New director of public appearances wants shows that educate, entertain

By Tammy Keith Originally Published July 21, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated July 19, 2013 at 2:35 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Amanda Horton of Greenbrier stands in the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall, where she will be spending a lot of time as the new director of University of Central Arkansas Public Appearances. The Stuttgart native and UCA graduate said she is excited about this season’s shows, including Bill Cosby and Broadway on Ice.

Amanda Horton of Greenbrier has a new husband and a new job, and in hindsight, the groundwork for both of them was laid years ago.

Horton, 39, is director of University of Central Arkansas Public Appearances, a position that pushed her wedding up to May.

“When this position became available, I jumped on it immediately,” she said.

She was dating fellow Stuttgart native Randy Horton — she knew him but didn’t date him in high school — who has lived in Greenbrier for 15 years.

“We reconnected on Facebook,” she said. “He’s just the kindest man I know.”

Suddenly, their three-year long-distance romance wasn’t long distance. They married in May in Colorado, one of her favorite vacation destinations.

Horton’s life seems to have been building to her new position, starting with her degree in speech communication in 1995 from UCA.

At that time the degree was still connected with the theater department, and she had to take classes in theater, which seemed to her a waste of time.

“I said, ‘I am never going to use this,’” she said. “I wanted to do PR and marketing.”

She didn’t act in productions, but she learned to build sets and talk the talk.

It made all the difference in her life.

“It sparked a true interest in me of performing arts,” she said.

Growing up in Stuttgart, she’d never seen live theater.

The first play she saw was Sweeney Todd, via a video in a theater class at UCA.

“It was dark, but I loved it,” she said.

Live performances at UCA followed, and she couldn’t get enough.

She started planning trips with her mother and her girlfriends to New York City to see Broadway shows.

Horton’s previous job before coming to UCA was as director of the Grand Prairie Center, part of the Stuttgart campus of Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas. The only performing arts center in Stuttgart, she oversaw the facility from the ground up.

“They hired me six months before it opened. The great thing about that was I was there during building to see problems,” she said.

And, she fixed them. Some were as simple as recognizing that two sections of seats couldn’t have rows starting with A, as they had been labeled by the contractor. She changed one section to double letters, starting with AA, to avoid confusion.

“I literally wrote the policy and procedures for the building,” she said.

Horton booked events and hired staff.

“It was amazing, and the city absolutely loved it,” she said of the facility.

The performing arts world seemed familiar.

“All the terminology came flooding back,” she said of her UCA theater education.

Experience is the best teacher, as the saying goes, and working with performers was trial by fire.

One performer she worked with was singer Pam Tillis.

“She was wonderful to work with, just warm and engaging,” Horton said.

One of the performer’s requests in the contract was that she wanted hot tea before she went on stage.

There was water, but the appliance to heat it wasn’t plugged in. Tillis waited on it so she could have her tea.

“The show went from 7 to 7:15 … that’s why it’s so important that we’re detail-oriented. I learned a lesson — hot water’s important,” Horton said.

Tillis is scheduled to perform with Lorrie Morgan in October at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall at UCA, and you can bet Horton will have the hot water on.

Before getting into the performing-arts world, Horton was in the business world and then director of public relations, marketing and volunteer services at Stuttgart Regional Medical Center, which became Baptist Health Medical Center-Stuttgart.

It had five rural health clinics in other counties.

“I was the administrator on call,” she said. “That’s where I learned customer service.”

Horton said she enjoyed playing a role in helping families whose loved ones were in the hospital.

She said her role as director of public appearances has similarities with that job.

“I honestly believe this — sometimes people look at me like I’m crazy — I believe we’re taking care of people emotionally by offering these entertainment options for them,” she said. “People are smiling and laughing and happy and excited about the performance they saw.”

She recalled the first time she heard the bagpipes played live, which was in the Stuttgart center.

The audience was completely silent in the theater, she said. “That was really fun.”

The Harlem Gospel Choir came to the Stuttgart facility a couple of weeks after Whitney Houston died and sang a song that was a hit for Houston: “I Will Always Love You,” written by Dolly Parton.

“People were crying; it was really an amazing time for us. It caught their emotion,” she said.

Horton was also the lead development officer for the center, and she honed her fundraising skills. She had earned a master’s degree in interpersonal and organizational communication from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and she was an adjunct speech instructor at Phillips Community College and John Brown University in Siloam Springs while she worked as the Grand Prairie Center director.

Her mother was an elementary and middle school principal in Stuttgart.

“I had seen several issues she’d dealt with, and I never thought I wanted to be a teacher or principal,” Horton said. To her surprise, she “loved that.”

Still, public relations and marketing were her real passions, so she applied and was hired as director at the Grand Prairie Center.

When Horton and her husband got engaged, neither wanted to move.

“We both loved our jobs,” she said. He’s an assistant manager at Conway Corp.

That’s why the UCA job’s timing was so perfect.

Horton said she has several goals; No. 1 is to continue to bring diverse performances to Reynolds Performance Hall.

Jerry Biebesheimer, who retired in May as UCA director of public appearances — and served as a mentor to her when she started at the Stuttgart center — booked the 2013-14 season, but she will start working in September on the next season.

Horton said she wants to schedule shows that “bring in all walks of life through the Reynolds door.”

“I am most excited about what excites our community, and we’ve had lots of calls about Bill Cosby and Neil deGrasse [Tyson],” she said.

Broadway on Ice is going to bring an ice rink to the Reynolds Performance Hall stage.

“Technically, I’m really

interested in that,” she said. “It’s technically challenging. I don’t know how you magically make an ice rink appear on stage.”

Horton said she sees the UCA Public Appearances Series as a recruiting tool for students.

“We want to create positive experiences in Reynolds Performance Hall so, hopefully, they’ll see UCA as their home,” she said. “This campus is just beautiful.”

Horton said she wants to also share resources with the community. For example, she has arranged for the Paul Taylor Dance Company of New York to hold a master class with advanced students in the Blackbird Academy of Arts in Conway. “It’s absolutely free,” she said.

She also plans to “play an aggressive role in marketing” and to increase ticket sales.

Another idea is to create an advisory committee made up of about 12 community members and students.

Horton said she looks forward to getting involved in the community, and she’s already joined Kiwanis and an arts group.

“When I was in college, there were no restaurants, no shopping. It has just boomed,” she said.

And, Reynolds Performance Hall was just a parking lot.

“This little town’s got everything. It’s got shopping; it’s got arts, a thriving downtown.

“I see Reynolds Performance Hall as another asset to the culture of the community.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 372-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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