By Noelle H. Lowery
Hyla Crane has the soul of an artist, and the heart and mind of an educator.
This combination has served the Connecticut native well in her career heading up education programs for non-profit theaters and museums throughout the Northeast, and it will make her a shining star as the new executive director of the Marco Island Center for the Arts. Her first day on the job was Feb. 17.
“She has the spirit and love of art and the other humanities that we espouse here,” explains Rosemary Wick, president of the Center for the Arts board of directors. “She has an incredible amount of experience in being the face of organizations. We are looking forward to great things for Hyla.”
A dancer and actress as a child and adolescent, Crane turned to law after college, and started her career as a commercial real estate attorney. She and her husband, Richard, went on to have two daughters, Eryn (25) and Carsyn (22). Because family comes first for Crane, she stopped practicing law and became a stay-at-home mom.
That is when the theater called to her once again. “I had a friend who whispered in my ear one day about how great it would be to have free Shakespeare in the park,” remembers Crane. That was all it took, and in 1992, she founded and became the executive director of The Elm Shakespeare Co., a professional, multicultural, nonprofit theater company in New Haven, CT. Today, The Elm performs live in New Haven’s Edgerton Park on a regular basis.
“I discovered a love and passion for arts and education then,” Crane notes.
This love and passion coupled with her success at The Elm turned into three remarkable career opportunities for Crane — first with the Long Wharf Theater and then with the Yale Repertory Theatre and Yale School of Drama. Both are located in New Haven.
Then about a year into her term at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Crane received a third job offer she could not refuse. “I had been (at Yale) for about a year, and a friend asked me to come talk to someone about another opportunity,” Crane recalls.
That “someone” was none other than Academy Award-winning actress Joanne Woodward. She is a “passionate arts education advocate,” says Crane. Woodward pitched an idea to Crane about a capital campaign for the famed Westport Country Playhouse, where Woodward was an artistic director.
Known as one of the oldest summer stock theaters in the U.S., the Westport Country Playhouse opened in 1930 in an old barn in Westport, CT. A long list of Hollywood legends — Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda, Ethel Barrymore, Gene Kelly, Tyrone Power, Helen Hayes, Maureen Stapleton, Claudette Colbert, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Eartha Kitt, Joan Fontaine, Cicely Tyson, Alan Alda, Geraldine Page, Mickey Rooney, Lynn Redgrave, Eva Marie Saint, Vincent Price, Shelly Winters, James Earl Jones and, of course, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman — have graced the stage of the Westport Country Playhouse.
Woodward wanted Crane to join the ranks of the Westport, and help launch its $30.6 million, multi-year renovation and expansion plan dubbed “Campaign for a New Era.” Crane accepted, and remained at the Westport until Woodward stepped down in 2005.
Prior to coming to Marco Island, Crane headed up educational programming at the Stepping Stone Museum for Children in Norwalk, CT. While at the museum, she cultivated the educational side of her passion, securely melding art and education together in her mind. When asked why the arts are so important, Crane’s face breaks into a smile, and she replies very matter of factly: “Clearly the arts are a way of expressing yourself. Everybody has that voice, and the arts are a fundamental way of letting that voice out.”
And, what better way to do that, she added, then through educational programming. Crane’s plan: To help island residents and visitors let their artistic voices sing and shout with new programming for all ages and ability levels, including intergenerational programming and vacation workshops. She wants to start by reaching out to the children of Marco Island. “I am looking to revitalize and reach out to young audiences,” Crane explains. “With my background, that is something I feel is absolutely essential. I really would like to find ways to utilize the space to extend arts programming…I know it is important to our board members as well.”
Wick agrees: “Most definitely. That is an arena in which we need to be playing a part. We want to begin to look at summer programs and other programs that will engage young people.”
Crane also is ambitious enough to want to expand the Center’s presence and reach beyond the Jolley and Goodland bridges to work with the arts communities in the surrounding areas. “This is something that is of great interest to me,” she says. “I would like to see us advocate on behalf of the arts, beginning at a state level and being able to join our voices at a national level. It is so important.”
Wick likes Crane’s ambition. “Hyla understands the different facets of the community,” she notes. “You have to broaden your vision.”
In the end, Crane will turn to her passion and her past for help in her new endeavor. After all, she has learned some very valuable lessons along the way: engage your stakeholders, be an advocate and always keep your door open. These mantra will fuel and drive her as she navigates the very full nonprofit arena in her new community. She is confident, though, that her cause is worthy.
“Arts are the glue that hold our learning and understanding and our sense of humanity together,” Crane chimes. “The Center is not just in the community but part of the community. It is a vibrant and necessary hub of cultural activity.”
She also is confident that she will succeed. Although the Center now is 45 years old, Crane already is looking toward its 50th anniversary: “When I came down to interview and when I walked through the door, it felt as if it were fate. I knew that my background and talents were going to be the right fit. I’ve set my sights on being here for the grand 50th anniversary — an amazing half-century of art on Marco Island.”