Possibly the hardest job in theatre is taking charge of an established institution after the founder departs. Founders tend to be indefatigable forces, spending decades building startups into substantial organizations, and commanding a fierce loyalty from colleagues, audiences and supporters that makes it nearly impossible for a newcomer to take the theatre in a fresh direction.
But following the founder's hand-picked successor may be harder still, because successors who emerge from such institutions often serve as caretakers, sticking with the founder's original approach well past its expiration date
Hendersonville's Flat Rock Playhouse faces such a challenge today.
Only a handful of American theatres have endured as long as the Playhouse, which began life as The Vagabond Players in 1936, has operated continuously in the vicinity since 1946, established its present location in 1952 and was designated the State Theatre of North Carolina in 1961. Founder Robroy Farquhar made the Playhouse his life, gradually turning an itinerant summer stock company into a resident, nine-month-a-year operation with education and touring programs, occasional world premieres and a national reputation. Part of Robroy's secret was treating everyone who came to the Playhouse like family, garnering long-lasting devotion in return.
Robroy's son Robin never meant to follow in his father's footsteps — he was more interested in music — but became the com- junpany's administrative director after Robroy was sidelined by a fall in 1980. After Robroy's death in 1983, Robin served as executive director until his own untimely death in late 2008. His major innovation was the production of full-scale musicals; but, particularly in Robin's personally troubled final years, which ended in his suicide, the company seemed to spin its wheels.
The shock of that tragic loss compelled the Playhouse board of directors to take an unprecedentedly active hand in the 2009 season. While long-term associates Dale Bartlett and Paige Posey ran the business, and Posey and Playhouse favorite Scott Treadway oversaw the art, the board put itself through a crash course in theatre management, reviewed the organization's mission and vision and organized a staff and board retreat to determine the best way forward.
The Playhouse could stay as it was, and, in current board president Chris Ricker's words, "hope for the best," or it could "commit to a more energetic plan." Opting for "growth and excitement," the board chose to reach outside of the family for leadership. A nationwide search led to Vincent Marini, who became producing artistic director last fall, and launched his first full season last month.
Marini wasn't looking for a job when a friend sent him the Flat Rock listing, suggesting "this might be right for you." Only 33 years old then (he turns 35 this month), Marini had plenty of work available, including the development of "a new international theatrical production" to debut in Macau, China, in 2011. A native of Marlton, N.J., near Philadelphia, Marini had discovered the stage in middle school, committed himself to it in high school and pursued it avidly at The College of New Jersey. After a detour through New York University's intensive film program, and several years of making original films, corporate videos and commercials for his own production company, Marini felt compelled to return to the theatre, and at age 26 became the sole employee of the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center, a just-constructed 1500-seat venue in his hometown.
Lenape served civic functions half the year and, under Marini's direction, offered eclectic programming from May to October, running the gamut from Miss Saigon to Bill Cosby. Having bypassed the traditional leadership route of working under artistic and executive directors at established nonprofits, Marini had to learn everything from scratch while building Lenape into the largest Actors' Equity house in southern New Jersey. By the time he left in 2007, Marini felt he had learned the lessons, and established the contacts, that qualified him to lead Flat Rock Playhouse into its future.
Having produced and directed more than 30 plays and musicals, and staged concerts by such Broadway powerhouses as Patti LuPone and Linda Eder, Marini has close working relationships with colleagues already proving vital to the new Flat Rock. Producer Roy Miller brought Marini the material for the season opener, Clint Holmes: My Own Song; Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn's For The Glory runs at the Playhouse June 2-July 4 (see sidebar); and lyricist Jack Murphy is co- writing (with Marini) The Seduction of Sheila Valentine, set to debut at Flat Rock next season. But Marini's says he's not interested in substituting his own artistic family for the Farquhars.' He describes his primary goal at Flat Rock as "giving the existing staff an opportunity to reach its potential."
His first big move was to adjust the schedule. Mounting 15 mainstage presentations annually stretched the company thin, and Marini decided to "do fewer shows and do them better," believing that to be the only way "to bring in new work and improve quality."
Now, shows have previews, which Marini considers crucial, since "half the show is how the audience reacts" and previews enable adjustments to be made to those reactions. Next, each show's run is extended, allowing performances to deepen and the Playhouse to take advantage of good word of mouth.
The focus on premieres is of signal importance to Marini, and he ticks off his reasons. First, only regional theatres have the capacity to advance the American theatrical canon by introducing significant works. Second, the cachet earned by promoting worthy new plays and musicals, including Broadway and national tours, allows a regional theatre to attract bigger-name performers. Third, originating producers own a piece of new shows, which can provide a revenue stream to help underwrite the theatre's operations.
That's why the Playhouse poured substantial resources into the Holmes show, an autobiographical tale of Holmes' struggles with his mixed-race heritage, presented in the context of his long-running Las Vegas nightclub act. To give the show high-caliber production values, the Playhouse knocked out part of the theatre's back wall for rear-projection, and installed a state-of-the-art sound system. Marini "called in a lot of favors" to minimize the outlay, which he views as a long-term investment. He and his team are currently looking for another regional theatre for the show's next production, with an eye toward an eventual Broadway run.
From the get-go, Marini perceived a need to change the Playhouse business model to make it possible for Flat Rock "to do more of what we love to do." Fund-raising wasn't what it could be — perhaps due to understaffing, perhaps in part because of confusion about the state's contribution to the Playhouse's $3.7 million operating budget. (As the State Theatre, the Playhouse has a line item appropriation of roughly $40,000 per year, a whisper above 1 percent of Flat Rock's expenses). Marketing wasn't all it could be, either, even though ticket sales represented 92 percent of Playhouse income. Marini wanted to make immediate changes in each area to ensure the company's long-range sustainability.
Thanks to the Farquhars' insistence on fiscal responsibility, the Playhouse usually posted modest profits and always had a little cash in the bank. This small cushion allowed the board to "set aside a chunk of money," as Ricker puts it, to hire, for the first time in the theatre's history, full-time marketing and development directors.
It won't be easy
Even with these potentially significant additions to the staff, Marini appreciates the need to reach beyond the company's hardcore devotees and attract diverse constituencies, each with different requirements. This won't necessarily be easy. Though the Clint Holmes show seemed carefully calibrated to embrace existing audiences while intriguing new ones, some found the production too slick and the content a bit much. On the other hand, some thought the selection of Steel Magnolias as the second show of the season was a form of pandering (for a perspective on that, read Xpress' own Sightlines review of the play at mountainx.com/theatre), but Marini insists even tried-and-true material can be presented with energy, passion and innovation. As for those skeptics of Flat Rock presently in their 30s, Marini hopes they'll recognize one of their own is now running the show and give his Playhouse a chance.
He's going to need lots of people to take that chance. With expenses, including health insurance, mounting inexorably, and with fewer shows playing longer runs, the Playhouse must attract increasingly large audiences from Asheville and Greenville. After all, for this summer's The Producers, Flat Rock has some 20,000 tickets for sale. Considering that the population of Hendersonville County is only about 100,000, outreach is critical.
Too much, too soon?
Marini hopes to hedge his bets with enhanced and additional revenue generators, and is moving on multiple fronts simultaneously to bring that to fruition, including revamping Flat Rock's youth theatre offerings and initiating a Second Stage (see sidebars). But he's sensitive to the risks of changing too much too quickly, and tries to root his innovations in what the Playhouse has already accomplished. As one example, he plans to build a new performance facility to replace the aging mainstage, but he's intent on making sure that this theatre is designed "to feel indigenous, like something that's always belonged here."
He's also sensitive to charges that Flat Rock imports out-of-town talent to the detriment of area artists, and points out that most of those working at YouTheatre, and who will be appearing on the Second Stage are locals; that the Holmes show was written, directed, designed and built locally; and that all of its musicians, stage managers and staff live in Western North Carolina.
"A lot more goes into a show than the people performing in it," he says, and though it's "actually not possible to do this level of work only with locals," he offers an example of deceiving appearances: Julia VanderVeen, who performed in Steel Magnolias. VanderVeen came up through YouTheatre and its conservatory program, but to make her way professionally had to seek work in major theatre centers, like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and no longer lives here. So, Marini asks, is VanderVeen a local or an outsider? For that matter, what about all those, like Marini himself, who, after experiencing the Playhouse, choose to make Western North Carolina their home?
Sharing the success
We won't know definitively anytime soon whether or not Flat Rock Playhouse was right to place its fate in Marini's hands, but one early indicator could be the way this change-agent has been received by the old guard. Local star and Playhouse associate artistic director Scott Treadway, who first arrived at Flat Rock in summer 1984, had ample reason to doubt and, to a certain extent, resent. But Treadway's been won over. He and the rest of the Flat Rock Playhouse family, old and new, appear determined to do all they can to help Marini succeed. And Marini, Treadway says, "wants everyone to share in this success."