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Anna Cox Thompson

Anna Cox Thompson is communications specialist at New Memphis.

Tipping Point: Making arts education essential

By Updated: May 10, 2019 4:00 AM CT | Published: May 09, 2019 4:51 PM CT

There are people who “grow up in the theater,” and then there's Jennifer McGrath, vice president of education at the Orpheum Theatre.

“I actually grew up inside a theater,” McGrath says, laughing. “In addition to their full-time jobs as music educators and being very hands-on parents, my family owned and operated a small regional theater on Long Island (New York) where I grew up. From as early as I can remember, I was always there. I’ve done every job in the theater, quite literally, and I always joke that it was in my blood.”

Coming from a “long line of music and arts educators,” McGrath admits her upbringing was more “arts enriched” than some, but she’s striving to make her experience more accessible to all.

“My personal mission has always been the same — to use the arts to make positive change in the world. I want to transform communities, individuals, create a dialogue and help the world be better.”

After studying drama at NYU and being on the road as a stage manager for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theatre for nearly 14 years, she was ready for a new adventure — putting down roots.

“Brett Batterson (president and CEO of the Orpheum) said he wanted to hire someone who wanted to change the world; so, here was this amazing opportunity. Sometimes in life you have to take a leap.”

After taking her first year to “listen and learn,” she says she has a renewed dedication to arts education programming. 

“Young people need the arts. It’s about dispelling the myth that arts are supplemental and shifting the focus to seeing them as essential, even if you don’t go on to have a career in the arts," she said. "The skills don’t necessarily have to be about making you a better singer, dancer or actor; it can be about making you a better human being.”

After the years of wearing every hat in the business, she is poised to tackle the task at hand.

“What 14 years on the road does is make you adaptable," she said. "I’m inherently curious, I always want to be somewhere new and learn."

She's also become a Memphis fan. 

"I absolutely love being in Memphis, and being here at this specific time. It feels like the city is on this precipice of awesomeness. It has such an intense and complicated history that will take generations to work through, but there are a lot of people right now working to make it the best it can be. My hope is to be one of those people contributing to the growth (through the) expansion of access to arts for all.”

Jennifer McGrath is a graduate of the New Memphis Fellows program. To learn more about New Memphis, visit newmemphis.org.

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Orpheum Tipping Point

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