WILMINGTON — They were lifelong friends who trusted and respected each other when it came to bringing talent to Wilmington stages.
After Thalian Hall executive director Tony Rivenbark passed away in the summer of 2022, Shane Fernando, vice president of advancement and the arts for Cape Fear Community College and the executive and artistic director of CFCC’s Wilson Center, called it a huge loss for the arts community.
“His presence will continue to be felt in Wilmington,” Fernando said at the time.
Rivenbark led the hall through numerous renovations for more than four decades. Now Fernando will ensure his vision continues, as the Board of Trustees at Historic Thalian Hall Center of the Performing Arts announced Tuesday evening Fernando will officially take over as chief executive officer of the historic 1858 theater.
“It’s like coming home,” Fernando said Tuesday evening.
He was standing in Thalian Hall ballroom, greeted by a wave of hugs and handshakes. Moments before, the board voted unanimously on his leadership role, which will officially begin January 2024.
A native Wilmingtonian and graduate of UNCW, Fernando has worked in public and arts administration for two decades. He has overseen Wilmington’s major indoor theaters, including as director of campus life arts and programs at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium before exiting to help oversee the construction of the Wilson Center for Cape Fear Community College, which opened in 2015.
In the last year of Rivenbark’s absence, Fernando — also a Thalian Hall board of trustee — has helped book shows at the venue. He has acted as the hall’s programming consultant for its main attraction series for years.
The board has undergone a year-long search for Rivenbark’s replacement, with New Hanover County Commissioner and Thalian Hall board member Rob Zapple stepping in as interim director. According to Thalian Hall trustee Amy Grant, who was the chair of the search committee in the nationwide pool, there were roughly 60 applicants.
“We interviewed 20 people by Zoom and 10 after the first round,” Grant said. “Then we narrowed it down to five in-person interviews.”
Trustee President Terry Espy said Fernando threw his hat into the ring as the board was narrowing its top contenders.
“It took nerve for him to come in at the last minute,” she said. “We never imagined that he even considered it, but we are elated. It just feels right.”
According to treasurer Richard Trubia, the board was ready to make an offer to a candidate when they found out about Fernando’s interest. They had already offered the position to one person earlier in the year, though negotiations didn’t pan out.
Trubia said Fernando “was interviewed just like everybody and went through the full process.”
Fernando said he first began considering the move in the spring — a “magnetic pull” he described was heavy on his heart. Thalian Hall has been a part of his life for more than 30 years.
He first entered the historic theater as a child and stepped onto the stage as a Lost Boy in “Peter Pan” after the 1990 historic renovation led by Rivenbark.
“The facility had a new fly system, which wasn’t there before, so it was such an optimistic and exciting time, with this new technology being able to serve the community,” Fernando recalled. “As a kid, it’s a life-changing moment.”
Fernando continued performing in shows at Thalian throughout youth and worked through every facet of the theater: as a technician, doing spotlight operations, working as prop master, stage managing.
“This was my laboratory,” he said, “where I went to school even after school.”
He would often set up at Thalian Hall to do his homework before theater rehearsals began; it’s where he first met Rivenbark. He had only heard of Thalian’s leader through the adults helping oversee the shows.
“When the big move-in day into the hall from rehearsal took place, there would always be these rules — like no chewing gum on stage, no running — and if you break any of these rules, we were told Tony’s going to come out. I remember being terrified, like he was this invisible dragon. I never saw him; he was like a mystery.”
Fernando’s first encounter took place on a normal day; he was doing his homework before rehearsal when Rivenbark appeared. Fearful he was breaking one of the rules, Fernando said he cowered for a minute, but then Rivenbark moseyed past without a word.
“Like I wasn’t even there,” he said, “but I love that story because when Tony was focused and on a mission, nothing else mattered.”
The two ended up working together throughout the years on various productions and with Fernando helping set up galas at the hall. During a New Year’s Eve event in the ‘90s, Rivenbark gave him what’s now the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater to decorate according to the theme. Notes and tasks were included, but also there was a freedom and agency to follow through on his own accord which Fernando appreciated.
“He put faith in me to accomplish it,” Fernando said. “That really was encouraging coming from this larger-than-life impresario.”
Their working fellowship continued when Fernando attended UNCW, where he received a communication studies degree and a master’s degree in public administration. He served as a prop master and set dresser on “The Foreigner,” a show directed by Michael Granberry, also starring Rivenbark. Fernando had to make fake food for the actors during scenes.
“You’re not going to have real sausages and real eggs on stage, and the actors still have to eat and be able to speak while not choking or getting salmonella, so I remember experimenting with different types of puddings and doing taste tests, which Tony thought was hilarious,” Fernando said. “Our friendship grew out of those moments.”
Fernando moved away from Wilmington for a few years in the early 2000s but kept in touch with Rivenbark. Upon his return, Rivenbark suggested Fernando join Thalian’s board as a trustee. Fernado was working leading the helm at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium at the time.
Then the call came for him to help oversee the launch of Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center, a $41 million publicly funded, 1,500-seat theater. Fernando said he remembered Rivenbark asking then: “Well, what about Thalian someday?”
“I said, ‘Tony, I can tell you this: Wilson Center is my challenge, but Thalian Hall will always have my heart. My heart’s always gonna be there.’ And in a way, I’ve just listened to my heart,” Fernando said of his new position.
During his tenure at Wilson Center, Fernando ushered in professional Broadway tours, a first for Wilmington audiences. He said his learning experience there throughout the last decade has been immeasurable, from implementing state-of-the-art stage technology, to working with union crews, to building upon the guest experience. All of those insights will carry forth in the historic theater.
“It’s bittersweet,” Fernando said of his exit. “I love the team there. I love everything that happens down there.”
Thalian Hall houses a 600-plus seat main stage theater and the 100-seat Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater. The ballroom can fit almost 200 people and Fernando and the board already are in talks about transforming it.
Thalian Hall is owned by the city but operated by the board and CEO. Since the City of Wilmington is in the process of moving into the Thermo Fisher building, the ballroom, also former council chambers, will be freed up.
Thalian trustee Turbia said the plan is to turn the room into an events space, to rent out for weddings and parties, as well as utilize as a third theater. It’s something the theater community has expressed a need for: a medium-sized venue.
“In a way, it’s like it’s coming full circle,” Fernando said, pointing to an 1858 photograph of the room, which hangs in the adjacent hallway. “Tony and I used to talk about this photo a lot. You can see there, they built stairs and library stacks, but there is a stage where they would have performances, lectures, and recitals. It’s probably safe to say it echoed what was originally in the main hall on a smaller scale. It’s exciting to think it may come back to its original use.”
The ballroom has been utilized throughout the years for Cucalorus Film Festival screenings, as well as plays, musical performances and parties. Fernando recalled when Rivebark did “The Sunshine Boys” in the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater and at intermission the audience walked into the ballroom for a scene change. “1776” also was hosted there, as was Celia Rivenbark’s “High Voter Turnout” last year.
The ballroom will have to be renovated, with improved lighting and sound, but those are all ideas Fernando will be mulling as he prepares to take over as CEO. The one piece of advice he is holding close from his departed friend and mentor is considering how Thalian Hall “speaks” for its community.
“Tony told me so many years ago: ‘No one ever goes to a theater museum.’ There are a lot of historic theaters that have not done anything and no one ever goes to them. But how does our historic theater continue to adapt and evolve to serve the current community? That’s a marriage of preserving what is historic and important, and ensuring the space also speaks to the present and the future.”
Espy said she has “full confidence” in Fernando’s foresight and acumen to lead Thalian Hall into a new era, a sentiment Trubia echoed.
“I know Shane’s going to do wonderful things,” he said. “While I’ll miss his leadership and all he has done for the Wilson Center, we are really happy to have him here.”
Cape Fear Community College did not respond to Port City Daily’s request for comment about Fernando’s exit.
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