Retiring from Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center, Denison reflects on career
By Lou Fancher
During the 32 years Scott Denison has served as general manager of the Lesher Center for the Arts and five decades working in the arts for the city of Walnut Creek, his management style has never wavered.
“I’m a can-do-let’s-take-the-hill-together rather than a point-the-way-to-take-the-hill kind of guy,” he says in a recent interview.
Announcing in September his retirement as the regional center’s manager and as Center Repertory Company’s managing director, Denison in December will direct his 23rd production of “A Christmas Carol.”
Agreeing that the annual play is his “passion project,” Denison shares other things he’s proud of: married for 48 years to actress Kerri Shawn, Center Rep’s co-education director and co-director of its Young Rep theater training program; parent with Shawn of three adult daughters (Jenny Perry, Amanda Doppe and Kelley Denison) and grandparent to three children; overseer of the Lesher’s 850 annual performances (prepandemic); and creator and producer of the annual Shellie Awards for 41 years and Chevron Family Theatre Festival for 13 years.
Denison comes from an arts-loving family. His parents, Florence and George Denison, sang in barbershop choruses; his younger brother, Ken Denison, is a Broadway actor and as a producer has opened scores of productions of Disney’s musical “The Lion King” across the country; and his and Shawn’s three daughters are all involved in the performing arts or arts education.
Denison graduated from Walnut Creek’s Las Lomas High School, attended nearby Diablo Valley College and San Francisco State University, graduating with a degree in theater arts. Before helping to open the Lesher Center in 1990, he managed Walnut Creek’s Civic Arts Theatre (aka The Nuthouse), a former walnut warehouse that produced community theater until it was torn down and replaced with the new arts center.
“My family has always been supportive of my work. They love the arts,” he says. “That will continue, and when I retire in January 2022 I’ll spend more time with my grandchildren. I’m not shy with my opinions, so I’ll offer them my wise, sage advice.”
That is, at times when he’s not busy. Denison will continue producing the Shellie Awards and the Chevron Family Theatre Festival and write and direct new and existing Fantasy Forum shows. Fantasy Forum features original music and uses a Disneyland-like approach to theater in which the characters interact directly with adults and children in the audience. A production of “Beauty and the Beast” is already being considered.
“I’ve got an idea for the 50-minute format that will hold the interest of all ages. We own 17 shows now, all with original scripts and music. I want to get it up to about 20 shows. And I’ll continue to do the big, fun events I like best.”
Introduced as interim managing director, Carolyn Jackson is Walnut Creek’s community relations manager for the city’s Arts + Recreation department. She brings experience from positions as communications director for Dance Place and assistant director for modern dance company DancEthos, both in Washington, DC. Jackson says the emphasis in meetings with Denison points to preserving the Lesher’s strengths: headliner artists, a talented and committed staff and partnerships with longstanding producers that establish the Lesher as a regional destination.
“The Lesher Center staff is one of our keys to success — their extensive knowledge, customer service approach and systems for efficiencies have supported the complex operation of the center and created lasting impressions for producers and audience members for decades,” says Jackson.
The general manager role has a three-prong focus: provide staff with resources, tools and policies to be successful; curate special performances and events unique to the Lesher; and form and maintain partnerships designed to achieve best results for producing partners and patrons.
In reference to the study commissioned by the city of Walnut Creek and the Diablo Regional Arts Association (DRAA), which have hired Michael Kaiser from the DeVos Institute of Arts Management to develop a strategic plan for the Lesher Center, Jackson says, “As we emerge from lockdown, we have the opportunity to evaluate our practices before operations return to full speed.”
Under consideration will be technological solutions to best manage rental bookings and record-keeping, restructuring the marketing approach, deepening relationships with the DRAA and more. In addition to maximizing the remaining time with Denison, Jackson says, “My primary focus will be listening deeply on all fronts!”
While praising Jackson’s many qualifications and skills when it comes to balancing high artistry, audience development and economic stability, Denison admits that running the art center is “a daunting thing.” He recalls at age 25 being handed the keys to the $22 million facility and being told, “Here are the keys. Run with it. Make it be so.”
Laughing at the memory, he says it was definitely on-the-job show business training and skill-building that he never fully learned in college. “Show business is two equal parts. The economic ups and downs are the business. The “show” is the art—and must go on, which sounds corny.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the show could not “go on,” movies were shown outdoors, virtual programming and major internal improvements such as replacing the chiller and boiler after 31 years were acts all performed by a staff of five people, including Denison. Trimmed down from 55, the small team took care of the entire 72,824 square-foot building. Ninety-percent of season ticket holders donated or held their subscriptions in accounts as future credit. Returning to “The Christmas Carol” live for the first time in two years, the cast’s vaccination rate is at 100%, including even the young actor playing Tiny Tim.
Summing up more than 50 years in the performing arts, Denison says, “I value live performance. Every performance is different: the reactions of the audience, the applause, the gasping, the crying … it’s unbelievable. Those close interactions of actors to audiences? You don’t get that anywhere else.”