Some people explore a life in the theater because they fall in love with a particular show. For others, it’s because they dream of applause.
For Minnetonka native Ari Koehnen Sweeney, it was a family matter.
“My brother met a girl who was in theater and new to school and convinced him to do a musical,” says Koehnen Sweeney, who was in middle school at the time and decided to join her brother for the Minnetonka Theatre summer production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Clearly something about the experience stuck with her. Now, Koehnen Sweeney is stepping into a new role as the director of education with Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Though she was involved in basketball as a kid, Koehnen Sweeney began to fill her time in the summers and off-seasons with theater productions, doing one or two shows a year. As she entered high school, she got involved in one-act plays and started to explore the more technical side of stage productions. When she had an injury that prevented her from acting onstage, Kent Knutson, Minnetonka Theatre’s director at the time, asked her to assistant direct, opening her eyes to a whole new way of looking at theater.
“He pushed me to see what else theater has to offer, besides being a chorus kid,” says Koehnen Sweeney.
Knutson became Koehnen Sweeney’s mentor as she explored a newfound passion for stage management, a role that helps ensure the director’s vision is exacted throughout every part of a production. “The wheel doesn’t turn without [stage management], and I was drawn to that,” she says. “When you’re in the audience, you don’t think about how every time a light changes or a chair moves, it’s because someone planned it. I love making that happen.”
After pursuing a degree in stage management, Koehnen Sweeney returned to the Minnetonka theater community, starting her first job at Old Log Theatre in Excelsior after it was purchased by Greg Frankenfield. Though her official title was box office manager, Koehnen Sweeney wore countless hats in her years on the job, from digitizing all of the files to building the ticketing systems, writing policies and procedures, and managing the facility.
“If the fire department called, they called me,” she explains. “I loved the energy of it, the thrill of building something.”
After she departed Old Log, she stayed connected to the local theater community through contract jobs as she debated whether or not a career in stage management would be sustainable with its erratic and time-consuming schedule. She began working at the Hennepin Theatre Trust as a coordinator in late 2015.
Now in her position as the director of education at the Hennepin Theatre Trust, Koehnen Sweeney works to increase visibility (mostly of high school theater programs) and drive the program’s purpose in the community.
“I want to make sure people know what we do and why we do it. It’s our mission to create change through the arts, and to create space for people in the different communities we serve,” she says.
While no two weeks are the same, her team spent the spring travelling to schools throughout Minnesota to share programs with students. Koehnen Sweeney also spends time talking to members of the community, from corporate leaders to politicians to school boards. “I’m a firm believer that these programs can do anything,” she says. “We can mean so much to different communities. As long as they need us, we’ll be here.”
Learn more about Hennepin Theatre Trust and its outreach programs at hennepintheatretrust.org.