Tom Pascarella – Tilles Center for the Performing Arts
Tom Pascarella had just started in the production department of the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts when a traveling act known as “Children of Uganda” passed through in 2001. In the show, which confronts poverty and social injustice in Uganda, the children play music and tell stories from their homeland.
Pascarella will never forget sitting with a troupe of wide-eyed Ugandan kids after the show—they were soaking up the dramatically different weather, scenery and culture on Long Island—and teaching them how to fold a slice of pizza like true New Yorkers.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, this is why we do theater,’” Pascarella recalls. “This is why we work all these crazy hours and things, to be able to see those kids do that.’ It was extremely fulfilling. And throughout the years, there’s been a lot of fulfillment.”
Two decades later, Pascarella is now the general manager at Tilles, a theater complex at Long Island University. Until recently the director of facilities and production at Tilles, he’s helped lead the center through changes which include the 2018 overhaul of the 500-seat Krasnoff Theater; a pandemic-era renovation of the center’s 2,000-seat concert hall; the replacement of an acoustic shell; and an update of the center’s atrium to accommodate merchandise, food and beverage sales.
“I’ve kind of learned how far a dollar can go in a construction projects, and it’s unfortunately not that far,” Pascarella says. “So, we took that lesson, and the limitations that we have, be it financial or geographical, and asked ourselves: ‘Not only what have you been needing, but what are you going to need in another 10, 15, 20 years?’”
A production for the neurodiverse
Beyond the physical changes, Pascarella has also worked on shows for the neurodivergent community that feature subdued lighting, lowered audio, an absence of jarring cues, a small-group setting and opportunities to take part in the performance.
Tilles opened its first such show—which Pascarella and company self-produced, and which had an audience of around 20 neurodivergent children or adults—last year. They had already been offering “relaxed performances” for people on the spectrum, but this show was held in a lounge instead of an auditorium and featured added tactile elements.
It was well received, so now the center is developing another self-produced show, this one for schoolchildren. The neurodivergent shows will also continue next season.
“We aren’t doing it to make any money,” Pascarella says. “It’s all about the water cycle, and it has a very educational element to it.”
For Pascarella, who began in production and backstage work and considers that his first love, the experience offers a chance to get back to his roots. It also recalls the wonder he’s seen from generations of kids—from kindergartners to Hellen Keller School students to local high schoolers—who’ve been introduced to the theater business at Tilles.
Not that Pascarella spends all his time on one show. He works with Tilles’ executive director to review all acts that want to perform and ensure the center has the resources, services, personnel and scheduling room to handle them. He also collaborates with the university’s public safety department, electricians and custodians to set those artistic projects in motion. He oversees front-of-house services, including food, beverages and guest services, too.
Directing major renovations
Pascarella has overseen major renovations, starting with improvements to the Krasnoff Theater. He and his team worked with a general contractor to strip the room to a skeleton of a stage and four bare walls. After installing new drywall and carpets, they brought in new seats and reconfigured the seating to give the audience a better view, moving more seats toward the center.
Next, they put up a mini proscenium to give performers a little bit of wing space. They also upgraded the sound, lighting and cabling.
“Basically, I took about 20 years of complaints that I had logged, and I think we successfully touched on like 98 percent of those and made them much better,” Pascarella says. “Not only for those viewing the performances, but also for those in the performances.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he also worked on the Tilles Center Concert Hall, a 2,000-seat performance space. The facility had received some gifts from donors even as show production had sputtered to a halt, so Pascarella and the executive director took the opportunity to renovate. The renovations included new paint, carpeting, seating, seating configurations and permanent walls on stage left and stage right with a header piece to create the feeling of a proscenium. Pascarella also had the acoustic shell removed.
“We’re meeting the changing needs of the artist,” he says. “We’re a little more in the national spotlight now.”
To thine own self be true
When fielding suggestions, Pascarella reminds himself of what it was like as he developed his skillset at Tilles. He worked his way up from production coordinator to assistant production manager to house lighting designer to director of facilities and production before attaining his current role.
“The thing that I kind of follow the most is to try to come from a place of solution or a place of ‘yes’ rather than just being crotchety and saying ‘no’ to things,” Pascarella explains. “I ran into those stumbling blocks early on, where I’d want to do something or change something, and you know, you get the line, ‘Well, it’s always been that way,’ which is one of the lines I hate the most.”
Pascarella got his start in theater in the fifth grade. He landed the job of running lights for the school play, which involved flipping circuit breakers on and off, and he had a ball doing it. Plus, he managed to get out of class for rehearsal. The young stagehand never looked back.
Now happily married, Pascarella is a serious Mets fan who also likes to tinker with gadgets. When he’s not working, he pals around with his 5-year-old daughter, Amelia.
“Because of her, I have had a crash course in family programming,” he says.
As for the “Children of Uganda” show, it returned to Tilles in 2004, and the production continues touring with new participants to this day.
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. II 2023 Edition here.
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