Bringing Down the Curtain

After successfully leading The Grand through the pandemic, Mark Fields is headed for an active retirement

By Bob Yearick

Mark Fields considers himself to be a very lucky man.

“There are times when I’m walking through this building that I have to stop and just reflect on the fact that I get to come to work here on a regular basis,” he says. “I can’t imagine another job that would top this one.”

Despite this glowing assessment, Fields will retire from that job — executive director of The Grand Opera House — this month, after 16 years that were both challenging and exciting. At 62, he says it’s time for him to join his partner, Wendy Ho Schnell, who has been retired for almost two years, to pursue the many activities they both enjoy.

“That’s on the personal level,” he says. “On a professional level, it’s become clear to me, coming out of the pandemic last fall, that post-pandemic is a different era, and new eras call for new energy, new ideas and new leadership. We’re in a good place now, so it seems like a good time to make a transition.”

Taking up the executive director mantle will be the second-in-command, Managing Director Pamelyn Manocchio, who became No. 2 last year after serving 12 years as the director of Community Engagement. Fields has agreed to stay on as a consultant until the end of the year.

“Mark was the right guy at the right time,” says Brian DiSabatino, chairman of The Grand’s Board of Directors. “He will be remembered for his passion for bringing together the entire arts community, expanding our reach into areas of the community who might have been previously disenfranchised, and carrying our spirits through the pandemic. Really gonna miss this guy.”

Native Hoosier

The son of a Methodist minister, Fields was born in Terre Haute, Ind., and spent the first 25 years of his life in the Hoosier State. After graduating from DePauw University, he embarked on a career in the arts that took him to Philadelphia, New York, Knoxville, Santa Fe, and Indianapolis, among other stops.

Wilmington, he says, can hold its own with any of those cities when it comes to the arts. “To use a cliché,” he says, “Wilmington punches above its weight. There’s so much going on here for a community of this size. The cultural infrastructure is nothing short of astounding. The commitment to open space and bike paths and all of that throughout Delaware is really remarkable. People here are passionate about caring for their community and making it better. I’ve been gratified to be a part of that.”

When he arrived here in 2006, the arts, which had benefitted from the largesse of the DuPont Co. and MBNA, were watching that funding dwindle or disappear under the weight of the Great Recession, which lasted from 2007-09.

As a result, he says, “the arts community was very traumatized. But on top of that, they were very siloed. There weren’t many close working relationships among arts institutions.

“That wasn’t intentional. It was just a consequence of having never needed to work together. But since then there’s been an incredible commitment to communication and to partnership. We have an arts community that we didn’t have before, born out of crisis.”

He points in particular to the Delaware Arts Alliance, a coalition of arts organizations formed in 2009. The initial group of 33 has nearly doubled since then and is a strong advocate for the arts at the state and national levels.

Surviving COVID

Somewhat surprisingly, he believes the most recent crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic – has also enhanced the area arts scene.

“Pre-pandemic, you couldn’t imagine The Grand closing. It’s been here for 150 years,” Fields says. “But it happened; we didn’t have an indoor public performance for over 600 days. It made people appreciate something perhaps some had taken for granted before that. I often quoted the line from the Joni Mitchell song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ — Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Unlike the recession of 2007-09, federal, state and city funding was available to help arts organizations survive the shutdown. Meanwhile, Fields says, the crisis served to further increase the communication and collaboration among those organizations. Case in point: The Delaware Symphony Orchestra, Opera Delaware, and The Grand are partnering for a season-opening concert on Saturday, Sept. 10.

Aside from the physical structures — The Grand, The Playhouse, and the Giacco Building, which includes the baby grand — Fields will especially miss his co-workers.

“The people here are special,” he says. “They’re an incredibly dedicated, hard-working, creative staff. Everybody talks about a staff being a family, but here, they are. We look out for each other, we care for each other, we’re invested in each other’s lives beyond the workday.”

Reflecting on his career at The Grand, Fields says: “I’m content with most of what we accomplished during my time. We rose to many challenges — an economic downturn, a pandemic — successfully. I wish that we had been in a position to do more to cultivate emerging artists on our smaller stage. It’s important for our future and for the future of the music business to encourage new artists. But it’s risky to try to find an audience for lesser-known artists, and we never felt like we had the financial cushion to take those kinds of chances. I hope that is something The Grand can still do sometime.”

It appears that his retirement will be an active one. He and Schnell, both dedicated bicyclists, recently returned from a bike-and-barge trip through the Netherlands, and they’re headed for California’s national parks in October and the New Orleans music scene in November. They also enjoy camping, hiking, escape rooms, and puzzles of all kinds. And he will continue writing movie reviews for Out & About. (See sidebar for some of his favorites and not-so-favorites.)

And, of course, he will still pay occasional visits to The Grand — as a member of the audience. As he says, “There’s no substitute for live performance and sharing that experience with other people. You can’t duplicate that in your living room.”