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Former Playhouse manager talks about theater's changes

Dale Bartlett, former general manager of the Flat Rock Playhouse, speaks during a recent fundraiser. Dale Bartlett, former general manager of the Flat Rock Playhouse, speaks during a recent fundraiser.

Dale Bartlett, the last of the leadership team that bridged the gap between the death of Robin Farquhar and the arrival of Vincent Marini, has left the Flat Rock Playhouse.

Bartlett, who served as general manager under the new administration, had been associated with the Playhouse since a college apprenticeship. The team of Bartlett, Paige Posey and Scott Treadway ran the theater after Robin Farquhar, the son of founding director Robroy Farquhar, took his own life in November 2008.
In an interview with the Hendersonville Lightning, Bartlett described his time at the Playhouse, his view of the changes that have occurred over the past three years and his career plans now.
A native of Ocala, Fla., Bartlett began working at the Playhouse as an apprentice in 1990 and continued for several summer seasons until he came on fulltime as marketing director in 1997. His mother, Bridget Bartlett, was the longtime costume designer for the Playhouse.
"It was really no one specific catalyst" that led to him to leave the Playhouse after 22 years, he said during an interview at a downtown coffee shop. "The Playhouse had been going through a pretty quick change over the last three years, and those of us who have been on the staff for years in advance like I was were really watching a lot of changes happen and really wondering how we fit in."
As marketing director and later fundraiser, Bartlett had played a public role as an advocate for the theater. When Marini arrived as producing artistic director in September 2009, Bartlett's duties kept him mainly on the theater in Flat Rock.
"My relationship with the Playhouse changed quite a bit over the last few years," he said. "My ability to be an outward and very vocal representative of the Playhouse changed as my operations role on the campus became the focus of where I was day to day, and it just took a while for that to settle in. And then once I looked at where I would fit in in the future I think everybody's inkling was it wasn't a great match."

Change from roots
Bartlett said the administration of the Playhouse has changed vastly from its roots, when founder Robroy Farquhar and his son, Robin, ran the Flat Rock organization both as businessmen and creative leaders.
"Because we grew up very much as a family business that was handed from father to son, we had this one person who was really the ultimate decision maker for the artistic part as well as the business operations, and that was Robroy and then Robin," he said.
After Robin's death, the three top-ranking managers formed a team that used the strength of each.
"Paige and Scott were sort of the artistic leaders and had worked side by side with Robin, and I sort of came in on the business side."
Bartlett worked with Posey to manage the budget and personnel, and had responsibility for marketing and the box office.
When Marini arrived, he hired his own people to manage parts of the operation that had been handled by Treadway and Posey, both of whom ended up leaving.

Veteran leaders isolated from search
The leadership team had little input in the hiring of the new director and in conversations about the structure of the theater they had invested decades in building.
"The board came to us a week after Robin's memorial service and let us know at a staff meeting that they would be conducting a search to find this new person," he said. "We had limited input into offering our opinion on the search."
Although Posey was encouraged to apply, the board ultimately chose two finalists from outside the Playhouse family.
The board's first choice was Jody Kielbasa, who had spent 10 years leading the Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) and had been an actor in Los Angeles and founding director of a theater in Hollywood where he produced more than 100 plays. Although Kielbasa was introduced to the staff as the new director of the Playhouse, he ended up turning down the offer to become director of the Virginia Film Festival at the University of Virginia.
The Playhouse search team then turned to Marini, who had a background as a director and producer in Philadelphia and New York.
"As the conversation evolved we felt like that search was going towards somebody who we described as a handshaking, sort of go to Raleigh (manager), a business person who focuses on the financial infrastructure of the organization," Bartlett said.
"And then when Vincent was hired we looked at Vincent's resume and career and could see that Vincent is a producing artistic director, which is a little bit different than an executive director who's a financial leader. So that affected things a lot. All of a sudden there was a whole reinvention of something. I think it should have been approached a little slower."
Bartlett takes pride in the time he, Posey and Treadway kept the Playhouse going. They streamlined the budget and hiring, he said, even while putting on an ambitious lineup of shows that included "Beauty and the Beast," "City of Angels," "Man of LaMancha" and "Children of Eden."
The old team made sure they brought back Playhouse favorites, for box office appeal and stability of the Rock.
"They bring a level of leadership just in being there, because they come in with a built-in respect," he said. "The sense of company that pervaded while we were there was, 'we're here to do our work,' I think that now they're here specifically about the product and I don't know how well they're getting to know the tradition and the history."
He is careful to add, though, that new performers love the experience of the Playhouse and always leave saying they want to come back.

'Never enough time, space or money'
Asked whether the Playhouse is in financial trouble, Bartlett refers back to the 30-day campaign in which the Playhouse announced that it urgently needed to raise $300,000. The effort raised about $140,000, he said.
"If you look at a nonprofit who aggressively seeks as much money as they do, you could say that the Playhouse really needs more financial support," he said. "I think the summertime campaign specifically defined that the Playhouse had invested in infrastructure and now we need to catch up on that investment. That message was clear I thought."
Playhouse leaders have said that the organization took on debt to complete the YouTheatre and to build the Playhouse Downtown space at a time when the box office sales plunged.
Bartlett said he favors the idea, now put on ice, of directing a 1-cent occupancy tax — about $220,000 a year — to fund the Playhouse.
"I always felt like the Playhouse as an artistic and culture destination is deserving of that money," he said. "I would like to have seen us be able to make a stronger case for that money coming in on the heels of the 30-day campaign. I think it was obvious that the Playhouse needed the money more than to put forth the cooperative tourism initiative. Honestly, the cooperative tourism initiative was sort of news to me as a staff member."
Does the Playhouse need to spend as much as it does on its productions?
"I don't think so. I have said, and I say when I give tours, no theater will ever have enough time, space or money," he said. "It's just the nature of the beast."
In producing art, directors are tempted to go the extra step but sometimes a regional theater has to dial that back. As Bartlett put it: "Yes, we would like the sky, but how can we create the sky on a budget that just includes the horizon."

The ringman off stage
As for Dale Bartlett, post-Playhouse, he says he's not decided for sure his next act. At age 46, he has a broad portfolio of experience in non-profit operations from construction management to budgeting to fundraising and marketing. He served on the county Travel and Tourism Board for 10 years, five as chairman, and was president for two years of a regional tourism cooperative for Western North Carolina.
"I don't know what's next for me," he said. "I'm taking this time to reconnect with a lot of people. The last three years with the Playhouse I've been general manager, so it's been operations. I've been on the campus, handling things, personnel, staff, buildings, grounds, and that's an all-consuming job, particularly from what I was doing (in the late 1990s), which was a lot of marketing and then moving into fundraising. I was out there a lot in the community. So the last three years I've really been close to home."
For now he's working two days a week as a bartender at Two Guys Pizza downtown. He is pursuing, with his partner Damian Duke Domingue, licensing for an auctioneering business.
He is attending a course to become a professional ringman, a bid spotter for auctions. Domingue wants to become an auctioneer. A ringman's role, Bartlett said, is a lot like a stage manager, work he's done.
"The stage manager is informing (the director and cast) as it's going along. Ironically the ringman is the guy between the actors, who are the bidders, and the auctioneer, who is the director, helping them connect, and making sure the connection is smooth," he said.
In a meeting he had with two board members, on his way out the door, he made one last stab at emphasizing the history and tradition, and the value of the old guard.
"Mostly what I wanted to say to our board members is you really do have a valuable staff, a valuable tradition at the Playhouse," he said. "The majority of the folks that made the Playhouse viable and what it is and drew Vincent Marini to apply to it, those people are still there. They have some really valid opinions and they care and they should be listened to."