Nick Halder might be new in his role at the Grand Opera House. Yet, within the four walls of the historic Dubuque theater, he feels right at home.
“This place is exactly as I remember it,” Halder said, glancing around at Grand memorabilia and posters of performances past affixed to the walls. “It’s a very full circle moment for me.”
Halder, a familiar face within Dubuque’s community theater scene for the past 15 years, was named the Grand’s executive and artistic director on May 24, replacing Frank McClain, who led the organization for six years and announced his departure in early 2021.
Halder, 38 and a native of northwest Iowa, offers a unique perspective with experience as a performer, producer, director, educator and arts administrator. He brings a wealth of experience in nonprofit theater and higher education to the position — most recently as the co-founder and producing artistic director of Rising Star Theatre Company in Dubuque.
Halder came to Dubuque in 2005 to collaborate with Rising Star co-founder Megan Schumacher, who then was facilitating the Grand’s summer theater efforts for youth.
“Megan said she could use a little help, so I came here,” Halder said. “That was really my first introduction to arts administration in theater.”
Halder was pursuing an undergraduate degree in theater at the University of Northern Iowa at the time, focusing primarily on performance, design and production.
He later went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts in theater arts from the University of Arizona in Tucson and did doctoral coursework at Texas Tech University in Fine Arts: Theatre, with emphasis areas of arts administration and acting and directing.
However, Halder continued to return to Dubuque each summer to assist Schumacher at the Grand.
“Dubuque became like a summer home to me for theater,” he said. “And it’s where I first met everyone I would continue working with for the next 15 years. What was always interesting to me was that I was studying in areas that you would have thought would have had a lot of arts and culture. That wasn’t the case. What surprised me about Dubuque was how much arts and culture there was by comparison and how supportive the community and the schools were of the arts. It was unlike anything I had grown up with. Dubuque was like big city Iowa to me.”
In 2008, Schumacher and Halder would produce their final youth summer production at the Grand — a decision Halder admitted did not come easily and followed a series of changes happening within the organization.
“The youth production at the Grand during that time wasn’t budgeted the same way as the other productions in the season,” Halder explained. “But to Megan and me, it wasn’t just a kids show. We didn’t treat the kids any differently than we did the adults. We put the same amount of energy into our youth production, and it took the same amount of work.”
Halder and Schumacher encouraged Grand officials to revisit the budget for the youth production.
“There was a lot of change happening at the Grand during that time and a little bit of a lack of community in community theater,” Halder said. “The Grand seemed torn between being a producing organization or a presenting organization. While bringing in shows might also bring in additional revenue, they also got in the way of shows the Grand was producing at times.
“Ultimately, while that shift was taking place, Megan and I decided to break away. But we left on our own terms and on good terms. There was never any ill will or spite toward the Grand. Our favorite memories were there. We both still performed there. Megan even got married on the Grand stage.”
A year after stepping away from the Grand’s summer programming for youth, Halder and Schumacher co-founded Rising Star. What began as a means to mount a production for youth has since emerged as a nonprofit theater option in its own right, including a series of summer camps and performance opportunities for more than 1,000 area performers and volunteers of all ages.
“We had no idea that would turn into what it has,” Halder said. “I’m really proud of the work Rising Star has done and continues to do. And I think we’ve proven that there is room in the community for both Rising Star and the Grand to be successful.”
Halder said a plan is in place for him to transition away from his role at Rising Star. But he’s leaving the door open for that organization to collaborate with the Grand.
“Rising Star is like my child, so it’s very hard to just leave it behind and walk away,” he said. “We’re looking forward to what the future might hold and the conversations we might have about the two organizations pooling their resources and working with one another down the road.”
In addition to Halder’s ties to community theater, he also served as theater director in residence at Clarke University — another organization that has seen changes to its theatrical focus, discontinuing its drama and musical theater majors in 2018.
“At that time, there was no telling what my future might have been with the school,” Halder said. “I think there is strong leadership with Thom (Chesney, president at Clarke) and an advocacy for the arts and for liberal arts programs.”
Halder said while he didn’t necessarily have his sights set on a leadership role with the Grand, the opportunity came at the right time, having honed his interest and experience in arts administration with a theatrical focus through Rising Star.
“The stars aligned, and I just was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I took a chance and put my name out there.”
Grand Board President Tara Brock said the Grand is looking forward to what Halder will bring to the role.
“We are excited that Nick is local and appreciates the value of theater as an artistic outlet for children and adults,” she stated in a press release announcing Halder’s acceptance of the position. “We expect that this will be a great transition and are confident that Nick will continue to build on the strengths of Frank McClain and the quality work he has done for the Grand over the last six years.”
Moving forward — and leading the Grand into its 50th anniversary season and out of an unprecedented period of time due to the COVID-19 pandemic with its first live productions of “Matilda the Musical” and “Brigadoon” set for this summer — Halder said he is isn’t making major changes just yet, though fundraising efforts are underway for a new curtain and upgraded soundboard.
“Frank did a wonderful job laying the groundwork,” he said. “I’m inheriting two seasons that are already set, grants that have already been written and a lot of great efforts in documenting the Grand’s history.”
In addition to handling the day to day operations of the Grand, Halder said he also is looking forward to what new artistic challenges the organization can pursue.
He pitches a humble philosophy to leadership, emphasizing the value of maintaining the “community” aspect of community theater.
“The work I do here isn’t about me,” he said. “I’m in the very rare and wonderful position to be able to help create opportunities for those who love and aspire to be involved in theater, as well as those who will go on to become lifelong supporters of the arts. Theater is an artform that is truly about the collaboration process on all levels.
“I view what I do as putting the right people in the right places and giving them the right tools to be successful and build upon that success. I’m excited to be able to do that and to share with the community all of the wonderful work done by the community on the Grand stage.”