Hicken weaves festival's fabric Decisions: For seven of the past eight Columbia Festival of the Arts, Donald Hicken has been the artistic director -- the one who decides on the performers, roster and concept for each festival.


Jazz legend Dave Brubeck and everyone else on stage at the Columbia Festival of the Arts share at least one trait: They have impressed Donald Hicken.

For seven of the past eight festivals, the Baltimore theater teacher has been the artistic director -- the one who decides the performers, roster and concept for each festival.

Hicken, 51, has booked international stars such as Max Roach, Garrison Keillor and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, along with regional performers who make up the popular lakefront festival.

Ken Skrzesz, executive director of Kinetics Dance Theatre in Ellicott City, said Hicken has the ability to maintain a consistent tone for the festival.

"He's extremely thorough on many different levels. He looks at artistic quality as well as audience appeal. He keeps the festival accessible, " Skrzesz said.

The festival offers several challenges to its primary programmer. He must balance five artistic disciplines -- music, dance, theater, literature and visual arts -- with a blend of regional and international talent tied to a 10-day schedule with a $415,000 budget.

Despite being in the middle of the eighth festival, he is busy meeting and planning for 1997. Hicken estimates that the job takes 10 hours a week throughout the year.

His formula for evaluating performers involves three criteria: virtuosity, accessibility and the ability to foster a sense of community.

"At the rudimentary level, what we as artists do is cause people to gather. We bring strangers into a room and make them an audience. That's an important function of art," Hicken said. His advice to groups that wish to perform at the festival is straightforward.

"It's not a magical route really. Basically, it's sending material to the festival. And it helps to know if they're performing around the area. We prefer to see a live performance," he said.

This year's guiding concept at the festival is simplicity -- in voice, instruments and movement. The a cappella group Toby Twining Music and Anita Feldman Tap are examples of the idea.

Although he has much authority, Hicken seeks advice in areas beyond his expertise. He has the artistic background and experience when it comes to choosing appropriate theater, dance, jazz and folk music performers.

But in visual arts, classical music and literature, he receives guidance from county organizations such as the Columbia Art Center, Candlelight Concerts and the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society.

All of his programs are proposed to the festival's board of directors, which provides feedback before approval.

The business side of festivals is familiar ground for the theater department head at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where Hicken is aware of budget constraints.

"I'm pretty practical when it comes to working with a budget," he said. He adds, however, that he finds occasions to "push to expand that figure."

Hicken, a Pittsburgh native raised in Buffalo, N.Y., can trace his first taste of acting to high school musicals.

He earned a bachelor's degree in theater from MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., and a graduate degree in theater from Catholic University.

He started his professional acting career in New England with the Hartford Stage Company, where he met his future wife, Tana Hicken, a member of Washington's Arena Stage Acting Company and a Helen Hayes Award-winner. They married in 1972.

Four years later, they moved to Baltimore, where Hicken was associate director of the Young People's Theater at Center Stage.

He left Center Stage in 1980 to teach at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The Hickens live in Roland Park. At last year's festival, Hicken directed his wife in "The Belle of Amherst," a one-woman show about Emily Dickinson.

The eighth Columbia Festival of the Arts will continue through June 23 at nine locations in Howard County. Today is the last day of performances for the free Lakefront Birthday Celebration at Lake Kittamaqundi. Information: 715-3055.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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