Growing up on a ranch outside Kansas City, Missouri, Robyn Williams had dreams of going into professional barrel racing, the designated “women’s event” in the rough and tumble world of rodeo, the chosen vocation of her cowboy father.
Plenty of people in the venues industry and beyond are glad she didn’t.
Williams, who started as a stagehand in Lubbock, Texas, after going to college for technical theater, has been in the venues business for over 30 years, the last 23 of them as executive director for Portland’5 Centers for the Arts in Oregon. Portland’5 consists of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Keller Auditorium and the Newmark, Winningstad and Brunish Theatres in Antoinette Hatfield Hall.
Good luck finding someone to utter a discouraging word about Williams, whose lavender-tinted hair hints at the colorful life she’s led; learning, bringing professional business standards to the world of performing arts centers and theaters, all the while advocating for women in the industry, and for the potent place that PACs and theaters hold in the broader venues universe.
“If Robyn isn’t deserving of the Hall of Honor, no one is,” said Phil Jordan, a venues operations consultant who has known Williams for decades. “Anyone who was in IAVM would tell you she is impactful; a mentor for many of us in performing arts.”
Brad Mayne, president and CEO of the International Association of Venue Managers, notes Williams has dedicated major efforts to the organization, having served as its president under a previous administrative structure. She has also taught at IAVM’s Venue Management School and created numerous initiatives including, most recently, one focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that Mayne says has resonated throughout the industry.
Williams is approachable and clearly enjoys serving and assisting others. As a result she’s “respected and loved by all,” Mayne says.
“She’s been at the top of her game for many years,” he added. “She’s respected by all and has had great success in the industry. I could go on for hours about Robyn’s accomplishments as a leader who pays it forward. Her undying devotion to making others stronger and successful is beyond reproach. Portland’5 is losing an incredible leader; a professional who has conquered the live events industry with the ability to see the future and move forward in making it happen.”
Former IAVM president and current San Diego Convention Center CEO Rip Rippetoe, who has known Williams for over 30 years, said she embodies an “unusual combination of authenticity and professionalism.”
“I count her as one of my longest, dearest friends and peers,” he said. “I was the chair and she was the vice-chair of the IAVM Performing Arts Committee in 1991-1992. We were both active in our performing arts careers, in IAVM and with the committee. Bob Mayer was chair of IAVM at the time. He charged us with forming the first IAVM Performing Arts Sector Specialty Gathering. Robyn and I worked on it together and pulled together a program and launched it in less than four months. The event was February of 1992 in Chicago. It was a huge success.”
Rippetoe soon after moved into the convention center portion of his career and had to relinquish his chair role with the PAC committee.
“Robyn took it over and the rest of her contribution to IAVM and to the performing arts industry has become legendary,” he said. “I knew then that she was extraordinary. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this honor.”
The accolades and apparent affection colleagues have for Williams don’t come about by accident and Williams credits her mother Jane for having a major influence as she grew up one of four siblings.
“We were pretty isolated, living on a ranch (in Greenwood, Missouri, population about 300 back then),” Williams recalled. “My mother always said, “I think you can do anything you want to do. You’re gonna just be whatever you want to be, and I believed that. She was my hero, like most of my entire life.”
That included barrel racing.
“Watching these women just kind of haul ass, in and around these barrels and stuff, I just thought that was the best,” Williams said.
Williams laughed at the notion of barrel racing being a metaphor for daily life in the venue business.
“There’s days where I’m definitely still circling the barrels and then running as fast as you can home,” she said. “I think that really sums up the venue life, and in many ways.”
In college, Williams was an aspiring lighting and set designer and scene painter.
Graduate school wasn’t all she had hoped and during a visit to the circus, she ran into a friend working a follow spot.
“I was like, ‘How did you get this job?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, here’s who you should talk to. They’re always looking for people with theater experience.’ So, I went and talked to this guy and started working at the arena in Lubbock as a stagehand doing anything. Then I got my first full-time job at the convention center and arena as the production manager for the convention center.”
Williams says she still owns a house in Lubbock.
As for her status as a champion for women in the industry, and for the rightful attention that performing arts centers and theaters should get from the public and in the eyes of the broader industry, Williams says, “It seemed like our industry so much was talking about the arenas this, and the stadiums that; you know, all the big boys.”
“And I’m like, ‘Oh, excuse me, we do way more attendance than you guys do,” Williams said. “So, I was always pushing for inclusion, particularly in the area of professional development for performing arts. Along with that, I’ve been totally outspoken about the role of women in our industry and people of color that I think have long been overlooked. I’m still pretty outspoken on that topic.
“When I started as a stagehand, they didn’t have women stagehands. I remember some of the shows, road crews would come in and take a look and see we had two or three women on our crew, and they would just roll their eyes and be like, ‘Oh, God. This is gonna be a long day.’ And when I was over production and I was the main point of contact, and I was also doing the power tie-ins and stuff, they would just out and out groan when they met me, going, ‘Oh, my God, she’s in charge. I got a woman in charge. She’s gonna touch our electrical tails and do our power tie-ins. Oh, this is gonna be a disaster!’ So it’s those kind of experiences that have made me want to really stand up for women and people of color in our industry.”
Among her top professional accomplishments “and probably the thing I’m most proud of” during her time in Portland was getting the centers on their feet financially.
“When I first started, they were in really bad shape, bleeding a lot of money,” she said. “I did a budget within like a month or two of being hired and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! We’re gonna be bankrupt in two or three years.’ My board basically said, ‘Well, go fix it.’ And it wasn’t that I’m so absolutely brilliant to turn things around. It was more like I was the first professional venue manager to come in and it was easy to look around and go, ‘No, you don’t give that away. You charge for that. Or, this shouldn’t be losing money. This should be making money.’ There was a lot of low-hanging fruit.”
Another thing she’s proud of is having been “a champion for professional development of my staff.”
“When the going gets tough and money gets slim, you don’t cut the travel and the training,” Williams said. “You get your people out there because you need them to be the best and brightest and they don’t get smart by staying. When I started here, my predecessor was not from the industry and money was tight, so nobody was really trained in our business’ best practices.
“They were dying for professional development. They wanted to learn so bad. They were so eager. I made my people IAVM members and they went to conferences, the box office people were going to INTIX. We got everybody started to be all trained up and that’s why we’ve been such a successful venue. I’ve got really smart people doing good work, because they got the skills to do that, and I will give myself credit for recognizing the importance of investing in your people.”
Much of her professional conduct was modeled by long-time IAVM fixture Ray Ward.
“I watched him and I remember the first time he said hello to me, and I was like, I’m nobody and he’s president of IAVM (then IAAM),” Williams said. “He would sit on the front row of all the sessions. He was such a good example and I learned so much from him.”
What’s next for Williams, who said she had been thinking about retiring for a while?
“I’ve been in the industry since 1980 and I’ve been here in this role, in Portland for 23,” she said. “I think COVID took a lot out of me and I’m kind of exhausted. That being said, I love this business so much. It’s been good to me, and it was the absolute perfect career for me. But I’m also a visual artist (working in found and recycled object assemblage) and I’m ready to spend the next chapter of my life full time on my artwork.”
Williams’ husband of 42 years, attorney Roger Scarbrough, has always been willing to move wherever his wife’s job took her.
“He was willing to put his career on hold and move for me,” she said. “Thank God I had somebody like that, who supported my work. When we first met, I was never home. It was all the nights and weekends. And it was just OK. It was fine with him. He knew that my career was really important, and really supported it.”
The couple has had no kids by choice, but there’s been a string of cats and dogs over the years.
“Those are those are our babies,” Williams says of their lab-Weimaraner mix named Nightshade for a character in Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and a 1 ½-year-old pit bull mix from Mexico named Tobalá that they adopted through a foster owner.
Tobalá is named after an agave that’s used to make mezcal.
“I’m a big fan of mezcal,” Williams said.