Our Q&A with The Carolina Theatre’s CEO/President

Our Q&A with The Carolina Theatre’s CEO/President

Rebecca Newton has 'been a quiet, gentle activist in the city for 40-plus years'

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Photo by Briana Brough

“I thought [my mom] had brought us to the end of the Earth,” Rebecca Newton says of her first impression of Durham as a teenager in 1969, moving here from St. Louis with her mom, Dr. Jacqueline A. Reynolds, who was a professor in biochemistry and physiology at Duke. It didn’t take long to change Rebecca’s mind, however. She’s now lived in the Bull City for more than 45 years.

In 1970, Rebecca attended Hillside High School – ”Go, Hornets!” – and from 1975-81, she lived downtown. “I loved those years and my $75-a-month house on Albemarle Street,” she says. During that time, she had her two children, Abigail Sheriff and J. Louise Newton, and, in 1980, she became the first executive director of St. Joseph’s Performing Arts Center, now the Hayti Heritage Center. “In my tenure at St. Joe’s, I learned quite a bit about community [and] working with state and federal agencies,” she says. During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Rebecca also started her first bands – “because I didn’t have enough to do,” she jokes. She’s likely best known for Rebecca & the Hi-Tones, which was established in 1981 and is still going strong today, performing around the city regularly at spots like The Blue Note Grill.

After St. Joe’s, Rebecca took to tech. She worked around 15 years with RTI International, and then moved to AOL as it was starting up. “That was an excellent decade,” she says. In 2000, Rebecca started consulting with companies like HowStuffWorks, iChat, LEGO and Yahoo. Then, in 2002, she went to Habbo, and in 2007, she joined London-based Mind Candy. “It was a dream job,” Rebecca says. “I managed a community of 110 million registered users and a remote team of about 60.”

All the while, Rebecca – working remotely for the most part – was dedicated to Durham. “I have been a quiet, gentle activist [in the city] for 40-plus years,” she says.

Now out of the tech business, Rebecca is excited to pair her management and community-building skills with her sheer love of the arts in her new position at The Carolina Theatre. We got her perspective on the new gig:

The theater has experienced a major shift over the past couple of years, from a $1.7 million deficit to being debt-free today. What do you think helped facilitate that success?

I attribute the recent success to Dan Berman (the volunteer interim CEO of the theater), the City of Durham and the many loyal staff and board members who turned everything around with hard work and dedication. And, most important, the Durham community needs to be recognized.

What role would you like the theater to play in the future in Durham and beyond?

I’d like to take it to the next level. I don’t necessarily know what that level is, but I plan to get the staff, board and community together to define where the organization will go. I’m hyper community-minded [and] look forward to creating more partnerships with community businesses and creatives. This building belongs to the Durham citizens. I want to be sure we offer what Durham and its surrounding communities want. Our Director of Education and Community Engagement Noel James is dedicated to this cause. It’s going to be a lot of creative fun, and I’m always all about the fun.

What events are you most excited about throughout the rest of the year?

• I’m a recent convert to the Retro Film Series. People of all ages and backgrounds attend and some dress to match the films. The vibe in the theater is infectious. I plan to bring all my baby boomer pals to as many of the films as possible.

• The 23rd year for the North Carolina Gay + Lesbian Film Festival, August 16-19. This is a very big deal. We were shining a spotlight on film, film festivals and gay recognition long before film fests or LGBQT+ were fashionable. The fest was created by the LGBQT+ community and our brilliant senior director of film, Jim Carl.

• The Family Saturday Series this fall. This is our second year presenting film and live performances for families on Saturdays. Two of my faves in this series include Kathak Indian classical dance and a full musical production on our stage of “Diary of a Worm, a Spider and a Fly,” based upon Doreen Cronin’s book.

What are some of your Durham haunts?

The Blue Note Grill, The Durham Hotel, Viceroy, Geer Street Garden, M Sushi, Sake Bomb, Motorco Music Hall, The Pinhook, DPAC, and I’m looking forward to becoming a regular at Arcana!

What has surprised you most about the job now that you’ve been head of the theater for about six months?

Honestly, I’m still astounded at how many people continue to congratulate me and say, “You’re perfect for this job!” or “We are so lucky to have you.” I especially like the “we” reference. The community feels ownership of The Carolina Theatre. I love that. It is truly a community jewel for culture and history within Durham.

The community response has been so strong and supportive, not just of my position but of the [theater], throughout the years. Between continued and generous support from the city, private citizens, local foundations and the staff and board of directors, we’re sitting in a beautiful spot – physically and then some. Life is good in downtown Durham. Life is better with The Carolina Theatre of Durham.

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Laura Zolman Kirk
Associate Editor Laura Zolman Kirk is a Kentuckian turned North Carolinian who can't get enough of this buzzing community.