As Rebecca Newton prepares to end her short tenure leading the Carolina Theatre of Durham, she is satisfied with what she accomplished for the downtown landmark.
“I had three objectives when I joined. Lift the profile, raise a substantial amount of money and get more of the community involved,” Newton said.
The theater’s board of trustees announced last month that Newton will retire as president and CEO of the nonprofit that runs the theater in June 2020. In her two plus years in the position, she led the theater through one of its most successful periods in the 93 years since its conception, according to a board of trustees statement.
“I’m not the right person to take it to the next level,” Newton said of her departure in an interview at her office. The theater needs a long term person, someone who can be out on stage giving every curtain speech. But at this stage of her career, she is not that person, she explained.
Ellen Reckhow, a member of the board of trustees at CTD as well as a Durham County Commissioner for over 30 years, is adamant that there is no animosity between Newton and the theater’s trustees. The theater has had a substantial amount of administrative turnover in the last decade and would benefit from stability with a president and CEO who can stay put the position for “at least five years,” Reckhow said.
Rebecca Newton is well known among many in Durham due to her long local music career. A talented instrumentalist and singer, she led the popular band Rebecca & the Hi-Tones for 30 years, all while maintaining a tech career in online safety. Newton released her first solo album Blue Shirt this summer.
Carolina Theatre saw consistent and significant growth in many dimensions of programming under her leadership. Newton helped increase the number of children who visit the downtown landmark for student programming from 10,000 kids a year to 15,000. The theater also landed the two largest development grants in history totaling $188,000. Overall attendance also increased.
The theater has not always been the thriving venue it is today. Towards the end of 2015, it stared bankruptcy in the face due to a $1.7 million dollar deficit in part because of poor accounting practices. The theater eventually reached an out of court settlement with an accounting firm, according to a 2017 Durham Herald Sun report.
Newton said she takes pride in her ability to “pull the trigger” on decisions that are necessary for the community. For instance, when Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina was left in ruins by a recent hurricane, CTD put on a benefit concert Music Folk for Ocracoke on October 14th. “It doesn’t matter if we don’t make the money sometimes. It was the right thing to do,” she said.
Newton’s focus on the community is tied to the fact that she is a Durham native. That, she said, was a huge factor in her success at CTD. Before almost every performer, Newton gives a short curtain speech. “I go out on that stage and people say, ‘Hey, there’s someone I know.’ It’s someone from your larger family taking care of something you love,” she said.
In a WUNC-FM interview earlier this year, Newton spoke about familial difficulties during her childhood. As CEO, she took the initiative to host a free viewing of the movie Resilience and a follow up forum all in order to create an accessible space to learn about adverse childhood experiences.
Reckhow said that Newton’s legacy will be defined by this increased versatility of the theater’s offerings. Newton turned CTD into a space “not only to be entertained, but to learn about new subjects,” Reckhow said.
Carolina Theatre, a cultural hub long before the downtown Durham’s recent renaissance, has undergone a series of renovations over the years. One project built a wall around the third balcony, making it hard to imagine there were ever seats at that level. That was where people of color were forced to sit before the theater was desegregated in the early 1960s.
Before she departs, Newton hopes to replace this yellow wall with glass, so people will have a window into the theater’s racialized past. There is already an exhibit on the segregation of the theater on the mezzanine level, but this would be more of an experiential display that forces patrons to confront exactly how people of color were once marginalized within the walls of the theater.
Upon retiring from CTD, Newton hopes to keep bringing the local community together. Lighting up, Newton describes work with a partner to create “a sort of Durham City Limits that promotes local curated musicians… the ones who are on the cusp of going big time.”
Always the organizer, Newton has already rented performance space at the Carolina Theatre of Durham for some of these artists.
At top: Rebecca Newton inside the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Photo by Victoria Eavis