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Playhouse, and its leader, fight back and survive

Creative Director Lisa K. Bryant has led a gradual financial recovery of the Flat Rock Playhouse. Creative Director Lisa K. Bryant has led a gradual financial recovery of the Flat Rock Playhouse.

Anyone who knows the history of the Flat Rock Playhouse knows that native Liverpudlian Robroy Farquhar sparked the creation of summer stock theatre in Henderson County. He and his troupe of Vagabonds provided the catalyst to bring professional high quality theatre not only to year-round residents but also to tourists and summer residents who escaped every year from the miserable heat of places like Charleston, Savannah, Miami and New Orleans.

“Let there be theater,” Robroy said, and there was theater.

Farquhar’s tireless energy, his willingness to make personal sacrifices and his ability to make friends in places both high and low continued to feed the fire that kept the Playhouse going. But, as the saying goes, a theater is only one bad show — or, as the case may be, one Great Recession —from closing its doors.

In November of 2012 the Flat Rock Playhouse, by then the State Theater of North Carolina and the Mother-Stage of hundreds of Vagabonds, was almost to be too deep in the hole to make payroll. Henderson County commissioners threatened to withhold the second half of a $100,000 appropriation for the fiscal year 2012-2013. Board president Bill McKibbin said that the Playhouse needed an immediate infusion of $250,000 to end the 2012 season.

That’s the way it is with all living things. There is a cycle to life — birth, growth, middle age, and death. Unless a new infusion of energy takes place and a significant change happens to interrupt the natural cycle even the most cherished institutions pass on.

In 1983 Robin Farquhar took the reins from his father and in 1987 produced, “1776,” the Playhouse’s first large-scale musical. It was a welcome addition for many to the less daring fare the Playhouse was known for. Continuing to ride the wave of generous donations and excellent productions the Playhouse stayed solvent into the new century.

But then in 2008 the world economy nosedived. The housing bubble burst and subprime mortgage lending, among other unsustainable chickens, came home to roost. Few escaped at least a glimpse into the economic abyss. Following the untimely death of Robin Farquhar in November of that year, Vincent Marini took over as Artistic Director. Dane Whitlock, senior director of marketing and development, says Marini brought the Playhouse stage to the next level in terms of sound and production capacity and quality. During Marini’s tenure a performance space was added in downtown Hendersonville. Marini wanted big things for the Playhouse — like actors with name recognition and trending plays with New York buzz, more advanced sound and lighting. The spending for those things was not matched by incoming revenue. Some blame bad luck. Others blame bad management. Some plays Marini staged weren’t plays the local audience and vacationers wanted to see.

After the crisis of 2012, it was unclear if the Playhouse had a future. Through last ditch contributions by board members and others, grants by the Hendersonville City Council and Flat Rock Village Council, the hiring of a financial manager and the constitution of a more attentive (and financially savvy) Board of Directors, the theater survived the immediate crisis. Still, the ground was still quaking. Servicing a $1.95 million debt and would consume $114,000 of the 2013 budget. Donor fatigue set in. The audience was feeling taken for granted.

There is a cycle to life; a natural course, and there is no shame when good things come to an end. A strength of the Flat Rock Playhouse as founded by Robroy Farquhar and his fellow Vagabonds is its focus on education. Early on the theater started classes that gave students a glimpse into the mystery and magic of theatre as well as technical internships and apprenticeships that give invaluable real-world experience to budding theatre professionals. Interns and apprentices expand the ranks of the Vagabonds as intensely loyal members who become friends for a lifetime. Those who go on to work in professional theater across America continue to find the path back to Flat Rock to work and perform.

Not all the lights on the Playhouse stage dimmed in 2012. Lisa K. Bryant was admitted into the Playhouse apprentice program in 1994 at age 18 before earning her BFA in Musical Theatre from Elon University and her MFA in Performance from the University of Central Florida. She directed and had lead roles in several Playhouse productions, and from 2006 to 2010 she was lead acting teacher in the Playhouse YouTheatre program. She also co-directed the Apprentice program. In late 2013 left her job as theater director at North Henderson High School to join the other cooks in the uncomfortably hot Playhouse kitchen as associate artistic director under Marini. When Marini left the following May, Bryant became the theater’s top executive. By October, the Board of Directors made it official.

“My learning curve for the business/executive side of things was a vertical line at that point,” she says. “This was definitely intimidating because suddenly I was in charge of not only the State Theatre of North Carolina and a local institution, but I was in charge of a place that I loved like no other, and that responsibility was extremely heavy. And I didn’t want to fail because it would have meant failing so many people on so many levels.” Bryant kept the doors open that first season, though it wasn’t easy. “Without the extraordinary encouragement and dedication of the staff, the board, and some hero donors we would not have made it.”

It was clear things had to change when Bryant took over. A very difficult first step was to eliminate eight staff positions, resulting in not only grief over those let go, but also a greater work load for those remaining. Actors did triple and quadruple duty, and the earlier Playhouse tradition of cultivating local actors was renewed. There was no room for choosing plays based on New York buzz or what an audience ought to see. Because of her history with the Playhouse and the Playhouse audience, Bryant showed a knack early on for producing what audiences wanted to see.

“There has been trial and error every year as we work to find the best formula for programming and expenses,” Bryant says. “Because we are a professional union theatre, many folks don’t realize that we have certain fixed costs. And so the trick is finding where and what expenses we can cut, how deep we can cut them without totally sacrificing quality and still also be contributors to the county and our partners. Again, we’ve come an incredibly long way from four years ago. I’d be proud to show anyone the numbers!”

The numbers are moving in the right direction. Seventy percent of the $3.5 million annual budget comes from ticket sales — a proportion unheard of in regional theater. And box office sales have been steadily increasing since Bryant took over. Last year, the theater recorded a 10 percent increase in ticket sales over 2016. The $1.95 million debt in 2012 has been reduced by $300,000. Still, challenges remain. Bryant notes that since 1961 the Playhouse has been designated as the State Theater of North Carolina, and the misconception among some is that the Playhouse is state funded. The state contributes just 2 percent of the total budget each year. The demand for tickets is not as elastic as one might hope.

“We cannot raise ticket prices high enough or fast enough to keep up with costs or we’ll price our patrons out,” Bryant says. “This is something called cost disease. Materials go up, union fees go up, insurance goes up, but we cannot charge our people at the same rate. Rising costs must be met by new public grants or more private donations.”

Bryant laments that in 2012 the Playhouse lost donors who feared a gift was simply throwing good money after bad. “We’re working so hard to rectify that and it’s taking time,” she says. “I think if people came to our business office now they’d feel good about how things are managed. And we are seeing that happen as past patrons and supporters are coming back. We are humbled by and extremely proud of this turn. We will do our best to produce work that makes folks want to keep us around, and we’ll continue to do it with as much restraint and application of past lessons as possible.”

A second life-and-death battle

While she does not trumpet the story, she is willing to share a more personal part of the journey. While she climbed that steep learning curve in her day job, she suddenly confronted an even scarier challenge – a diagnosis of breast cancer. Spirited support from her staff and board kept her going during aggressive cancer treatment.
“Everyone stepped up whenever needed and pulled through beautifully,” she says. “Their energy encapsulates the ‘Spirit of the Rock.’ Whenever there has been difficulty, this place rises. To see it rise in support of me was a gift I can never repay except to make sure this place remains a home for artists year after year.”

Her cancer fight also taught her to let go.
“I have held on so tightly to the responsibility I feel in taking care of the theatre and everyone in it that it was emotionally and physically draining,” she says. “Cancer taught me that all I can do is my best. God has a plan. Cancer has given me peace with that.”

While divine intervention is always appreciated, Bryant, her staff and the Flat Rock Playhouse board don’t passively sit around and wait for it. In 2016-17 a nationally recognized consultant, David Mallette, led the Playhouse leaders through a strategic planning process to set the course for the coming years, taking a hard look at how to build capacity while staying faithful to the Vagabond vision. Some of the goals that emerged from this process are, of course, financial. The first clean full audit of the books in years will be possible this year, paving the way to eligibility for more national grants. The Playhouse plans to court major donors, add new concessions and merchandise and develop new marketing plans in partnership with the county Tourism Development Authority. The mix of produced and presented offerings on stage will continue to be tweaked to utilize performance space as efficiently as possible to the maximum enjoyment of local and vacationing audience members.

A renewed emphasis on education is part of the new plan as well. The educational wing of the Playhouse, Studio 52, has four offerings in the Family Programming series this year — two more than last year. Project Playhouse will continue this year, inviting all high school juniors in the area to a free play performance and an opportunity to talk with the actors. An analysis of last year’s production schedule showed that more was produced than the available audience could afford or absorb. Produced events (plays, in-house music shows) have been reduced and presented events (Three Redneck Tenors, The Young Irelanders) increased in search of the elusive perfect season.
“Playhouse staff and board remain committed to the on-going work, and while we are not yet out of the water, we are, most certainly, climbing back into the boat,” says Playhouse Board President Paige Posey.
The Flat Rock Playhouse sails on. Lisa K. Bryant is at the helm. Dane Whitlock and his staff are finding new ways to tell the Playhouse story and invite people to experience high quality, professional theater in a magical setting on the immense slab of granite we know as Flat Rock. Ashli Arnold costumes the actors perfectly for each production on a shoestring budget, and Cassidy Bowles, C.J. Barnwell and Kurt Conway direct staging, lighting and sound to transport the audience from the elegant salons of Salzburg in Amadeus to a dingy St. Louis apartment in The Glass Menagerie to the girls’ dorm in Annie. The Board of Directors, led by Paige Posey, is actively involved, trimming the sails to catch the wind of audience demand and cultural change and financial best practices so that the Vagabonds can continue to do what they do best — put on a show.

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David Cameron is a native of Gastonia and a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. He has worked both as a Presbyterian pastor and as a marriage and family therapist. He moved in 2017 to Hendersonville from Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, Kathryn, to pursue employment in a nonprofit setting.