Monadnock Profile: Marty Hennum's third culture has been a piece of C.A.K.E.

·9 min read

Sep. 10—This summer was an encore for a performing arts director beloved among the Monadnock Region's theater community, though after a career of working with children on stage, she says the curtains haven't closed on her local involvement.

Marty Hennum of Keene recently retired from her position as artistic director of theater at Keene arts education nonprofit MoCo Arts. She was a key figure at MoCo for more than 20 years, launching and building up its C.A.K.E. Summer Camp program, which taught multiple generations of grade-schoolers ages 8 to 18 the art of acting and theatrical performance.

Now, she's taking on a post-MoCo role as the youth director of the United Church of Christ of Keene to "... help keep me young," she said.

"We're going to meet a couple of times a month and find projects we can do to help make the community better," Hennum said. "I'm excited because I think I will be able to still work with young people to promote community connections. But instead of producing these amazing theatrical productions, we're going to be ... doing what we can to make the Monadnock Region a better place."

Community building among children was central to Hennum's philosophy in theater when she developed the C.A.K.E. program in the early 2000s. She said the camp was influenced by her own time at the Charles River Creative Arts Camp in Dover, Mass., when she was 12. The summer arts camp, founded in 1970, still exists and is a program of the independent Charles River School. It offers kids ages 7 to 15 the chance to collectively produce and perform in their own musical, according to the school's website.

"That [camp is] kind of when I met my tribe and my mentor Kippy Dewey," Hennum said. "I started really performing a lot and just feeling how important musical theater in particular was to me. I'd like to think C.A.K.E. does that for some other 12 year-old."

Hennum added that she's still in contact with Dewey, who's director of creative arts at The Park School in Brookline, Mass., and founding director of Rehearsal for Life, a nonprofit youth improv troupe in Jamaica Plain.

Leila Teitelman, of Burlington, Vt., said Hennum's words ring true for her. Teitelman, who was born and raised in Keene, recently accepted a position as a professor of theater at the University of Vermont. She said she discovered her own affinity for theatrical arts through C.A.K.E., in which she participated from ages 9 to 18, and thanked Hennum for being a lifelong leader.

"I have a special place in my heart for Marty because she was my mentor in theater but also my mentor in life," Teitelman said. "She always would have a space for me on her couch when I needed to cry about something or had a big decision to make about my life, all the way until I got this job [at the University of Vermont]."

Hennum was born in 1964 in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in the village of Mount Selinda, to American parents who were medical volunteers sponsored by the United Church of Christ. Though she lived in the southern African nation for only the first five years of her life, she said it profoundly shaped her desires to participate in the the performing arts and learn more about global cultures.

"I would always go up to the village school and play a lot of the games with the kids in kindergarten," Hennum recalled. "Even though I'm ... Caucasian and a New Englander, being born in Rhodesia has affected the lens of how I perceive the world."

A skirt Hennum wore when she was 5 in Rhodesia is framed in her home along with other memorabilia from her early years there. Her family fled the nation in 1969 as the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1960s and 1970s intensified, but Hennum returned in 1985 after visiting Kenya with a college group.

"It was an amazingly powerful experience to go back," she said. "I think anytime you can travel in a developing country or a country where you're a minority, it's a pretty powerful experience."

After leaving Rhodesia, Hennum and her parents moved to the Boston suburbs in Newton, Mass. Her first ever theater performance was as the titular "Ugly Duckling" in the play by "Winnie-the-Pooh" author A.A. Milne, and she dove into the performing arts professionally in high school, when she starred in a rendition of "Table Settings," written by director James Lapine.

"I was doing six shows a week for six months, and it was at that point I thought I wanted to pursue a professional acting career," Hennum said. "I was working with Boston's crème-de-la-crème actors, but after this six months experience, I had this realization that it was not my makeup, that I'm just not that competitive."

Seeing other actors face family struggles in part because of their careers, Hennum readjusted her priorities and sought out liberal arts colleges with strong theater programs. She eventually decided on Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where she pursued a bachelor's degree.

At Denison, Hennum said she enjoyed improvisation acting and developed an interest in psychology. After graduating with bachelor's degrees in theater and psychology in 1986, she moved to Jamaica Plain, Mass., to teach at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, a pre-K-12 private school, where she served as performing arts chair and a theater teacher.

Coinciding with her teaching position, Hennum pursued a master's degree at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., in intercultural relations with a focus on multicultural arts education, which she received in 1996.

"I think it was my way of figuring out how Africa fit in my life," she said. "They call us 'third-culture children,' when you're born in one culture, then move to another culture and you and your family create a third culture. I was also a missionary kid, and yet I was in this very affluent Newton community."

The mixture of theater and culture prompted Hennum to start an international arts program in Brookline, Mass., while she taught at Brimmer and May School. She said the program offered children — either visiting or who had emigrated from countries including Italy, China, Japan and the Netherlands — the chance to collaborate with one another through art classes.

And it was through the Brimmer and May School that Hennum indirectly found her husband, Vaughan, who would become the reason she moved to the Monadnock Region in 2000, when he relocated to the area for work.

"The headmistress of the school where I was teaching ... approached me at a teacher luncheon and said she wanted to introduce me to somebody," Hennum said. "He had none of the qualities I was looking for, but he was a wonderful man, and I left everything in Boston and moved up here to start all over."

She said Vaughan, a retired executive for Smiths Medical in Keene, isn't involved in theater, nor is he a performer, but has been "... so supportive, 100 percent, and has seen every single performance."

"He came home one day and the kitchen furniture was missing, so he called me and asked, 'Where's our kitchen furniture?' " Hennum said, smiling. "I said, 'It's on the stage. I needed it for our set.' "

Her first few months in Keene involved volunteering for AIDS Services for the Monadnock Region, taking after her parents' medical roles. But, she soon became involved with Monadnock Family Services' former Acting Out improv theater program, her first foray into performing arts in the area.

Hennum said through her marriage she welcomed three stepchildren into her life. She sought out theater programs for the kids but found that while there was an abundance of opportunities for adults, options for those under 18 were mostly limited to theater activities in schools. This prompted her to develop C.A.K.E., which stands for Creative Arts at Keene, once she became involved with MoCo Arts.

"There were some existing groups that I don't mean to diminish, but there wasn't a real multi-arts organization," she said.

C.A.K.E. differs from school programs in that it's allowed kids from across the Monadnock Region and beyond to perform with each other rather than just fellow students at their schools, which Hennum said she feels has been a benefit to young participants.

"Kids were meeting with kids they never met but then went to high school with," she said. "And we've had families drive from Massachusetts, kids from Vermont, kids staying with grandparents for the summer and kids who've relocated to the area. It's a nice way for them to meet."

Hennum's involvement with MoCo Arts all started with one children's theater class she taught at the organization, though she said there were "small attempts" to introduce more youth programs overall to the organization before her arrival. She said MoCo's programming today for those under age 18 includes musical theater classes for all ranges of grade-schoolers, nonmusical theater for middle- and high-schoolers and improv classes.

Hennum passed the baton in leading C.A.K.E. to Laura Carbonneau, who left a position as marketing manager for Brattleboro nonprofit Food Connects to accept Hennum's job.

"[Carbonneau] has been volunteering with me in the musical theater program and directing her own [non-musical] shows," Hennum said. "She's an alum and a current staff member so ... the kids love her, they know her, she's young and energetic and has incredible Excel spreadsheet talent."

As for Hennum, she's looking to increase her involvement at the United Church of Christ of Keene in her new youth director role, as well as in other ways. She said the church is directly connected to the Zimbabwean village where she was born, an impactful aspect of the church she learned about when she moved to the region.

She and her husband have also opened their home to Keene State College international student Samuel Khumbala, who hails from Zimbabwe and is majoring in physics.

"In Boston we always had people coming to visit from Zimbabwe, so the joke in our neighborhood was: 'What tribe are we having over for dinner?' " Hennum said. "We've always had a revolving door here in Keene, [where] we've had lots of people staying and living with us. It's taught my children it's important to ... just be open to people, sharing your life and your food and to be inclusive."

Tim Nail can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or tnail@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @timmnail.