Swanson ponders Hancher’s role in ‘Redesigning Our American Dream’

In its fifth year, the UI’s theme semester for 2019 will tackle the question of how our concept of the American Dream may have been flawed and what a more inclusive American Dream may look like. Chuck Swanson was one of the leaders who brought the theme semester to the UI, and as the Hancher executive director, he believes that the influence of theater can’t be overstated.


The Daily Iowan; Photo by Ben Al

Chuck Swanson, Executive Director of Hancher Auditorium, stands inside the atrium of Hancher on Friday, Mar. 2, 2018. Swanson has been the Executive Director since 2002. (Ben Allan Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Chuck Swanson has been a member of the University of Iowa community longer than most of the current students have been alive. Hancher has had many homes since his time as a student in the 1970s, and now, under his wing, the auditorium is a beacon of hope and inclusiveness in the 21st century.

Swanson was one of the original committee members who brought the idea of a theme semester to the UI, inspired in part by 20-plus years of success at University of Michigan. The collaborative project is an effort to bring a topic of universal importance to the community to learn about and discuss, and in spring of 2019, the theme will be “Redesigning Our American Dream.”

“I think it’s really important as we go forward in the 21st century that we really look at what the American Dream means to everybody and really try to be as inclusive as possible,” Swanson said. “Because our country is changing, too, the landscape of our country, and people from other countries who come to America, you know, they have their own American dreams, they have their own reason for wanting to be here.”

The theme was proposed by Kathrina Litchfield, a UI doctoral student who also directs UI Liberal Arts Beyond Bars. Litchfield has been inspired by her time with incarcerated students to consider how institutionalized systems in our country create unequal opportunities for success and to consider how changing the standard for success may be the best solution we have.

“The American Dream is very specific to America,” she said. “And yet, everyone in the world knows what that phrase means.”

RELATED: Next UI theme semester: ‘Redesigning Our American Dream’

The theme semester is in the early conceptual stages, and Litchfield, Swanson, and others have diversity at the forefront of their minds as they advocate for people to join the planning committee and consider what events might contribute to the topic.

For Swanson, theater is one of the best venues to discuss difficult topics because it brings people from different backgrounds in to a safe space in which they can share an experience and discuss its effects.

“We want Hancher to be welcoming; we want it to be for everybody,” Swanson said. “So when we book a season, we try to really think about that, we try to make Hancher as interesting and as accessible and as exciting for as broad a range of people as we possibly can.”

The 2018/19 season at Hancher will begin on Sept. 12 with a lecture by Cokie Roberts, “An Insider’s View of Washington, D.C.”

In October, bassist Rufus Reid will perform a show commemorating Elizabeth Catlett, the first African American to receive an M.F.A. from the UI.

In November, Hancher will host the Soweto Gospel Choir and the Canadian Brass. Later that month, Rahim AlHaj will bring a 5,000-year-old string instrument called an oud on stage, along with a string quartet, for the show “Letters from Iraq.”

There will be a band in February that sings in six languages. There will be Irish, Russian, and Cuban performers. And there will be the Jersey Boys.

In short, there will be plenty of diversity, and for Swanson, diversity is as American as it gets.

“You look at a Hancher season, and it is full of diverse artists, artists from all around the world, artists from other cultures, and you know everybody defines their dreams in a different way,” he said. “The best part of this is bringing people together and all of us learning from each other and making this big university smaller in some ways.”

Right now, the success of the theme semester depends on the number of people who can get involved. Jordan Brown, the program administrator for the theme semester, said, “Anyone who wants to be associated in part with this theme semester, we’ll never turn them away.”

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