Brook Hanemann isn’t shy about sharing her enthusiasm for being McNeese State University’s director of Banners — an annual series that brings an eclectic variety of entertainment to the Lake Area.
“I think I have the best job in the entire world,” said Hanemann, who has been the director of Banners for the last three years. “I get to go around the globe and find things that are diverse and bring them here. There are acts that you wouldn’t see in a casino or other local venues.”
Hanemann is a New Orleans native, but has also lived in Orlando, Fla., and Columbus, Miss. She continues to hold Louisiana close to her heart, with her affection dating back to childhood. She recalled her father convincing her that the Mardi Gras festivities were actually arranged for her birthday, which is in February.
Hanemann inherited the 2017-2018 Banners cultural season that was put together by her predecessor, and she successfully created the 2018-2019 season. Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2019-2020 season to shut down during the second weekend of March 2020. The 2020-2021 season was put on hold entirely.
Plans are in the works to schedule performances for the 2021-2022 Banners season, with roughly five productions being rescheduled from the defunct 2020 season, Hanemann said.
Historically, the arts is usually the first program to be stripped of funding, Hanemann said. However, the isolation people endured last year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the need for arts and entertainment as a source of survival, she said.
“I don’t believe anyone after COVID can look at music, theater or literature as frivolous,” she said. “Humans have to tell their story, and they did that through art. Now that the world is starting to brush off the dust, I hope there’s a larger appreciation for artists and for all our differences, because we all have stories to tell.”
Hanemann, along with Banners Assistant Director Jody Taylor, also organizes Rouge et Blanc, the annual fall wine tasting event that is a fundraiser for the Banners series. She said her dissertation to earn her doctorate in theater, history and literature from Louisiana State University is due in roughly two months, right before Rouge et Blanc.
Tickets for Rouge et Blanc have sold out for the last 14 years. This year’s pre-sale tickets, however, went even quicker, she said. Pre-sale tickets are still available, and general admission tickets can be purchased online at 9 a.m. Aug. 6.
“On the first day of pre-sales, we were almost at 200 percent,” she said. “I think people are thirsty, but they’re also thirsty for entertainment.”
Prior to what Hanemann calls the “pandemicane,” she said McNeese was looking at new ways to improve and grow. She said Daryl Burckel, McNeese president, is highly innovative and creative. She said he was looking to streamline and modernize things at McNeese, then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down those efforts. Those improvements have since been reactivated, with more urgency than ever, she said.
Hanemann and her family initially planned to ride out Hurricane Laura, but chose to leave the morning before its landfall last August. They returned shortly after, spending 21 days in an RV in the backyard of their home.
Hanemann said she witnessed residents helping each other immediately after Hurricane Laura. Help was offered despite the sweltering heat, swarms of mosquitoes and relying on generators for electricity.
She said the community’s willingness to overlook any racial, socioeconomic or political differences was a testament to how much people cared for each other.
“I saw people standing side by side with chainsaws,” she said. “This town, this parish, was banded together. It was absolutely beautiful and amazing.”
Before becoming Banners director, Hanemann worked on and off with McNeese. She was initially brought in to direct a couple of theater productions at the university. After enduring multiple disasters throughout the last 18 months, said she has more pride in McNeese than any non-alumni she has ever met.
“This is a group who could have easily run or just taken care of themselves during a natural disaster,” Hanemann said. “There’s an army of people that have risen to the top and acted as community leaders.”
Hanemann said McNeese is poised for a resurgence, especially after enduring Hurricanes Laura and Delta, the February winter storm and the historic May flood.
“We are wounded, beaten and broken in a lot of ways, but we have the kind of leadership and community that has grit,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud of Lake Charles.”