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Playhouse hires financial manager, fills other posts

The Flat Rock Playhouse has hired a theater manager from Dallas as managing director of the Playhouse, giving her responsibility for budget development and administration, personnel, contract negotiations, marketing and strategic development.

Hillary Hart, a 2000 graduate of the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, has been with the Dallas Theater Center since 2006. As managing director, she was responsible for budgeting and strategic planning, contract negotiations, union relations, intellectual properties, vendor relations, personnel and development.

Hart's arrival  marks the third major hire the Playhouse has made to fill vacancies after numerous Playhouse veterans resigned in December.

Stephen Terry, a lighting designer from San Diego who has worked in Playhouse shows in the past, has come on board  fulltime as production manager, filling the role that Billy Munoz had held.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to work at a fantastic theatre with a lot of wonderful people," Terry said in a Facebook posting.
In San Diego, Terry has designed lighting for the San Diego Opera, and he has done lighting design for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.
Jason Ferguson is the new director of public relations and social media for the Playhouse, filling the public relations job that Sharon Stokes had served in.

Leaders of the 60-year-old non-profit theater announced last November that the organization was out of money after losing $1.86 million in 2010 and 2011. They issued a plea to community leaders for financial help.

But three weeks later the Henderson County Board of Commissioners voted to withhold $50,000 in funding it had budgeted for the theater, a decision it later reversed. The Flat Rock Village Council gave $100,000 directing the money to pay down the theater's $2 million debt with United Community Bank. In all, philanthropists, Vagabond alumni and public bodies contributed more than $500,000 to save the Playhouse. Still, Playhouse officials say they need to raise more money this year to ensure the theater's long-term financial health and provide a safety net against revenue shortfalls when box office sales fail to meet projections.

The hiring of a general manager was critical in the eyes of organizations that stepped up to fund the Playhouse.

Hart said that like a lot of people in theater administration she started as an actress in high school. She moved backstage because “I was fortunate to realize I was not very good at” performing on stage.

She served on a committee that conceived the city of Winston-Salem's first-ever cultural festival in conjunction with the UNC School of the Arts and after college graduation worked as production manager for a 44-city national tour of the renowned Alvin Ailey II dance company. In Dallas, Hart worked her way up from company manager to general manager of the regional theater, which has an $8.5 million annual budget. (The Playhouse budget for this year is $4 million.)

In an interview with the Lightning, Hart said there was “no reason to avoid the elephant in the room. Certainly Flat Rock Playhouse has had some trouble in recent years.”

But she said she was encouraged by the conversations she had while interviewing in Flat Rock.

“I have never met a more sincere and committed group of people who are more dedicated to making sure Flat Rock Playhouse is here for another 60 years or 200 years."

Could she be tough enough to make budget cuts?

“Of course,” she said. “And I think that’s why the board has decided to go for this bifurcated system.”

Some theaters have one director at the top, as the Flat Rock has had, “but I would say just as many if not more have this bifurcated leadership to help balance things out so the artistic director can focus on the artistic production and the managing director can focus on the finances and how to make that happen in a responsible way.”

She said a top priority for her is to get out and listen to people.

“I actually want to meet with the people, the patrons, meet with people face to face and talk to critics and people who have had a lot to say about what’s going on at the Playhouse (and learn) what are your concerns, what is it you think I need to be doing?”

She is confident, she said, that she and artistic creative director Vincent Marini share the same goals: making sure the Playhouse remains strong financially.

“I’ve had very long conversations with Vincent and he and have a very healthy understanding and respect for each other,” she said. “The goal is to make sure Flat Rock Playhouse is stable and that it has the opportunity to grow. Yes, if I have to be tough I can be, but I don’t think it’s going to be a fight.”

As managing director in Dallas, she was “responsible for creating and monitoring the better half of an $8.5 million budget.” The theater there gets about 60 percent of its budget from private donations or public funding and 40 percent from the box office.

At Flat Rock, “we’ll probably implement a pretty in-depth, detailed cash flow analysis so we can stay on top of what we have coming in and what we have going out,” she said.

Hart said she is encouraged by the lineup of shows this year on the Main Stage and downtown.

“I think it’s great,” she said. “I think there is something for everyone. There are a lot of shows programmed which are absolutely family friendly, which I think is a core value, and I actually have high high expectations for this season.”

Playhouse president Bill McKibbin, who announced Hart's hiring Saturday, described the addition of the financial chief as a structural change that matches the way other regional theaters are managed. It's a departure from the long history of the official state theater of North Carolina, which was led creatively and managed financially for 56 years by founder Robroy Farquhar followed by his son, Robin.
"With this hire, the Flat Rock Playhouse will be adopting the management structure that most non-profit theaters of our size have used for decades," McKibbin said in a news release. The model is made up of equal administrators — the artistic director and a managing director — both directly accountable to the Board of Trustees, he said.
"This is a long-term structural change designed to get us fully up-to-date on today's best practices in non-profit theater management," he added.
Marini, who came on board as the director in the fall of 2009, one year after Robin Farquhar took his own life, will continue to have primary responsibility for steering the overall artistic vision of the theater, including all elements of production; programming new work initiatives, our nationally-recognized apprentice program and the YouTheatre curriculum, the Playhouse news release said. Hart will be responsible for day-to-day operations of the YouTheatre.

Marini said he welcomed the addition of Hart to the management team
"As the theater programming has grown over the years, so have the administrative and operational responsibilities," he said in a statement. "Having a partner like Hillary is a dream come true for me. She is going to be an incredible asset to this theater and to our community."

Hart starts her job here on April 2. She and her husband, Jarrett, and their son, Aidan, who turns 5 next week, have rented a cottage and have plans to buy a home in the community.