‘Perfectly placed’: A ‘Brown County girl’ finds her niche managing historic Playhouse

In the past 20 years, Amanda Webb has worked as a bookkeeper at her fami0ly’s auto body shop, fronted a blues band, managed multiple rental properties, taught voice lessons and raised five sons.

Finally, none of that seems random.

Last month, Webb started work as the new executive director of the Brown County Playhouse.

“I really feel like I have the most bizarre collection of experiences that all seem to converge so purposely right here,” she said, relaxing with a cup of coffee at the back of the 72-year-old theater.

She double-majored in voice and French at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Back then, the Playhouse was operated by IU, and it was an honor and rite of passage for Jacobs School students to take part in productions in the downtown Nashville theater.

Through that training and through her work with The Amanda Webb Band, she’s gathered a long list of friends and contacts in the music industry all over the country and the world. Those are people she’s excited to invite to the Playhouse for workshops and performances. She’s also familiar with contracts and the booking process for bands, having done it for her own band for years.

Even her budgeting and bookkeeping days at the body shop and her rental property management experience come into play. As the only full-time paid staff member of The Playhouse, she’s responsible for keeping an eye on the finances and the building. She’s also used to being on call when problems arise.

And now, for maybe the first time in 20 years, she’s able to have a job that’s completely independent from her home and family — and only one job, not three or four part-time jobs strung together. Her oldest son is almost 20 and her youngest is 10, so it’s now time for her to strike a direction for her own life.

“I feel so perfectly placed right now. It’s as if everything in my life is coming together in one pocket,” she said. “I have all these terribly irrelevant skills that make no sense to anyone. … That part of me feels so satisfied right now. It all meant something.”

Webb was the natural choice to take the reins from Executive Director Hannah Estabrook, who announced earlier this year that she would transition out of the role.

“She’s a Brown County girl, she has a passion for the Playhouse, a passion for the community, experience, and she actually was on the Playhouse board many years ago,” said Patty Frensemeier, president of the board. “So, she was just the all-around candidate, quite honestly.”

Brown County was not Webb’s birthplace, but it’s definitely her home. She’s originally from Washington, D.C., but her family moved every four or five years when she was growing up. The 20 years she’s been here, married to Brian Webb, are the longest she’s lived anywhere.

“I am so rooted here,” she said. “… I’m never going anywhere, so the idea that I could be in this community and contribute to the community and then essentially contribute to the community through this icon of the Playhouse — which, for me, when I first came into Bloomington, this was still run by IU, this was legendary. You wished you could go get an audition and do roles they were playing at the Playhouse. You wanted that. And if you didn’t, you would make the pilgrimage out here as a student to watch the shows to be a part of what’s going on here. It was always spoken of so highly. So, to me, all of those things, as part of our communities, the pride of our community, they’re important to me.”

Webb had initially reached out to Estabrook in her role with The Amanda Webb band, trying to establish a connection to The Playhouse as a musician.

“COVID was kind of pulling out. I was thinking about where I was going, what I was doing. I was doing nothing,” Webb said. “I was working at the body shop, but I knew that’s not in my area of interest. … I wanted to do something in my field and I was thinking initially about pursuing new options for the band.”

Unbeknownst to Webb, Estabrook had just turned in her resignation as executive director of the Playhouse on the day Webb met her. Webb only learned about it when she read the paper two days later.

It seemed like perfect timing.

“I called her up, and I said, ‘Hannah, I’m so sorry you’re leaving. I’m just getting to know you. But I think I might want your job.’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, go for it.’

“I’m pretty sure after that she said some other caveats and warnings, but I didn’t hear any of that.”

Now, having been in the job for about three weeks, Webb sees the work ahead, but she’s still very excited to do it.

“There’s a lot to learn and there’s a lot to know,” she acknowledged.

“And I told Hannah today, I am going to draw a picture of her feet and her shoes and put them up on the wall and say, ‘See that they’re not that big; you are going to be able to fill them.

“She is really wonderful and she’s done this job during the worst of the time. I mean, to run an entertainment venue during COVID is the most stressful thing. For the band, we just shut down and said, ‘We’ll wait a year,’ but you can’t do that when you need the revenue.”

Estabrook was hired as assistant executive director of the Playhouse straight out of IU. Within 10 months, she was named executive director after the death of lifelong Playhouse supporter Suzannah Levett Zody. And then came COVID.

“I’m very impressed with her. … We are all really sad to see her go,” Webb said. “I’m happy for my opportunity but I have great deal of respect for Hannah and all the work she has done, and what I’m going to have to do to keep up with her.”

In the short term, Playhouse patrons probably won’t see any changes. The schedule is mostly set for 2022.

“I’m sure I will get my own ideas later, but for now, I’d like to simply learn how it’s done and do it the way it’s being done, because it’s working, and I’m not here to shake anything up and make things crazy,” Webb said.

Any new ideas she has, “I’m reserving those ideas until after I figure out if they’re good. Because I think everyone has an opinion, but you’re always from the outside looking in, and when you’re on the inside, you need to take a good look.”

More theater productions have recently been put back into the schedule. That’s something that will continue with the support and passion of Theatre Brown County, a group of local actors and theater enthusiasts.

The Playhouse has a long, proud history as, well, a playhouse.

“The Playhouse is the only venue in Brown County that can do theater, and we want to make sure we don’t overlook that,” Webb said. “It’s our niche. That is our super-niche. There’s a lot of places supporting live music. We are the only ones that are going to support theater and we are the only ones that are going to support probably any spoken word poetry. It’s possible, we would love to see dance on the stage. …

“Because of the uniqueness of our venue, we want to make sure looking forward that we’re going to provide programming that sits in that niche. We don’t want to compete with the music center. We’re not here to compete with the live music that’s going at bars and other live music venues. What we’re offering is something entirely unique, and what we want to do is make sure that we’re offering that in tandem and in support of the other venues that are in town.”

Another niche she wants to fill again is movies. The Playhouse has been unable to show them for months after the projector broke down and could not be fixed.

The Playhouse will be launching a capital campaign soon to raise money toward the cost of a new projector, estimated at “upwards of $40,000.” A donor is putting up a matching grant to help.

Webb has confidence in the tenacity and love of her community to help her keep it going.

“We’ve been really blessed to have a lot of grant money coming in. We’ve got some amazingly fantastic donors which I cannot begin to thank enough, because without our donors, there’s so many things that wouldn’t happen.

“The Playhouse definitely wouldn’t be here without the support of the community,” she said. “They really want us here. And we want to serve them and give them what we can.”