Ten years ago, Brian Hersh was a drummer living New York City.
Armed with a music degree from Indiana’s DePauw University, Hersh, an Ohio native, jammed with hard-rock bands and folkie singer/songwriters at bars and coffee shops.
“Celebrities would come to our gigs,” he says. “It was cool.”
Cool, but not professionally fulfilling.
Hungry to make a difference, he signed up to be a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, for which he was paired up with a 13-year-old boy, whom he often took to museums, concerts and cultural landmarks around the city.
It was a relationship that would change the course of Hersh’s career.
“I realized that I could reach more people as an arts administrator than as a drummer,” Hersh says. “From that point I was on a new path.”
In 2002, he was hired by the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where for five years he administered the organization’s Meet the Artist School Series, a program that draws more than 20,000 students each year to the famous 16-acre arts complex.
It taught Hersh, 34, a lot about arts programming. Without it, he might not have ever landed his current position as education and outreach director at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
“It was such an easy choice to move here,” says Hersh, who joined the Asolo Rep staff in 2008. “The level of artistry in this area is amazing, and you can really make a big impact in a short amount of time.”
Case in point: During Hersh’s first year with the Asolo Rep, he helped launch the education department’s New Stages initiative, a collaborative project with the FSU/Asolo Conservatory aimed at producing more plays for young people.
The series, which stars third-year conservatory students, kicked off in 2008 with an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s award-winning book, “The Giver,” followed by last season’s critically acclaimed production of “Life in the Middle.”
Both plays reached thousands of local teens. Hersh, however, was convinced he could reach more.
“Schools intrinsically understand the value of live theater,” he says. “But it’s difficult to get them to come here in a traditional way. Busing is complicated. Budgets are stretched. Time is an issue.”
So, he did something the theater company hasn’t done in 20 years: He took a show on the road.
This season’s production of “Antigone Now,” which opened Oct. 4, reached more than 10,000 students in just six weeks.
The cast and crew made 40 stops at schools and community centers from Tampa to Punta Gorda. Hersh attended about half of the shows.
“There were obvious costs and logistics to making it happen,” he says. “But it was so worth it.”
He wasn’t the only one who saw the value in resurrecting an Asolo Rep tour.
On April 29, Publix Super Markets Charities gave the theater a $25,000 grant to go toward next season’s student matinees and touring production of “Hamlet.”
Hersh, along with Asolo Rep Managing Director Linda DiGabriele and Education Committee members Betty Jean Bavar and Susan Dweck, was there to accept the check.
“Everybody studies Shakespeare in school, but to see it performed in real life … doesn’t that instantly make it more exciting?” Hersh asks.
The question is obviously rhetorical, but in asking it, Hersh seems to have reaffirmed his decision to leave New York and retire his drumsticks.
Now the father of two, he says he can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.
“Having kids helped shape things even more,” Hersh says. “I look at my 2-year-old and she sings and dances and has that little spark, and I think, ‘She’s the reason I’m here doing what I do.’”
IF YOU GO
“Lend Us Your Voice,” a documentary theater program run by the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Education and Outreach Department, will present three original plays by Sarasota and Manatee county teens May 20 to May 22, at the Asolo Rep’s Cook Theatre. Pulled from actual interviews with local residents, the performances will focus on technology, change, access and stress. For more information, call 351-8000 or visit www.asolorep.org.
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