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Bryant steps back onto center stage

FLAT ROCK — Lisa K. Bryant is sitting at a picnic table holding a script for “Crimes of the Heart,” in which she plays Meg Magrath, one of three sisters, a wild child amid an emotional reunion of a family in the Deep South.

Opening night is a week away, and big blocks in her script highlighted in orange show just how many lines Bryant has to memorize.

How’s that going?

“I’m uncomfortably behind everybody else in the cast,” she says with a laugh. “They’ll be there by opening night, I promise.”

A veteran actor of the Flat Rock Playhouse stage, Bryant has since 2014 played a leading role offstage to strong reviews. As the artistic director of the Playhouse, she has been in charge of leading the State Theatre of North Carolina back to financial stability and artistic success and even communitywide trust.

When a visitor asks about casting herself in a play, she recalls feeling gripped by conflict.

“It’s so weird,” she says. “I even called some of the new artistic director friends that I’ve made. ‘Is this OK?’ I talked to Scott and Paige about it too because they did the same thing.

“Everybody said some version of the same thing — you’re either coming as an artistic director from an artistic side of things or a money side of things, and the people coming from the artistic side of things typically are coming from the directing path,” she says. “So artistic directors direct constantly. My roots are performing.”

A colleague who directs a Shakespeare theater company in Orlando told her that stepping from the administrative office to the stage was not only OK. It was required.

“He said, ‘Yes, you have to do that because that (acting) is your first artistic vernacular. That is what you do. That is where you come from. You have to put yourself out there… You happen to be an actor so by all means you should do that.’”

By late last week, she had plunged fully into rehearsal. Guided by director JJ Ruscella, she had worked out the molding of the role. Starting Thursday night, she’s not critiquing the product; she is the product.

“I have expectations of the type of work that actors should be doing and I think it’s important for me, since I’m coming from that, that I remember what that is and I am modeling that and keeping myself to those same expectations,” she says. “Just personally, for Lisa, not wearing an artistic director hat, it feels good. It feels like something ‘other’ for me to be doing.”

A performing artistic director is not unusual, to be sure, especially at the Playhouse. Playhouse founder Robroy Farquhar performed on stage for decades while also running the theater and directing — and handing out two-for-one tickets on Main Street. Longtime Vagabonds Paige Posey, who co-stars in “Crimes,” and Scott Treadway both performed while managing the Playhouse from 2008 to 2010. Bryant herself performed last summer in “Boeing Boeing,” before she was named artistic director.

Besides staying close to the art, “It saves money” when administrators also act or direct, Bryant says.

Bryant hired Ruscella to start the new Studio 52 theater and film education programming and also to direct “Crimes.” She had performed in two movies he made.

“What’s beautiful to be able to watch is her connectivity with the community, too,” Ruscella says. “Not only is she able to deal with the professional community that comes out of New York and Los Angeles but you can see how Hendersonville and Flat Rock respond to her leadership in a significant entity in her own community.”

The show will be staged on the intimate stage at the Playhouse Downtown.

“The cast is just made up of a series of veterans that are impressive and who happen to be really working their rear ends off,” Ruscella says. “With that full three-quarter house, it’s a very visceral experience. They’re much more accessible to the audience. You’re stepping into their world at a moment in time.”

As for her schedule, Bryant starts work at 7:30 a.m., digs into emails that have piled up the day before, hands off tasks and tries to grab time to memorize lines. She jokes that at night she sleeps on her script in hopes that her lines will penetrate her head. Rehearsal is from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On weekends she sits in on auditions for upcoming shows. She is overseeing the transition of Studio 52 to the fall season — “not to mention planning the 2016 season,” marketing director Dane Whitlock adds.

For all the distractions, Ruscella says, “we have to remember that at the heart of us we’re artists, and sometimes that’s the sustenance that needs feeding — that artistic spirit that we’re infected by.”

Crimes of the Heart” opens Thursday night and runs through Sept. 6 at the Playhouse Downtown. Shows are 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For tickets visit or call 828.693.0731.