Know those home renovation shows on TV where someone takes a gigantic sledgehammer and gleefully smashes giant holes through plaster and wood, splintering walls with a single blow. Well, Donna May has done that. And as for plumbing, wiring, tiling, roofing, and drywalling: yes, yes, yes, yes and yes, although she took a vow about the drywalling.
And it’s fun, really fun, she’ll tell you with a straight face. Well, all except for the drywalling.
This upbeat "Jill of all trades" finds fun in a lot of places—take her job, for instance. She’s the person you’ll most often meet when you go to purchase tickets for any Artists Series show, with the serious title of Box Office and Finance Administrator. She’s been there for more than 10 years now and it’s a perfect blend of experience and enthusiasm for the work she’s doing.
Born and raised in Huntington, May first came to Marshall straight out of high school, but then in a meandering path, took a few years off, went to school part-time and finally completed a bachelor's in Business Management in 2007. She also compiled a rich work history during that time ... working for a CPA, then for what was then the Cilco Corporation and finally as the manager for The Computer Store in Huntington, where she spent 13 years. “They closed the store here and moved it to Charleston and I didn’t want to commute, so I started looking around for job close to home and luckily found this one.” The ticket office job actually turned out to be a seamless transition for her. “Selling computers and software is similar to selling tickets. You have consumers, you have to be user friendly, you’re involved with customer services and you need to know your customers,” she sums up sagely.
The Artists Series, she explains, has its own box office that is separate from all the other ticketed activities on campus. Each season sees an average of ten eclectic productions, plus fall and spring film festivals, come to Huntington for the enjoyment of both the Marshall and the area communities. And you won’t find a more enthusiastic cheerleader than May for the shows, which can range from full-blown Broadway musicals and big-name entertainers like Bill Cosby and Liza Minnelli, to intimate cabaret performances, elaborate children’s productions and scholarly lecturers. The Artists Series is a delectable smorgasbord for the arts and their goal, May says, is to offer something for everyone.
And this past season they pretty much did. The 2011-12 season saw the Artists Series "on steroids," as it celebrated its 75th season with an ambitious 20-show offering, nearly double the usual number. Marshall’s Artists Series is proud to be the second-oldest series of its kind in the country, second only to the University of Michigan. But it does have its own distinction in that it is the only series that admits full-time students( on the Huntington campus) at no admission because admission is built into the student fee structure. (Regional campuses have their own fees which are used to fund events on those campuses.) There is also pride that the Artists Series has been honored over the years for the quality productions it has brought to Huntington. The latest accolades came when the Artists Series was awarded the Governor’s Arts Award this year and executive director Penny Watkins received the Community Arts Award from the Huntington Herald-Dispatch.
The 2011-12 series kicked off with world traveler/journalist Lawrence Wright and there was a historic reason for his selection. “Our very first presentation was a world explorer 75 years ago and we wanted to stay true to that tradition," May says. "A world traveler who writes about worlds that are foreign to us was an excellent selection. He was very well received.”
Each show is selected by Artists Series director Penny Watkins, the MAS Advisory Board and with community input, after partnering with several other campus groups. Each has a different demographic and many, like Peter Pan or Rent or Cats, appeal to every age group, May explains. And Marshall patrons are getting a big break on price. “We buy the same quality shows that play in bigger cities like Cincinnati , Columbus and Lexington. Touring shows have grades and we buy the top tiers. And because Penny solicits corporate sponsorships we keep the prices low—the same shows that would cost $100 and upwards to see in other places; people pay $35-55 here. Another good thing: we can seat 2200 people in the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center, which is the second largest venue in the state.”
And there’s a discount break for MU faculty and staff she wants everyone to know about. “Staff can obtain two tickets for half price for most shows. Some shows can’t do this because of contracts, but most can. The stipulations require that the staff members have to use their Marshall IDs to purchase the tickets and show the ID again at the performance.”
And ever the ardent saleswoman, she has two phrases she wants to get out there: payroll deductions and gift certificates. “These are wonderful for people who want to buy, for example, season tickets or who are looking for a special gift. We’ve worked with the payroll office on the payroll deductions and people really like that. We’ve seen an increase in ticket sales to faculty and staff. And entertainment tickets make great gifts, so we’ve made them very easy to purchase. You can buy any dollar amount, say $50, and that can be applied to the ticket price for any show. We encourage people to think about giving them as they make welcome gifts.”
Working with the Artists Series is kind of a return to her roots for May. Growing up she took dancing lessons, attended shows—she particularly loves music and musicals—and took a variety of other lessons, so “this has been very satisfying for me.” And there’s little downtime for the ticket office, even in summer, as the schedules are released in late July which traditionally triggers a brisk demand for tickets. “People really do care about our coming events. We’ve had people who wait until the football and the Artists Series schedules are out so they can schedule personal events around them.” Then too, marketing goes on virtually year round because as one season closes, the staff gears up to promote the upcoming one.
And as fulfilling as her days in her office in the Jomie Jazz Center are, her off hours offer their share of diversions as well. She’s a committed remodeler and fixer-upper who just can’t keep her hands off the hammer and saw. And she’s absolutely fearless in approaching tasks that would be intimidating to the more makeover challenged. “I love remodeling; I didn’t grow up learning it but I have helped remodel several homes and I learned a lot. What with wiring, plumbing, drywalling, painting and gardening, there isn’t much I haven’t done.”
It all started when May and her then-husband decided to build a house from the ground up, a new venture for them, and “I learned a lot; it was a fascinating process. We framed, roofed, wired and plumbed. It was a very long year of my life but when we finished we had a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house. We only hired a few things out, the heating/air conditioning and the drywalling. Now I know why we didn’t do the drywalling,” she says ruefully. She speaks from experience after she and her brother tackled putting some up—it was her first and last time, she’ll tell you firmly. “Drywalling is an art that I don’t intend to explore any further. It was much harder than I thought. It takes a great talent to do it, so from now on I’m leaving it to the experts!”
May attributes her formidable skills to learning on the job and being an eager volunteer for friends who were in the midst of construction projects. “I guess there really isn’t much I haven’t done,” she sums up. “I like working with my hands and any time I’ve had an opportunity to learn a new skill, I take it. I don’t like downtime.” Right now she’s in the midst of a kitchen re-do to repair damage from a water line that broke last spring. She’s remodeled a bathroom and has indeed taken a sledgehammer to the walls as she remodels the kitchen, incorporating a laundry room into it. She’ll be tiling the floors, one of her favorite chores because “The beauty of tile is that it’s not supposed to be perfect; tile is very forgiving. If it’s not perfect, that’s okay, it will still work.”
But there is life beyond sawdust and paint and May manages to get to the gym two or three times a week, walk in a nearby park and participate in an vigorous exercise class that she laughingly terms “an adult dance class.” But the biggest event in her life right now is the anticipated October birth of a grandson, whose parents, daughter Jessica Gawthrop, an ICU nurse, and husband, Alex, fortunately live close by. “We are all very excited and I’ll be keeping the baby as needed.”
As another Artists Series unfolds for another season, May is especially looking
forward to working with the student assistants, whom she characterizes as “just
fabulous. They come from across the spectrum of majors and we couldn’t do our
jobs without them,” she says with admiration. “They have to be tactful and
knowledgeable and good with customers and they certainly are.” And there’s
always a sense of excitement as the season gets under way and she sums it
succinctly, “Entertainment, arts and education [are] our job. It’s hard, but
it’s very rewarding.”
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