Today we are visiting with Carol Prins, an extraordinary woman and philanthropist who has devoted her life to numerous Chicago institutions and has been a long time supporter of the Goodman Theatre. She also played a leadership role for the plays Red and Sweet Bird of Youth…
When did you become affiliated with the Goodman Theatre?
I accepted the offer to the Board of the Goodman Theatre, not knowing all of the details, right after giving birth to my son. At the time, they were just starting a women’s board. I love the theater; I grew up in New York with cultural parents and was able to see Yule Brynner starring in The King and I.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment with the Goodman?
I don’t think I can credit myself on something like that. I love the theater and have a lot of enthusiasm for it, so maybe I energize the board…and we’ve all been friends a long time. We’re very inclusive, which speaks to our diversity to the whole idea of the theater and what the theater means to people. So it’s an inclusive process to make everybody feel good and welcomed to a very diverse staff. All kinds of marvelous people, and they’re not chosen for being a ‘nice person.’ They’re chosen for what they’re doing for us; not just writing a check, but opening doors, lending a friend’s name to our roster, et cetera. I think I forwarded that process…
Tell us a little about the financial storm of 1987 regarding the Goodman.
All of the organizations were independent back then: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago Foundation for Women, Joffrey Ballet, et cetera, and all of these organizations were in a panic following the stock market crash. I never saw us in a panic at all, but it was a very difficult time. So we cut back, stopped mailing as much, used FedEx. less to save money. Our artistic staff (which is probably one of the greatest in the U.S.) was also willing to do their share. You could cast 24 people, or you could have a wonderful play with just a few people. Those are written all the time.
You and your dynamic husband are being honored by the Merit School of Music on May 23rd. Are you excited and were you able to attend the 16th Suzuki Method World Convention in Japan in March?
No, I was unable to attend. John has an extraordinarily busy life, running a major wine auction house (which is number one in the country), so he’s very tied up. Plus there’s our non-profit commitments and our children, grandchildren and trips, so we’re on the move, but I know all about it. Regarding the May 23rd gala, we were ‘bolted over,’ totally surprised. We had no idea this was going to happen. We were on a dirt road in Santa Fe last summer in July when we got the phone call and I thought. ‘My God we’re that old, they’re honoring us, that’s an old thing.’ I thought it would be wonderful. We were flattered and surprised because we’ve never been honored before and probably won’t be again.
Tell us about your experiences as a young dancer/actress in the arts and who really inspired you as an actress or dancer?
I was a rebel, which went against the grain of my friends and family. I went to the Brearley School [in New York], which was a very strict all-girls school, but the drama program was amazing. I won a drama prize when I was 17, then went on to Vassar college, but there were no freshman in the drama program. I decided to leave Vassar (where my Mom went to school), and I thought I had to be in New York. So I went to Barnard College-Columbia University and took acting lessons with people at the Neighborhood Playhouse (famed New York acting school). After college I went back to Neighborhood Playhouse for two years where they all inspired me. Martha Graham taught dancing classes there, and I loved it. They were known as ‘contemporary’ dances classes in those days.
What do you do to relax and find serenity in your busy and demanding schedule?
I’m very disciplined. I feel fortunate to do my work, fortunate to enable others to meet each other and work together for whatever the cause. I get my greatest satisfaction in Santa Fe with my husband. Santa Fe’s an art community; it has great beauty, dramatic scenery, gorgeous mountains, high altitude and fabulous people. In Santa Fe they’re not after anything – not kissing up to you, not being snobbish to you. They’re just wonderful people. We can be private there; we have a small house on a beautiful piece of land. We collect a lot of art, not much furniture, and people ask me, ‘How do you design it?’ We’re having everything done by artists. So we commissioned artists to do our wrought-iron beds, and we have cutting-edge art. It’s relaxed, it’s blue jeans, it’s hair messy.
Do you have any specific goals for this year?
I’m against my own strategic planning because I feel I do it for others in boards where it’s more official. But I’m very ‘open to the moment’ to whoever happens to be in my life, whoever I meet or any idea that comes. So I want to stay open, focused and keep making new friends, not closing my circle. This allows me [with these commitments and boards] to have a little bit of influence into creating what I think Chicago is about now: much more diversity, openness, more jobs for women and for under served kids to have the Merit School of Music program. You’re talking about children who might not be here tomorrow if they weren’t on this [career] path. Whether they become musicians or not or stage managers or develop in that field, you’re saving a life.
John feels the same way, about his gifts to the symphony, to education, to outreach. Here at the Goodman we are committed to education and diversity. We’re not just committed, we have it: one of the best boards in the city. People will look at it and say, ‘We can do that.’ Because here at the Goodman, we’re ‘the little engine that could.’ We moved into this building, we huffed and puffed, we’re in this to stay. Martha [Graham] used to say, ‘You reach back, you reach forward, and you’re in the center, but you’re always reaching back.’ I remember that and I remember who started this place – the founding board members who were luminaries – and I don’t like it when people don’t know who they are. So I like to give a little bit of a history.
People think that philanthropy is just writing big checks. When we were all younger, in our 30s, we cooked for the actors at the Goodman Theatre. We then we went on to fundraise in a big way and wrote very personal ‘thank you’ notes to thank everyone for contributions.
Succeeding as a multipurpose philanthropist is not an easy chore. However, Carol Prins is a perfect example of how a focused, determined individual can reach the pinnacle of achievement without any compromises. As a founding member of the Goodman Theatre Women’s Board, where she was president from 1993 to 1995, Ms. Prins was also president of the Board of Trustees from 2003-2005. She remains deeply involved as a Life Trustee of the Board, working on the Jungle Book gala taking place on May 18. And her husband John Hart, of Hart Davis Hart Wine Co,. has joined Goodman’s Business Council recently.
On May 23rd this extraordinary woman and her dynamic husband will proudly be presented the 2013 Alice S. Pfaelzer Award for their unparalleled success and long term support of the Merit School. Chicago should definitely consider itself very fortunate to be the headquarters for such a significantly talented entrepreneur and sparkling personality.
Bill Richert Photographs