Q+A: Marilynn Donini, St. Ann’s Warehouse

Marilynn Donini has been the Director of External Affairs for St. Ann's Warehouse since 2006. Over the past thirteen years, Marilynn's been involved from everything from the capital project that brought St. Ann's to the Tobacco Warehouse, to developing a youth engagement program and more. In recognition of Marilynn's contribution to DUMBO, we are honoring her with a 2019 Dumbo Dozen Award. We sat down with Marilynn to learn more about her journey, her favorite shows, and what's next for St. Ann's.  

You've built a legacy at St. Ann's Warehouse! Before we get into your long tenure, tell us how you came to work for St. Ann's.

I have been at St. Ann’s since 2006.  I knew Susan Feldman, St. Ann’s founder and artistic director from my former work in corporate philanthropy at Philip Morris Companies.  Also I have lived in Brooklyn Heights since the late 1970s When St. Ann’s was in Church, they were a neighborhood music spot for me.  I think that the first time I went to the Church was for a Marianne Faithfull concert. It was one of those memorable concerts by an artist you love. St. Ann’s and I came together when we were both in a period of growth and transition.  St. Ann’s had moved to 38 Water Street and the organization was evolving into an  artistic home for global theater artists and I was making the change from for profit to non profit.  It was a case of being at the right place at the right time for both of us.

What is your role with St. Ann's Warehouse?

My title is Director of External Affairs, which combines development and community outreach.  I manage institutional development, the grants that we seek from government and foundation sources as well I focus on building and sustaining relationships in the community.  Over the past six years our community work has strengthened with a Youth Engagement Program.  We have built excellent partnerships with the New York City Department of Education, public high schools and teachers as well as local community youth organizations, such as Red Hook Initiative. This focus is adding an exciting dimension to our organization as young people are coming to St. Ann’s who would not otherwise experience our work.  Many have had little prior exposure to the arts or theater but at St. Ann’s they are finding    cultural experiences that they can relate to in a warm and embracing environment.

What are some of the things you are most proud of from your time at St. Ann's?

Our youth programming is shaping up in exciting ways. Although we borrowed the structure of the program from the Donmar Warehouse when they brought their all female Shakespeare Trilogy, we basically have made the program out of whole cloth. It is growing in the number of young people we reach and the activities that we offer.  Each season we meet great young people who are articulate, thoughtful and responsive to new ideas and St. Ann’s work.  It is so rewarding to have a kid from a community group say, “I want to keep coming here and be part of this.”

Being part of the capital project for the Tobacco Warehouse was an extraordinary, once in a life time professional opportunity.  Although I had a modest role in the project, it was exciting to be   part of major undertaking that resulted in this fabulous building that now exists for all time. It was a chance to learn about the community, the Park, capital fundraising, and planning for the future.  And, now to have access to this great building every day and see how artists transform the space to enhance their visions is a wonderful outcome.

You've been in Dumbo a long time, and seen St. Ann's grow and change - and move around a lot! When you think back on this growth, any particular moments, experiences, anecdotes that jump out at you? Favorite shows from the long roster?

Every space that St Ann’s has inhabited has been a unique experience.  The first season I was here the very first show was Hell House by a group, Les Freres Corbusier. They transformed the whole building into a Christian Fundamentalist vision of hell.  I had never seen anything like it. That same season we had Lou Reed’s Berlin, another extraordinary transcendent moment.   Since then there have many extraordinary shows at 38 Water Street, 29 Jay Street and now 45 Water Street. It is impossible to recount all the great shows and artists.

For me standout productions include: Anything and everything that Emma Rice and Kneehigh Theater have brought to St. Ann’s.  Her/their work resonates with me- it’s funny, it’s lyrical and very human.  I also have very much liked the work of Grzegorz Jarzyna and TR Warszawa. There was Macbeth in Polish in the Tobacco Warehouse under the Brooklyn Bridge for two weeks, but more so for me was his production Festen about a family gathering.  I thought it was one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen, very cinematic.  The Donmar’s all female Shakespeare Trilogy was fantastic in that we worked with great women actresses over three seasons and we were able to see this work through the lens of women in prison. 

A production still from Donmar's The Tempest
A production still from Donmar's The Tempest

I also appreciate how St. Ann’s has been in the forefront of some very tough issues but at the same time, the polemics have never spoken louder than the work. With shows like Black Watch and most recently The Jungle the work is artistically very strong  despite the fact that these plays are dealing with hard issues.  Last season, we had two interesting shows Returning to Reims and The Fall - albeit smaller scale work but very important in terms of issues affecting societies currently.  This nexus between craft, creative vision and social discourse is very exciting and one of the reasons that St. Ann’s Warehouse has become a force in the performing arts.

You've seen so much incredible art happen in Dumbo over the past decades! Any highlights? What’s your favorite spot in Dumbo?

DUMBO is a special place. When I first started working down here, it reminded me of Europe the scale of the neighborhood, the cobblestone streets, the waterfront, the sense of history. One of my favorite cultural events is Photoville.  It is an extraordinary concept and fun.  I am very pleased that organizations like Powerhouse Books and Smack Mellon are still in DUMBO. They have contributed immensely to the neighborhood and do great work.  Several years ago we worked with Gleasons Gym on a show about boxers, Beautiful Burnout, and they too are an important piece of  neighborhood history and  a cultural experience of another kind.  Finally, we look out on the beautiful Jane’s Carousel which is a true work of art.