As executive director of UNLV’s Performing Arts Center, Lori Cobo leads from the heart
The story of Lori Cobo’s 30-year career at UNLV’s Performing Arts Center is a romance. A classically trained pianist who started playing at 7, Cobo was raised by parents who took her to the opera and symphony. But she truly fell in love with theater in 1983, the year after graduating from high school. While working as a PAC usher, she stood in the balcony one night listening to the National Symphony Orchestra and was completely transported. Marked by the experience, she tried to study nursing but, after barely a year, switched her major to theater. She worked at Bally’s for a few years after college before making her way back to the PAC. Like that rare couple who gets married right out of high school and stays together till old age, Cobo rose through the center’s ranks from the box office to the executive suite. Now executive director, she’s still moved to tears by a symphony. Just after announcing the PAC’s 46th season, Cobo shared her passion for the job with Desert Companion. An edited excerpt of the conversation follows.
What is it about the theater that gives your life meaning?
There is nothing like live theater. I can’t watch movies based on musicals like Les Miserables, Rent, and The Producers. Being able to sit in a venue and see what’s happening on stage and feel what those people are giving you is just ... It’s a very emotional experience.
As a pianist, does part of your love of theater come from being on stage?
Oh, no. I did recitals in school, but it terrified me. And it still does to this day. With the exception of close family, if there’s anybody else in the house, I won’t sit down to play piano.
I see a file over your shoulder called “bar operations.” The PAC consists of three buildings: Ham Concert Hall, Judy Bayley Theatre, and the Black Box. That’s a lot of carpet to be cleaned and HVAC units to be serviced. Have the nuts and bolts of running a facility diminished your love of it?
It’s a different component, but the nuts and bolts of running the facility also brings me a lot of joy.
There’s so much performance art out there. How do you choose your shows?
The artist management companies come to me with a plethora of ideas. So, I plow through them. I engage the rest of the team. We ask the community, our donors, faculty. I’m always interested to see what is out there that they might be interested in. … The concert hall does limit us, because we can’t fly (vertically move scenery on and off stage via a rigging system above). Technology has become a major player in how shows are produced. With our building being 46 years old and not being able to keep up to speed, that has limited our ability to have some of the more advanced productions.
You have made community education one of your missions as executive director. How does that work?
I always ask the artists we bring if outreach can be part of the contract. I want to make sure that we give our kids in the community the opportunity to have art as part of their background and their upbringing, because it’s so important. A few years ago, we took violinist Taylor Davis to Pinecrest Academy, and she performed for all of third and fourth grade. Most of the guitarists do master class opportunities for both high school students and the kids here at UNLV. When the mariachis were here, a local high school group performed as the opening act. For this year’s Zephyr — a Whirlwind of Circus with Cirque Mechanics, not only are we doing a school district performance on Friday morning, but they’re also doing master classes for the Department of Dance and the Department of Theater.
Why does young people hearing a musician or seeing a play matter?
If you don’t give kids the ability to open their minds through the creative process, whether it be music, theater, dance, or some other art, you’re really hindering their ability to express themselves and to see the what’s good in the world. When there’s so much darkness and negativity out there, to take that beauty, that light away from them — it’s not fair. Φ