By Pete Zamplas- Lisa Kanoy Bryant steps into her biggest role yet this week, as Flat Rock Playhouse’s interim artistic director succeeding departing Vincent Marini.
Bryant said her thrust in programming is “let’s tell the best stories we can tell” on stage, to “dazzle and entertain” the audience with a blend of new and familiar shows. She recently spoke with The Tribune about such priorities.
Board President Cliff Stalter told The Tribune he personally considers Bryant to have the first shot at the permanent job. “The ‘national search’ starts in Flat Rock. A local person has an absolutely equal chance, compared to everyone else. We don’t care where they come from. We want the right person. We asked Lisa to step up, as interim director. She gets to demonstrate her abilities to us. She has the best chance of all.”
Stalter said the 24-person FRP board wants someone with compatible vision and “commitment to artistic excellence, such as Vincent had. Someone who understands we don’t have unlimited funds and can work within a budget. We want to make sure the playhouse has a strong and viable future financially.”
He said he is especially impressed with how “she is very friendly, and mature. She works well with other people and includes many people” in decisions and projects. He likes how she worked her way up, and understands various theatrical facets. She learned the technical side early on, acted for decades, directs, teaches and supervises.
Bryant feels “flattered and humbled” by her new opportunity. She wants to be a “positive agent” in a “challenging” time for the playhouse, which is turning around finances, in a “fluid transition” in leadership. Marini, who is moving on and likely back to the Northeast, directs at FRP through mid-August. The artistic director and associate split most directing, each handling three plays this year.
Bryant was associate artistic director since June 13 (her birthday) of last year, and hired by Marini. She took over from him as artistic director officially this past Sunday, June 1.
Bryant, 38, has worked for Flat Rock Playhouse for 20 years starting as an apprentice in 1994, and year-round since 2006. She is proud to contribute as an “actress, educator and director.”
She understands how FRP, as the state’s official theater, has a duo role in performing arts and arts education with a mission to “provide a unique haven for lifelong learning and creative risk.” FRP teaches in drama, dance, music and design. YouTheatre year-round students now act in main-stage plays. She taught them in 2000-10. She has also supervised interns, and multi-year apprentices for five years. This past year, she oversaw the Music on the Rock concert series.
She taught theater in North Henderson High School, in 2010-13. Her husband, John Bryant, has been principal of Glenn C. Marlow Elementary for three years, after serving as East Henderson High School athletic director. Lisa has a master’s degree in acting from Central Florida, whose Blake Bortles was the first quarterback in the recent NFL draft. Her B.A. is in fine arts in music theater. The Virginia native acted out of New York City for two years.
Lisa Bryant said she will work hands-on, but be a delegator and “trust” skill and experience of other FRP administrators. She works with Managing Director Hillary Hart, who oversees playhouse finances and has shaved costs. Development Dir. Lynn Llewelyn Penny leads fundraising.
On budgeting, Bryant said “we learned that lesson of creating, with less” in resources. “It’s unrealistic to get all you wish for. You can shoot for what you want most. But you have to earn it.” She said the key is to “make these artistic dreams come true, within our budget.”
Downscaling a production can yield a creatively “new interpretation,” she noted. “You have to imagine it differently.”
Marini is confident she will choose plays wisely, and spark innovative interpretations. He praised her “creative instinct,” adding that “I have the utmost confidence in Lisa. I respect her, very deeply. She is honest and trustworthy.”
The 2015 season should be chosen “in the next month or so,” Bryant said. For the first time, FRP consulted a 15-person committee of patrons and others. It has met twice. Bryant said views on plays varied greatly. Stalter said in focus groups, “some say ‘put on more family-friendly shows’ or less ‘Broadway stuff.’ Many modern plays’ themes can be offensive. But some say ‘you’re not putting on enough turning-edge plays.”
Bryant said “we don’t want to alienate people” unnecessarily and FRP will not put on a play “for the sake of being provocative,” but rather for content’s relevancy and artistry. The FRP web listing of its shows (www.flatrockplayhouse.org/category/allshows/) has “content advisories” for each play. This is a link, after clicking “read more” for the play. One advisory cites examples of mild cuss words in the script.
There are typically musicals in summer, sometimes sandwiching a drama for more variety, Bryant noted. FRP has its Clyde and Nina Allen Mainstage in Flat Rock, and Playhouse Downtown with the audience on three sides of a large stage. This is FRP’s 62nd season, with a theme of Laughter and Love.
Bryant praised “collaborative” efforts with designers of the set, lighting and sound. She praised Dennis Maulden, resident scenic designer for nearly 30 years who started with FRP in 1967. He is also apprentice administrator.
Bryant prefers character-driven plays, like the Tony Award-winning comedy she directed in May — Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — about sibling relationships and mid-life crises. “I come at it from interpreting the heart of the story through the characters,” who are “relatable. We know people who are like that. It strikes a chord. While it’s slightly absurd, there is a lovely balance of oddity and pathos” and realistic family dysfunction. She was delighted to direct “a show hot off of Broadway, let alone the 2012 Tony Award Winner for Best Play.”
Clever dialogue also abounded as Sid Caesar’s variety TV show was the focus of Our Show of Shows, a new play last year, then spoofed with an ensemble cast in April in Neil Simon’s hilarious classic Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Bryant realizes gains of both putting on new Broadway hits to expand the audience, and familiar standards to retain longtime patrons. “The business of show is a delicate balance,” she said. “We don’t want to abandon our (elder) base. But we also encourage new folks who are 20 or 30-something. We offer pieces relevant to their lives.”
The Last Five Years, which Marini directs, opened last week in Downtown and runs through June 22. Bryant said though the urban couple is in their 20s, the appeal expands to others who can relate the joys and dilemmas to their own youth. The jazzy musical has running narratives by the man and woman, with hers reversing in time in a novel approach. The play is planned to become a major movie. Marini likes its “raw emotion, unforgettable music, brilliant lyrics, and characters that are so rich and full of passion.”
Using apprentices in some shows reduces costs. Bryant stressed they are held to “proficient standards. We expect the same of budding talent as we do of our Equity (union) actors.” She said it is very rewarding to see youth excel, to be “killing it” on stage.
FRP veterans such as Scott Treadway are among “the people and stories you’ve enjoyed” for years. A box office file is entitled Scott’s Plays, since many patrons ask about him. He portrayed Vanya, with Paige Posey as sister Sonia. Treadway showed a more serious, grumpy side different from his usual zany characters for 30 years. “This gave Scott the opportunity to show his depth of range,” Bryant said.
“You have to find a special person to fit the role,” Bryant said. She looked to NYC-based actors for a Sonia, but was not satisfied. Then it hit her. She envisioned FRP veteran Posey in the role, coming out of her shell like a “wild turkey.”
Bryant directs the classic musical My Fair Lady that opens next week, running June 12-July 13. She instills a “romantic” tone. “We want a freshness and a lightness to the overall presentation that made the ‘ole war horse’ feel modern and accessible. The focus is on costumes, filling out a minimal set.”
Characters are a “departure in some ways from Julie (Andrews, as Eliza in the ’56 play), Audrey (Hepburn, as Eliza in the ’64 rilm), and Rex (Harrison, as nurturing Prof. Higgins).” She hired actors who “brought truth to the characters, in their own way. I love being in rehearsals, exploring the myriad of ways to tell the story, and crafting and playing to tell the story we want to tell. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!”
The main fundraiser, Dark Night Revue, is Aug. 4 on the main stage. Bryant directs this variety show. In a new twist, “we are exploring the first time folks were enthralled, moved, and/or inspired by theatre,” with people submitting their stories through June and actors and apprentices acting them out, Bryant said. Tickets are $40 for the show, or $125/$100 with a gourmet picnic.