- Philip Morris
Everyone who’s lived in the Capital Region over the past five years has noticed the wave of rapid changes here, but it’s unlikely anyone has observed them more intimately than Philip Morris, the burly CEO of Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. When Morris took over his position in 2002 (“on March 4,” he notes, “the only day of the year that is a command”), Proctors presented about 25 shows a year and had an operating budget of $3.5 million. If the theater itself was a going concern, though, the city whose downtown it dominated was a shell of its former GE-company-town self. But Schenectady didn’t go gentle into what looked like its inevitable decline, and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to remake itself, in large part through investment in the arts. At the center of it all has been Proctors and its relentlessly dynamic chief. On September 29, Morris will unveil a $30 million makeover of his institution, which has grown from the original 1926 theater into a performing arts center with three stages, a wide-screen iWERKS cinema, and conference facilities. In contrast to his first year, this season Morris will present 125 different shows and manage a budget of $12 million. “Our agenda,” he says, “is to be bold.” Not a word you’d have used for Proctors or Schenectady for decades. Things change.
How has life changed for you in the past five years?
Well, this is a long, long question. On a personal level, the last two of my three kids headed off to college; my wife went through a long bout with cancer that she is on top of now; and we had to put a kitty down with advanced diabetes. On the work front, unbelievable changes, going from a lovely old restored theater to a new performing arts center. This is a change that is physical, clearly, but also emotional, professional, and institutional. We are not there yet on any of those fronts, but we know where we have to be!
Is there a new direction in your work/play the Capital Region has inspired?
I really like living here. I love the four major cities and the stuff they inspire. The rest of suburbia sort of drives me nuts. While I think the cities are doing an admirable job—including Schenectady—the reality of the malls and the strips and the folks that are frightened by our cities is really depressing. I try not to think about it too much. I am driven by the intersection of the arts, community, and cities. It’s a fabulous stew of diversity, recreation, history, personal development, culture in the broadest sense, and livability. Moving here has doubled my sense of purpose in that arena. I have not had tons of time to play, but I love being between the three mountain ranges and have hiked a bit in them all. I live by the Mohawk River and love that. I am a sailor and wish it were easier to get to big water.
What is usually your first thought in the morning?
I stay up late and get up early. The evening habit is a result of teenagers and my work being other folks’ play. The morning is a sense of “gotta get going, lots to do.” I can’t think in the morning till I brush my teeth. A shower helps, but brushing my teeth is the critical step. I process while I sleep, so often the morning has an idea or solution for something I went to bed pondering. It could be work or personal or family; whatever was on my mind as I went to bed is there in the morning, processed. I fall asleep in under 30 seconds most nights.
Who’d you like better in high school, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
Easy, Beatles. Stones were a jam band. Beatles had meaning.
What’s the most interesting thing on your wall at home?
When folks come over, I often show them a pencil drawing of a bearded, interesting-looking man. What amazes me about it is that it was done by a non-arts major at Yale University at the turn of the last century. The piece is amazing. I investigated the person through the alumni office at Yale. He did no art after graduating. Was an insurance guy. He took the course because it was required. Now that is a liberal arts education. I swear that most art students could not be as proficient.
Is it possible that the Capital Region will run out of artists and audience before all of its cities have revitalized themselves with the arts?
Somehow I think the question is faulty. If the region is going to grow, it must do the sorts of things it is doing now to establish an identity and attract attention and business worldwide. If the arts cannot match the demand that effort will bring, then the effort will fail. This is a community development story, not just an arts development story.
What’s the least favorite part of your job?
That’s easy. Personnel issues. They unwrap me. I often find myself amazed that folks have the energy to have the problems or issues they have.
Describe a perfect day.
Two meetings, not 10. An hour to chat with someone I don’t otherwise know who is really good at whatever they do. A deep conversation with one of my kids. A demanding demand—something I have read, someone I have talked to, something that simply requires a rich perspective to resolve. A good day. Asleep in 30 seconds.