Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Sita Frederick reflects on an inaugural year full of highlights and challenges

By Heather Longley

The Center for the Performing Arts marks Sita Frederick’s first anniversary as director on Tuesday, March 15, and not everything has gone as expected. But one year into her tenure as the organization’s forward-thinking leader, she is committed to cultivating relationships in and around Centre County.

“Learning about the community and getting to know people amidst a pandemic has been an incredible challenge,” she says, “also a very interesting one.”

Her experience at the center didn’t start out traditional. She interviewed for the position amid the pandemic in November 2020, via Zoom. She says she and her new colleagues were never all in the same space until months after she started.

In spite of those and other challenges, Frederick cites a mental highlight reel for the year, including blossoming partnerships with local and national artists, and the diversity and beauty in the performances. But she emphasizes her gratitude for the opportunities to learn and grow with her colleagues.

Due to the ever-changing pandemic threat stifling socialization and inconveniencing live performance planning schedules, “there were just moments of uncertainty that we supported each other and made mistakes … because the fall was really hard,” she says. “But all of these things have been amazing opportunities to dig deeper in our relationships with each other and ultimately with our partners in our community, so I’m excited about that.”

In a Center for the Performing Arts interview, Frederick reflects on her first year as director. She acknowledges the frustrations of the pace of incremental change and the COVID-19 pandemic, praises the resilience of the local community, and recalls watching the center make Eisenhower Auditorium patio history.

Question: A lot has happened in the past year, but what are the highlights from your perspective?

Answer: Certainly, getting to know the artists that we work with and that we are planning to work with. … And then I would say, working with the staff. I have a really amazing memory of us doing line dances [during a staff retreat] and will hold that dear for a long time because it was the first time that I met with the entire staff. Most of us hadn’t really been in a group for some time [due to the pandemic restrictions]. So I think everyone was feeling the awkwardness, but also the excitement of it. 

A similar event happened when Michael Mwenso did come and perform in person [with The Shakes]. We were able, for the first time in the center’s history, to present artists on the patio outside of Eisenhower Auditorium. … We welcomed about 500 people to the patio for our first reopening event since the closure and the quarantine. … It was a real inspiration and lift to share that with the community and to see the community come out.

With the VOCES8 performance, we basically sold out Recital Hall. That was also a first — we had never presented in Recital Hall before with the School of Music. … It was an amazing experience to present in that space and to realize this is the start of something wonderful that we hope to continue.

Q: One of your goals when you started was to broaden the concept of the center’s definition of “the arts.” What is your definition?

A: In my mind at that time, I was really interested in what we’re going to be able to present in terms of genre. I’m interested in film, technology. I have a master’s in new media, art, and performance. That is close to my heart and my interest in terms of the cutting edge and innovation, and what’s happening in our world with technology.

But there is also a sense of that I’ve learned in the past year that really has been an important lesson … this idea that local artists are global artists somewhere else. So we may be prioritizing, as a center, this idea of bringing [an event or artist] from the outside to a place that is central Pennsylvania, a rural community. It’s important to introduce some new ideas, new people, new cultures here. And that’s important for everyone everywhere to be a global citizen. … But part of what the arts is is what’s right in front of us. 

A presenter that I know is … really on the cutting edge of saying, “Hey, supporting local artists is an investment in my local economy.” It’s about community sustainability and economic development. It’s about environmental commitment. So it’s not even just about the artists, it’s much more holistic. And I think that’s what I’m looking for. A definition of the arts is a more holistic understanding and acknowledgement of the diversity. 

Q: You have referred to a “democratized” process in programming and engagement. What can the community expect in that regard?

A: I’m interested in getting feedback from various groups in the community.

When I say “democratized,” it’s about participation. Democracy is about participation in a process. … So we start at home. We start right within our own group and democratize the process that way and get feedback, get recommendations. 

Those are some of the ways that we are thinking about how we program moving forward. I’m really interested in so many organizations and councils and committees at Penn State. That’s been exciting to kind of think about that ecosystem of different groups that are all programming, and how we might coordinate and collaborate better together. 

Q; You were part of a group of community artists who performed with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s What Problem? on February 11. Can you describe that experience and its impact?

A: This experience was so beautiful. … I think what was so powerful about it for me was, again, to be moving with a group of people for the first time [after a long national pandemic mitigation period]. … It was just amazing to get a slice of what the artistic community is here and the commitment of people to show up for three hours a night [to rehearse], and their recognition of the kind of work that Bill T. Jones is doing and has done for decades.

The subject matter was challenging, but it was a joyful experience. … Even something as painfully traumatic as [the history of slavery] was transformed by being together and honoring that history and facing that history together, which is really hard to do. Our communities across the United States have had such a hard time processing that history. And then the ending, where people shared statements of “I know.” It was just an amazing piece of art. It was amazing to be a part of it on so many levels.

Q: You recently introduced ideas for your vision of the center’s future as a welcoming multicultural community “space.” Do you want to share what you have in mind? 

A: I think a lot of times people get confused between the difference between the Center for the Performing Arts and Eisenhower Auditorium. … The center has an identity that is both to host events at the University, and to support student groups and University events with our venue that we manage.

But it also has the charge of creating arts experiences for people, both on campus and beyond campus. So I think that beyond campus is an exciting opportunity and new space for us to develop in partnership with other folks that are doing things outside. But also creating events that that can be accessible to families beyond State College.

I think we’ve had a vision for that for a long time, and there are all sorts of financial and structural reasons that we haven’t been able to move that forward. I’m really interested in digging into that and looking at what are the financial requirements, what campaigns will need to happen in order for us to realize that vision.

And I’ll say that’s true for a multiracial community that we are here. Yes, the area is predominantly white, but it’s also immigrant, African American, and African diasporic. It’s also bilingual, multilingual, Muslim, not just Christian. There’s all of these things that are beyond the dominant culture. So being able to work with communities to create that sense of belonging at the center is really what I come back to — a culture of belonging, where people are welcomed.

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.