| Wilmington StarNews
Here’s an understatement: For the arts, and for the people who love them, the pandemic has been a difficult time. The industry has been throttled by the coronavirus, with almost all in-person performances canceled for the foreseeable future. Many arts institutions are grappling with their very ability to exist.
The news has been dire, it’s true. So it’s somewhat understandable that many have been pessimistic when it comes to the future of the arts. If you’re tired of the doom and gloom, however, a good antidote might be a conversation with Fidias Reyes, who in April became the director of arts engagement for the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Office of the Arts.
Rather than focus on the negative – the cancellation of this year’s Lumina Festival of the Arts and the UNCW Presents series, both of which she curates – Reyes is bullish on what she sees as a future bursting with possibilities and powerful performances.
“We’re going to recover from all of this, right? There’s going to be a vaccine, the economy is going to bounce back, we’re going to finally get some peace in terms of the social unrest we’ve been experiencing,” Reyes said, her voice sparkling and passionate during a socially distanced, early September interview at Wilmington’s Long Leaf Park. “When the stories come out about all of this? When the performances come out? When we’re able to congregate, be together? That’s what the arts is all about, coming together, enjoying something, going out for a beer and talking about it for hours and hours. That’s the only place we’re going to be able to heal.”
New York City girl
Reyes, 48, has been in Wilmington for a decade now. She’s become a quietly prominent figure in the Port City’s arts community, from her time as an on-air graduate fellow at public radio station WHQR and a stint assisting Rhonda Bellamy, director of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, to her current role at UNCW, where she serves under the executive director of the Office of the Arts, Jeanine Mingé.
Reyes’ journey in the arts started in The Bronx, in New York City. That’s where she was born in 1972, the youngest of four daughters. Her parents both immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the 1960s before Reyes was born, and they eventually became U.S. citizens.
Her eldest sister, Griselda, was born in the Dominican Republic, after which her father moved to New York to work in a garment factory, a job he took to support his family.
“It was all about opportunity,” Reyes said. “The Dominican Republic is a really, really poor island.”
Two years after her father moved to New York, Reyes’ mother and sister joined him. Growing up, Reyes said, she was surrounded by performers.
“When we would get together with family it was always about singing, dancing for each other and competing in that way. It was about getting together and putting on the best music, who could do the best impersonations,” she said. “It’s always been a real important part of my life and my family’s life. We’re all in (the arts) in one way or another.”
Reyes’ mother, Clara, grew up singing in the Dominican Republic, sometimes performing in radio contests. Her brothers are musicians and her sisters are actresses, including twins Joselin (“Instant Family,” TV’s “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”) and Judy Reyes. Judy is known for her roles on “Scrubs,” “Devious Maids” and “Claws.” Naturally, young Fidias wanted to follow in her sisters’ footsteps.
“It’s true what they say,” she said. “If you get bitten by that bug, it takes a hold of you.”
There were many childhood plays and summer acting intensives, and she eventually got her bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts Management from Herbert H. Lehman College in The Bronx, followed by two years at the William Esper Studio, a well-regarded acting school in Manhattan.
“Then I just hit the pavement,” Reyes said, doing acting showcases, looking for an agent, getting occasional work in theater, commercials (including a Kmart commercial directed by Spike Lee) and TV (“Law & Order”).
Making it as an actor in New York is competitive to say the least. To pay the bills Reyes took a job as program manager of Arts Connection, a New York City nonprofit that brings theater, spoken word and more into public schools in The Bronx and Brooklyn.
Last decade, Reyes married Virgil Wade, and they had a son, Santana. Having a child is life-changing on an emotional level, of course, but for Reyes it made her look at New York City, where she’d lived all her life, in a new light.
“If you’re young and ambitious, everything is at your fingertips: industry, restaurants, culture, everything. But once you have a family, unless you’re super-rich there’s no way to really enjoy it,” she said. “We were just working all the time. Literally, I would get paid and I would give it to day care. It’s obscene to try to live in New York City with a family.”
On to Wilmington
By 2010, Reyes and her husband determined that a major life change was in order. Wade’s parents live in Washington, D.C., but his father is from Wilmington, and they have a house near Carolina Beach. Reyes’ in-laws offered the young family a chance to live here for a while to see if they liked the area and might want to raise their child in Wilmington.
“We didn’t have a plan, other than wanting to spend time together,” Reyes said. “We just came.”
Santana had been born 14 months earlier, but “we had not been able to spend any time together as a family” because of the constant pressures of New York. Moving to Wilmington gave them time together like they’d never had.
On the other hand, Reyes said, after moving from one of the biggest cities in the world to Southeastern North Carolina, it didn’t take long for culture shock to take hold.
“That’s putting it mildly,” Reyes said with a laugh.
Even now, she said, 10 years later, she misses things about New York.
“I miss access,” she said, knowing that “if I stand on line on Wednesday, I can see the (Broadway) matinee for $20. So I’m seeing world-renowned artists for $20 and I have an excellent seat. Stuff like that I really do miss.”
In Wilmington, she added, “stuff shuts down at 11. In New York it’s constant, which of course makes it exhausting at the same time.”
The slower pace here was nice at first, she said, but reality soon set in. The Wilmington area was still recovering from the economic downturn of 2008, and she couldn’t find a job. So she went back to school, getting her master’s degree in Public Administration from UNCW in 2014.
Reyes hasn’t done much acting since moving to Wilmington, although she does have a prominent role in the short Western “Times Like Dying,” which screened at the Cucalorus Festival in 2015. For the most part, she sees her acting career as something in her past, a time in her life of which she takes a clear-eyed view.
“I couldn’t make it as an actor,” she said. “I gave up, quite honestly. It ground me down. But in addition to the stress and the economic impact and living in New York, I was also kind of done with the racket. I had a son. I needed a steady income, I needed insurance. I needed all of those things.”
“Acting is definitely my first love,” she added. “Creating and reading a script and collaborating with other actors, I miss that. I don’t miss the grind.”
Even after she moved to Wilmington, she said, “It was hard to let the performing aspect of it go. But as I transitioned into arts administration, a lot of what I learned and a lot of what I enjoy, I’m able to implement that into the work I do now.”
A life in the arts
It might be a cliché to say that many arts administrators would describe themselves as non-artistic people who love the arts, while we all know the stereotype of the flighty artist who, if put in charge, could easily run a business enterprise into the ground.
Reyes doesn’t fit either one of those descriptions. One might say she takes a serious-minded, level-headed approach to her artistic endeavors, while bringing the flair of an artist to her work as an administrator.
“I think there’s a sensitivity that I bring because I’ve been on the other side. I know how temperamental artists can be. I know how particular artists need to be. And I understand the importance of delivering really great work,” Reyes said. “You do have to do some hand-holding, (but) that need to feel safe comes from needing to deliver really good, quality work. I will always support that.”
George Scheibner, the public radio veteran and longtime operations manager at Wilmington’s WHQR, introduced Reyes to the world of radio when she was a graduate fellow at the station from 2013 to 2015.
Even though she had no radio experience, “She had the timing and phrasing down from working in theater,” Scheibner said. “She fit right in.”
“It was remarkable how she was able was able to balance being a full-time graduate student at UNCW, work her fellow position here at WHQR and still have a home life. She was organized to the max and always on-the-run,” he added, describing her as “a ball of energy. She even made me clean up my desk!”
After a short stint at the Arts Council of Wilmington, Reyes was hired in 2015 by UNCW’s former director of the arts, Kristen Brogdon, to act as a liaison between the university and the artists they bring in. Brogdon is now the director of programming for the University of Minnesota’s Cyrus Northrop Memorial Auditorium.
“What really stood out was her experience in arts education from her time in New York,” Brogdon said. “She just does phenomenal work.”
Brogdon recalled one story about the employees in the Office of the Arts taking a quiz as part of a training exercise. As it turned out, everyone in the office identified as an introvert, including Reyes.
“She has a very dry sense of humor,” Brogdon said. “It took me a while to realize, ‘Oh, she’s actually really funny!’”
Reyes said she learned a lot from Brogdon, including the power of taking “the arts outside the performance sphere” and using them to shed light on social issues and create conversations with both students and community members. At the same time, Reyes said she wants to make her own mark at UNCW in terms of programming.
“I mean, we have different tastes,” Reyes said. “I’m not as into dance as (Brogdon) is. I want theater, I want music, I want energy, I want contemporary stuff. So I think that’s where I’ll be able to thrive.”
Of course, no in-person events were on the schedule at UNCW in September when this story was written, other than the drive-in movies as part of the Curbside Cinema series at Kenan Auditorium, where Reyes has her office.
“It’s always been my dream to curate a season. And right when I got the position it’s like, ‘Nope, you’re going to have to wait another year,” she said with a laugh that shows off her high-wattage smile.
Still, Reyes has had plenty to keep her busy. In addition to planning the 2021 UNCW Presents season, she’s also working on next year’s Lumina Festival of the Arts. Started by Brogdon as a Spoleto-like festival held on campus in July, the plan for Lumina moving forward will be as a spring arts festival at venues both on and off campus.
Reyes is also working with Jacki Booth of New Hanover County Schools and Georgia Mastroieni of the Cameron Art Museum in a partnership via Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center that involves training teachers to better integrate the arts into their lessons, no matter what the subject.
In September Reyes was preparing to launch a virtual exhibition highlighting African-Americans in higher education. And she’s just starting a project with Donyell Roseboro, UNCW’s chief diversity officer, on bringing a public art piece to campus that will “amplify and show our solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.”
To hear Reyes tell it, however, everything is leading toward a post-pandemic time when public performances can return, bringing with them what are sure to be deeply cathartic experiences.
“The collective trauma that we’ve all been through? That’s going to take a long time for us to heal,” Reyes said. “I keep saying this to as many people as will listen: There’s no recovery without the arts. There’s no recovery without creativity. (That’s) where we’re going to be able to understand and talk about what we’re feeling. If you’re in it, you don’t understand it yet. You need to remove yourself. That’s when you go, ‘This is what happened (and) this is what I was feeling.’”
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com.
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