(Florida Theater On Stage will publish our Q&A with Bari Newport early next week.)
By Christine Dolen
For more than two decades, GableStage and producing artistic director Joseph Adler were intertwined, forming the celebrated Coral Gables theater’s DNA.
Working out of an intimate 138-seat space at the historic Biltmore Hotel, the Brooklyn-born, Miami Beach-raised Adler delivered Carbonell Award-winning theater that was reflective of his personality, values and aesthetic.
More often than not, an Adler play was edgy, intellectually and emotionally provocative, delivered at a consistently high level.
Then came the pandemic, just as Adler was about to open his production of Arthur Miller’s The Price. The theater and the world shut down in mid-March, and on April 16, 2020, Adler lost his 18-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
While mourning one of South Florida theater’s most influential leaders, the GableStage board filled a programming void with Engage@GableStage, featuring fresh and free short, digital content from diverse artists.
But the board’s most significant task – carried out with a search committee that included Guthrie Theater artistic director Joseph Haj and actor-writer-director Teo Castellanos – was to select Adler’s successor. A national search yielded 85 applicants, with the pool then narrowed to 25, then 10, then five … then one.
Starting April 1, the new leader at the helm of GableStage will be Bari Newport, who has served for the past nine years as producing artistic director of the Penobscot Theatre Co. in Bangor, Maine.
“Joe’s legacy is one of daring excellence. I’m a different person, a different generation, a woman … The lifespan of an arts organization has many chapters,” Newport observes. “I am bold and daring in ways that are both similar to and different from Joe.”
A dynamic woman with brown eyes, dark brown hair and an artist’s sense of personal style, Newport, 45, was born in Los Angeles. Her family moved to different parts of the country whenever her father’s job with United Parcel Service required a transfer, so the change that inevitably accompanies a life working in regional theater became familiar early on.
She fell in love with the art form as a little girl, when her parents took her to see touring productions of “Annie” and “Babes in Toyland” at the historic Palace Theater in Columbus, Ohio.
She recalls this piece of advice from her mother: “If you want to be an actress, you have to be an expert in theater.”
So, around the age of 12, after the family had relocated to Stamford, Conn., Newport spent three years volunteering mostly in the office at Stamford Theatre Works. That led to summer internships at age 16 and 17 at the Westport Country Playhouse, followed by two summers at Massachusetts’ prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival, where she worked as an acting apprentice and directing intern in the mid-1990s. It was all in service of the immersion her mother had encouraged.
Newport completed her undergraduate training as an actor at the University of Southern California, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater in 1997, then a master of fine arts degree in theater from The University of Iowa in 2000.
She then began the peripatetic regional-theater career that would lead her to become the fifth artistic director – and first woman – to head the 47-year-old Penobscot Theatre Co., which makes its home at the Bangor Opera House. Her professional stops along the way have included literary management, directing and producing work at theaters such as Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and Horizon Theatre Co., California’s Pasadena Playhouse, and the Fort Myers-based Florida Repertory Theatre.
As happy as she has been in Maine, and as much as she has achieved there, Newport viewed the chance to become GableStage’s second leader as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” She’s not a Latinx artist, nor does she speak Spanish, but she’s eager to dig into South Florida’s unique diversity.
“One of my biggest dreams is having the opportunity to work with a much more diverse population and to serve a multicultural audience,” Newport says. “I’m curious and excited to delve into their stories.”
The search committee and GableStage board members who chose her are certain Newport is the right person for the job.
“We wanted someone who would embrace the diversity of Miami, someone who would have their own voice, be the leader, have their own sense of creativity and style,” says longtime board chairman Steven M. Weinger. “People are going to see something new. The reason we had to make a change is sad. But it’s good for an organization to update itself.”
Adds board member David A. Coulson: “We were looking for someone with artistic ability and the practical skills to successfully run a theater. Joe did the job of three people.”
Board member Roz Stuzin is looking forward to the kind of work the new producing artistic director will choose to create at GableStage.
“She’s looking at edgy, exciting, diverse plays,” Stuzin says. “We’ll be able to bring new playwrights and different voices to the stage. I think we’ll be very proud.”
Two of the artists who served on the selection committee agree.
Castellanos, founder of Miami’s D-Projects, appeared at GableStage in the 2011 production of The Brothers Size written and directed by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney. The way Newport forged creative relationships with the Penobscot Nation, the Native American community for which the theater was named, impressed him – as did Newport herself.
“She interviewed wonderfully. I called Steve [Weinger] right after it was over and said, ‘This is the one!’” says Castellanos, who adds, “I believe it’s time for women and people of color to be in charge.”
Those who worked with Newport in the early days of her career saw the drive and talent that would land her the artistic director jobs at Penobscot and GableStage.
Tony-nominated artistic director Sheldon Epps was running the Pasadena Playhouse when Newport reached out to key Los Angeles-area artistic directors asking to meet with them. Epps was the only one who responded, and he became a key mentor when she served as literary manager and artistic associate from 2009 to 2010. That relationship was formalized when he nominated her for a 2009 New Generations Program grant, in which established theater leaders mentored younger artists on the same career path.
“I immediately recognized a tremendous passion for our work in the theater, drive and a kind of healthy ambition that I thought would take her far and be useful to me and my work at the Playhouse … She was also very tenacious, in a charming yet persistent manner,” recalls Epps, who is now at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Citing Newport’s instincts, insight, intelligence, sense of community and enthusiasm-inspiring energy, Epps adds that “she has always had great taste in material, recognizing both what is good and what has the potential to be good. The latter is especially important when dealing with new work.”
Jason Parrish, Florida Repertory Theatre’s associate artistic director, reported to Newport and was directed by her in 2006-2007. He points to her gift for establishing community partnerships and for winning over artists.
“We wanted to do the first regional production of Steve Martin’s The Underpants and she thinks outside the box. She sent bloomers to him and his agent when she was trying to get the rights,” he notes, and the ploy worked – Newport directed the production, to strong reviews.
Moving to Maine to run a theater hadn’t been on Newport’s radar. But she thinks fate or destiny conspired to draw her there.
In 2010-2011, she was at the Alliance Theatre working on the musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, by Maine native Stephen King and rocker John Mellencamp. At the time, she was in a long-distance relationship with her now-husband, Magnus Stark, a Swedish-born photographer who had been her neighbor at Pasadena’s Victorian-era Castle Green. They were doing cross-country visits between Pasadena and Atlanta when he got an invitation to be part of an exhibition at The University of Maine’s Zillman Art Museum – which happens to be across the street from the Penobscot Theatre.
Newport became aware of the Penobscot job opening thanks to her friend, Nathan Halvorson, then serving as interim artistic director. When she went to interview in Bangor, where King’s blood-red, Victorian-style mansion is a tourist attraction, she asked what the word “Penobscot” meant. She knew it referred to the Native American Penobscot Nation, located about 8 miles up the Penobscot River, but she says no one questioning her that day knew the answer.
“I found out it means: people who live where the water turns the rocks white,” Newport says. “I decided then to make a relationship with the Penobscot Nation and tell Penobscot stories. That’s what helps make regional theaters distinctive.”
During her nine years at the company, Newport spearheaded artistic, facility, audience and financial growth.
The theater’s budget more than doubled, from $850,000 to $1.8 million. The inside of the 350-seat Opera House was refurbished, and an old firehouse became a scene shop. In 2012, Newport launched an endowment fund, which became fully funded with a $1 million donation in 2020. She grew the audience from 30,000 to 40,000 (with some theatergoers coming from Canada) and added a seventh show to the season.
Among more than four dozen shows produced during her time at Penobscot, Newport staged the regional premiere of King’s Misery and the Maine premiere of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. She produced the Maine premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical, Fun Home, and worked with playwright Travis Baker on five world premieres.
Jen Shepard, Penobscot’s executive director, has also acted in a number of Newport-directed productions.
“As an artistic director, she’s really good at focusing on the moment, at seeing larger implications of a bigger picture that doesn’t even exist yet,” Shepard says. “As a director, she’s one of the most intense people I’ve ever met – joyful, focused and passionate. She’s unflinchingly, fiercely, unwaveringly dedicated. She has left us in a stronger position than when she came.”
Newport is well aware of the “bigger picture” to come at GableStage. She didn’t know Adler well but met him at the annual Florida Professional Theatres Association auditions. She was 26, then working at Florida Rep, and noticed an older man with flowing white hair holding forth, surrounded by other artistic directors standing in a circle, listening.
“Every year after that, I became part of the circle,” she remembers.
She also traveled to see Adler’s productions of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore in 2007 and Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale in 2014, and understands full well the legacy she’ll be carrying forth.
Currently taking a deep dive into the region and its arts community as she listens and begins to forge connections, Newport is full of plans.
She intends to announce a season by June 1 and wants to kick it off with a splash in October. She has two large projects in what she calls her “idea box” and hopes to open and close next season with them, “if we can rally ourselves to produce them in the way they deserve.” She wants to establish a Joe Adler legacy campaign, raising money to “scale up” GableStage.
Part of that scaling up, of course, would involve the proposed move to a new state-of-the-art, 300-seat theater on the Coconut Grove Playhouse property, in partnership with Miami-Dade County and Florida International University.
“I know how hard Joe worked to find the company a larger space to serve a larger audience, to make sure GableStage is strong and robust,” Newport says. “I’m onboard with the company growing and evolving in all ways, including now. If all the forces allow GableStage to take over that historic space, it would be remarkable.”
Even so, she appreciates the intimacy of the company’s current space.
“I’m amazed and full of gratitude for the partnership with the Biltmore. Every theater space is a character in the stories being told. The current space provides a unique and awesome way to engage with the story in front of you and with your fellow community members,” she says.
Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade’s Department of Cultural Affairs (which helps support Artburst Miami), worked alongside Adler to create a new version of the Coconut Grove Playhouse with GableStage as its resident company. Over Zoom, he spoke with Newport about GableStage and theater here, and he thinks she’s the right person to lead the theater toward a more expansive future.
“I found her to be incredibly energetic and determined. I was impressed with how charismatic she is,” Spring says. “She’ll be running a theater that is identified with Joe and his larger-than-life personality. But as she takes it in new directions, she’ll put her imprint on it. There will be edginess but also things with more access to the general public. She has a strong commitment to arts education and forming the audiences of the future.
“GableStage will go on to do great things, I’m convinced.”