By Bill Hirschman
It doesn’t take five minutes, maybe barely a minute talking to Bari Newport on the phone to realize why she was selected from a large field to be the producing artistic director at GableStage.
Her voice and her words exude energy, vitality and imagination as she faces the considerable challenges of taking the position left by the death a year ago of the locally beloved Joseph Adler, and not just keeping a venerable institution alive during a pandemic but looking ahead at growing it.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said.
And then, if you have any doubts, read her resume, especially what she has done during the past nine years in leadership positions at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, Maine. (To read her resume, click here.)
Or check out her comments at the end of this interview in which she describes a torrent of theatrical work at her home base, not during a normal season, but over the past year.
Florida Theater On Stage had a phone interview with her last week, the day before she was to board a dawn flight to Miami.
She spoke about the future, what patrons can expect, and the need for a theater to become part of a community. This following is an edited transcript.
Florida Theater On Stage: This is a unique situation for an incoming artistic director position given the problems that we’re all facing. How do you see the next six months, three years evolving at GableStage given the pandemic situation?
Bari Newport: Well, you know, I’m not an epidemiologist, fortune teller. All I know is that my number one focus (is to) reopen that theater… and I’m optimistic that that will happen. And I can guarantee that it will happen in one way or another. Whether it looks and feels like…kind of a classic theatrical evening or season, I don’t know yet. But theater happens in all different kinds of ways and all different shapes and sizes and all different places and all different iterations. And in that way, I know that we can, most importantly, continue to serve our mission and continue to create (what is ….) our God given right.
FTOS: Do you have a concept what this is going to look like, at least in the early months.
BN: I’m going to try and announce something in June, and I intend to have a reopening event in October… hopefully looking towards a season starting in November.
FTOS: South Florida theater over the years has developed niche audiences. People come to a theater because they expect to see fill-in-the-blank. How do you deal with coming into a new audience as well as a new company?
BN: By listening and I don’t just mean with my ears. I mean listening for the future, for the past, putting those together, figuring out the zeitgeist. I think a goal that I have had just from (personally) moving to so many different places and becoming part of so many different communities, I think that GableStage fits into an ecosystem that is populated with all kinds of theatrical work in South Florida, and that’s what I intend to bolster and amplify is staging plays in that eco-system.
FTOS: If I’m a patron, what should I expect?
BN: The patrons of GableStage expect very adventuresome theater. They have an appetite for risky, edgy, intellectually based (work). So that’s what they can expect. I am bold, I am vibrant, I am colorful in a way that is similar to Joe, but also of my own making — obviously of a different generation, a different person. I’m a woman. And all of those things will play into not just into show selection, but also being a theater company (that is) so much more than just the programing. Being a theater company is being a citizen in a community and fostering dialog between the company and the community in which it serves that end. And I think that’s what audiences from the past and audiences in the future can look forward to.
FTOS: Are you anticipating being a hands-on director in addition to an administrator, or are you planning to farm out most directing projects?
BN: First of all, I never consider myself an administrator; that makes me feel like a secretary. I’m a producer, a really good producer. Producing is an art form in itself. And in order to produce ambitiously, it requires a lot of planning and a lot of time. And to that end, I want to make sure that I understand all the many, many, many pieces that make up (this situation) and be able to bring them together to create what an immediate future looks like and what a longer term future looks like. I think my charge in this position is to scale the company up and in order to do that there’s a lot of community development work, community engagement work ahead. All of that requires relationship building and time on my part. But most of all, action. To act is to do and we are in an action-based art form. So what’s most important to me is to make sure that the company is doing, in terms of my own work on stage, my work as a stage director, I certainly put on plays that are always very unique…. My work is active, it’s vibrant, it’s physical, and I spend a lot of time staging, so I want to make sure that what I’m directing, I have an equal amount of time for.
Every year is different, right? I mean, every project is different. One of the great benefits and great joys of being in a producing artistic director position is giving other people work. So, I’ll definitely be directing, and we will also be hiring other artists to direct for GableStage…. I think GableStage is much more than one person to me as a style, and I’m interested in how that style reaches even beyond the stage.
FTOS: Do you see issues that you would like to see regional theater as a whole and South Florida to pay attention to because of the pandemic, as far as an opportunity to look into this area or that area, work to change our expectations about this or that?
BN: I guess I view the role of regional theater to be far, far, far, far more than the programing on the stage. And to that end, I think that the pandemic in general has given regional theaters the opportunity to dig deep into their own communities and (be) a deeper and more important part of their communities. I think it’s been an opportunity to listen in a way that is often difficult when one is constantly on the treadmill of producing. I think listening to a community’s needs. Those needs have evolved over the last years, or, at least, the needs have been amplified. So figuring out ways to…become an active solution…. We’ve fought for whole communities to come together. I mean that’s the number one thing that people are missing is “we’ve to come together? is really powerful. And I think it’s a unique way of serving. That’s our whole purpose to serve. So how can we serve, I think is the question on the table.
FTOS: Are there specific steps?
BN: I don’t want to be presumptuous enough to make statements based on the community that I am not part of and not familiar with, but I will say that people say the future includes some pretty heavy duty community engagement and education work and developing that wing of the organization, which so far has done exceptional programing. And I’m looking to do more of it. So that’s number one. Number two is your company is not a person and it’s not a place, it’s a thing. So figuring out ways to amplify what that thing is above and beyond the space or the leader is of interest to me as well. To break out of that space is really interesting.
FTOS: During the past year operating through the pandemic, what did you do at Penobscot Theatre Company? Are there lessons that can be shared?
BN: We had a great year here. First and foremost, we were able to keep our entire staff employed…. It’s a company that nearly doubled the size of its (customer) base than GableStage in a community that is very small…. The company that’s 47 years old, it is a venerable institution, not just in this particular city, but in the region. And we were able to commission a very ambitious program of 17 brand new pieces. (Editor’s note: She mentioned that these included cyber-based pieces, audio pieces, educational outreach, just not live performances inside an auditorium)
FTOS: That sounds like you had a large amount of reserves.
BN: I consider it (resulting from) many, many, many, many years of very smart fiscal planning, not necessarily even conservative fiscal planning.…You have to spend to make. And we’ve grown the company by taking calculated risks.
But the hallmark of how we made it through this year was an epiphany I had over the summer when I was trying and trying last summer trying and trying and trying and trying and trying to figure out like everyone else: How we were going to have audiences inside the theater watching professional actors. And at a certain point, you know, I found my own creative spirit withering and I found everyone around me nationally and in the community, their spirits withering also. And at that moment, I decided that that wasn’t acceptable, that the virus could take a lot of things away from us, but it couldn’t take our creative spirit, or God, or whatever you want to call it inside of us. And at that moment, we just decided that we were going to attack it. We’re going to do all kinds of projects that we’d always wanted to do. We were going to employ as many artists as we could, and that’s what we did. And by doing that, by offering a full season, we were able to engage our authors, our corporate sponsors. We were able to bring in a million dollar gift. We were able to do all kinds of stories that previously we’ve been unable to do. And in all of those ways, I’d say this company here (in Maine) is totally primed and ready to reopen with a bang. That’s what I’m hoping we can do down there also in Miami), open with a bang flash.
We (in Maine) produced in every possible way you can imagine. Yes, we did live online things. We did nothing with an (on stage) play. It became a production company. We made a children’s series…. We commissioned a major audio series based on these places (written about by Maine novelists and playwrights.) We partnered with Airbnb and the programs that reached all over the globe. We commissioned a piece with a company in Atlanta called The Object Group that was an adult marionette stop motion production. We have a commission coming up, the last one of our series, that is another commission with a French speaking theater company outside of the state that is all about the Arcadian expulsion from Maine. We’ve offered two series. We offered the main course, a series of five productions, and we offered a family series production of five pieces. Then we had five, which were add on pieces. And then we offered free Monday night game shows and talk shows and productions. And we had 400 households, subscribers from people all over the world. And all of that together allowed us to keep our staff and keep the organization vibrant. I also want to mention that that’s just what we got was our output. The input was we built a catalog system from scratch (of) 47 years of costumes, props, furniture. And we upgraded our entire sound system. We renovated our bathroom. We renovated our rehearsal studio.
FTOS: What you’re describing is breathtaking in the amount of investment that must have been involved. How did you manage to do that? Did you have a large reserve to begin with?
BN: No, we were just really smart. It really had very little to do with reserves and more to do with how we use our (resources). It had to do with having absolutely no debt. It had to do with a priority of keeping our company, our staff employed. And it had to do with being able to offer a season…. We did not have in-person audiences. (But) we became a production company that people subscribed to…(about 400). We have normally close to 2,000 individual subscribers. But you know what I would say, I’m happy with 400. I was also really happy that we were able to sell our corporate sponsorships to almost every corporate sponsor that we have for our live shows.
FTOS: Is there one thing you want to stand on a stool in the middle of the square and say to people?
BN: Come on, let’s get this show on the road. I said, let’s do it. Here we go.