Chuck Swanson, Executive Director, Hancher Auditorium

Editor's note: During June 2008, the University of Iowa sustained the worst natural disaster in its history when the severe flooding sent the Iowa River over its banks and into the campus and Iowa City communities. As the UI celebrates near-completion of its flood recovery efforts this fall, Iowa Now looks back at that challenging time when thousands of faculty, staff, students, and volunteers joined forces to ensure the UI remained open for business. This is one of many inspiring stories.

In June 2008, soon after the rising Iowa River encroached on Hancher Auditorium and forced staff to evacuate their offices, it became apparent the building would be lost. What was not so clear at that time was, quite literally, how the show would go on.

But in the wake of the historic flood, which damaged more than 2.5 million square feet of space on the University of Iowa campus, neither the UI nor Hancher skipped a beat. Classes and Hancher programming—which included 17 events scattered across the city—did go on. And, as Hancher’s Executive Director Chuck Swanson will tell you, it was an accomplishment driven by spirit and passion for all that the auditorium stands for.

“We quickly got our forces together and as a staff we decided in a short amount of time that we weren’t going to let this get us down. We decided early on that Hancher is more than a building. So we came out with the theme ‘Can’t Contain Us.’ We let everybody know we were still staying true to our mission. We were still going to bring great artists to our university and to our community and, looking back, that’s one of the best things we could have done.”

That set the tone for the next eight years, as Hancher staff has worked tirelessly to maintain an annual slate of interesting arts programming in Iowa City and across the state—all while without a home.

Now, as we prepare to celebrate the new Hancher’s grand opening on Sept. 9, Swanson shared with Iowa Now his thoughts on the past eight years.

How big of a challenge was it to continue a full performance schedule over the past eight years?

It was sure tricky. I always feel very strongly that how you start is how things will continue for the most part. Coming out of those first few weeks, we started to realize we still needed a venue and it was going to be a different approach because we couldn’t do a lot of the Hancher shows that we had typically done, but yet we still wanted to maintain that quality of Hancher artists. We had worked with a lot of these partners on different activities over the years, so most of them were not new, but they were new in the sort of relationship we were going to have with them. So that taught us whenever you do your work, do it in the best way possible because you never know when you’re going to need somebody’s assistance. Everybody came together, but the challenge was trying to fit the right event with the right venue.

Through all of this we learned so many things that have made us even more creative and made us more resilient. More than anything, we learned that Hancher does need a home. Even though we are more than a building, as a presenter, your home is your biggest asset.

You saw the design plans for the new building at every step of the process. Is the finished space everything you thought it would be?

It’s even more. Part of it is the beauty of the materials, I think. The cypress wood, the terrazzo floor and even the unique sizes of the different spaces. It’s very wed to the outdoors, very natural. In addition to the materials, what I love more than anything is the adventurous nature of the space, how you walk in and the height is so tall, and then to look up the grand staircase … it’s breathtaking. No matter what kind of day you’re having, it brings a sense of peace.

The first time you set foot in new Hancher, what was that experience like?

The time that it really hit me as to how fortunate we are and how unique this space is was when I walked on the stage right before the press conference for the Joffrey Ballet in April. To walk in and see the beauty of this new Hancher and the intimacy of it and how people were reacting to it, I’ll never forget that moment.

How do you think new Hancher will change the university?

Every university needs a space like this. I think Hancher can now help with recruitment --  recruitment of people to the hospital, to the colleges, but also speakers who can present on our stage and make a difference for Iowans. I really want Hancher to be a resource for the entire university, for the state. I think it’s also wonderful in terms of its placement. When people drive into town and one of the first things they see is the new Hancher, it really says a lot about how the University of Iowa values the arts and is a welcoming place.

Is there a particular performance you are especially looking forward to this season?

It’s The Nutcracker. The Joffrey Ballet is so wonderful to work with and the fact that we’re creating a piece that’s really going to have a life beyond the first performance. I also love that the show will have an impact on the young people who are going to be a part of it. There will be kids who will audition and rehearse and perform with the Joffrey for three weeks, and that changes lives. And Christopher Wheeldon, he’s one of the hottest choreographers in the world.

How many new friends have you made over the past eight years?

I feel like I have really had the opportunity to talk about Hancher more than I ever have in the past, which has been a real joy for me. Then to get to know all of these new people who have become part of the Hancher family, the construction workers, the project team, and to be able to develop a deep relationship with them. We’ve had an experience that has been pretty darned special.

Are you glad it’s over?

I would say it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I feel so fortunate to have been a part of. I am really going to miss the camaraderie, the team effort with people from the university and with people from all over the country. It’s interesting because at times it seemed like it was taking so long that it would never end, and then all of the sudden it ramps up and now it’s just going like crazy. To see the staff come together and to have the opportunity to start from scratch is a pretty cool experience, too. We really are very fortunate. 

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Publication Source: 
Iowa Now