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ZACH Theatre’s New Managing Director Takes Center Stage

Jamie Herlich McIalwain is eager to help revive the performing arts industry post-pandemic

Founded in 1932, ZACH Theatre is the oldest theatre company in Texas and has touched countless people with its experiences created to inspire and engage. ZACH serves 140,000 patrons annually, many of whom are children and youth who participate in the education and outreach programs.

The people at ZACH make the magnitude of its mission and influence possible. Over 300 actors, musicians and designers come together each year to create the plays and musicals suited for diverse Central Texas audiences. This talented crew works tirelessly with the support of two critical leaders. Dave Steakely, who has been with the company for over 30 years now, serves as producing artistic director. And by his side is the managing director, a position Elisabeth Challener has undertaken for the last 15 years. However, with Elisabeth moving on to co-found a new Broadway production company, she was recently replaced by Jamie Herlich McIalwain.

Jamie is a Seattle native whose education includes a Master of Fine Arts in Arts Leadership from Seattle University. She has been a performing arts professional for the last 20 years, in a variety of organizations including Seattle Repertory Theatre (Seattle Rep), Seattle Opera, Edmonds Center for the Arts and New Century Theatre Company. Her particular areas of focus were resource development, board management and relations, finance and organizational strategy.

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Most recently, she served as the chief advancement officer at Seattle Rep, the largest nonprofit resident theatre in the Pacific Northwest. She was responsible for all fundraising as well as driving growth while ensuring long-term sustainability amid that growth.

“In some organizations, this kind of role is very singularly focused on fundraising,” says Jamie. “But the way my position evolved was as a strong partner and ‘right-hand person’ to the managing director to the extent that I was deeply involved in all aspects of the theatre well beyond my immediate duties. That positioned me perfectly for this transition as it is a very natural next step.”

Photo courtesy of ZACH Theatre

The performing art industry was devastated by the COVID pandemic and is still slowly recovering. However, Jamie’s predecessor Elisabeth left ZACH in as strong a position as possible.

“Elisabeth was known for her ability to keenly balance the artistic mission and fiscal stability of the organization,” says Jamie, who didn’t work with her closely but was familiar with her work in the field from afar. “She also left a legacy in the Topfer Theatre, as she ran the capital campaign for that build, as well as growing ZACH to inhabit its newly expanded footprint thereafter. I have great respect for all that she accomplished here in the fifteen years she was here.”

Jamie is thrilled to be in Austin and building upon ZACH’s enduring legacy. “I am so excited about being here,” she says. “ZACH is a well-respected theatre that produces both playful and thought-provoking productions for audiences of all ages. I’m eager to be a part of building back the organization post-pandemic, and setting and striving for an expanded vision in the years ahead.”

During the COVID shutdown, performing arts organizations closed down first and opened back up last. Nationwide, audiences are not yet coming back at the same levels as they did before. Workers have left the industry altogether, making rehiring much more challenging.

“Our field has never experienced anything like this before,” says Jamie. However, she’s ready to take on the challenge. “I get to tackle all of this in partnership with a deeply dedicated and committed Board of Trustees and staff. They are all fantastically talented and incredibly engaged, and that collaboration will be very fulfilling. Plus, the work on stage! At the end of the day, that’s the entire reason I am here — it’s incredibly gratifying to know that what I do serves audiences and artists alike.”

Jamie is looking forward to getting to know the team more as they work together in revitalizing this iconic theatre. ZACH is a creative hub that brings lovers of theatre and music together from around the city and beyond.

“You can come to have a lot of fun, grab a cocktail and be entertained, but also to reflect on the complex and challenging conversations that are happening across the country,” says Jamie.

ZACH Theatre’s annual “A Christmas Carol” production is an Austin holiday tradition. Photo by Kirk Tuck.

ZACH is committed to serving Austin’s creative community, hiring locally wherever possible — including Austin-based designers, creatives and actors.

“It’s exciting as an audience to see familiar faces and names that remind you of ZACH’s deep roots in this city,” says Jamie. “And the mix of programming from family shows and classes to well-known musicals to thought-provoking plays is really unique and interesting. Austin was built on a foundation of music and art, and ZACH has been a big part of that over the last 100 years. It truly is theatre of, by and for the people of Austin.”

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