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The Barter Blog

20th Year AAME Interview with Rick Rose

December 28, 2011

(Source) The Bard of Barter: Rick Rose Celebrates 20 Years at Virginia's State Theatre.

Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. is a significant economic, cultural and educational force in our region. At the helm is Richard Rose, who is celebrating his 20th season with Barter, only the third artistic director in the theatre's illustrious history.

Under Rose's leadership, Barter has become one of the leading regional theatres in the country when it comes to developing and producing new work. For the past 10 years, Barter's Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights (AFPP) has given voice to dozens of new works that have gone on to full production here and in theatres across the country. Capitalizing on that success, in 2011 Barter launched The Shaping of America series to develop new works based on history.

Rose was named artistic director in October 1992. Since that time, attendance has grown from 42,000 to more than 160,000 annual patrons. Significant capital improvements have also been made, including renovations to both theatres, addition of the Barter Café at Stage II and the dramatic improvements made to Porterfield Square in 2006.

Before launching Barter Theatre's 2012 season, Rose took time to answer a few questions.

Does it feel like you've been at Barter for 20 years?

RICHARD ROSE: There are moments when I feel that I've been here for 20 years or more, and other times when it feels like it has passed in minutes. I can still remember many, many great moments from my first season here.

One of our employees said that working at Barter was like working at the White House. That's how fast-paced and how hard everyone around Barter works. We often joke among ourselves that every day at Barter can feel like a week, every week like a month, and every month like a year. While that's funny, it is also very true. By mid-season, you can barely remember what shows you did at the start of the season.

At Barter we have a maxim by which we live: "Art = Growth." To make every day a learning experience, to take nothing for granted, and to make the best of every decision — all this takes a great deal of energy, concentration and passion. We are constantly changing, evaluating, and doing everything we can to serve our customers and the community while keeping Barter as healthy and vital as it can be. That's hard, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

In the end, I really must say that my years at Barter Theatre, whether difficult, impossible or immensely successful, have been filled with joy. I have had the honor of working with the extraordinary people who fill Barter every day with their love of their art, their work and this historic and important organization. So, 20 days, 20 years, it's flown by and no two days are ever the same. I have been blessed to be here each and every day.

Isn't it unusual for an artistic director to have such a long tenure at a professional theatre? To what do you attribute your success and longevity at Barter?

The average tenure for an artistic director in professional theatres around the U.S. is the same as the average tenure for coaches in basketball — around seven years. When I came to Barter, I had no expectation that I would be here this long.

But Barter has a history of longevity with its leaders. In its almost 80 years, Barter has had only three artistic directors: Robert Porterfield served for nearly 40 years, Rex Partington for 20, and this year is my 20th. Barter's loyalty to its leadership is exemplary. Further, the working relationship with the Board is just as it should be, with a great exchange of ideas, challenges and respect in both directions.

Through my tenure here, I have turned down several offers that were two to three times the compensation that I receive here at Barter. I love this organization and all of the people involved with Barter. As one colleague put it allegorically, I have basically turned down offers from the Mets and the Yankees; once you do that, you've made the statement that you are here to stay. Barter has demonstrated their support for me and I've returned that with my loyalty as well. I think it is a wonderful working relationship and a tremendous area in which to live and work.

Is Barter a true repertory company?

A! Magazine: Is Barter unusual among American professional regional theaters these days in being a year-round repertory theater, with a full-time repertory company?

RICHARD ROSE: To my knowledge, Barter Theatre is the only year-round fully professional repertory theatre company on this continent. Several companies laying claim to being repertory companies offer their actors only 28-40 weeks of work per year and even at that many of these do not guarantee work for their company members for the entire season. Barter, with vacation weeks, offers its company 52 weeks per year, which is a claim almost no theatre of any kind in the U.S. can make and certainly does not happen in LORT (League of Resident Theatres), of which Barter is a founding member and which represents the nation's largest professional theatres.

But Barter has bucked the trends in theatre throughout the last 20 years with more growth and more activity than almost any of our colleagues.

Also, working in true repertory makes Barter somewhat unique. Several other repertory companies have ended their repertory schedules and gone to straight stock performances. In 2008 and 2009, the Barter staff spent a great deal of time examining other operational models and came to the conclusion that our unique mode of operation really does work extremely well for our region, our audience, and our unique economy.

We are an entrepreneurial operation, able to flow with the trends, make changes quickly to adjust to our audiences, and seize opportunities. Very few theatres, or art organizations for that matter, can manage and move in ways that Barter is able to do.

True "repertory" has three meanings in the theatre:

• Shows alternating on the same stage (for example, Dracula Bites at 2 p.m. and Cabaret at 7:45 p.m. on the same day);

• Actors rotating from one show to another (actor Sean Campos portrayed a mortician in Dracula Bites and the emcee in Cabaret);

• Traditional repertory in Europe and as far back as Shakespeare and Moliere's companies meant that a company would present various shows over a number of years, much like dance companies present The Nutcracker for decades as part of their on-going repertory. Barter does this with shows like Keep on the Sunny Side as well as other works that we keep in repertory.

Though many theatres call themselves "repertory," the reality is that they are not; thus, the tendency today to say "true repertory." The vast majority of theatres in the nation perform in "stock," which means that they do one show at a time, close it and, then do another. Barter presents its Christmas shows in stock. We present shows like A Christmas Carol on the Main Stage and Wooden Snowflakes on Stage II without any other production on those stages.

Directing & Adapting Literary Classics

A! Magazine: What are the high points of your tenure at Barter? Have there been any low points?

RICHARD ROSE: There are lots of high points, and many that you may not expect me to mention:
• expansion and touring of The Barter Players,
• founding and success of the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights,
• The Shaping of America series,
• Porterfield Square and the "Midsummer Play" fountain/sculpture by fantasy artist Charles Vess,
• the number, scope, variety and success of Barter's world premiere plays throughout the last 20 years,
• our exchange with Russian theatres in 1996,
• re-establishment of the resident acting company,
• re-establishment of Barter as one of the nation's premiere regional theatres,
• renovation of Barter Theatre, Barter Stage II, and the building of Barter Café.

As to low points, fortunately, like an NFL quarterback, I've been blessed with a very bad memory, plus the ability to see every struggle as a learning experience and the stubborness to work through any difficulty until it turns to success — or at least until it is the best that it can be. So, I don't see low points. Every challenge is an opportunity as well. I think we've successfully seized every opportunity that we had the ability to seize and made the best of every challenge put before us.

A! Magazine: Approximately how many productions have you directed? As you look back, which ones are you most proud of?

RICHARD ROSE: I've directed well over 100 productions in my tenure thus far at Barter. Trying to choose one production over another is sort of like saying you like one of your children more than you do another.

[Editor's Note: Rose has directed such plays as Driving Miss Daisy, To Kill a Mockingbird, Keep on the Sunny Side, Fiddler on the Roof, Déjà Vu, Wit, My Fair Lady, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Camelot, Sundown, Patient A, and Death of a Salesman.]

You must enjoy adapting literary classics. Are you a playwright at heart?
I do not and have never considered myself a "playwright." I do like adapting literary works, which is a lot more like directing and editing than what I think a playwright does. I have great respect for the work of playwrights, who use infinite creativity and imagination to create original works for the theatre. I am but a mere adaptor.

What I do think I do well in adapting works is capture both the flavor and the intent of the original works from which my adaptations are created. I do not really attempt to make the work my own, as a playwright will.

I instead truly try to bring the original work to life and to show the audience that the piece of literature is relevant in today's world.

[Editor's Note: Rose's original adaptations of plays include It's a Wonderful Life, A Modern Christmas Carol, Wuthering Heights, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Frankenstein and Dracula.]

Barter: Looking Back, Looking Forward

A! Magazine: Barter seems to be getting back to its historic roots by taking plays on tour. Has that venture been successful?

RICHARD ROSE: We have been extremely successful in doing exactly what we set out to do by touring nationally. There were largely three reasons for Barter to begin producing national tours once more, aside from the historic roots of this theatre as a touring organization:

• With the reduction in the number of freelance writers and the lack of media coverage outside of metropolitan areas, Barter needed to be seen and experienced nationally as a way to garner national attention and attract tourists from across the nation.

• With a resident acting company, touring is a great opportunity for company members to experience the rest of the country and still remain a part of Barter's resident acting core – a way for them to concentrate on their work in one show. Usually, in any given week, an actor at Barter Theatre is performing two different productions on stage and rehearsing two other productions at the same time.

• A third reason is to raise the status of Barter Theatre within the theatre world. As it is extremely difficult for theatre colleagues to get to see much, if any, of our work here, our tours give them an opportunity to see and/or hear about Barter's work. Barter is a very special theatre doing a very unique style of work theatrically. It is important for us that the rest of the theatre world experience and understand what we are doing here in Abingdon. Touring is one way that the world can experience Barter.

A! Magazine: There seems to be a majority of "gray heads" who attend Barter. How is Barter trying to reach out to young audiences?

RICHARD ROSE: Actually, Barter is admired nationally for the youth of our audiences. The average age of Barter's audience is well below the national average for audiences for professional theatre. Barter has been immensely successful in attracting audiences of all ages. In fact, if we have any difficulty at this point in time, it is that we do NOT have a large enough audience in the ages above 65. Of our 160,000-plus audience members every year, more than 25% are under 18. We have great success with Gen X (born 1965-1980) and Gen Y (born after 1980) audiences, strong college attendance, and excellent family attendance. I would consider our audience extremely well-balanced.

A! Magazine: What were the successes of the 2011 season? Are Barter's numbers of attendees continuing to climb?

RICHARD ROSE: Barter's attendance numbers have stayed consistently over 163,000 for the last three years, with 2008, 2009 and 2010 all being record years in some of the toughest economic times that we have experienced in our lifetime. That speaks volumes about Barter and the consistency and quality of our programming.
Attendance, which it seems everyone would like to use to judge a show's success, is not always the criterion for true success. Large numbers may just mean popularity, which may have more to do with the history of the show or its previous incarnations or who wrote it or how long it ran on Broadway or how popular it was as a movie.

I consider our 2011 production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast a success, not because it was the largest attended production in Barter history, but because it was an incredible production from every point-of-view — acting, designs, choreography, etc. It was a truly thorough and professional work by Barter on every level.

The success of Civil War Voices is measured by the quality of that work and Barter's work on developing that important project for the future of the theatre in hopes that it will be presented throughout the U.S. — it's that important a work.

One could argue that Barter's recent production of Cabaret could be considered among the best productions of that show worldwide. That's saying a lot given the history and longevity of that show.

Our production of The 39 Steps was extremely popular and, yet, I consider Circumference of a Squirrel, a one-man show that would only attract the more discerning and serious theatre-goer, to be among the most successful shows of the 2011 season and a performance by Nick Piper that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Have audiences ever laughed harder than at Dracula Bites? And has Catherine Bush written better plays than Wooden Snowflakes or The Road to Appomattox — I think not.

So, you see my dilemma. Success comes in many forms and we at Barter are very clear about our goals for each production and measure success against the goals we set out to achieve. Every play cannot and will not win the popularity contest.

A! Magazine: How do you go about planning for a theater season?

RICHARD ROSE: I truly look forward to every play we choose to produce here at Barter. I do not choose a show that I cannot get excited about producing or excited about bringing to Barter's audiences. The planning process for a season is extremely complicated as one must consider the following:
• Sales (Barter is 78% reliant upon earned income; 65% of total revenues are ticket sales. The national average in professional theatre is 45% earned income; 32% ticket sales),
• Our repertory company members,
• Artistic goals,
• Regional desires and sensibilities,
• Our commitment to Appalachian culture and Southern programming, and
• Always, always one has to consider our budget limitations.

A! Magazine: What new directions do you see Barter going in the next 10 years?

RICHARD ROSE: I don't want to leave you with any negative implications about anything, but I do believe that Barter and the arts in general are going to struggle and have to find new opportunities and new sources of revenues over the next five years.

Looking out over 10 years, I see Barter's future to be very bright as we have had great success with younger audiences – Gen X and Gen Y – who will become a foundation for Barter's future. Barter has set itself up for future success by being able to adjust and able to understand trends. I see a Barter experiencing continued growth in the second five years of the next decade. I think in five to seven years, there is a third theatre space in Barter's future, but certainly not before that time frame.

We have a lot of long-term programming and projects: the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, the Shaping of America series, The Wolf Hills Project (in conjunction with Community Performance International), and an expanded educational program which will position Barter within the schools throughout the region. All of these will carry Barter into a very vital and important next 10 years.

A! Magazine: What would be the programming at a third theatre?

RICHARD ROSE: Plans would be two-fold: (1) a better space for programming for family audiences for which our Main Stage is just a bit too large of a theatre, and (2) a place to run ongoing productions such as Keep on the Sunny Side: The Songs and Story of The Carter Family for which there is a demand.

A! Magazine: In 1949, Barter Theatre won a Tony Award for contributions to the American theatre. Isn't it time that Barter won another Tony Award?

RICHARD ROSE: While we'd all love that to happen, and we have had many friends on the Tony committees over the last decade, the American Theatre Wing has stated that it will not repeat a regional Tony winner as there are too many regional theatres who have yet to be recognized for their work; thus, they will not consider any theatre who has previously received the award.