For Tessa Retterath Jones, landing a job at the Schubert Club, Minnesota’s oldest performing arts organization, located in St. Paul, was a bit of a dream.
To be able to steep herself in incredible musical performances and apply her freshly minted business degree to promoting the organization and its performers locally and beyond was a needle in a haystack sort of job opportunity.
“Music and performing arts have always been my passion but I knew I didn’t want to be on a stage,” Retterath Jones said. “My whole intent in going through business school was to work in arts administration, ultimately.”
Four years into her tenure, another tailor-made opportunity came to call. Schubert Club board member Suzanne Asher and former executive director Kathleen van Bergen challenged Retterath Jones to figure out a way to connect with young adult audiences in the Twin Cities.
“I think the idea is that we always have to be cultivating the next generation of arts lovers,” Retterath Jones said. “Everyone has their own young professionals program these days, some way of engaging younger people. We wanted to be part of that, we saw value in that, but we wanted to do that in a slightly different way.”
This ultimately took shape in 2011 as Theoroi, the Schubert Club’s program to turn arts newbies in their 20s and 30s into arts ambassadors, with Retterath Jones in the curator’s seat.
Oftentimes, today’s young professionals are transplants in new cities, trying to make friends with a limited knowledge of what their new town has to offer. A group like Theoroi can offer a solution to both obstacles.
The Schubert Club hosts performances by some of the world’s best classical performers in both traditional venues around the Twin Cities and in more informal presentations. Their free, weekly lunchtime Courtroom Concerts in downtown St. Paul are always a hit with the local 9-5 crowd.
That young adults are not typically first in line for chamber music tickets is a fair assessment. Classical music can have the reputation for being a bit elitist, a bit slow and, well, a bit expensive.
Younger performers are working to combat these stereotypes by mixing more “contemporary” pieces into their repertoire. Croatian cellists Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser of 2CELLOS performed a cover of “Despacito” in 2017 and a quick browse of YouTube reveals lots of videos of classically trained musicians riffing on radio hits.
Given the opportunity to helm a project to entice younger audiences, Retterath Jones pushed the idea beyond the doors of the Schubert Club. As she laid the foundation for Theoroi, she felt strongly it had to be bigger than her organization. She didn’t want to just build a street team to promote one organization’s work. She wanted to get young adults thinking about, and talking about, the performing arts as a habit.
“As a young professional, it can be hard to fit the amount of art exposure you want into your life,” said Theoroi member Libby Holden.
“This program helps expose you to both that end (larger arts organizations like the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera) and a lot of smaller organizations,… a lot of experimental work, and it puts it on your schedule so you don’t have to worry about it. It just happens.”
Think of Theoroi like a performing arts book club: For a yearly subscription fee, members get tickets to about 11 performances, roughly one per month. Up to two of the performances each season are from the Schubert Club. The remainder are from any one of the wide variety of performing arts organizations in the Twin Cities, from opera to contemporary dance to theater.
Members are expected to attend every event, even if musicals aren’t their thing or they don’t understand dance. There’s an expectation to be open-minded.
“We have people go through a registration process where they have to click a box that says, ‘I agree to attend the entire season, not pick and choose,’” Retterath Jones said.
Picking the performances each year is a major project for her.
“It is a lot of work because there are so many great options in the Twin Cities,” she said. “It’s tough to narrow it down. … But it’s really fun. I kind of get to curate my own performing arts schedule, too.”
Theoroi members are also expected to use social media and post about the performances they are attending. They can post whatever they want after a performance—good, bad or indifferent—but they have to post something. Essentially, they’re influencers for the arts.
“If just the 30 people in Theoroi are attending these performances, that’s great, we’re reaching 30 people, we’re making a really deep impact in those 30 people,” Retterath Jones said. “But by using social media, those 30 people are then multiplied by the hundreds and hundreds of people who they connect with on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. We’re starting a dialogue.”
The dialogue isn’t happening only on social media. Over the course of a season’s worth of performances, the group of 30 Theoroi members get to enjoy a season’s worth of social hours.
A typical show night includes a pre-show gathering at a nearby bar where the excited Theoroi members catch up and discuss what’s to come. Some people come armed with research about directors or company members, others like to come into the night cold. And then Retterath Jones ushers them over to the venue in time to take their seats together before curtain.
“There’s a huge advantage to having a group of people to go with because oftentimes you see a performance and you just want to talk about it,” said Jeff Lin, Schubert Club board member and former Theoroi member. “And it’s one thing to post about it on social media—(you) sometimes get a response but sometimes not—but to have a group of friends that you can hang out with and talk about the performance right afterwards… it’s really nice to have that common bond between your peers.”
Now in its seventh season, Retterath Jones is leaning a little further into the relationship aspect of Theoroi.
“The arts are a social outlet,” she said. “There are a lot of ways you can consume great performing arts online, but I think the social element is really, really important. I think attending events together–you just get so much more out of what you’re seeing if you’re with a group or a friend.”
Retterath Jones considers herself lucky to work in St. Paul, where it’s possible to go from cocktails and jazz at Vieux Carré to a gourmet dinner out to a full-scale theatrical performance at the Ordway. And she feels privileged to work in the arts and have the opportunity to develop a program to engage young professionals.
“I think (the arts) are important because they allow us to find ourselves in this very busy world,” Retterath Jones said. “Kind of take a minute to enjoy life, to reflect on life, specifically with music. And with theater, it gives a platform to discuss many of the things that are happening in our world and to think critically and to really process all of those things.”
Marissa is managing editor of Rewire and an award-winning digital and broadcast media producer. She identifies as a Leo, a Jersey girl, and a musical theater fanatic.