The School of Communication this week welcomes Al Heartley as the new managing director of the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. Heartley, who received his MFA from Yale School of Drama, will be coming to Northwestern from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., where he served as director of development.
“The Wirtz Center has multifarious programs and productions that allow undergraduate and graduate students to practice the art of theatre in a safe environment with leading professionals in the field,” Heartley says. “I am excited to help position the Wirtz Center as one of the leading performing arts centers in the Chicago area, connect more deeply with our local community, and provide bold and daring experiences for our audiences.”
In honing the Wirtz Center’s mission and vision, Heartley aims to place greater emphasis on representation both onstage and in the works our students perform.
“I have a particular passion for equity, diversity, and inclusion,” he says. “I firmly believe it is our responsibility to challenge the systems of oppression that have long plagued the arts. I hope that in my role, I can help expand the canon of work to include stories that are not often told.”
Heartley, a native of North Carolina, previously lived in Chicago while working Steppenwolf Theatre Company: first as an intern under Erica Daniels (C91) and, later, in an apprenticeship in theater management where he had the opportunity to collaborate with the late Martha Lavey (C79, G86, GC94, H10). It was through these and other mentors and his exposure to the vital Chicago theatre scene that the one-time actor began to see his future in leadership.
“I liked theatre management,” he says. “I liked the act of accomplishing something and being able to say, ‘I got this done and this is how it affected the rehearsal process or the performance or the audience experience.’”
Heartley left Chicago in 2012 to work for the Cleveland Play House in their education department and then enrolled in Yale School of Drama in 2015. He graduated last spring and shortly after began work at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
He received his bachelor of arts degree from Florida State University where he was enrolled in the theatre program. In addition to studying acting, directing, dramaturgy and theatre research, he took part in many other academic and social activities including campus politics. It’s a parallel he draws to Northwestern’s undergraduate theatre majors, who have access to one of the finest dramatic curriculums in the country within a top-tier liberal arts institution.
Heartley sees his arrival at the Wirtz Center as an opportunity to better position it as the performing arts center in the Chicago area, one that has and will continue to “draw artists of a high caliber, produce artists of a high caliber, and use the center as an incubator of professional practice.”
Heartley’s first day at the Wirtz Center was January 22. He replaces Diane Claussen, who held the position of Wirtz managing director for eight years before moving to DePaul University last summer.
The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts annually mounts more than 40 productions in theatre, music theatre, and dance. Undergraduate actors, managers, and playwrights, alongside graduate designers, directors, and dramaturgs, collaborate on works both classic and contemporary for audiences of all ages. Productions are staged in the Wirtz’s four venues—the 439-seat Ethel M. Barber Theater, the 288-seat Josephine Louis Theater, the 100-seat Hal and Martha Hyer Wallis Theater, the 100-seat Mussetter-Struble Theater, and two additional black box spaces, as well as in the University’s 1,000-seat Cahn Auditorium. The facility includes a 7,800-square-foot scene and paint shop, a 2,500-square-foot costume shop, a lighting shop, wet and dry design shops, computer labs, seminar rooms, and rehearsal spaces.
The Wirtz Center is supported by a generous endowment from Chicago Blackhawks Chairman William Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz and his wife, Marilyn Queen Wirtz. The center is named in honor of Rocky’s grandmother, a 1924 graduate of the University.