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Visionary arts leader celebrates 30 years of 'connecting communities'

This July marks 30 years at ASU Gammage for executive director Colleen Jennings-Roggensack

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July 20, 2022

Thirty years ago, on her first night as executive director of ASU Gammage, a lackluster performance of “Evita” lit a fire in Colleen Jennings-Roggensack.

“The show looked tired, the cast was phoning it in, and I was distressed,” she recalled. “After the show, I went backstage looking for the company manager, and on the callboard in the hallway, there was a sign that said, ‘Hey everyone, we've got to gear up for our next stop, it’s a real theater town.’ I was livid. And from that moment, I knew I had to make a change.”

In the three decades since then, that fire has stoked not only the transformation of ASU Gammage into a well-respected and highly-regarded theater, but the creation of several cultural participation programs that have gone a long way in fostering the theater’s mission of “connecting communities.”

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years,” said Jennings-Roggensack, who also serves as vice president of ASU Cultural Affairs. “I have loved every second.”

And with an impact that has reached not only the Sun Devil community, but the city of Tempe, the state of Arizona, the nation and the world, it may be safe to say she is a real-life superwoman.

‘Connecting communities’

Before coming to ASU, Jennings-Roggensack worked as acting director for the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth University. Wanting a fresh start and place to raise her family, she first entered Sun Devil territory in 1992 with her husband and ASU volcanologist Kurt Roggensack.

She soon came to realize that the university could offer her the chance to make a true and meaningful difference in the community.

“I knew there was great opportunity here. I knew we could make ASU Gammage an internationally recognized performing arts center,” Jennings-Roggensack said.

Driven by that ambition and a vision to make ASU Gammage a bona fide cultural destination, she established the theater’s mission of connecting communities.

“ASU Cultural Affairs has a relationship to communities all over the Valley,” Jennings-Roggensack said. “We have a commitment to connect these communities to each other, connect the university to these communities. And how do we do that? Through arts and culture.”

That mission is evident in every aspect of Jennings-Roggensack’s work, and is proof that ASU Gammage is not just a venue for shows and musicals, but a place for the community. Today, a variety of cultural participation programs introduce thousands of local children to the live-theater and performing arts world.

In addition, ASU Gammage offers programs ranging from Military Family First Nights, which provide military families the opportunity to attend Broadway productions, to Journey Home, a four-week arts program for incarcerated women at the Maricopa County Estrella Jail. And with the introduction of artist residencies, creative professionals have a space to grow in their craft and share their works with students in workshops and master classes.

Cultivating prestige

Aside from her impact on the community, Jennings-Roggensack has shown the theater industry that Tempe truly is an arts and cultural community, working day and night to create strong and lasting relationships with local leadership and arts community members. She has also strengthened and grown ASU Gammage’s relationship with Broadway Across America, the preeminent presenter of touring Broadway shows in North America, so that ASU Gammage now presents the best of Broadway.

But she didn’t stop there. Wanting to create arts experiences that were like nothing else, and present artists from around the world and from various disciplines, Jennings-Roggensack helped launch ASU Gammage’s Beyond series.

Over the past 30 years, not only has Jennings-Roggensack transformed ASU Gammage, but she has left a larger cultural mark on the ASU community through her work with ASU Kerr, the ASU Homecoming Block Party, the ASU Annual MLK Celebration, ASU’s LIFT initiative and the ASU 365 Community Union.

In the past, Sun Devil Stadium was used only seven times a year for home football games. ASU 365 Community Union was created to turn the football field into a university asset that is utilized 365 days a year. The football field now hosts a variety of events and cultural activities, from concerts to yoga classes.

“The reality is there is not another program like it,” Jennings-Roggensack said. “Through ASU 365 Community Union, we are looking at Sun Devil Stadium through a cultural lens and utilizing this space to make a difference.”

Looking ahead: The sky is the limit

While there are many accomplishments throughout her 30 years at ASU to celebrate, Jennings-Roggensack’s work is far from done as she plans to continue expanding and strengthening ASU Cultural Affairs’ mission of connecting communities.

She said the sky is the limit, and the key to continued success is surrounding yourself with great people.

"I am really good at hiring people who are really good,” Jennings-Roggensack said with a laugh. “My job is to lift up the people who work for me, give them the responsibility and the authority to be creative, and great things happen.”

And while she puts in the hours at work, she still manages to set aside time for herself and her family.

“One of the keys to work-life balance is having a really great partner. Kurt is amazing. We are beekeepers, ride tandem bikes and we always set aside time to do things that (are) only for us,” she said. “We also have an amazing daughter, who is very gifted in so many areas.”

Looking toward the future, Jennings-Roggensack said she hopes to continue lifting those around her, and one important thing she’s learned from her three decades at ASU is to be motivated by your passions.

“You can teach anyone anything, but you cannot give someone passion,” she said. “I tell everyone passion gets you up in the morning; passion keeps you going. It isn't your job title, or how much money you make, or how big a house you live in; it's the passion you have for whatever your work is. And the passion I have for this job is unmeasurable.”

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