Interview: Susan Mann

Photo by Fred Camargo

Thanksgiving Day will start early for Susan Mann this year: the Benicia resident will rise in the  middle of the night to guide high school musicians to rehearsal before they march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.

“They practice in front of Macy’s, the spot you see on TV, to get the timing down,” says Susan, tour manager for the trip. “The energy is so high you wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway.”

The Saratoga High School students will practice sometime between 3 and 5 a.m. and line up for the New York City parade by 7:30 a.m. under the watchful eyes of Susan and others from Benicia-based World Projects Corp.

This will be Susan’s second stint as tour manager for a band marching in the iconic holiday parade. “It’s a beautifully chaotic puzzle that we have worked out. It’s highly choreographed,” she says.

Susan is part of a team at World Projects that organizes music festivals and performance tours in the United States and overseas for dozens of instrumental and choral groups each year. Most 2013 events are already full, and 2014 bookings are under way.

“We’re all about providing musical education, performance opportunities and cultural exchange,” says Susan, 43, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Santa Barbara.

Susan moved to Benicia seven years ago from Chicago to be near her family. She joined World Projects about six months later as a festival staff member and now manages client development.

Her work and travel schedules are hectic, yet Susan makes time to volunteer with Arts Benicia. A painter who studied at Studio Arts Center International in Florence, Italy, Susan chairs Arts Benicia’s board.

“My most ambitious artworks now are done with my niece and nephew. They have such amazing ideas,” the proud aunt says.

What does a tour manager do when the group is traveling? You do everything that’s needed so the ensemble director can focus on the music. …

I’ve been in the middle of a national strike while in Spain with an ensemble from Napa High.  The bus drivers refused to drive us from Valencia to Barcelona because it wasn’t safe due to the demonstrations. As tour manager, you figure it out. Between myself, our ground partner in the UK and the team at World Projects here in Benicia, we figured it out.

How did it all work out? There were over 100 people on the tour, and we added a night in the hotel in Valencia, coordinated an extra meal there, and had a great sightseeing day.  We were able to get to Barcelona the next day and make it work.

Those are nail-biting moments, but there are others that are magical, incredibly spontaneous   things that happen that no planning in the world could have made happen.

Any of those magical moments stand out? In Valencia, we went to this incredible restaurant. Everyone wanted paella. I was sitting with the two local tour guides, when I looked up at the guy at the next table and thought, ‘Who is this guy? He looks so familiar.’  One of the guides told me it was Placido Domingo.

Well, we had to make sure before saying anything to the director, so a tour escort and I went up to him and told him we were with a chorus from California.  ‘Please, will they sing?’ he asked.

So these kids stand up in the restaurant and sing for one of the world’s greatest tenors. He stood up and clapped for them at the end.

You have to be open to these moments.

How many hours do you work each week? It depends on the time of the year. Spring is the big time for tours. I generally travel from February to August, as do a lot of our staff members. I was in eight countries this year.

If I’m on tour, and I’m tour managing, I might be lucky to get four hours of sleep at night. It’s not unusual to work eight to nine hours here at the office and then go to a presentation. … You find the energy to do these things because you love them. I just wish I had 48 hours in a day.

What motivates you to keep going at this pace? I think it has something to do with expression and helping people. My biggest sense of accomplishment comes from seeing people get to the next level.

My favorite moments are the moments you have them lined up to go out on the stage for sound check. They go out on the stage in a space like Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center and they come to a complete stop. It never fails. They just stop on the stage. They can’t believe where they are. Then they make those first notes and hear themselves in that space—I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

Did you ever imagine you’d be doing this kind of work when you were growing up? No, not at all. When I was studying psychology—which has been very useful in my work here and in the past—my plan was actually to study the brain and behavior and how genetics play a part in learning. But I’ve always worked in creative fields. I was a stylist in LA, I worked on art placement, interior design and staging in Chicago. I’ve always been around theater, big events.

How did you get involved with Arts Benicia? My sister, in an effort to keep me here, bought me a membership in Arts Benicia for my first Christmas here. …

I became more involved starting about two years ago. They asked my fiancé to help at the auction and I went to a meeting with him. My events experience started clicking in, and then I became chair of the fund development committee. I became vice chair in 2010, then chair in May 2011.

What are your goals for Arts Benicia? I want to help make Arts Benicia sustainable and to be in a place financially where we can expand our programs, expand our youth programs, expand our senior programs, allow the staff to support artists even more, and collaborate with other organizations in town.

You’ve said you can tell a person’s priorities by how they spend their free time and money. How do you spend yours? My free time is spent doing what I love: working on Arts Benicia, collaborating with my fiancé, spending time with my niece and nephew, reading a good book once in a while.

I donate a lot to arts organizations to support groups I work with. I’d rather buy a painting than anything.

I get to do what I love. I’ve been really lucky.

What’s next for you? I’m not sure. My sister asked when I’m going to take a vacation, and I said 2015.

I want to continue to grow, I want to continue to create and be a part of things happening in art and music. I’ll eventually write a book. I love words.

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