Interviews

Published on June 16th, 2016 | by Jerry Doby

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Behind SummerStage 2016 with CityParks Foundation Executive Creative Director Erika Elliott

Keeping the arts alive and visible/accessible to the public, especially upcoming generations of creators, is paramount to the survival of the entertainment industry culture. Live events and festivals such as New York’s Summer Stage Performing Arts Festival (@SummerStage), spark questions about the Who, What, When and Why that such events happen. A component of the CityParks Foundation in New York, SummerStage is touted as the largest performing arts festival in the state.

Some of the nuts and bolts types of attendees and fans of festivals are inspired to get behind the scenes and produce events learn sound and lighting, etc.

One such person is CityParks Foundation Executive Artistic Director, Erika Elliott. Erika is the hub in the middle of a wheel with many spokes, even reaching beyond American borders to bring some of the finest festival additions to a hungry audience. This year’s SummerStage festival presents more than 115 events spread throughout all five boroughs.

City Parks Foundation is the only independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to offer programs in public parks throughout the five boroughs of New York City. City Parks Foundation, is dedicated to invigorating and transforming parks into dynamic, vibrant centers of urban life through sports, arts, community development, and education programs for all New Yorkers. Their programs and community building initiatives — located in more than 300 parks, recreation centers, and public schools across the city — reach 425,000 people each year. Their ethos is: We believe thriving parks reflect thriving communities. (cityparksfoundation.org)

You can view the entire festival schedule in our “Happenings” section feature here or visit cityparksfoundation.org

Somehow, with her whirlwind schedule, Erika found time to give The Hype Magazine bit of a rundown on herself and SummerStage.

Talk to us Erika Elliott about how you came to choose the entertainment industry as a career.

I have always loved music and realized in high school when my friends had a radio show and then in college when I hosted my own, that you can make a career working in music. I have been doing just that ever since.

Looking at the diversity of New York’s SummerStage 2016 lineup, you have to have your ear to the ground and finger on the pulse of what’s gonna “move the crowd” so to speak. How do you manage the logistics of knowing all there is about what’s coming and who’s hot for your market?

I do the best I can, and it’s an impossible task. I rely heavily on my contacts and colleagues from around the world that I have developed over the years. That and paying attention to who is playing and where, and asking people I know what they are listening to and excited about.

SummerStage is a focal point for arts, culture and entertainment festivals. As you plan each season, what resources play an important part in the workflow process?

I have always felt my most important resource is relationships, both with talent and agents, followed closely by my relationships with other festival and music producers.

I rely on my personal tastes sometimes, but more valuable than that is having a trusted network of contacts and colleagues who can tell me what artists are important in a country, or genre, or who has a buzz and is making noise across the country and globe.

With so much to choose from by way of events for SummerStage, are there any you’re especially excited about seeing?

As an LA girl who has followed the rise of his notoriety and is a fan of his work, I am excited to have been able to secure Kamasi Washington. I love full circle booking moments so presenting Lisa Simone in Brooklyn with a screening of the film about her mother Nina Simone, is really special. The film is entitled “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and a good friend of mine produced it.

I’m very proud of the Brooklyn lineup: Public Enemy, Angie Stone, Vivian Green, and Trouble Funk, to name a few. The lineup for our kick off show in Queens is great too: Ginuwine, Mack Wilds, and Kid ‘n Play. I could go on but basically every week we have great things and every one of them is worth seeing.

 

 

In this business, to survive mentally, one must be a bit of a character! From the outside looking in, who is Erika Elliott?

I think there are characters is the business yes, but ultimately it is about your character. It’s about doing the work and delivering and being honorable in what you do and how you deal with people. Just as much that it’s your passion, it’s important to enjoy it even when things get hard. It took many, many years to arrive to where I am, and I still have a ways to go.

Artistic Director is a highly responsible position, especially for New York’s largest free performing arts festival. Can you take us through a short day and describe a bit of the process to put on successful high-profile events year after year?

Part of what I love is that there is no typical day and workflow is diverse.  I begin planning the season more than a year in advance and start booking or at least looking at concepts for themes and shows even before the current season is done. Before the festival begins it’s all about seeing bands, booking, and negotiating. During the season it’s details, logistics, administration and follow-through.

Especially in what we do, each day we may literally be in a different borough of New York City so daily flows are hard to predict.

And meetings lots and lots of meetings!

When the work’s finished, and you get to take a few successive deep decompression breaths, what is the most satisfying part about SummerStage for you? How do you decompress?

Balance is hard to come by especially in this line of work, and in this city! I am likely to be at another festival on my off days so I don’t know that I am great at decompressing. That being said, I am really trying to take as much advantage as possible of any time off and get out of town even if only for a day.

Luckily, and to your point, I believe that what we do is important– that arts and culture are important and bring people together.

That’s what I get satisfaction from, seeing people enjoying what we do.

As you came up in your career, what do you feel most crafted and excited your desire to step up to the plate for this position? What keeps you there?

I didn’t purposefully step up to get this position; it happened because of my Director leaving and the position becoming available.

It’s worth noting that I had applied for the position before and did not get it, and I say that because I really believe things happen if and when they are supposed to.

The leadership of City Parks Foundation, and my Co-Director, make it a great time to be in this role.

Last but not least, The Hype Magazine want’s to know “What’s been your craziest ‘Where They Do That At?!” moment…you know, the most insane WTF?! moment you’ve experienced/witnessed thus far in your career...!

That’s a hard one. In recent memory it was pretty amazing booking Stevie Wonder into Central Park for a pop-up show, all pulled together over a few days. That’s one that will be hard to top anytime soon.


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About the Author

Editor-in-Chief of The Hype Magazine, and internationally published arts & entertainment journalist. Member of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture as well as the United States Press Corps.


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