Priscilla Kane Hellweg exits Enchanted Circle Theater after 40-year run

  • Priscilla Kane Hellweg, the executive director of Enchanted Circle Theater, participates in a 2018 theater class led by Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Priscilla Kane Hellweg has led Enchanted Circle Theater since shortly after its founding. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/15/2022 8:14:51 PM
Modified: 2/15/2022 8:12:59 PM

HOLYOKE — After four decades leading Enchanted Circle Theater, the executive director of the arts and education organization has stepped down.

Priscilla Kane Hellweg, who has led the theater nearly since its founding in 1976, announced earlier this month that she is stepping aside. Under her leadership, Enchanted Circle has grown from a small touring educational theater company to an organization that works with public school systems throughout western Massachusetts, as well as more than 60 community partner organizations.

“It’s a big deal,” Hellweg said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s bittersweet. It’s also very exciting, I have to say. It’s a time for growth for all of us. And 40 years — it’s a good long run.”

Hellweg, 63, first learned of Enchanted Circle as a Hampshire College student. She was studying arts and education, and one of her teaching projects was a class for community members at Hampshire. Two members of the newly formed theater company attended her class and afterward asked if she wanted to join the company.

“I thought, ‘I’ll do this for a year or two,’” Hellweg recalled. “It has been my life’s work.”

Enchanted Circle has collaborated with many different schools and organizations over the years, including the launching of arts integration initiatives in the public schools of Holyoke, Amherst and Northampton.

The organization also has worked to bring the arts and education to other venues.

In 2018, the Gazette covered the theater’s National Endowment for the Arts funded work with women in state custody at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program. Enchanted Circle worked with the state’s Department of Youth Services to use arts to build self-awareness, positive self-presentation skills and artistic expression for women in trauma and transition.

One of the women, Zainab, spoke about the impact of the experience after reading a poem she wrote aloud to the group.

“When I was in regular school, I wouldn’t ever in a million years go up and go talk to everybody and share a poem,” Zainab said after class. “But now I am more confident. I can go up and be like, ‘This is me. I’m going to do it.’”

Hellweg’s work in the field of arts integration earned her the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network and a Champions of Arts Education Award from the Massachusetts Alliance for Arts in Education. For her work making arts education more accessible, she won a Millennium Award from the National Guild of Community Arts Educators.

Diane Daily, a program manager with the Mass Cultural Council, said that Hellweg has been an “incredible partner to work with.”

“Her passion for providing strong arts education for the students in Holyoke led to a beautiful partnership between Enchanted Circle and the Holyoke Public Schools,” Daily said in a statement. “Through her leadership our students have been able to explore their artistic abilities, enjoy enrichment opportunities that enhanced their learning and honored them as individuals and as a connected community of learners.”

‘Circle of friends’

Hellweg said she likes to joke that Enchanted Circle was her first-born. The 40 years she spent at the organization brought back many memories when asked to reflect on those experiences Monday.

“They were so rich in relationships,” Hellweg said. “I will remember so many students, so many teachers, so many teaching artists, so many collaborators, different organizations, donors. Enchanted — we were a circle of friends … My heart is full. Very full.”

Amy Dopp, the president of Enchanted Circle’s board of directors, said that the organization’s staff and board are currently overseeing operations while they work with an independent consultant to determine what leadership will look like going forward.

“We’re investigating shared models of governance, management and decision making,” Dopp said, adding that the organization wants to figure out how to adapt in order to center the voices of Black and Indigenous people and people of color as it continues to expand its work.

That work has been led by Hellweg for decades. Dopp said that separations like that can be hard, but that board is excited for what comes next.

“Priscilla is Enchanted, and Enchanted has been Priscilla for 40 years,” Dopp said. “Priscilla has departed Enchanted Circle in a strong position as a nationally recognized organization focused on inspiring learning through the arts. I have been lucky to be a part of the board of directors of this amazing organization for many years.”

Hellweg has also taught professional development workshops across the region, including with the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton. And as a playwright, she has written and directed plays for cultural tourism sites like Wistariahurst Museum.

As for what’s next, Hellweg said that over the past decade she has been developing the Institute for Arts Integration — a center for professional development, arts and advocacy. Intended as a creative hub where teachers and teaching artists can come together and learn, the institute will be partnering with Mount Holyoke College’s Professional and Graduate Education program.

“What became very clear to me — I couldn’t be growing this while at the same time working my 70 hours at Enchanted Circle,” she said.

Stepping away from Enchanted Circle will allow others besides Hellweg to forge a new path for the organization, Hellweg added.

“That’s very exciting to me,” she said. “I’ve kind of led so many of the iterations and the growth, and I feel like it’s really time for other people to lead it.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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