Storytelling is a powerful tool of engagement. Sometimes we get so caught up in our work that we find ourselves not spending enough time writing and sharing stories of engagement. Hancher has an incredible story, but it is the people who support Hancher that have the stories that are, arguably, worth more in value and impact. As we’re figuring out how to recover and heal post-pandemic, I consider the ways in which we can remind our communities of their value. Since we’ve been apart for so long, I wonder if returning to capturing stories of engagement could help us heal and recover. Storytelling could be a means to that end.
On a hot summer day, I met with George and Barb Grilley over lunch to learn about the incredible work they do at Hancher. George and Barb have organized the building tour program since 2015. They recruit volunteers to lead guided tours, train volunteers, and organize weekly tours for the public. Barb told me that the best tour guides are the retired teachers because they tend to have the interpersonal and interpretive skills to put on a good tour. The Grilleys have organized the tour program for nearly 6 years. But their story does not begin here. Their connection with Hancher begins much earlier in time, just a few years after the 1972 opening of the first building.
Originally from Portland, Oregon, George moved to Moline, Illinois during the 1970s and worked at John Deere. His interest in the arts stems from his talent in playing the string bass and love for classical music. Back then as a young, single guy, his social calendar was in need of things to do. And, while everyone went east to find entertainment in Chicago, George headed west to attend performances at Hancher. The 1975-1976 season was the first season when he became a regular audience member, sitting in the same seat and around the same people. Soon after, he became good friends with a woman whom he sat next to named Mary. Little did he know that Mary would become a major connection with Hancher and life-long friend with him and his future wife.
Born in Illinois, Barb began attending performances at Hancher after she met George. As a former teacher, she has always been naturally interested in the arts and her love for jazz music. Now, Mary is important to this story! Because George had already bought his tickets for the 1981-1982 season (and was already assigned a seat), Mary, and others seated in the vicinity, would try to figure out a way for George and Barb to sit next to one another. The Grilleys wed in 1982, signaling a major partnership for not just in life, but also for their future work at Hancher. When I asked if they had a most memorable performance in mind, they both said the Joffrey Ballet Billboards Performance with Prince music in 1992. In fact, George recalled dancing socially with the performers at a gala after the show. His face lit up as he explained how the Joffrey dancers and gala attendees interacted with one another on and off the dance floor.
Fast forward to the early 2000s. George and Barb’s involvement with Hancher began to extend well-beyond the auditorium. For years George worked in Hancher’s gift shop. However, the 2008 flood halted all operations at Hancher since the building could not be salvaged. But this didn’t stop Hancher from continuing to do what it does best. After several years of venue hopping and finding many temporary “homes” for performances, George and Barb realized that they wanted to be involved in something a bit more impactful. In 2015, George was asked to organize the public building tour program in anticipation of the opening of the new building in 2016. They built the program from the ground-up amidst the construction, reaching out to people who could help build narratives for the public, and used the unique architecture of the building to create a touring experience. The planning of the tours began with information collected from word of mouth. They knew who to reach out to for what information and relied on others for backstage behind the scenes access.
“I wanted to make it a personal experience and to know who the audience is in order to curate the tour experience”, said George.
Beginning at the box office, leading audiences through backstage, the stage, the balconies, the café, and ending with the gift shop, the public is taken on an experience from the perspective of both the audience member and the performing artist. For younger audiences, children practice taking a bow on stage. For more accessible and inclusive tours, children are taken through the experience of actually attending a performance by going through the process of purchasing a ticket. Barb told me about a special education teacher who gives tours to special-needs students. “She’s so wonderful”, said Barb. University architecture students often take tours as well to learn about the building’s impressive construction. The tour program brings people inside the doors and gives people an experience that goes well-beyond just attending a performance. The Grilleys incredible effort in organizing the program demonstrates the time, thought, and carefulness that they put into building a program that engages with Hancher’s public in the most impactful ways. Their work contributes to Hancher’s value on both campus and in community. However, sometimes we need to take a moment to remind people like George and Barb of their value, and that their contributions actually make community engagement possible at Hancher.
I asked George how he defines arts engagement. He explained to me that he didn’t know a lot about public engagement until he recently learned more about it. “It’s about getting artists out in the community and bringing awareness and responsibility as major involvements in the arts”, he said. The spirit and energy behind George’s words relates to Hancher’s commitment to people first and creating shared experiences. The ability to reflect these values in the tour program is an impressive endeavor that has seen positive impact. Barb recalled how busy they were the first weekend that the new building opened in 2016. “We had 99 tour slots to fill on opening weekend. There were 150 people to organize to help with the tours. Around 9,000 people attended that weekend. So, we were very busy the first few years of the new building”, she said. But as time progressed, interest naturally dwindled. George said that they now give about half a dozen tours during a regular season.
While they do enjoy leading the tour program, what really excites George and Barb is seeing how impressed people are with the new building. Unfortunately, the pandemic paused all public tours and now they have not given a tour in nearly 15 months. Despite not being able to attend live performances in-person, they managed to utilize surround sound and Zoom to continue attending virtual performances at Hancher this past year. When I asked about Hancher Illuminated, their faces lit up with joy! They said the light show was the most memorable performance of the 2020-2021 season. Looking ahead, George and Barb are excited to see what renewed energy and spirit for public tours will come post-pandemic. And, of course, they’re excited to get back to attending live performances as well.
In conclusion, I could have listened to their stories all day. I kept thinking about how George and Barb have contributed so much to Hancher’s value over the years. From driving an hour from Moline, to regularly attending performances, and building the tour program from the bottom-up, it is without a doubt that they have added so much depth and meaning to the public engagement work that is done at Hancher. After our conversation, it is my hope that they are reminded of their value at Hancher. Because of their efforts, people have engaged directly with the building in really impactful ways. It is also my hope that storytelling is seen as a creative tool of community engagement. After all, the sustainability of public engagement work is only contingent upon relationship building, shared values, and meaningful community.
Many thanks to George and Barb Grilley for allowing me to share their story.