Peter Lesser, who has led The Egg for nearly 22 years, bringing a mix of roots, folk, dance and comedy to local audiences, announced earlier this week that he plans to retire.
A New York City native, Lesser became The Egg’s executive director in 2000, after spending eight years leading the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. He helped to make the Empire State Plaza venue financially stable and expanded programming, bolstering its American roots series and its partnerships with contemporary dance troupes.
Before the pandemic, the venue’s schedule was packed with anywhere from 200-250 performances and events each year.
“Peter’s expertise in booking music, dance and family shows and other special presentations has made The Egg a diversified and premier performance venue in the Capital Region and throughout the state,” said Board Chair Tony Esposito in a statement.
Lesser’s tenure was bookended by major challenges; first security challenges prompted by the events of September 11, 2001, as well as financial challenges and, more recently, COVID-19 setbacks.
“9/11, that really changed the security protocols at the Empire State Plaza, just as far as being able to bring performances and to bring audiences in . . .[it] really was a major change and made it much more difficult to do both of those things. But, again, we got through it, and it’s sort of like the new normal,” Lesser said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest trial for the venue has been the pandemic. In 2020, with the venue’s temporary closure, most staff members were furloughed, including Lesser. Since then, they’ve been able to reopen and bring back some programming and staff.
“I will admit that it’s been much more challenging than we thought it would be because when we first were able to reopen it looked like COVID was over,” Lesser said.
Then, of course, the variants arose.
“It’s been really hard on every level, as far as getting audiences to return,” Lesser said.
“[It’s] really thanks to this great staff that I have that we were able to come up with a good method of getting people in and checking vaccination cards . . . the systems are in place.”
The decision to retire was not made lightly.
“For the most part, I feel like I could have gone on forever. My health is good and I’m still really, really enjoying everything that I do there,” Lesser said.
However, his two adult daughters, along with his young grandson, live on the west coast and he decided to relocate there to be closer to them.
His absence from the arts scene will be greatly felt, according to Ellen Sinopoli, of the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company, who has worked with Lesser since he started at the venue.
“I do think it’s a great loss to the Capital Region arts community,” Sinopoli said. “Those are big shoes to fill.”
Sinopoli’s company has been The Egg’s resident dance company since the early 1990s and expanded its connections with the venue under Lesser’s leadership.
“Initially, we were basically given rehearsals, space, and set design and costume space to store those things. Several years back, we were offered the ability to share office space, administrative space with them and that was very helpful because . . . we’ve never had our own building,” Sinopoli said.
Over the last two decades, Sinopoli said Lesser has been a collaborative leader, who has often invited input.
“At times, we work together collaboratively,” Sinopoli said. “He would come to me with . . . a collaborative project and that’s great when you have someone like him in this position, again, looking for ways . . . to expand the arts experience.”
Some of Lesser’s favorite programs that he’s presented over the years include the New York Living Legacy project, which celebrates the work of legendary performing NYS artists, and New Work, NY, in which The Egg commissioned and presented work by performing artists around the state like Don Byron, Mark O’Connor, David Gonzalez, Ellen Sinopoli, Daniel Bernard Roumain, The Zucchini Brothers and Brian Melick.
Throughout the last 30 years of working in the Capital Region, Lesser has seen the arts scene change quite a bit, from the rise of Proctors to the Troy Savings Bank to the Palace Theatre and the Cohoes Music Hall, among others.
“Each venue, in many ways, has its own little unique properties. Everybody’s sort of carved out their own little niche. Obviously, there’s been some crossover where artists have bounced from venue to venue, but it’s all added up to make the Capital Region an amazing performing arts scene,” Lesser said.
While the pandemic is still putting a damper on programming, Lesser is hopeful about The Egg’s future.
“I am confident that we will remain strong – even with the difficulties we are facing in light of the extended pandemic period – and that the next administration will be well-positioned to continue and expand programming at The Egg,” Lesser said.
A search committee has been formed and will be accepting applications through the end of February. There is no specific timeline for the transition and Lesser has agreed to work remotely until a new executive director is in place.