Rena Cromer Finding Her Niche in Theater Management

Rena Cromer, who currently lives in Roanoke, Virginia, is just one semester away from completing her BA from the University Without Walls Concentration in Arts Management. Rena is also the Box Office Coordinator at the Lenfest Center for the Arts on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. Rena finds AES courses are helping her to build a theater management career.

Rena fell in love with theater in elementary school but gained more skills and direction when she met actor and now mentor, Elliott Street, after he returned to Meridian, Mississippi from working in theater in Los Angeles. Street, who taught theater at the high school and ran a community theater group, gave her frank advice. “You’re really good at organizing, but I just don’t think you’ll cut it on the stage.” Rena appreciated his feedback, which motivated her to focus on technical theater. She began a college program, but after a couple of years of painting props and running errands, became frustrated with the limited curriculum. She had gone to school to learn design, but felt that undergraduates did not have many opportunities to participate in design work. Rena left the program and found a niche working in theater management. She realized that many theaters create value for their communities, but was disappointed to see that many were not well managed. “Everybody knows how to put on a play, but [it seemed] nobody knows how to run it like a business.”

More than a decade later with significant professional experience under her belt and an associate’s degree in business management earned through night classes, Rena found herself with an opportunity to go back to school when Washington and Lee offered her tuition reimbursement. Rena knew this would be an important step towards realizing her professional goals. About a year or so after she started full-time work, Rena had met a student majoring in arts administration, and said from that point on, “I knew that is what I wanted to do.” Right now, she is pursuing the completion of her degree while helping others run their theater companies.

As a full-time professional, Rena needed to find a degree program that would accommodate her busy schedule. Her research led her to discover that UMass not only had an online undergraduate program, but that the University Without Walls at UMass offers the only online BA with a Concentration in Arts Management.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the program for Rena was the portfolio process, which allowed her to earn college credit for work and life experience. “That’s what attracted me to UMass, because I already had prior college experience, plus years of real life experience in theater management.” As for her Arts Management courses, Rena valued the approach taught in Introduction to Arts Management, where the class emphasized how projects get funded, from a national, state and regional perspective. “That’s super important; to know where the money is coming from.”

The Strategic Planning course gave her the opportunity to utilize the organization where she works as her case study. She was able to analyze the organization and how effectively it is engaging with the Roanoke Valley. “I think my organization needs to be more open to other types of art, bluegrass, country, possibly even comedians… [However] if we want to keep the doors open, we’ve got to book some shows I call ‘everyman shows.’ Take for example the Wizard of Oz. It doesn’t matter how many times you do it, people will come to the Wizard of Oz.”

For her final project, she took a big risk. “We had an exercise that really got me thinking. We were asked to present one piece of the strategic plan in a way that anybody from the director all the way to the custodian could understand what you’re trying to do.” Rena’s job at the University has given her a close-up view of current students. “They don’t read or write in full sentences anymore. It’s all bullet points and graphics. So I made a glorified PowerPoint presentation for my final, instead of writing a 30 page paper.” The presentation was very well received and convinced her of the need to change how to present information to younger generations.

Rena’s advice to future arts managers is, “Know your audience.” This has become her catch phrase, as she sees how often this piece of time-honored advice is overlooked. She recently attended the Southeastern Theater Conference in Knoxville where she got to exchange ideas with other theater managers. “Lots of people don’t seem to get this. Successful marketing depends on knowing your audience. Go out and talk with your community.”


To find out more about Arts Extension Service course offerings click here or contact the AES office at 413-545-2360 or We are happy to help you design a program of study around your needs and interests.

To apply to the UMass University Without Walls degree program, including the Concentration in Arts Management, click here.