After successfully leading The Grand through the pandemic, Mark Fields is headed for an active retirement
(during which he’ll continue writing reviews for O&A)
By Bob Yearick
Mark Fields considers himself 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.”
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.
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.”
The Best — and Three of the Worst
In his time at The Grand Opera House, Mark Fields has seen many great performances. Asking him to pick the best proved challenging, but after giving it some thought, he responded with this email:
We have presented hundreds of amazing artists — Buddy Guy, Idina Menzel, Straight No Chaser, Ina Garten, Harry Connick Jr., even Joe Biden — during the 16 years I’ve been at The Grand. The following are five shows during my time here of which I am most proud (not the best, not the biggest, just personally memorable):
- Willie Nelson, June 2012 — A living legend on our stage
- Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, January 2011 — A remarkable, underappreciated talent (sadly, she died of cancer just a few years later)
- Stephen Sondheim, May 2013 — A personal musical hero interviewed on stage
- Cecile McLorin-Salvant, November 2014 — A jazz vocal star is born
- Ry Cooder, April 2016 — Another musical icon in person in Wilmington.
Fields also has served as movie critic for Out & About since 2008. Here are his five favorite films from the last 10 years (“all because they were somehow fresh or new and I continue to think about them”):
- Parasite, 2019
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018
- Get Out, 2017
- Moonlight, 2016
- Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014
He adds two “sentimental favorites”: Skyfall, 2012 (“best Bond movie ever”); Black Panther, 2018 (“best superhero movie since The Dark Knight”).
His all-time favorites, which he watches again and again:
- Casablanca, 1942
- The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938
- The Princess Bride, 1987
- Inception, 2010
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989
- Harry Potter series, 2001-2011
Into each film critic’s life a little schlock must fall, and Fields calls out three “disappointing” movies from the last five years, while noting that, as a monthly magazine critic, he is able to skip a lot of films:
- Annette, 2021
- Peppermint, 2018
- Life Itself, 2018