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A Hart for the theater: Playhouse finance chief watches budget

Hillary Hart is managing director of the Flat Rock Playhouse. Hillary Hart is managing director of the Flat Rock Playhouse.

Hillary Hart was the rare high school student who knew her heart and her limitations at the same time.


As an actress, she played "your typical youngish ingénue-y" roles. She recalled playing nurse Kelly in "Harvey." She was not overly impressed with her own talent.
"I was I realized I was not as effective on stage as backstage," she said. "It was imperative for me stay close to the arts. I wanted to stay connected to the performing arts. I wanted to stay connected to theater specifically because I believe so fully in the transformative power of theater."
Hillary Hart, the new managing director of the Flat Rock Playhouse, elaborates on the power of theater.
"You can go back to basic theater 101," she says, and she goes back to class herself, in synopsis:
"Theater was created for the mass populace. It was created as an open public forum, and way back in ancient Rome it was required of you as a citizen to attend annual or bi-annual theater festivals. Before there was written word, theater and performance art was how we passed our history, our morals to our progeny. It's part of the DNA of who we are as a species and I can't imagine this world without it."
No one can say that Hart can't hold two thoughts in her head at the same time. She can speak philosophically about the power of theater one minute and talk about spreadsheets the next and fall into management-speak after that.
"She's exactly what we expected we would get," said Robert Danos, a member of the Flat Rock Playhouse Board of Directors who was among those who interviewed candidates for the business management job. "She knows numbers backwards and forwards. She's very personable. The staff instantly felt very comfortable in her leadership."
She works long hours, Danos said. "When you have a meeting and you bring up a subject, she comes prepared and has done her homework," he said.

Demanding cuts
To say Hart had big shoes to fill would be wrong. She had no shoes to fill, really. Donors, elected officials and no small number of Flat Rock Playhouse critics said the problem with the nonprofit theater is that it had no one who really knew how to read a profit-and-loss spreadsheet.
Creative artistic director Vincent Marini had big ideas, they said, big expensive ideas. A perfect storm of the recession, capital investment and plunging ticket sales led to a $1.4 million loss in 2010 that almost put the theater under. What some people called a bailout and others called a worthy rescue of an important heritage and tourism engine saved the Playhouse last December.
"It's actually not true that the Playhouse never needed money before; it's that they never asked for it before," Hart said in an interview. "To be fair, if you look back at what happened in 2010 in the earned-to-contributed revenue, the percentages were drastically skewed to earned revenue. But then we have an economic crash and there's no disposable income and people aren't coming to the theater, you lose $1.2 million or $1.4 million and you don't have contributed revenue to help weather that storm, you shut down. Quite frankly the big miracle story here is the fact that it's still here."
The Playhouse is still here, and so far it is in the black for the 2013 season. Hart's job is to keep it there.
When "Souvenirs" came up short of goal, she reacted with a business manager's instinct.
"The following Monday I instituted appropriate cuts. I just went to everyone and said, 'You're responsible for cutting X amount of dollars out of your budget.' We want to make sure that, regardless of the fact that we had a shortfall early in the season — and it could easily be made up later in the season — I'm not going to run that risk. We have enough time now to make the appropriate cuts and that's what we did."
Hart says the 2013 budget, charted last year by Marini and his team and approved by the board, was already lean. And to be sure, the jury is still out on the current season. The Playhouse on Wednesday opened "Evita," starting a 10-week run of ambitious Main Stage musicals starring Broadway actors and returning Playhouse veterans. "Les Miserables" runs July 10-Aug. 18.
Fundraising, which also comes under Hart's direction, is changing, too.
"We're reaching outside our normal concentric circle of funders, what I call the near and dear, the families that will always support the Playhouse," she said. "We're casting a much wider net than I think we've traditionally been doing."
Last year, Henderson County, the city of Hendersonville and the Village of Flat Rock gave a total of $300,000 to help the theater survive the financial crisis. This year the total is $30,000.
"We didn't budget to receive $300,000 from them this year," Hart said. "Quite frankly, given the economic impact of the Flat Rock Playhouse throughout its 60-year history, we deserve much more than that. We contribute $10 million a year to the economy. It is our direct impact on the economy. So yes, it would be lovely to have that much. It would be lovely to have three times that much, but you can't count on it."

Texas to Flat Rock by way of Broadway
A native of Texas, Hart attended UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and fell in love with North Carolina. After stints in production and theater management in New York and elsewhere, she came home to her native state, in 2006, and became general manager of the Dallas Theater Center.
She jumped at the opportunity to return to North Carolina, even though it meant leaving her family in Texas. Her father is a pilot and her mother works for an airline company. Hart, 37, and her husband, Jarrett, and their 5-year-old son, Aidan, have moved into a rental house in Flat Rock. She enrolled Aidan at Atkinson Elementary School for kindergarten.
How does she describe her job to her son?
"Mommy creates great art, helps create great art," she said. He is not in YouTheatre yet but she plans to start him at some point.
What does she do for fitness?
"Most of the time I eat right," she said. "I play with my child. You know 5-year-olds burn a lot of calories. He's getting into a lot of outdoor activities, baseball, football. He's got a really tight spiral for a 5-year-old. It's kind of scary."

'I can be very blunt'
The Marini-Hart partnership, she said, is working fine. The business leaders who are rooting for the theater's survival say the most important question was whether Hart was tough enough to say no.
"The relationship is absolutely there. I have no illusion about whether or not we're going to agree all the time," she said. "It's not possible. I do feel like the relationship is there that I can be very blunt, very frank, that's my personality anyway. I'm an incredibly direct human being, for good or bad. I absolutely feel like I could walk into Vincent's office, I could talk to Mr. McKibbin, I could talk to anybody on the board and say, 'Look, here's the deal. This is not possible, or this is absolutely possible and we should support it because it would be great for the community.'"
There's no friction, even though she has taken on most of the non-creative part of the management, including the dining hall. ("I had my one-on-one with them yesterday. I told them to keep doing what they're doing.") She reports equally to Marini and the board. Marini accepts her role, she said.
"There's no competition. In fact, I would probably say if you asked him today he would say he's relieved," she said. "How he did as much as he did for so long is kind of a miracle, in and of itself. We have a very synergistic relationship. He absolutely will come to me and say, 'Hey, what do you think about doing it this way,' so we have those collaborative dialogues. We don't operate in silos."
Marini described Hart as "pretty incredible in turning out work." She has applied her experience at the large Dallas organization to Flat Rock where appropriate, he said, and made useful changes in the how things are done.
"I think what she's been able to do is come in and introduce some new systems and different ways of applying some of the processes for budgeting and the staff reporting," he said. "She's very calm under pressure and has done a wonderful job of getting up to speed on just about everything at the Playhouse."
"I'm beyond relieved," he added. "I love working here so I'm OK with putting 80-90 hours a week in but it got to the point where even putting in 80 hours a week I still couldn't get all the work done."

If you see her say hello
How are things going overall?
It's never completely clear sailing, Hart said, but the pieces are in place.
"The increased transparency both internally and externally with how we're operating makes an enormous difference to the way we operate," she said. "I think we're being a little more cautious and a little more conservative because we want to succeed and we know that the community wants us to succeed. Certainly compared to last November we're in much better shape but we still have a long road to go. We by no means are sitting fine. We're OK but we're not great and we can be."
One of the things she's enjoyed is eavesdropping on conversations. Dining downtown or walking through the Garden Jubilee or strolling on Flat Rock's Little Rainbow Row she occasionally hears people talk about the Playhouse.
"Up until this point I've been able to navigate through the community fairly anonymously," she said without mentioning a reporter snapping her photo for a newspaper article.
She values the intimate relationship the local audience has with the Playhouse.
"That's one of the reasons I came here is that closer community," she said. "I am very direct, and I appreciate and respect that in others. I would much rather have somebody say 'I'm upset and this is why' than harbor any kind of ill feeling. I can't fix it if I don't know what's wrong. ... I think people should know that I'm approachable. I want to get to know people. Even though my circle is very small, I want people to feel like they can see me on the street and say, hello."