“Wouldn’t this be an amazing place to work one day?” That’s what Mary Jo Ziesel said to her partner Dr. Hank Spinelli after the two took in screenings of Pavarotti and Parasite at the Jacob Burns Film Center (JBFC) in 2019. Just two years later, Ziesel would be named the Executive Director of the JBFC. Since taking on the role in September 2021, Ziesel has been hard at work implementing programs and keeping up the JBFC’s excellent reputation as an important cultural institution in the local community and beyond.
Before joining the JBFC, Ziesel held over two decades of leadership at American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Among her many accomplishments were the development of a $7M center of innovation, serving more than 20,000 students, summer intensive programs, the ABT National Training Curriculum, the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and William J. Gillespie Schools and a national network of ABT Certified Schools. During the pandemic, Ziesel pivoted programming online, reaching thousands of students and teachers in 49 states and 46 countries. She was instrumental in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion at ABT.
Speaking with Ziesel, one gets a sense of her excitement for creating new ideas for the JBFC and the joy she has in working with the staff, board, members, and community. “I am thrilled to be here. When I first discovered it, the theater staff was so enchanting, knowledgeable and professional. They are so well trained with providing an incredible experience.” Ziesel has been hard at work learning the intricacies of the JBFC organization and engaging with the community at large as the theater celebrates its 20th anniversary.
“One thing I’ve learned in arts administration is if you have great art, where there is rigor, commitment, focus and resiliency, if you have all those elements, it transfers everywhereand anything can happen.” says Ziesel. From her first day on September 7th, Ziesel has felt the magic and excitement that happens at the JBFC. “Everyone is so excited that people are coming back to the theater–it’s what we do and what we believe in. The energy in the theater is palpable–you know you’re experiencing a special moment in time.” The JBFC prides itself on showing 400 films a year and presentingupwards of 150 events–which means there’s never a real down time. “You can come to the theater every day and see something different. What strikes me as different than the performing arts, you typically have a season and relax once it’s over. But here what’s so great, one of the magical things of why employees are so excited and committed to being here, the film programming is changing every week, it’s always new and engaging.”
One of the JBFC’s programs for emerging artists is the Creative Culture program which champions diverse voices and helps to foster a thriving artistic community from all over the world. The Fellowship Program provides a 10-month-long experience for emerging filmmakers to produce two short film projects within a collaborative community.
“We’re bringing in a new cohort of talented emerging filmmakers; it’s a very competitive process for fellows each semester. Sean Weiner, the Director of Creative Culture, has created a safe collaborative environment for the artists, who are mostly in their early to mid-20’s. I’ve been so moved by the robust and all-encompassing services the Burns provides. The stories the filmmakers are telling are deeply personal and to have the maturity to tell a story and be that vulnerable is quite something at that age. The JBFC is providing a platform for voices and stories that might not otherwise be heard.”
“The other piece is our artist-in-residency program which provides filmmakers from all over the world a space where they can come and work on their feature films. They have access to all resources in the building. They’re like kids in a candy store – they can use all the elements and are provided a space to really focus on their work – an incredible gift to be able to do so.”
As the year goes on and the 20th anniversary continues, Ziesel is looking forward to many upcoming programs including bringing back the popular Focus on Nature series as well as the opening of the much-anticipated Downton Abbey: A New Era film coming out in March. Ziesel is also excited about the return of in-person camps as well as JBFC Kids, a program geared towards younger kids and their families, which offers both film screenings and hands-on media-making experiences. She anticipates some fun events at the Media Arts Lab including engaging activities for families to experience media and film viewing.
The curated film series will be back as well including Remix: The Black Experience in Film, Media and Art, The World Stage on Screen–the best of international theatre on screen–and Global Watch, a series of social action documentaries. She also hints at some upcoming special guests to the JBFC. “One thing I’ve learned very quickly is you may plan for guests a few months out, the pace is very quick for when people are available. Often, we get a very last-minute exciting guest to come visit. Patrons appreciate the excitement of not knowing but trusting it will be something good.”
There will also be plenty of opportunities to take in some of the JBFC’s virtual programming. There is an upcoming Romanian film series as well as the Jewish Film Festival. The JBFC continues to do virtual programming in schools as well as professional development for teachers. “We can reach teachers nationally and internationallwe’re embracing the lasting presence of digital and what it can do to reach new audiences. We reach about 16,000 students each year and are very excited to bring back the virtual Classroom to Screening Room.”
Patrons are embracing the “new normal” in-person theatrical experience as well. “Patrons are excited to be back in the space and appreciate our vaccination requirements and mask policies. It’s park of getting the movie-going experience back into your life. Once the seal is broken and you’re back, it’s like saying ‘I remember this and loved and missed it’. We’ve all been shut indoors. Streaming in our pj’s is one thing, but coming to experience film in a shared environment with an audience is something people are excited about.” As always, one of the most important things is the relationships with the patrons as well as the staff and the board. “The staff is just incredibly talented and it’s inspiring to work with them. It’s awe-inspiring to see what Steve Apkon (JBFC Founder and Pleasantville resident) originally created here and how the community and town can be transformed. Together, we will continue to entertain, educate, and inspire people of all ages through the amazing power of film.”