HOLYOKE — After four decades at the helm of Enchanted Circle Theatre, the arts and education organization’s executive director has stepped down.
Priscilla Kane Hellweg, who has led the theater almost since its founding in 1976, announced earlier this month that she was stepping down. Under his leadership, Enchanted Circle has grown from a small, traveling educational theater company to an organization that works with public school systems in Western Massachusetts, as well as more than 60 community partner organizations.
“It’s a big deal,” Hellweg said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s bittersweet. It’s also very exciting, I must say. This is a time of growth for all of us. And 40 years is a good long term.
Hellweg, 63, first discovered Enchanted Circle when he was a student at Hampshire College. She was studying arts and education, and one of her teaching projects was a class for members of the Hampshire community. Two members of the newly formed theater company attended her class and then asked her if she wanted to join the company.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to do this for a year or two,'” Hellweg recalled. “It has been my life’s work.”
Enchanted Circle has worked with many different schools and organizations over the years, including launching arts integration initiatives in public schools in Holyoke, Amherst and Northampton.
The organization has also worked to bring arts and education to other places.
In 2018, the Gazette covered National Endowment for the Arts-funded work in theater with women in state custody as part of the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program. Enchanted Circle has worked with the state’s Department of Youth Services to use the arts to develop self-awareness, positive self-presentation skills, and artistic expression for women experiencing trauma and transition.
One of the women, Zainab, spoke of the impact of the experience after reading a poem she wrote aloud to the group.
“When I was in regular school, I would never go in a million years to talk to everyone and share a poem,” Zainab said after class. “But now I am more confident. I can come up and be like, ‘This is me. I will do it.'”
Hellweg’s work in arts integration earned him the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network and the Champions of Arts Education Award from the Massachusetts Alliance for Arts in Education. For her work to make arts education more accessible, she won a Millennium Award from the National Guild of Community Arts Educators.
Diane Daily, program manager at the Mass Cultural Council, said Hellweg was an “incredible partner to work with”.
“His passion for providing a solid arts education to Holyoke students has led to a beautiful partnership between Enchanted Circle and Holyoke Public Schools,” Daily said in a statement. “Because of his leadership, our students were able to explore their artistic abilities, enjoy enrichment opportunities that enhanced their learning, and honored them as individuals and as a community of connected learners.”
Hellweg said she liked to joke that Enchanted Circle was her firstborn. Her 40 years with the organization brought up many memories when she was asked to reflect on those experiences on Monday.
“They were so relationship-rich,” Hellweg said. “I will remember so many students, so many teachers, so many teaching artists, so many collaborators, different organizations, donors. Delighted — we were a circle of friends… My heart is full. Very full.”
Amy Dopp, chair of the Enchanted Circle board, said the organization’s staff and board are currently overseeing operations while working with an independent consultant to determine what leadership will look like at the time. to come up.
“We are looking at shared governance, management and decision-making models,” Dopp said, adding that the organization wants to understand how to adapt in order to center the voices of black and indigenous people and people of color as ‘it continues to develop. it is work.
This work has been carried out by Hellweg for decades. Dopp said breakups like this can be tough, but this board is excited for what’s to come.
“Priscilla is Enchanted, and Enchanted has been Priscilla for 40 years,” Dopp said. “Priscilla left Enchanted Circle in a strong position as a nationally recognized organization focused on inspiring learning through the arts. many years.
Hellweg has also facilitated professional development workshops throughout the region, including with Northampton’s Collaborative for Educational Services. And as a playwright, she has written and directed plays for cultural tourism sites like the Wistariahurst Museum.
As for what’s next, Hellweg said that over the past decade she’s developed the Institute for Arts Integration — a center for professional development, the arts and advocacy. Designed as a creative hub where teachers and teaching artists can come together and learn, the institute will partner with Mount Holyoke College’s professional and higher education program.
“What became very clear to me – I couldn’t cultivate this while working my 70 hours at Enchanted Circle,” she said.
Stepping away from Enchanted Circle will allow others besides Hellweg to chart a new course for the organization, Hellweg added.
“It’s very exciting for me,” she said. “I kind of led so many iterations and growth, and I feel like it’s really time for other people to lead it.”
Dusty Christensen can be contacted at [email protected]