, so I started playing in the high school band. We had a wonderful young band director who found out I was a musician and invited me to be in the marching band. I ended up playing glockenspiel, the trumpet and the French horn.
Q: So you're telling me you played three instruments proficiently before you were 18?
A: (laughing) I'm not saying proficiently, but I did play several instruments growing up. I had also always kind been singing. I did not have a big voice, but I could sing. As I got into college and started to make my college choices, I realized that I really had a real desire to play cello and sing. I went to the University of Missouri in Columbia, and they had a really, really good faculty who agreed to let me study both cello and voice throughout college.
For my vocal training, I was doing more opera. But with the cello, I would get asked to play in the pit for the theatre shows. I was so interested in what was happening on stage that I remember thinking, "What's going on up there? That sure looks fun!"
That's how I got into theatre. Luckily, the faculty was supportive of that too. I was very, very fortunate to be in an undergraduate setting where I was encouraged to do everything. Then, after I got out of school, I just started auditioning for things and got cast right off the bat. I was very lucky and got to do musical theater professionally for 13 years.
Q: Wow! Really?
A: Yes! I started out in smaller community productions, and worked professional non-equity projects for a few years. But when I moved down to Florida, there were several equity theaters and I started being cast in their productions. Most of them were involved with the equity point system, so I accumulated points and got my equity card. That is how I had the opportunity to do two international tours. One of The Sound of Music and another of Oliver!
Q: Wow. That is very neat. Can I ask how in the world you got into arts administration, then?
A: Well, you know, as you get older, there's kind of an evolution of things going on. I had come up through the ranks of performing. I started out mostly in the chorus, and then graduated into secondary leads, and I'd played some leads. But then you get to a point where you're in your mid-thirties and not the lead anymore. I just wasn't young enough to carry the lead roles anymore, but I also didn't have the age on me to play an older character role either.
It's also very difficult to be in a relationship with somebody that is outside of theater where you're fully involved. I really wanted a relationship where I wasn't passing someone all of the time. So, I finally decided it was a good time to do something different.
After a stint in medical transcription and HMO contracts, I started working with some non-profit organizations and that's where I really found a love for administration in the non-profit world. After growing up in the arts and spending so much time in theatre, I had really missed the heart of non-profit work. It's just the whole attitude about it. It's different. It's all about the people, and serving others. Which, if you think about it, theater is too. So it was just a really good fit. I worked for awhile with the American Heart Association and the Cancer Society, and then when my husband's job moved us to Memphis, I was finally able to take my love of working with nonprofit organizations and combining that with the arts.
In Memphis, I was the Executive Director of Memphis Vocal Arts, Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Germantown Performing Arts Center, and the Vice President for Marketing and Communications at Memphis College of Art. Then, I moved to Columbus and started to work at the RiverCenter.
Q: What has your experience at the RiverCenter been like?
A: Wonderful! My first season here was the 2017-18 Season. I remember when I came to interview with Norm for the marketing position, I was just thrown for a loop by how beautiful RiverCenter is and how wonderful Uptown is. Norm told me the story of the Columbus Challenge and that was it – I was hooked. I wanted to come to a community that had visibly utilized the arts as the catalyst for economic growth. I was really impressed by the vision of the people involved with the Challenge.
Since coming here, I've been blessed to meet an incredible group of people from other arts organizations who, every day, make the cultural life of the city better, and to work with an outstanding team of professionals led by Norm, who has such an amazingly broad knowledge of theatre, venues, and presenting artists. I learn something every day!
Q: Wonderful. What does it mean to you to be a woman in the arts?
A: I've always been really proud to be a woman in the arts. It has been one of the places I think women – just from a career standpoint – have had a foothold in for a longer period of time than a lot of other industries. Now, there are so many women in the arts with so many more degrees in arts administration that are available. But back in the day, there was no such thing. There was no degree program like that, so the people that ended up administering these groups were usually the people were passionate about it and willing to do whatever needed to be done.
Again, I have come to this arts administration career via a very circuitous route. But it's always been something I've enjoyed because the fact that you get to wear so many hats. You get to challenge yourself on a daily basis. Hourly, some days. (laughing) I love that there is always something new coming in. When I started as marketing person in the arts, there was no such thing as social media. That is something that had be learned and understood and, and experimented with. I've been very fortunate that have been under people who were open to giving me the opportunities to learn those skills and then teach them to others.
Women have always been at the forefront of the arts. If we look at it from the marketing standpoint, the buying target is usually the woman of the household. Right? Statistically, that is who's making the arts and entertainment decisions for the household. Women have always been at the forefront of the arts and have been leading the arts for a long time. More so than I think in a lot of other career fields. It's always made me proud to be representing that demographic. Mine was really the first generation where you had women as managers, and directors. Up until that point, you were the assistant or the secretary. But my generation broke through that barrier, and so I've always been really happy and proud to be in a position where I'm representing an organization. I love having the opportunity to mentor other women in the arts and help to support them as they move their careers forward. That's a responsibility I take really seriously, and one I find joy in as well. ◾️