Published on January 18, 2021 | Staten Island Advance | Written by Michael Anderson | Staten Island Chamber of Commerce
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Susan Fenley knows that the arts leave an indelible mark on people’s lives.
“When I talk to people about the arts, almost 90% of the time, they’ll remember a play from high school. They’ll remember the lines, and they’ll remember what they did. You don’t remember the test you took on Einstein back then, but you will remember the arts that you did or the band you played in or the dress you created and won a prize for,” she said. “It’s not that arts are the only thing. But the arts help round out people, and they’re very important.”
The arts are so important to Fenley that, following 10 years at her Washington, D.C.-based public relations/marketing firm Prime Time Communications, Fenley returned to her artistic roots and moved to New York City.
“You know those moments in your life when you say, ‘If I don’t do this now, in 20 years, I will regret not having tried that or making that decision?’ And I didn’t want to live with that,” said Fenley.
She previously served as an actor, singer and mime after attending the United States International University’s School of Performing arts in San Diego, Calif. In New York, she took advantage of the city’s plethora of arts options by taking classes, auditioning, training and performing. Along the way, she made new connections with diverse backgrounds in directing, performing, education, administration, tech, producing, fundraising and finance.
“I don’t think anybody at that time was doing original theater on Staten Island,” she said. “We talked about it for a year around my dining room table, and we decided to do our first production, which was an original comedy at the Muddy Cup. It was the very first production in their backroom.”
In August 2002, Sundog Theatre was incorporated and presented its first production, Jason’s Journey. The group would go on to present two more productions — Scenes From the Staten Island Ferry and the musical The Fantasticks — that first year. Despite the success of the latter two productions, Fenley said she knew it was necessary to branch out to include the younger generation and create arts-in-education programs.
“It was a risk, but I didn’t look at it as a risk. I looked it at as a necessity,” she said. “I think they’re necessary. I think that they’re needed.”
Sundog Theatre started with one school on Staten Island in 2004, and expanded to serve over 35 schools with approximately 80 arts programs in theater, dance, music, visual arts and literacy.
“It was great the way it was received. And it was great the way it was supported by funders and political people with grants,” she said. “They recognized the value of the arts in education and kudos to them. It’s like they say, it takes a village.”
Donors recognized the need for arts-in-education programs, but funds became scarce following the Great Recession. Fenley said she knew she had to think differently to ensure the long-term success of Sundog Theatre.
“We hired an Arts and Education manager to manage our school programs, knowing that after this bubble would burst, and things would come back, we needed to get rolling,” she said. “We did a lot of planning. We hired teaching artists. We organized programs internally, so once that money became available again — whether it was schools able to pay for it or the government offering grants — then we literally were able to hit the ground running. So that was a risk hiring a full-time person to organize something that we didn’t know if it would happen or not.”
More recently, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced Sundog Theatre — as well as countless other businesses and organizations — to adapt on the fly.
“We were working days, nights and weekends trying to catch up and learn what was needed in order to translate our programs from in-person to online,” said Fenley. “We gathered our teaching artists together on a Zoom call and said what we’re going to do is switch to online learning. We hoped the schools would be on board with this, because we weren’t sure if schools wanted remote arts programs.”
Needless to say, that transformation paid dividends.
“I think some of these arts programs that were offered remotely were kind of lifesavers for the kids who now had to spend six hours per day on Zoom learning. I think the arts were a little bit of a rescue for them and a break,” she said.
For her accomplishments, Fenley is being honored with a Louis R. Miller Business Leadership Award, which she will receive in the Not-For-Profit Businessperson category. The awards — which are presented by the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and the Staten Island Advance — honor the memory of Louis R. Miller, a businessman and West Brighton resident who was also a community leader.
As a member of Rotary International, the Equity Alliance of Staten Island, and the Boy Scouts of America, Fenley has been an active member of the Staten Island community for years.
This year, Fenley is serving her 17th year as a teacher in the Theater Program at Wagner College. She also teaches at the Staten Island Teaching Artist Institute, which instructs the next generations of teaching artists on Staten Island. In devotion to her tireless commitment to the arts, Fenley also mentors teens interested in arts careers through various organizations, including United Activities Unlimited (UAU) and The Tony Bennett Foundation.
“The students who are interested in the arts will come and work with us on shows and in the teaching residencies, because some of them are interested in teaching theater. We couple them with our teaching artists in the schools. They’re able to learn how that works because that’s a viable profession,” said Fenley. “There’s a multi-billion dollar industry in theater, dance, music, visual arts and other related professions. Learning the skills of theater is not a fluff thing. We’ve been able to help kids and parents realize the huge career skills and the reality of being involved in the arts.”
Ultimately, Fenley said she knows there is another part about exposing students to the arts.
“When they do a program, and they see something in themselves that they’ve never seen before or when they discover a talent, it changes their lives. I’ve truly seen lives changed through kids being involved in theater,” said Fenley. “The shy kids sometimes come out of their shell because they start to discover who they really are. It’s a magical and very inspiring profession. I get more now from producing and running my theater than I ever did acting.”
Recipients of the Louis R. Miller Awards are recognized as effective business leaders, and for their outstanding contributions to the local community. Awards are given out in four categories: Emerging, Established, Master, and Not-For-Profit. The honorees will be recognized during the annual Louis R. Miller Business Leadership Awards Breakfast on Thursday, Feb. 25. This year’s event is virtual. For tickets, visit www.sichamber.com or call the Chamber at 718-727-1900.
Below, Fenley shares more about her goals, job and life:
Current occupation and title: Executive director of Sundog Theatre.
Hometown: I live in St George, but I grew up in Las Vegas, and have also lived in San Diego, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Maryland.
Past occupations and titles: Funding Director and communications director at Theatre of Light in Los Angeles; purchasing supervisor at COMNET in Washington, D.C.; public relations specialist at Group 1 Software in Greenbelt (Md.); owner, creator of Prime Time Communications in Washington, D.C.
Community involvement: Staten Island Chamber of Commerce; Rotary International; Equity Alliance of Staten Island; mentoring teens who are interested in arts careers through various organizations including UAU, Sundog, and The Tony Bennett Foundation; speaking on various panels to aspiring performing and teaching artists; Boy Scouts of America and served as Assistant Scoutmaster for many years; Staten Island Teaching Artist Institute – which is a collaboration between Sundog Theatre, Staten Island Arts and Center for Arts Education – to instruct next generations of teaching artists in Staten Island; Wagner College, where I have taught in the Theater Department for 18 years; coordinated a music program with teens, through Sundog Theatre, to connect them with artists who help them put their thoughts and experiences into poetry, spoken word, and music.
The most difficult part of my job: Prioritizing my time regarding the many ideas I want to implement.
My life philosophy: Follow your intuition
I am most proud of: My son, his intelligence, and the wonderful father he has become
Something that no one knows about me: Haha. I can at least give you something that not many know about me. I was a professional mime for years while I was also making a living as an actor and singer.
The quality I like best about myself: Dedication to the cause.
Personal interests and hobbies: Even though I am uber busy with Sundog Theatre, I like to garden, take long walks along the beach … wait, that’s another answer. Spend time with my husband, take photos, and read on the rare chance I have some free time.
I laugh at: How life often imitates a sitcom.
I am really good at: Re-adjusting my life, career and company based on opportunities that occur. Sometimes, though, I just have to duck and move.
I admire: People who are more mature than me who are organized, creative and diplomatic while still being kind.