Westport Welcomes MICHAEL BARKER
When Michael Ross left the Westport Country Playhouse after seven years as its managing director, he left not just a huge gap, but an amazing track record, including the theater's being named the 2013 Theater Company of the Year by the Wall Street Journal. Even without that distinction, Connecticut theatergoers value the playhouse as a very special and unique, as both an excellent regional theater and a historic part of Westport.
Filling those Ross's shoes is Michael Barker, who studied theater in college and earned an MFA in theater management from the Yale School of Drama and an MBA from the Yale School of Management. He has a background in acting and was an associate managing director of the Yale Repertory Theater and managing director of Yale Summer Cabaret. His most recent position was as managing director of the Marin Theatre Company in California.
He praises Connecticut for its "great regional theater scene," but laughs that he never saw a show at the Westport Country Playhouse until now. "When you're in the bubble of grad school," he explains, there isn't time to go other Connecticut's other theaters because you're working 80 hours a week. But he took an instant liking to the Westport playhouse. "It's a dream - a really wonderful place. Mark [Lamos, Artistic Director] has an amazing staff," he says, and "the Board is good."
While he is an artistic partner with Lamos, he explains, "My job is being responsible for the institutional aspect - everything that supports the arts, finance, marketing, fundraising, [other] producers, [that the] profile is sufficient, [making new connections." There is a huge overlap in the work that he and Lamos do. "You can't plan a season in a vacuum," he says. Despite his title, his job is partly producing, partly media engagement.
"My job isn't to create the art," he adds. He doesn't try to interfere with the choices that an artistic director makes. That said, sometimes he has the unpleasant task of bursting bubbles. For example, if a director wants to do a show that has a cast of 27 people, he has to say, "If we do this, we have to raise another "$200,000. It's about choice." Even on the Gold Coasts, theaters struggle with budgets for productions. From this standpoint, he sees his job as being an enabler or a facilitator to get the curtain up and the shows running.
He and Lamos "share a basic premise that the goal of the organization is to produce great art," he says. They have to approach issues such as where each show should go during the season, what artists they can engage, and how to find ways to do what they feel they should be doing, and do as much as possible. This is especially important, not for the reputation of the Westport playhouse, but because Lamos is so highly regarded throughout the theater world and he is at the height of his career as a stage director and artistic director.
One of his down the road challenges is to "feed the community" with more productions outside the core season in addition to children's plays and Script-in-Hand readings. "Once in a while you need to put a little dessert in with the meat," he says. Give the audience "too much candy and they won't eat it. I want to see full meals." He received the Kosciusko Scholarship for outstanding students of Polish descent. He acknowledges that "theater in general is moving in international direction" all over the world. He notes the critically acclaimed show, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," in which Grammy-nominated pianist Mona Golabek plays music by Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven and tells the true story of a promising Jewish musician's survival during the Holocaust. No doubt international themes will be welcome to the Westport Country Playhouse's sophisticated audiences.
For more information about upcoming productions, visit www.westportplayhouse.org.