Interview with Rick Pender (’80)

“That led to an invitation . . . to become an associate editor, which mainly consisted of proofreading, but a year later . . . the publisher asked me to become the magazine’s editor.

1.   Talk a little about being a medievalist. What was your particular area of interest? Your dissertation topic?

I focused on late Middle English chivalric romances, writing about the works of Sir Thomas Malory (commonly called Le Morte Darthur) from the late fifteenth century. My dissertation explored various aspects of a writer who was long considered a mere translator of the Arthurian legend from French into English. In the first of a series of essays, I discussed Malory as a creative artist, a kind of proto-novelist. My second essay examined his narrative technique. The third essay was a close reading of “The Tale of Balin.” The concluding section of the dissertation was a thoroughly annotated bibliography of Malory scholarship published between 1966 and 1978 (when the bulk of my research was completed), a great burst of academic scrutiny particularly stimulated by the 1971 publication of Eugene Vinaver’s second edition of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. My abstract concluded with this sentence: “This dissertation, through the means of critical analysis, narrative analysis, thematic analysis, and bibliographic investigation, is another step in presenting Sir Thomas Malory as the major literary figure of the fifteenth century.”

2.   What coaxed you from troubadour songs and medieval graffiti to your long career in communications and public relations. How did that happen?

In truth, it was the mundane need to make a living and support my family. In the late 1970s, I had hoped to find an academic appointment, but the only opportunities available seemed to be short-term, non-tenured positions to teach basic English courses. I began to explore other options. While in graduate school, I worked at Hiram College as a student residence hall director; I became fascinated by the school’s history and wrote several articles for the college’s alumni magazine. Those assignments led to a full-time position in public information, handling newsletters, sports information and other college publications. I moved from there to another college (Walsh College in Canton, where I served as director of communications), and then to a position as promotion director for WGUC-FM, the classical music public radio station at the University of Cincinnati. After four years in that role, I was hired by Northern Kentucky University to launch a new National Public Radio-affiliated station which I served as general manager. Following that experience, I chose to return to a position in more traditional public relations, employing my writing and communications skills, especially in the area of persuasion and crisis management: I served Cincinnati’s largest health maintenance organization (HMO) as its director of communications. From there, I worked for several advertising and public relations agencies in Cincinnati providing advice to clients in need of more effective communications and image management.

 3.   How did you become the editor of The Sondheim Review? Did your early exposure to the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Lakewood, Ohio, and Musicarnival in Warrensville Heights guide and/or influence you towards critical theatrical writing such as you do for CityBeat?

Actually, my theatrical “career” dates back to high school in Chardon, Ohio. I was fascinated by theater — both as written text and performance, which drew me to see theater performed all over Northeast Ohio. In my 30s (when working for WNKU), I began to provide theater reviews for various media. From 1986 onward, I was able to find a series of outlets for my criticism. When CityBeat was founded in 1994, I was asked to be its theater critic; the weekly newspaper invited me to join its fulltime staff as Arts & Entertainment Editor in 1998, a position I held for eight years. As CityBeat’s theater critic and columnist, I joined the American Theatre Critics Association, eventually becoming its chair in 2005. As I traveled around America to see theater, I was especially drawn to the musicals of Stephen Sondheim; I learned of a quarterly magazine, The Sondheim Review, devoted to his works and, starting in 1998, I reviewed a series of Cincinnati productions. That led to an invitation in 2003 to become an associate editor, which mainly consisted of proofreading, but a year later when the editor resigned, the publisher asked me to become the magazine’s editor. Under my leadership the magazine has grown to 52 pages quarterly and become a more serious publication, focused on the substance and music of Sondheim’s shows as well as on “stars” and productions.

4.     In an era when fine arts are being funded less and less, the Cincinnati Opera, for which you act as director of institutional advancement, appears to be thriving. Is your organization employing a more forward-thinking approach, joining hands with more popular culture pleasures? I’m thinking here of the website’s Opera Idol contest, for example.

Cincinnati Opera has not been immune to our straitened and challenging economy, but we have found ways to continue to present Grand Opera — a very expensive proposition — for 91 years. (The company is America’s second oldest, preceded only by New York’s Metropolitan Opera.) While opera is often perceived as a stodgy and elitist art form, we have found ways to make it about emotional impact that everyone can relate to (our branding mantra is “beautiful, magical, thrilling”), and we have used various initiatives to connect with varied populations across our community. Our “Opera Idol” is a competition for aspiring, not-yet-professional singers of opera; for three years we have attracted about 100 singers annually to audition for a $3,500 contract to perform at a series of opera events. We use our website to promote the competition, including online voting for winners. For six years we have presented “Opera Goes to Church,” programs with a diverse range of church choirs and guest soloists from opera productions. These have played to packed sanctuaries and been extraordinarily well received. For two decades, our free “Community Open Dress Rehearsals” have opened our performance venue, Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall, to people from the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood (where our venue was built in 1878), many of whom could not afford to buy an opera ticket. In 2011, nearly 2,000 people attended. In a city known for racial tension, we are looked to as a model of how the arts can lead the way to meaningful dialogue. That approach has paid dividends by encouraging generous donors to be supportive of our efforts.

5.    Is there something about your time at CWRU that helped to make this varied and multi-directional career possible?

While my academic studies at CWRU were personally satisfying, I actually believe that my university teaching assistantship probably had the most lasting impact on my career. My aspirations had been to become a university professor, which never happened. But my skills as a teacher, first developed teaching freshman composition, led me to be a mentor to aspiring writers almost everywhere I have worked. I have helped many communications professionals to improve their skills as writers, consultants and strategic planners. I can’t say that my experience at CWRU laid down those fundamentals for me, but working with students in basic writing courses over a period of four or five years certainly honed my ability to help individuals express themselves in a clear and persuasive manner. That benefited my own writing and enabled me to help many young colleagues during my career as a communications professional and a journalist.

Rick Pender has 40 years of experience in fundraising, journalism, arts criticism, public relations and communications. He is responsible for sponsorships and other forms of support for America’s second oldest opera company, Cincinnati Opera, where he is director of institutional advancement. From 1998 until 2006, he was arts and entertainment editor and theater critic for Cincinnati CityBeat; he still writes regularly for CityBeat. In 2001, he wrote the text for the book of photosof the “Big Pig Gig,” an immensely successful public art project. Since 2004, Rick has also been the managing editor of The Sondheim Review, a quarterly journal about America’s most respected musical theater composer and lyricist. From 1991 to 1998, Rick was executive vice president of Dan Pinger Public Relations; prior to that he oversaw corporate communications for Cincinnati’s largest HMO, ChoiceCare. He spent six years in public radio as promotion director for classical music station WGUC and as the first general manager of WNKU-FM at Northern Kentucky University. Earlier in his career Rick managed communications for several private liberal arts colleges. He is an honors graduate of Oberlin College, with master’s and doctoral degrees in English literature from Case Western Reserve University.